Bill Maher: I won't watch John Oliver

Salon spoke to Maher about his new comedy special, Sofia Vergara, why he hasn't been to the Emmys in a decade

Published September 12, 2014 3:00PM (EDT)

Bill Maher                       (AP/Janet Van Ham)
Bill Maher (AP/Janet Van Ham)

Talk to Bill Maher for any amount of time, and you'll be pelted with strong opinions delivered with the kind of tough conviction that would make Maher fit right in with the 24-hour news networks he has built his career on mocking. Tonight, Maher will be doing a live "Real Time With Bill Maher" episode from Washington, D.C., at 9 p.m., then take a short car ride to do his new comedy special at 10. As Maher says, he'll be "halfway to Ted Cruz’s filibuster at the end of [the] night."

At what point did you say, "You know what? I’m just not going to bother going to the Emmys"?

I feel like if the body of the academy, which is 17,000 people or something, nominates you every year, that many times, I really feel like it’s sort of on them at this point, whoever those eight or 10 people in the voting committee, I feel like it’s kind of more an embarrassment for them. That the body seems to think we deserve one, but they … but you know, I made my peace a long time ago that you can’t really do what I do and get over on the, sort of, mainstreamers. I’d much rather have one day where we don’t win and be who I am the other 364 days.

I saw you poured gasoline on your head for the ice bucket challenge. Are you a big social media fan?

Well, I think the Internet in general allows people to only see what they already agree with. It’s funny, it’s ironic really, because we thought that with the Internet we were going to be expanding our minds and in some ways of course we have, but in a lot of ways I think it’s worked in the opposite direction. Of course, Fox News has also done that, because Fox News then inspired MSNBC so then you have a broadcast group on the left who’s kind of doing the same thing. I just think they happen to be smarter and better and stick to the facts more.

When there’s outrage over something as small as the Sofia Vergara bit at the Emmys ...

Why? What happened? I don’t know about this. 

Oh, she was standing on a rotating pedestal while the president of the academy made his speech. People were pretty mad about it.

Oh, for fuck's … Well, you know, Internet outrage comes from -- if I say, "Good morning," there’s Internet outrage.

When you’re off for the entire month of August, and you see something like Ferguson happen, do you feel antsy about getting back to work?

Well, in that case, it was interesting because we had done something pretty big about the militarization of the police and how the police really needed to get their shit together, on the way they deal with the public in many instances, before it all happened. I mean the timing could not have been more perfect. In fact a lot of people on the Internet noted that. So, in that case, we were just fortunate. It looked very prescient. But in general, you know, it's funny, whenever I’m off people say to me, “Oh man, the world’s falling apart now. Don’t you wish you were back on?” I always say, “Well, the world is always falling apart.” It’s not because I took time off. It’s not like whenever I take time off, the world doesn’t stop turning. So, there is always going to be something. That’s one of the good things about doing a topical show is that, there is always something to talk about.

Do you watch John Oliver? I've heard you try not to watch the other news satire shows.

Yeah, I don’t think that’s a good idea. You know, George Carlin taught me that, years ago. George Carlin said, “You know, I never look at other comedians because I don’t want to be writing a bit and thinking, ‘Oh wow, is the reason why this is in my head because I saw it on some other show?’” I’ve been told by my producers, who do watch these other shows, that there really wouldn’t be that much harm in it because they say that we almost never cover the same thing the same way. But I still think it’s a good idea [to avoid them]. I’ve also heard from musician friends of mine that, you know, they get three-quarters the way through writing a song, and then they come into the studio and they play it and somebody goes, "Oh yeah, Journey did that in 1978. You just wrote a hit song that’s been a hit."

"You just wrote 'Don’t Stop Believing.'"

Exactly [Laughs.]

Is Flip-a-District done? Are you going to be doing that for the general elections as well?

No. It’s just beginning. We haven’t announced who the Flip-a-District candidate is. We will be announcing that at the end of the Sept. 12 show. So, I think that’s sort of an added bonus there. We’re going to be announcing who it is and why we picked this person. There will be a balloon drop. And then we’re going to really get to work because then we have to engage and try to flip that district. I’ll be traveling to that district a couple of times. We will be coordinating, if we can, with the grass-roots people in that district who have already, of course, done their part by getting on social media and imploring us to pick that person. And we’re going to see, you know, town halls and so forth, whether we can shine a light on whether this person should be ousted from Congress.

What topics are you covering in the special?

You know, I think I try to cover the waterfront. When I have an hour onstage, it’ll take off from the idea that we’re right before the midterms, but it’s everything political that’s going on in the country right now. I mean, it’s a lot about the Democrats and the Republicans and the way nothing gets done in government. But you know, I think I cover the waterfront. And I think, the difference with stand-up, of course, is that everything should be a belly laugh. The show "Real Time" is a hybrid of comedy and serious. You know, the panel is usually serious, as they should be, there are laughs on it, but I don’t want most of the people on the panel to try to be comedians, because they’re not comedians.

But stand-up is, you know, to me the last bastion of truly free speech and it’s the last truly pure art form comedically, because it's just you and the audience and it is your job, as the comedian, to hurt them in the stomach muscles.

Any concern that the material won’t age well because it’s more current than evergreen?

You know what, it won’t age [well]. In two years it will be somewhat dated because that’s the kind of thing I do. I don’t do evergreen material, for the most part. There are comics who can talk about trivial matters and everyday matters brilliantly, it’s never been my area. It never attracted me. So, I do talk about what’s going on in the world right now. And yes, in two years, we won’t be talking about the midterms and we may not even be talking about Obama.

You’re trying out the material in clubs and things like that?

Yeah, I’m always on the road every weekend. So, I’m like a fighter who’s always in shape. So, the tough part will be the mental part of coming out just at the moment when I really just want to kick back and have a martini and now I have to deliver a stand-up special, which is, again, it’s two hours of talking, I’m halfway to Ted Cruz’s filibuster at the end of this night.

Exactly. Just make sure you take time to go to the bathroom in between.

Believe me, at my age, I understand that more than anything.

By Joel Keller

Joel Keller is a writer whose entertainment-related stories have been published at The A.V. Club, The New York Times, Vulture and Fast Company's Co.Create. He was also the editor of TV Squad. He hosts his own weekly podcast at AntennaFree.TV.

MORE FROM Joel Keller

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