Recently called "TV's greatest loudmouth" by Rolling Stone, Bill Maher has made a career out of ruffling feathers.
The media Renaissance man's rabble-rousing has taken many forms over the years: standup comedy, television, film and more. One of his more infamous incidents occurred in 2002, soon after 9/11, when he said on his television show Politically Incorrect that the terrorists who flew planes into the World Trade Center buildings were less "cowardly" than those "lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away." ABC subsequently cancelled the show.
Maher also set off national sparks with 2008's Religulous, a documentary that took aim at organized religion. A self-described "apatheist," Maher now hosts the popular weekly HBO show, Real Time — a mix of insight and entertainment that features pop-culture and political figures discussing current events. Over the years, Maher's combination of punditry and humor has earned him 22 Emmy nominations, with Vanity Fair recently declaring that he's "set a new standard for enlightened political conversation."
He's also remained a fixture on the national standup-comedy circuit, performing an average of over 50 dates a year. Ahead of his first visit to Asheville, we spoke with Maher about Billy Graham, the South, the role of humor in modern society and more.
Mountain Xpress: Are you familiar with Asheville at all?
Bill Maher: No. So, I'm very excited. Asheville is new to me. What can you tell me?
Well, Billy Graham lives right down the road…
You're kidding me? That's funny, because I have a reference to him in my act. … I ask a few very basic questions about religion. … And one example I give is Billy Graham said, after 9/11, that the people who died that day — where they went is so glorious that they wouldn't want to come back. How do you know this? And if you really believe it, why don't you hang yourself tomorrow?
Do you incorporate local material into your act?
I always like to start the show with something local, yes. … The person who picks you up at the airport, if all else fails, has something going on.
When you tour the South, do you feel like you're traveling into enemy territory?
Well, I try not to think of anywhere in America as the enemy, but if you're asking if I'm going to a place where the majority of people probably don't agree with me politically, that's so true. And that's so what makes it more fun — for me and the audience.
Because I think what the conservatives might not realize is that living amongst them, are always thousands and thousands of free-thinking progressive people. And I think it's a treat for me to play to them.
Do you work the day of the show to integrate breaking current events into your act?
I work with a little cheat sheet on a music stand. And I find this is the best way to serve the audience. … I feel obligated to give them 90 minutes to two hours of [material], jam-packed with great jokes on every subject that is important.
[But] I'm not cycling through the material to see what works. Everything works because I know it's going to work.
I'm not one of those comedians who stands on stage and says "Well, let's see, what else?" I know what else. I come loaded for bear. That's my respect to the audience. … I don't even come to a town unless I have a completely new act from the last time I was there.
You're a busy guy. … Why are you putting your time and energy into a standup tour right now?
The reason I do it is because, one, it's fun. It's fun for me, and it's fun for the audience. … Standup comedy is something that takes a long time to get right, so for me, it's sort of redemption for all those years when it was sort of a painful thing to be working in night clubs. …
The other main reason is, it's too important to the television show I do. It's important to get out into other parts of the country. Otherwise you're just sitting in an ivory tower in Los Angeles, which is not indicative of the rest of America. … There's a lot of information in laughter.
So are you just doing it for the laughs? Or are you trying to promote a set of policies or beliefs?
No, I'm not trying to promote beliefs. … Politically, I think now, in this country, people want to hear the people who they already agree with. … I don't really believe that entertainers really ever change elections or the way people vote.
Do you think that in hard times like these, there's an added value to humor?
I do. … I think people always want to laugh. It's always a release.
You're right, it's a very nervous time. It's an exciting time, especially in the Middle East. Things could be changing. But we also could be getting ourselves into a third f—king quagmire. And yes, there's a reason why people seek out this kind of entertainment.
If you're the kind of person who follows these things at all, yeah, you kind of want to laugh it off a little bit.
Is that also part of the way you process the world and deal with stress?
I think that's exactly right. When you're a comedian, you're just born to make jokes. That's how you see the world: What doesn't fit. A joke is what doesn't make sense — you're looking at a pattern and seeing what doesn't fit in there.
I think it's a coping mechanism more then anything else. That's what humor is. It's sort of like you can't survive without dreaming, they say. You're sort of unconscious, your mind has to sort of rearrange the furniture in a way that allows you to cope when you wake up. And I think humor is similar in that sense.
— Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Pundit and comedian Bill Maher
what: Standup-comedy performance
where: Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
when: Friday, April 22 (8 p.m. $45/$71.85. billmaher.com)