The Salon Interview: Bill Maher

The political satirist talks about the 9/11 quote that got him fired from ABC, his new HBO show and why Bush is losing the war on terror.

Published December 11, 2002 10:34PM (EST)

Bill Maher's back. And who would've guessed so soon?

Last year, on the first episode of his "Politically Incorrect" show since the Sept. 11 attacks, he infamously compared the bravery of American politicians with that of al-Qaida terrorists. "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly," Maher said on the Sept. 17 episode. "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

It was classic Maher, as infuriatingly un-p.c. as ever. But the times, at least momentarily, had changed. And few wanted to hear -- or defend -- Maher's comments. Enemies of Maher, on both the left and right, seized the opportunity and called him unpatriotic. A protest ensued. Even the Bush White House (a frequent Maher target) stoked the outrage, with spokesman Ari Fleischer calling Maher's remarks "a terrible thing to say" and the subsequent contretemps a reminder "to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do. This is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."

Maher apologized for his statements to "anyone who took it wrong," but the damage was done. Major advertisers pulled their commercials from the ABC show; 17 ABC affiliates dropped the program from the air. It was canceled May 14.

And yet here we are, scarcely a year after the White House deemed Maher Public Enemy No. 2, and he's back on the scene with a stand-up tour, a book -- "When You Ride Alone You Ride With bin Laden: What the Government Should Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism" -- and the announcement of a pending weekly talk show on HBO. And he seems as uninhibited as ever. His new book takes swipes at President Bush, Al Gore, the war on terrorism, Muslims, the media, Madonna, Christmas lights and Julia Roberts. He spoke with Salon by telephone.

You'll be starting your new weekly HBO series in February. What will it be like?

I know it will be an hour at the end of the week, kind of a "That Was the Week That Was" wrap-up about what happened. There will be a round-table element, with more of a permanent group, as opposed to four different faces every night like we did on "Politically Incorrect." I'm just thrilled to be finally at a place where I think I'll be appreciated and not in any way have my style cramped.

Did ABC cramp your style?

Not terribly, but they did ultimately fire me. I was always able to say what I wanted -- and I did. But ultimately it got me kicked out the door. I never really changed when I came to ABC but that was the ultimate, and many would say inevitable, upshot of it. I'm just hoping it won't be like that with this show.

ABC was in a tough spot, though, right? Advertisers like General Motors pulled their ads; 17 affiliates pulled your show. Some estimated a $10 million loss for the network.

That may be true. But what was not true was that our ratings declined; our ratings were quite good, especially considering they never promoted us and -- especially after 9/11 -- acted like we didn't exist. I was laughing my head off when ABC was going after David Letterman, and he was kind of whining about how CBS didn't give him enough promotion. I was like, "Hey, Dave, try none. If you don't get enough at CBS, you're going to love it over here at ABC."

Advertising did pull out -- absolutely. And if that's what they want to put it on -- absolutely. But I get upset when I read in a paper -- again, the lazy media -- that our ratings went down. That wasn't the case.

Your old time slot will soon be filled by a show starring Jimmy Kimmel, who recently said that "Maher's controversial stuff is serious, important stuff. My controversial stuff is nonsense. It's showing a monkey's penis on TV."

[Laughs] And I think we all feel the same way when we read a comment like that: "Of course! The perfect companion to 'Nightline.'"

Look, I like Jimmy. I used to love "The Man Show." I always watched it and I was even on it once -- with a chimpanzee, as a matter of fact. I'm close to those guys. But with Jimmy -- it's funny, I feel about it the way you'd feel about a friend of yours marrying your ex-wife. It's like, "You'll see. Go ahead. You take her for a while." I wish him the best. I like him and I think he's funny. But if we weren't serious enough for Ted Koppel to ever utter the title of our show even though we came on right after him, I don't know what kind of cooperation Jimmy Kimmel's show is going to get.

I've heard you say that it upset you that some comedian friends, like Robin Williams, never did the show. Why didn't they?

You'd have to ask them. But I understand why many people didn't do the show. It took a lot of courage. You could look dumb. Which is why I had great love for the Alec Baldwins and Tim Robbinses of the world, who didn't do the show because they thought it would help their careers, they did it because they're political people who liked having a forum.

Baldwin and Robbins are two active liberals. Why are there so few conservatives in Hollywood?

Conservatives would tell you that there aren't that few, that there are a lot but they're really in the closet because there's a "white list," and if you allow people to know your views you will never get hired. Which is complete nonsense.

In truth, I think Hollywood is very conservative. Any place with a lot of money is very conservative. Conservatives are people who want to conserve a lot of money. Sure, in Hollywood they may throw a sop to liberal causes, but when it comes to what's important to them -- keeping their money -- I think they're very conservative.

Almost immediately after the JFK assassination, Lenny Bruce expressed condolences for the career of JFK impressionist Vaughn Meader. While aspiring to be a millennial Bruce, did you worry that you would instead become a professional casualty of a national tragedy, like Meader?

In those first few weeks after it all, I did. I did. I absolutely did.

But something in the back of my head said, "You know, everyone's a little hysterical now." Because ultimately I kept going back to what I said and every day I would get reams of e-mails and letters and cards and phone calls from very prominent people that said, "You said it for us" and "Thank you." It wasn't like I said something that was so out of the bounds of human relate-ability that no one, no matter how much they liked me in the past, would have come to my side.

I believed then and believe now that it's childish and perhaps dangerous to pretend that our enemies have no virtues, because then you underestimate them. I mean, they're not cowardly and they're not stupid.

But at the time you said, "I offer my apologies to anyone who took it wrong." Do you regret saying that?

No. I would have regretted it if I had said, "Oh my God, I don't know what I was saying. What I said was wrong, I'm sorry I said it." I said, "I'm sorry I hurt you" -- which I think when people are hurt is the polite thing to do. And the right thing to do. The country was traumatized and for a lot of people I added to that trauma a bit. It's like when you're at a party in a crowded room and someone jostles you so you spill your drink on someone. You don't try to explain it all -- you just say you're sorry.

By the way, only like a zillion people have come over to my side since then and said, "By the way, what you said was true." And that's what the show was all about -- taking what people were thinking and saying it out loud.

You only made your comments as a response to one of your guests, conservative author Dinesh D'Souza, who was the first to say that he disagreed with President Bush's assertion that the 9/11 hijackers were cowards and went so far as to call them "warriors." Why do you think D'Souza escaped criticism?

That is a question I have been asking. Because I like Dinesh but boy, he took a cab after that. I never heard from him. He never stuck his head up, and he'd been a guest on our show many times. Lots of people came to my defense -- people you never would have thought, like Rush Limbaugh. But Dinesh stayed way under the radar. He is not a warrior.

Ari Fleischer chastised you from the podium, saying your remarks proved that Americans "need to watch what they say, watch what they do," though he said his remarks had been misconstrued.

I could make the exact same claim. I can say -- "Hey, my thing came out wrong, too." I mean, if he could say, "Hey, in the heat of the moment that came out in that way, but you all know me, you know I didn't mean to suggest that we should turn this into a Stalinist country where we all watch what we say," then I should have been able to do so as well. I said something that probably came out the wrong way, like him. I don't think he's a creepy guy purposely calling for a police state.

What do you drive?

Well, I traded my big Mercedes in for a hybrid about a year ago. A Toyota Prius. I talked about it an awful lot on the show. And I was constantly wondering "Why doesn't Toyota send me a little fruit basket?" And then it dawned on me: They don't want to sell this car, either! They're a for-profit car manufacturer. They don't care if I'm pushing the Prius -- they don't even want to make the Prius.

Other than that, what sacrifices are you making? Your book argues that few of us are doing enough.

A lot of the ones I talk about in the book have to do with keeping pressure on politicians and I hope that people would consider me at the forefront of doing that. I understand that not everyone has had the forums I've had to do so, but they all can do it in their own way.

The book has posters, like the ones from World War II, calling for sacrifices, and a lot of the posters say "Tell Them in Washington," and I think in the kind of republic we live in where our representatives are so closely connected to the howling of the masses, the masses need to howl more about what they think is right or wrong with their government.

But they don't. They give their overwhelming approval for a war that has not gone so well so far, at least domestically.

Why do you think our government isn't asking us to make any sacrifices?

Politicians in my lifetime have become just the ultimate panderers. They don't believe, I think, that in this country the citizens would accept it. Jimmy Carter asked us to put on a sweater and we almost lynched him. Somewhere along the way it became very un-American to ask for sacrifice.

The other reason is special interests. Our government is so beholden to the oil industry it's not going to be out front telling us to curtail our dependence on oil. To blame it on drug users -- the fact that they run those ads saying drug use supports terrorism and the media doesn't leap on that -- shows how much they're asleep at the switch, too. What a huge lie that is. Let's blame it on the smokers next.

You say that the war on terrorism isn't going well on the domestic front. What are your specific criticisms? Some would argue that there's been some success, at least, in that we haven't sustained another attack.

Ay-yay-yay. Did you read the Hart-Rudman report? The recent one, not the first one. The first one back in January 2001, predicting a major attack on our country, we all ignored, we were all asleep then, fine, but this one was in the newspaper on Oct. 26, 2002. It basically said that they were predicting a catastrophic terrorist attack, that one was virtually certain to occur. They accused Washington of only taking symbolic actions, they accused the nation of becoming complacent about terrorism. They said that we're almost as vulnerable today -- in our seaports, railways, airports. Gary Hart said he felt outraged. The report is called "America: Still Unprepared and Still in Danger." And it wasn't just Hart and Rudman on this commission, it was two former secretaries of state and two defense secretaries and others like that. It's a serious report.

But you'd be hard pressed to find people in the media who are aware of it. I mean, I could see this sort of thing happening with the first one -- but the second one? But of course you're all writing the big "Bush at war" stories, so it all gets swept under the rug.

Speaking of which, do you have any reaction to recent questions about our alliance with the Saudis?

I just wonder at what point the administration will stop stonewalling. I heard Ari Fleischer just saying today, "We think the Saudis are a very good ally." Yeah, right -- and drugs fund terrorism. The war just made these guys bigger liars than they were before. Drugs don't fund terrorism, SUVs fund terrorism. Where does bin Laden get his money? Like everybody -- from his family. His brethren. Not from Swedish people or drug dealers. But from places like Saudi Arabia, especially Saudi Arabia.

In 1998, you told Mother Jones that "Clinton was the right president because he's full of shit and we're full of shit. We claim we want one thing but we really don't. Or we claim we want two things that are diametrically opposed, like cutting taxes and saving entitlements. Short of a war, I don't know how it will be remedied. I don't think it will be." Well, we're in a war now. Any hope for America?

In the book, one of the posters shows the Pentagon being hit and it says, "What has to happen?" In the essay, I write, I think we need to change the old saying that we need a building to fall on us, because two did and we still don't get it. People were willing to change for those first few months, but the government never asked. I've been saying for the past year 9/11 changed nothing. I don't think it did. People went back to the way we were. The questions "Why do they hate us?" and "What can we do?" went away. We're back to exactly what we were and we say that therefore they didn't win! That's faux patriotism.

Did you vote last November?

Nope. I'm not a big champion of voting. I think too many people vote. I'm starting to think what we need to shake up the system is to have really low turnout. I don't think it's low enough.

Are there any politicians you like?

I like John McCain. Colin Powell. I love Barney Frank -- not, y'know, let's not even go there. But I think he's the smartest guy in Congress. Lots of people we had on our show. I like Arlen Specter. I like Representative Jack Kingston. I like Rumsfeld. Oh, I love him -- he's completely politically incorrect. He's always like, "No, I don't think they have the bomb, but yeah, they might" -- he just doesn't give a fuck, this guy.

So would you have voted for McCain if he had gotten the nomination? I know you voted for Ralph Nader for president.

It was kind of a protest vote, which I do not regret in the least. But McCain? Sure, if -- and it's a big if -- if he didn't move away from his early positions, which sometimes happens when you get on a ticket, and he is a politician, after all. So I don't know. We'd see what would happen if Mr. McCain found himself in such a position, would he stick to what he believes. That's the reason the Democrats lost so badly last November, they don't stand for anything, and when they do they get demonized and they run away from it. Their opponents run attack ads calling them "too liberal." And they go, "OK, then, I won't be liberal."

It's not like they don't have ideas. I mean, Al Gore had ideas -- he's an idea man. He had an idea in his book, to phase out the internal combustion engine in 25 years. That's a real idea, and by the way, it's a great idea. But does he defend it? No. So screw him. I don't blame people for voting for the Republicans last time. If I was a swing voter and I had a choice between a real Republican and a fake Republican I'd vote for the real one, too.

You know, when Bush accepted the nomination, in his acceptance speech, which was brilliantly written, he said, "They haven't led. We will." I didn't think it was true at the time, about the Clinton administration, but to me that was a prophecy. Since he got into office, especially since the war, he's been right about the Democrats -- they haven't led.

You recently chastised Jay Leno for mocking Bush for "being stupid" instead of addressing what you think is a bigger flaw, that Bush is "deceitful." What do you mean by that, and didn't you also mock Bush for his malapropisms?

Well, I'm a comedian, so I'm sure I made my share of "Bush is dumb" jokes. But that's not the point -- I also held George Bush's feet to the fire on every single thing he's ever done.

That's what Leno hasn't done. The point is, if you only make fun of him for being dumb, you let him off the hook. I mean, Clinton loved it when we made McDonald's pudgy-wudgy jokes, because it meant we were avoiding talking about his greatest vulnerability, which was obviously his love life.

There's a big difference between the way most comedians handle George Bush -- going after that obvious "dumb" line of humor -- and what I did, which was mentioning things like how he jumps on the bandwagon of something like the recent financial CEO scandals and stages a big photo-op and says things like, "We will hold corporate America to high ethical standards" when the reason corporate America is behaving unethically is because of politicians like Mr. Bush. [Corporations] give him millions in campaign contributions so he can print up a sign saying he's demanding the highest ethical standards, and fools the people into thinking that when in fact he's doing the opposite. That's what I want Jay Leno and the others to make fun of. But they won't. They make fun of him for mispronouncing a word.

Don't you see any comedians doing that kind of humor? What about Jon Stewart?

He does the same thing Jay Leno does. And that's OK. Please don't make it sound like I'm criticizing Jay and Jon -- they're my friends, and they're not advertising themselves or purporting to be social commentators. The point is that George Bush gets an amazing pass from this country -- from right, left and center. One thing I've heard as I've traveled this country is "We'd like to see you back on TV because no one is holding Bush's feet to the fire." The media are star-fuckers; especially now that he won the midterm elections. You'd think he was Julius Caesar.

A point you make repeatedly in your book is that Americans didn't take current affairs seriously enough pre-9/11. Do you think "Politically Incorrect" helped or hurt that cause? Some thought it blurred the line between entertainment and politics too much.

Absolutely it helped. Anyone who would make the choice to watch "Politically Incorrect" was at least interested in something of substance. Sometimes on our show we would have some sitcom star who wasn't terribly bright or in some way not up to the level they felt they could find with George Will and William F. Buckley. But I was doing a show pitted against two other purely entertainment shows that would not even attempt to tackle the subjects we were tackling. There had to be entertainment elements -- we didn't want the dog to smell the pill in his food. But I think people would be way better off, as far as education goes, from having a half hour of "Politically Incorrect" as opposed to anything else on another channel at that hour of the night.

You're a big fan of Playboy -- the mansion, the parties, the ethos. You're such a thinking man, doesn't that lifestyle embody rather the opposite?

It's never been my goal to think 24 hours a day, so I make no apologies about that. But first of all lot there are of interesting people up at the Playboy Mansion, including Mr. Hefner himself, who's quite a thinking man. Playboy has been on the forefront of several issues, sex being just one of them. Hef has been out there on civil rights and the drug war and half a dozen other issues. And you know something? I work very hard and do plenty of thinking. I put it out there. It wasn't like, "Hey, the show's over, now it's time to goof off." I work hard and I play hard, much as I hate that cliché.

Do you value bright women?

Absolutely. At my age I have no patience to suffer through even two minutes of anyone -- man, woman or farm animal -- who's not bright. No one knows what anyone else's social life is like; mine gets speculated on a bit. Mine is probably a lot more honest and transparent than most. I'm not married and I'm not looking to get married and I enjoy that.

Which world is more fickle, show business or politics?

That's quite a good question. I think if you flipped a coin to try to divine the answer to that one, it would land on its edge.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------