Bill Maher is one of a kind in the annals of American satire and popular culture. Stand up comedian, political satirist, TV star, author and now movie star, the former actor whose early claim to fame was in “Murder She Wrote”, is clearly one of the keenest humorists of his generation.
While having no qualms in often ferociously but hilariously attacking George W. Bush and Republicans in general, his other pet peeve is organized religion, and it is this that is the subject of his acerbic documentary, “Religulous”, in which he sets out on a personal odyssey in search of why many of us believe, so much, in what the Good Book espouses.
In this exclusive interview in a Toronto restaurant, Bill Maher spoke to PAUL FISCHER and discussed everything from the Bush legacy to his own failures as an actor, without which this interview would never have taken place.
Question: One of the questions that came up after I saw your movie is, what did you feel was your personal goal in doing the movieBy the end of the process, what do you hope to have accomplished?
Maher: Not to have to ever do another movie, [LAUGHTER] because this is the one movie I ever wanted to make, and I made it. But I don’t enjoy the process. I’m not as hearty as Larry [Charles, director]. He doesn’t mind getting up at six in the morning, and – you know, being overseas for months at a time; all that stuff I’m a baby about. But, I mean, on a more serious note, I would love it primarily if people had a great time on a Saturday night and just laughed their ass off. And beyond that, I would love it if this just opened up a debate about what has always been a taboo. This really is the last taboo. When I ask questions in the movie that are very basic, like, “Why is faith good,” these are questions that I don’t think people ever confront themselves about in our country, something as simple as that. “Why is faith good?” “Why doesn’t God just obliterate the devil and get rid of evil?” “Why doesn’t God simply address all of us?” You know? Why does he always take a prophet alone up to a mountain, or out in the fields, or in the woods somewhere, nobody’s around to hear. And tell – “I’ll tell you, and then you tell everybody else.” He’s God. Why can’t he just stop everybody in their tracks and go, “Hey, everybody. Hold on. Hold on, everybody. I’m God. And I have something to say. The correct religion is… Shinto!”
Question: Where does that sense of cynicism – and definitely, you have a sense of cynicism. Where does that come from? I mean, I didn’t realize, for example, that you’re half-Jewish.
Question: And I was very moved, actually, by the relationship with your mother in this. I thought it was really interesting. Because we don’t assume you have one, really.
Maher: Right. [LAUGHTER] Sprang from Zeus’ forehead.
Question: Where does that come from?
Maher: Well, you see, some of it comes from my mother. And my father also was a funny guy, and my father was a newsman. So that was always in my family, the casting the critical eye. Now, of course, my father was a pretty devout Catholic when I was younger. But he stopped. I saw him get over religion. He never said anything about it, but he didn’t have to, because we went to church every Sunday, I went to catechism, was studying for my confirmation at the time we stopped going to church. I didn’t make any big deal about it when it happened, because I didn’t want to rock the boat. You know, we stopped going to church? Great I don’t want to be the kid who said, “Teacher, you forgot to give us homework.” It was just like, “Okay. We’re not going to church any more.” [LAUGHTER] But in my mind, you know, it did make a big impression, that we were very, very religious, and then we don’t have to be religious any more. Somewhere in my process, that was key.
Question: And that hasn’t changed.
Maher: Well, it just showed me that, yes, you should always be re-evaluating even your core beliefs. They should always be passing the test of scrutiny, because, first of all, you’re evolving as a human being. You know? It’s like, sometimes I watch a movie that comes on TV and I remember it as being a great movie. And then I start watching it, and it’s not a great movie. And the reason is, the last time I saw it, I was 13. I thought it was a great movie, because Ann-Margret’s cleavage was in it. But here I am watching it 40 years later, and it’s not a great movie, but that was my memory of it. And I just say that as an analogy to keep re-examining your own beliefs as you go through life.
Question: Why did you want Larry Charles to direct this movie?
Maher: I want a hit! [LAUGHTER] Because he’s a genius director. He’s a brilliant comedian. And this is a comedy. And I had been barking up the wrong tree, looking for a documentary director.
Question: Really? So you were looking for a documentary director.
Maher: Yes. I looked at millions of documentaries and documentaries are very dark and they attract a very dark type of director. You know, if you look at the subject matter, it’s all Holocaust and rape, and – you know, really very dark subjects. So none of them seemed like they would be the kind of person who could make the kind of movie I was envisioning. But when Larry came in and we started to talk about it, I knew within five minutes he was the right guy.
Question: Now Bill I saw you in an old Murder, She Wrote.
Maher: I did two episodes of it. There was one I did with Roddy McDowell, and there was stuff about witches and then I did another one with Faith Ford.
Question: Were they thinking about spinning you off?
Maher: Exactly. There was an episode – there was a season where – it was probably about the tenth year of the series and Angela Lansbury had been doing it a long time, and it was a big hit show, and she could write her own ticket. And the deal was 22 episodes, but she was only in 13 of them and the other nine, she’d simply introduce. Like, “Oh, here’s a story I remember.” Then they got a clown like me to take it away for the next hour. So that was the episode with Faith Ford, yeah.
Question: And what I’m leading up to, of course – I mean, where was the segue for you in going from being a young actor to being a – I mean, you’re sort of a political satirist, really, so was it your failure as an actor that led to this different path?
Maher: Yeah. It’s true. You know, I am fortunate that things worked out the way they didn’t, because when you’re young and you start out, you’re not really sure what you want to do. I knew I wanted to be a comedian when I was ten years old. That much I knew. Once I became a comedian – and of course, we’re talking about someone who was making a few hundred dollars a week, and just struggling – but, okay, I’m a comedian. I’m in New York, I’m in my early 20s. It was the early ’80s. The template we all had in mind was, “Okay. You go out to California, you start to do The Tonight Show. You get a sitcom.” That was it. That’s what we all wanted to do. Jerry Seinfeld was on Benson for seven episodes. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened to me. I went out to LA in 1983. In 1985, I got on a big network sitcom called Sara, with Geena Davis.
Question: I’ve never even heard of that.
Maher: Yeah. It lasted one season. It was very heavily hyped when it first came on, and then hit the skids. Gary David Goldberg was the hottest producer, he did Family Ties at the time. It was his show. And I did a couple of other sit-coms. This was the era when I was doing Murder, She Wrote also. I was an actor, but it was very fortunate that that career didn’t take off, because it never was really what I was destined for, and it would have been a waste. I mean, lots of people can be in Murder, She Wrote. It’s not that – I always said, it’s not hard to be an actor. Reality TV proves the everyday We’re all acting, because we’re all bullshit artists, we’re all spinmeisters. We’re all improving our own life, and lying to each other, so that’s all acting is. Lying. Pretending your sad, or pretending you’re whatever. But I feel like show business is finding a niche nobody else can do and certainly that wouldn’t have been acting.
Question: Are you surprised at the level of success that you’ve attained as a political satirist?
Maher: Surprised? No. I mean, it’s a slow build. It wasn’t like it happened overnight. But this year has been especially gratifying, because it’s one of the years where people are paying attention to politics, whereas usually politics in this country has been not really the cool discipline. Not the thing that people were interested in.
Question: Won’t you be really upset when Bush leavens office? Because who are you going to attack in such depth? the old man?
Maher: Well, if it’s McCain and Palin –
Question: I guess there’s fodder there.
Maher: I mean, come on. This woman can’t turn around without getting pregnant, or some kid in her family pregnant. Yeah. So as a citizen, I’m hoping they don’t win. As a comedian– my prayers are a little divided.
Question: What do you think Bush’s legacy is ultimately going to be, in the annals of history?
Maher: Well, a survey of historians recently – something like 98 percent of them said his presidency was a failure, which is an astounding consensus. You can’t usually get 98 percent of academics to agree on anything. Sixty-one percent, I think, said he was perhaps the worst president ever. So I think that probably will be his legacy. I’ll give you an alternative scenario – you’ll probably hate to hear this. But just to show that I am an objective person. It is also possible that in five years, Iraq is a functioning democracy. Not a brilliant democracy, but it’s working. It’s not a civil war. They got that out of their system. I mean, a lot of the reason why Iraq is working now is because it’s been ethnically cleansed. Yeah, the Sunnis and the Shiites aren’t fighting, because they killed each other, because the Sunnis got all the Shiites to move out of that neighborhood. There’s nobody left. Okay. So, you know. You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. So, five years, maybe Iraq – ten years, maybe Iraq is in the World Trade Organization, right? And then other countries are trading with it, it gets more prosperous. Other Middle Eastern countries are saying, “We want a little piece of that.” So in 20 years, maybe Jordan is much more of a democracy. Egypt is much more of a democracy. Lebanon is. It is possible. And I’m not saying it would ultimately justify the entire killing, and the money. But it is possible that he could look better than he does now. That’s just objectivity.
Question: Are you a pessimist about the election?
Maher: No, but I’ve been an optimist before, and disappointed. [LAUGHTER] So, I’m a guarded optimist.