“No, no,” Maher says when asked if he’d have another go at the doc world. “That was a one-time thing. I had been talking about the issue of religion for the longest time on TV. I thought it deserved a bigger canvas unlike any other issue. I knew no one else would cover it. Michael Moore is the guy who does great documentaries and he can have it. I am not in competition with Michael Moore — he owns that. He is so great at it. But this was the one issue I knew he would never do — he’s Catholic. … That was my Moby Dick, and having harpooned it, I’m done.”
Known today for his no-holds-barred commentary on current events, politics and religion, Maher has always been a stand-up comic and he got his start honing his chops in comedy clubs in 1979 — long before the days when performers utilized social media to spread their messages or work. And as with many performers, Facebook and Twitter have proven to be helpful tools for Maher as a contemporary comedian.
“When you are travelling, especially as much as I do, and trying to get people aware that you’re in the city, at the theater, it’s fantastic,” he says.
“I remember the old days when you had to get up and go to the radio station in the morning,” Maher continues. “I’m not a morning person. And this was when the disc jockeys were mean to you. So at 8 a.m. you’re talking to some guy who’s giving you shit at that hour of the day. So this Twitter is great.”
Of course, the Twittersphere can also quickly turn into a toxic wasteland of hate, especially for an outspoken public figure like Maher.
“It’s literally depressing to think that there are that many people out there whose lives revolve around just saying some shit.
And it’s not just me — it’s everybody. The most non-confrontational people get the same kind of shit. I could say, ‘Good morning,’ on Twitter and in 10 seconds there’d be three people saying, ‘Fuck you, Bill Maher. Where do you get off saying ‘morning?’ Morning is owned by Ronald Reagan!’ ”
But Maher does like to get feedback from fans who aren’t complete assholes. So, in times of Twitter turmoil, he takes the advice of his buddy, the aforementioned Michael Moore: “He said, ‘After you write something on Twitter, wait 10 minutes. Because all the haters wanna get on it immediately.’ They want to be the first ones to be seen. So if you just wait 10 minutes, it’s like all that shit washes away and then you can actually read comments from sane people.”
Interacting with people and offering commentary is what Maher does best, and it’s the basis of Real Time as well as the show that catapulted him into the spotlight 20 years ago — Politically Incorrect. Maher hosted the late night talk show on Comedy Central from 1993-1997 and on ABC from 1997-2002. On the popular, award-winning show, Maher entertained an array of guests from celebrities and fellow comedians to political figures and journalists to discuss current events of Maher’s choosing. Real Time maintains the same monologue and guest panel format, but features more political dialogue.
If Maher could arrange his dream Real Time panel, he says it would consist of author and journalist Christopher Hitchens (who passed away in 2011), a comedian like Martin Short and a guest who has never appeared on the show before — Bill Clinton.
“Or Hillary Clinton,” Maher says. “Or Chelsea Clinton. Any Clinton! The Clintons are always avoiding me and I don’t know why.”
Maher and his panel take on a range of hot-button subjects every week, from stop-and-frisk to LGBT rights to Obamacare or whatever current headlines are in the news. One issue he’s remained vocal in supporting is the legalization of marijuana.
“The thing you have to remember about marijuana is that it is the one issue that unites red and blue states,” Maher says. “Hillbillies smoke marijuana and hippies smoke marijuana — everybody likes pot.”
Maher says he’s much more optimistic about the future of marijuana laws than he was just a few years ago, now that pot is legal in Colorado and Washington state and medical marijuana is legal in 17 additional states plus Washington, D.C. What disappoints him is how Democrats in office go about supporting the issue.
“The problem is with so many of these liberal issues, the Progressive Party, the Democratic Party, lacks balls,” Maher says, with a smack of his signature snark. “Look at the way they didn’t come around on gay marriage until it was actually overwhelmingly popular with the American people. They don’t lead — they follow. As soon as gay marriage passed 51 percent in approval ratings, suddenly there were all these democratic politicians who were ‘evolving’ on the issue. They suddenly evolved rather quickly! Well, what I would say to them right now is that marijuana legalization, on a national level, is at 47 percent approval. So you’re only four points from a strongly held conviction! Get on the train early!”
Fans can expect Maher to weigh in on these and all the topics one should never discuss in polite company (you know, sex, politics, religion) during Sunday’s show.
“I take the funniest stuff, the stuff that is most telling about the most issues and I try to pack it into 90 minutes to two hours and go out there and just give them a really great, well-produced stand-up show,” Maher says.
“There are different levels of how real you can get,” Maher says of performing. “There are things I can say on HBO that I can’t say on Jay Leno, but there are things I can say in my stand-up act that I would never say even on HBO. It’s just a more real, raw performance.”
BILL MAHER performs at the Aronoff Center Sunday. Tickets and more info: cincinnatiarts.org.