1 of 2
2 of 2
Image by Janet Van Ham. Courtesy HBO.
Bill Maher began his illustrious career over thirty years ago. From Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher (Comedy Central, ABC, 1993-2002) to Real Time with Bill Maher, he's made a name for himself in both comedy and politics.
Maher still performs at least fifty dates a year in Las Vegas and in sold out theaters across the country. Three of his nine stand-up specials have been nominated for Emmy awards, as have many of the multiple shows he's hosted and/or produced. (Bill just received another Emmy nomination this year for his latest stand-up special for HBO “Bill Maher: Live from DC.” This would make it 4 of his 10 stand-up specials to be nominated.)
Born in New York City but raised in River Vale, NJ, Maher double-majored in History and English at Cornell University. Despite his stellar education, however, Maher knew long before college that he wanted to do stand-up.
“I was less than ten years old and had my sights set on stand-up comedy,” says Maher. “I always loved it, but was too shy to tell anybody that this was what I was thinking. I thought they'd make fun of me. While at college, it was always on my mind.”
While Maher was glad to earn his education from Cornell (graduating in '78), he worried about wasting precious time. It didn't take long before he decided to go after his dream. As it turns out, waiting until after college (and a little more life experience) was a plus when it came to his standup.
“When I got out there, I found it was good to be a little older, especially doing political stuff, since people don't really accept it when you're young.”
Maher got his start with inspirations like Johnny Carson. As a kid, Maher's biggest treat he could have was to stay up late enough to see Carson's show. Robert Kline was also a huge influence as sort of the bridge between old school types and the new urban comedy coming along.
“And of course George Carlin was a hero of mine. He was the bravest, the guy who really just said what other people wouldn't and the one I patterned myself after the most.”
After more than thirty years in the business, Maher still views stand-up as an addiction. He loves making people laugh, especially when he sees people in the front row who can barely sit up because they're doubled over with laughter.
“I guess people could say we're hooked on that feeling. There's a story, and I don't know if it's true, but supposedly Bob Hope, who performed into his 90's, had people ask why he still did it after the fame and money. And Bob said it was 'because the gardeners at home don't applaud!'”
When it comes to stand-up versus television, there are a few differences. For instance, Maher believes people who come to his stand-up show are often surprised by how good it is. Television, especially in his case, is a mix of serious and funny. Stand-up, however, is done specifically to get belly laughs out of people, which is more pure in the sense.
“The topics that interest me are similar,” he says. “I've never been a comedian who's interested in the trivial. I like to talk about issues and politics and stuff that matters. But when you do stand-up, you're just trying to get people to laugh their asses off.”
Some might think there's a stigma about Maher bringing his tours (ie political humor) to the South, especially in the red states. Maher, however, plays many dates in the South each year and enjoys every last one.
“This is not your father's south, at least not in the cities. I think people who don't live or ever go to the South have an outdated concept of what it is.”
For comics who choose not to tour in the South, Maher challenges them by telling them it's actually better. For his shows, many people might come out, look around the theater, and never realized there were so many people in the area who thought like them.
“We just have the best time. I'd say they're even a notch more enthusiastic than a crowd in a blue state because they're excited to see someone they normally wouldn't. It's a little offbeat from what they usually get and it's so much fun.”
If you haven't already picked up on it, Maher is about more than just politics. Should there ever be a Bill Maher presidential term, his first three priorities are the same:
“The environment, the environment, the environment. The ocean is close to dying and we can't live on the planet without it. Species are becoming extinct at alarming rate. We also can't live without ecosystem balanced by other living creatures. Obviously we can see the drought we have in California right now; we're sapping the water tables. You could go on and on with the environmental devastation that's happening.
"I just don't understand why people who are a lot younger than me aren't more concerned about it. I'm almost 60 and I want to live a lot more but if the Earth becomes uninhabitable in 10 years, what are we going to do? I'll be somewhat at peace with it but what about the younger generations who have to see it all collapse? I don't think Matthew McConaughey is going to be around to take us to another planet. We have to make it a go on this one!”
When he's not touring, he's busy with HBO's Real Time. Maher became host, co-producer and co-writer of the weekly hour-long talk show in 2003. It has been renewed for a 13th season, allowing Maher to interview even more notable guests.
No matter the opinions on his show, Real Time invites many differing viewpoints onto the panels. He's had many guests on both political sides, including Ann Coulter, Mike Huckabee, and Herman Cain. When bringing guests in, Maher is always pleased when a conservative comes on.
“I wish I could subpoena them because there are still many who resist me! We try to get the different views represented. Lots of conservatives watch the show and often come up to tell me that while they disagree with me, they watch the show for a few reasons. One, I'm funny, which is always good. Two, I try to represent the views on my show, and three, I'm not afraid to go against liberals when they're wrong. There is a liberal bubble too, and I'm more than happy to pop it.”
Maher's even had the audience boo him (“it happens frequently”), but he never lets that deter his opinions or questions. He's also uninterested in people yelling at each other, meaning he won't bring on a person who is simply there for the sake of ratings (for example, he'd never bring on a white supremacist, as there is “no point in arguing with a person like that”). He and his staff are already hard at work preparing for their next season: Rick Santorum will be coming on the show in August when they get back to work.
When asked about his most desired guest for Real Time, Maher is quick to answer. “I'd like to get either one of the Clintons – or the President. Some of these people are afraid of me because I'm an honest broker and I wear it as a badge of honor. I'm generally supportive of the President, but I'm not his boyfriend. I've urged him on to things that they might get two years later, but that's my job, to point out those things he should be handling. As a political commentator, it's not about agreeing with them all the time.”
Maher's previous show, Political Incorrect with Bill Maher, started on Comedy Central in 1993, eventually moving to the ABC network. While they weren't necessarily censoring Maher, it was a different time, where today's topics were then considered taboo. Due to broadcast TV and needing sponsors, they eventually let Maher go. HBO made an offer he couldn't refuse.
“HBO turned out to be the right place for me. I love it,” says Maher. “If I had to leave tomorrow, I'd still watch their shows. Plus I have a lot of people come up and say they get HBO just to watch my show, which is what I always use when I want to get a raise.”
(But no, HBO has not told him who will win the Iron Throne on Game of Thrones. After laughing at the question, he says that he's not privy to that kind of information.)
Bill Maher will perform on August 22nd at 8pm at the Berglund Center. For more information, including how to get tickets, you can visit their website here.