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Bill Maher: 'What I Found Over The Years Is That Lots Of People Don't Agree With Me'

Bill Maher performs Saturday at Century II in Wichita.

Bill Maher is bringing his standup comedy to the Century II Performing Arts Center on Saturday night. The often-controversial talk show host has a made a career of moderating fiery political discussions for late-night TV. After almost a decade hosting Politically Incorrect, he now has a successful show on HBO called Real Time with Bill Maher. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur recently spoke with the comedian about his approach to entertainment.


I’d like to start with how this all started. As a comedian, why politics?

My father was a news guy, a radio news guy, back in the old days, when every radio station had news at the top of the hour. Even the rock 'n' roll station that I listened to as a kid would interrupt at the top of the hour to give the news. And my father was that guy, so it was always discussed in my house. We were always interested in it. I don't think that's a common thing in America. I think we're not a cafe society like Europe, where they do talk about issues all the time with the family. It was always in my blood.

Credit Janet Van Ham / HBO
Maher on the set of his show, 'Real Time With Bill Maher'

How do you translate that interest in politics to standup comedy?

The problem when I started, of course, is that when you're very young, the audience really doesn’t accept you talking about such weighty matters, because you are just too young, you look like you don't shave and you're weighing in on the presidential election. They look at you like, well, you know, 'Maybe when you have a little more gravitas, kid, we'll listen to you.' So it's something I had to grow into. But it was always something I was interested in.

And you did grow into it. You’ve made a career talking politics on late night television. What motivated you?

I just basically created the show that I thought I would want to watch, that wasn't on TV. And it was a bit of designed train wreck, because part of the fun of it was that we would have people of completely different backgrounds, intellectual capacities, walks of life, all weighing in on the same issue, as might happen at a random cocktail party. And I say, some nights it really was a train wreck, but sometimes it was a train wreck that was somewhat enlightening. And sometimes, train wrecks can be fun on their own.

Looking back, it always amazes me that it lasted nine years. I mean, it's amazing that it lasted almost six on ABC, which is owned on Disney, cause it was certainly not a Disney-type show. I think when they bought [it], they just thought the title was cute--'Oh, Politically Incorrect.' And they didn't realize it was really politically incorrect.

You touched on something there—that the goal is entertaining an audience, but how much of it is about informing people? Is that what you want to do?

Well, I do. I think that we proved on Politically Incorrect that a TV host could, at least, give his opinion and not alienate the audience, because that's what they told me when I started that show. They said, you're going into politics as a topic for entertainment? Nothing was more toxic in the minds of the conventional wisdom-ers than politics. Stay away from that. And also, if you gave your opinion on political issues, you'd alienate half the audience.

And this is the playbook that almost every talk show host worked out of. Johnny Carson, we never knew who he voted for. And right up to Jay Leno and David Letterman. I don't think we know who Jimmy Fallon votes for. He's like super nice to everybody. [New Jersey Gov.] Chris Christie comes on, it seems like he loves Chris Christie, same with [Vice President Joe] Biden. Well, I'm not that guy. I'm not that good an actor.

And what I found over the years is that lots of people don't agree with me. But they still watch because that's life. You don't have to agree with everything somebody says for you to like them. My god, no one would stay married.

Credit Janet Van Ham / HBO
Maher interviews 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders on 'Real Time.'

The 2016 election is over a year away, but it almost feels like it’s this November. Are the constant polling and 24-hour coverage overwhelming for you and your staff? Or does it mean more material?

Well, it's not overwhelming. It’s fun. I don't think it's very good for the country. But, as I believed for quite a long time, what's good for the country is bad for comedy and vice versa. So, I'm always a little bit torn. I want what's best for the country; that's not what's going on. The election is over a year away. Other countries think this is madness. No other country has perpetual elections like this. Of course, there's too much money, and that's what rules everything in America.

But it's insane, but again, it's good for me. It gives us more stuff to talk about. Just look at the ratings for the first Republican debate. This one that's coming up on CNN, they're charging something like 20 times what they normally charge for a minute of advertisement. So it's good for everyone in the media. I just don't think it's good for the country.

Your television career really started taking off last decade, during George W. Bush’s eight years in office. What were those years like for your show?

Well, I'm a liberal. That's mostly what I cleave to. I think the difference between my show and other shows: They never, ever dare to go against what the liberal audience believed. They pander to them. They just reinforce what is already believed. That's never been what's interested me. And sometimes I make my own liberal audience mad, but liberals can be idiots, too. And they're not extremely well-informed. So, they very often need to be told that they're wrong about something. So I see that as the difference.

But, of course, when it comes to Bush, it's pretty hard not to stick to the liberal line, because he was just an easy target. And he screwed up the country in so many obvious ways.

Credit Janet Van Ham / HBO
Maher speaks to presidential candidate Rick Santorum and journalist Michael Weiss on 'Real Time With Bill Maher'

But when you have people on your show that, politically speaking, you’re very, very opposed to, it can get really intense. What does that look like before and after the show, backstage?

I give so much credit to our staff for being so nice that even the conservatives forget they're in the lion's den. We have a little party after the show every week for the guests and you know, when you get a drink in people, they tend to forget that they're differences are as wide as they are.

Speaking of the upcoming election and the 24-hour aspect of it, what does the coverage look like for your show going forward? Will it be 24 hour, too?

Well, I think it will look more like that when we get nearer to the election. I think we'd burn ourselves out if we started doing that now. But honestly, I think that everyone here is dedicated to covering it in a way that makes the audience say, oh, you can't get that anywhere else. That's what we're always trying to do here: be the place that is unique and no matter how many people try to do this, I want the audience to keep coming back saying that: You know, everybody can take their shot. But they've been doing it the longest and they still do it the best. That's what I want the audience to think.


Follow Sean Sandefur on Twitter @SeanSandefur.

To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.