Bill Maher Puts His Money Where His (Big) Mouth Is
UPDATED: "Hey sluts!" That's how HBO's provocateur greets his audience before ripping Rush Limbaugh, as the devout atheist, pot smoker and most outspoken late-nighter gives $1 million to re-elect Obama in the hopes of waking up Hollywood: “It’s a scarier group of Republicans than I’ve ever seen in my life."
Maher says his bookers have no trouble filling the panel each week, though Hollywood celebrities and sitting politicians often aren't interested. Many showbiz publicists discourage their clients from going on, either because they fear they'll appear unintelligent or, perhaps worse, be associated with Maher's politics. "I'm very toxic," he says with a laugh. Exceptions include Alec Baldwin, Ashton Kutcher, Ben Affleck and Kerry Washington, all of whom have appeared on the show and are well-known political junkies. Maher's buddy Jon Hamm will make his third Real Time appearance March 9.
Even without a steady stream of celebrities, Maher's unfiltered voice now generates 1.2 million viewers in its Friday 10 p.m. timeslot -- his highest Real Time numbers since 2003 (by comparison, Stewart averages 2.4 million viewers; Colbert, 1.6 million). In addition, he will headline as many as 60 live shows this year in such places as Huntsville, Ala., and Albuquerque, N.M., where he frequently packs 5,000-seat theaters. He's also sold about 500,000 books, including a series based on the "new rules" segment on Real Time, in the process garnering national attention for his various wars of words with politicians and conservative media types. These include Limbaugh, whose "sluts" attack on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke prompted Maher's opening joke on the March 2 show. "I thought this election was all going to be about the economy," said Maher, "but the economy started doing better, so the Republicans went to plan B: calling women whores."
In person, Maher exudes a vibe very similar to his TV persona. He's sharp and caustic, with a no-nonsense conversation style dialed back only slightly from the combative presence that often dominates debates on Real Time. He laughs a lot, and he's quick with a smart justification for everything he says and does. For instance, the never-married Maher says that despite his image as "that pot-smoking atheist who goes to the Playboy Mansion," he's toned down the lifestyle on which his conservative foes tend to dwell. He rarely rises before noon, but that's as a result of an internal clock that often has him up refining his Real Time monologue until four in the morning. He's still smoking weed about twice a week, but he's no longer "militantly single," as he has been for much of his adult life. In fact, he's had a steady girlfriend, a Harvard graduate student, for about eight months. The pair has no plans to wed, though, as Maher is still as vehemently against the institution as he is organized religion, though he favors same-sex marriage rights. "My answer to marriage was always, 'Why do I want to invite the state and federal government into my love life, so that it becomes a legal matter if something goes wrong and it's about lawyers? It's the opposite of what love and romance should be," he scoffs.
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And yes, he's frequently photographed at the Playboy Mansion, but insists he attends only the four big parties of the year, including Hugh Hefner's birthday and the Mid-Summer Night's Dream bash. Instead, the exercise nut spends his afternoons working out and hosting regular basketball games at his Beverly Hills home with such friends as Hamm, Sarah Silverman, Woody Harrelson and Garry Shandling ("Garry has a very good jump shot," says Maher).
When he's not touring, he spends a lot of time with his comic friends. "We don't need a lot -- a joint and a couch, and you could pretty much kill three hours," says Maher. Has he ever done any of his shows high? "Are you crazy?" he responds, his eyes bulging with disbelief. "Oh no, that would be a disaster. Marijuana is not the kind of drug that you want to do when you have to focus."
Maher still can be spotted on the Hollywood party scene, often with his close friend and "de facto date" Seth MacFarlane, nearly two decades his junior. "It's usually a night of wine and war stories, followed by 2 a.m. victuals at Jerry's Deli," says the Family Guy creator and occasional Real Time guest. "Everything a couple of college guys would do."
But friends and colleagues say that beneath the veneer of a gruff-comic-in-a-state-of-arrested development is a man both highly intelligent and deeply loyal. Real Time executive producer Scott Carter and head writer Billy Martin have been with Maher for close to two decades. Griffiths, another EP, began as Maher's assistant 18 years ago. "To move forward after every big event in my life, I have to check in with Bill," says Arianna Huffington, a longtime friend and former correspondent for Maher's previous show Politically Incorrect. "Some people have therapy, I have Bill. He's much funnier, and there's no co-pay."
The host quietly gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to veterans (both of his parents were vets), environmental causes (he drives a $100,000-plus green Tesla) and such animal charities as the Humane Society and PETA (he has a greyhound/Chihuahua mix named Chico). Many confidants note his lack of bitterness and his willingness to laugh at other people's jokes, rare qualities in a comedian. Longtime manager Marc Gurvitz -- who first hooked up with Maher at Los Angeles' Improv comedy club during the early 1980s -- says Maher has called him at home only once in their nearly-30-year relationship, and he apologized profusely.
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Perhaps surprisingly, he deems plenty of topics off-limits. Jokes about children of political candidates, cruelty to animals and homosexuals who aren't out publicly are verboten among Real Time's tight-knit nine-person writing team, most of whom have been with Maher for years. "The writers room is like the most hilarious think tank in Washington," says Carter. "We tend to be very liberal, but we also put a great deal of stock in monitoring legitimate conservative arguments against knee-jerk liberals."
For his part, Maher consumes news voraciously -- the entryway of his Television City bungalow features The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. He doesn't check out other late-night comedy shows, but he watches MSNBC's Hardball and what he calls the "Ron Burgundy" evening newscasts (Maher's writers watch Fox News). He says he won't tell a joke or offer an opinion unless he believes the premise to be absolutely true. More than a decade after his infamous 9/11 statement -- "We have been the cowards" -- he won't back down. "I said I was sorry that I offended people at a sensitive time," he notes, "but I never said I was wrong because I wasn't wrong."