It’s been nearly 20 years since Bill Maher unleashed Politically Incorrect on an unsuspecting American populace. In the years between, he’s made an empire out of speaking his mind and knowing his facts, and managed to offend almost everyone in the process. Now, riding high on the success of his nearly decade-long run as host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, the comedian, political enthusiast, and lifelong proponent for free speech takes to the stage at the Arlington for a night of stand-up as part of his ongoing (and seemingly never ending) comedy tour. Love him or hate him, he’s helped spawn a fervent market for satirically spun news programming and laid the groundwork for many politically minded figureheads in the process. (Stephen Colbert, we’re looking at you.) Recently, Maher phoned in from his home in L.A. to talk about Real Time, touring, and his impending 56th birthday.
You’ve talked in the past about how producing a weekly, commercial-free, hour-long live news show is no easy task. Now you guys are closing in on nearly a decade of Real Time. Can you tell me a bit about what the week-to-week life of Bill Maher looks like nowadays? You know, there’s so many different elements to the show, and that’s what makes it a challenge. There’s a monologue, followed by a one-on-one interview — Friday we have Herman Cain on via satellite — then we have the panel with all the different issues that they want to get into. There’s a comedy bit in the middle of the show, and then there’s “new rules” at the end, followed by what we call “the editorial,” which is a long rule that goes into some depth about a topic. All of that has to be prepared. The upshot is, ironically, I work a lot harder to prepare for a once-a-week show than I did when I did an every-night show, Politically Incorrect.
How much of that is you and how much is that your staff of writers? Well, that relationship is one of the most satisfying relationships I’ve ever had in my life. Some of the people who work with me have been there coming up on 20 years. I started with Comedy Central at the end of 1992 — we covered the ’92 election — and here it is 2012 and another presidential election. You know, sometimes it’s hard to tell where they end and I begin, and vice versa; it is a wonderful symbiotic relationship. Sometimes I come in with an idea and they flesh it out, sometimes they come in with an idea and I make it work, but I’m a very hands-on writer and editor with my crew. I don’t have a head writer and editor who does all the work for me and then I just read the prompter. I kind of have to be in there and have to, you know, “micromanage” is I think the word they’d use in business.
Over the course of your run we’ve seen news and media as a whole change drastically. Where do you turn nowadays for information? When I get up and go to the computer, I probably go to the HuffPo first, just to get the headlines and see what’s going on. But, you know, I still like to read newspapers; I read the New York Times, the L.A. Times, USA Today — those are all at the office when I get there. There’s something about reading things in a newspaper form that still appeals to me. First of all they don’t try to trick you. It’s not about “She wore that? Click here!” I can take just so much of that before I have to go back to the newspapers.
What do you foresee happening to print media in the coming years? You know, I mean, a few years ago there was this big prediction that newspapers were dying. I remember there was an article in one of the newsmagazines targeting 50 newspapers they said would be dead within a few years; it didn’t happen. There’s certain things that people, even young people, still want, and I think there’s still an audience for newspapers. Technology is a very hard thing to predict. Sometimes it goes away very quickly, and sometimes nothing can kill it. They predicted the end of the movies when television came out, then they said the movies were in trouble when DVDs came out, then when BluRay came out. The truth is that people just like going to the movies. It’s something you can do for two hours on a date without having to talk.
On the flip side of that, how much attention do you pay to contemporaries like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert? Well, they’re not exactly contemporaries because I started before them. Politically Incorrect was sort of inherited by them. They call their election coverage “Indecision,” well, I have the sweatshirts from 1996 where we called it “Indecision ‘96,” and then when I was on ABC, “Indecision 2000.” I’m glad anytime there are television shows getting people to pay attention to politics.
Do you view it as being competitive between you? Not as long as we’re all doing well, and my ratings are better than ever.
Following the death of Politically Incorrect I feel like a lot of people expected, or maybe wanted, you to disappear. How did you bounce back, and how did the end of that show lead to what Real Time became? I disappeared for all of six months. Politically Correct went off the air in the end of June  and Real Time started in January of the next year, so it wasn’t like I had time to kill myself. The truth is, it was a blessing in disguise. After doing Politically Incorrect for nine years, I should have wanted to walk away from it. It was a good show for what it was, but it was time to kind of grow up and do the show I’m doing now, which is just a much more smart, adult version of a roundtable political talk show. Politically Incorrect being on five nights a week, four guests a night, that’s 20 guests a week. I mean, anybody who was even a little famous and breathing could get on that show, but to do my show now you have to be pretty smart.
Do you feel like you intimidate your celebrity guests into bringing their A-game? I don’t intimidate celebrities because I don’t invite them on. There are very few celebrities who do our show — I could probably name them on both my hands — and they’re the ones who are known to be political junkies. It’s the Alec Baldwins and Tim Robbinses and Ben Afflecks and George Clooneys and Kerry Washingtons, but there’s not a hell of a lot of them. The worst thing I can ever do, my audience has told me over the years, is bring on somebody who looks like a child at the adult table. A lot of celebrities have told me they’re insulted I don’t bring them on, but I do the show for the audience.
What were your goals when Real Time first started, and do you feel like they’ve changed over the last 10 years? My goal is to basically entertain people with information, to make interesting what’s important. I feel that should be the goal of all news organizations, and most of them don’t do it. They go right to what most people, in their lizard brains, want to watch anyway. But we live in a country where entertainment is king, so if you’re going to get them to pay attention to something of importance, you kind of have to make it entertaining.
You’re constantly bouncing between prepping and taping and touring. How do the two inform one another? It’s vital. It’s very, very important for me to tour, to get out into the country, because otherwise I would just be isolated here in my ivory tower in Los Angeles. You could not really get a feel for the country. When you travel you talk to people; you’re in airports, you’re in bars, you’re in hotel lobbies, you’re just out there, and you feel what people are feeling.
You’ve mentioned before that you enjoy touring the red states. Does your act change depending on your audience? Almost imperceptibly. I would have a hard time if you blindfolded me telling you where I was on any given night, and that’s because when people pay real money to see somebody perform, they generally like that person. [Laughs.] The best place to sell Prince T-shirts is probably a Prince concert. The difference with the red states is that the people there feel like they’re getting something they don’t often see. The liberal people in those areas who come out to see my show, for them it’s sort of more of a unique treat. People in Berkeley, they hear a liberal point of view all the time, but people in Tulsa, Oklahoma, think it’s great that somebody who speaks to them as a minority has come to their town, not written them off, hasn’t said, “Oh, I don’t think anybody smart lives in Oklahoma.” No. I came to Oklahoma, and I found the smart people, and I made them come out of their house.
You’re celebrating a birthday next week, I believe the day before you stop in Santa Barbara. Yes! It’s kind of a special one because I was born in 1956 and this is the year I will be 56.
That’s a big deal. Do you feel like you softened at all in your fifties? [Laughs.] I could make a dirty joke.
I totally walked myself into that one. I haven’t softened yet. … And I’m hoping this is not the year it happens. [Laughs.] If I can gauge by the amount of trouble I still get into, I guess I haven’t. I know I find myself in a world of shit these days just because of the things I tweet about Tim Tebow.
Do you feel fulfilled? Or that you’ve hit a number of life goals at this point in the game? Absolutely. If you told me 20 years ago that I was going to be on, steadily for 20 years with a controversial show — that an atheist pot smoker like me could be on TV for 20 years — I would not have taken that bet. I feel like I’ve been absolutely lucky, and I’m playing with the house money. The last big thing that I wanted to do in my life was make my documentary, Religulous. To me, that was my Moby-Dick, and once I harpooned that whale, I didn’t really have any other big goals. I love doing stand-up, and I love doing the show. Of course with TV, at some point they’re always going to put you out to pasture, and that’s fair, but until that day comes, I’m happy doing what I’m doing.
Finally, with all the shit you talk, why not run for office? Well, because when you talk shit you can never win. I don’t kid myself; I do not have the kind of discipline it would take to run for office. You have to stay on message, you have to get up mornings, you can’t be a bachelor, you have to be married — there’s a million different reasons why I would never come close to winning. I’m an atheist: Right off the bat I’m out of the game. I’d have to quit smoking pot. But honestly, sometimes you can affect the debate more from outside than you can from the inside. Not at the highest levels — obviously if you become the President of the United States or the Speaker of the House you are the person who is really making policy. But most people in Washington are not that important.
Bill Maher appears at the Arlington Theatre on Saturday, January 21 at 8 p.m. Call (805) 963-4408 or visit thearlingtontheatre.com for tickets and info.