Bill Maher Puts His Money Where His (Big) Mouth Is
This story appears in the Mar. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
Bill Maher has three words that should terrify Hollywood: Obama could lose.
To the moneyed political class living in what Maher calls the "liberal bubble," it might seem like a long shot. The economy is recovering, unemployment rates are dropping, and the Republican candidates are talking about how to limit contraception and why college is for snobs (if not the occasional "slut"). But though the president might seem a shoo-in to win a second term among certain bicoastal elites, Maher sees trouble ahead. That fear -- and not to promote himself or his long-running HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher, he says -- is why the comic firebrand interrupted his stand-up act in San Jose, Calif., on Feb. 23 to present an oversized $1 million check to Priorities USA Action, the political super PAC working to re-elect President Obama.
"I threw a snowball hoping to cause an avalanche," Maher, 56, says a week later in his no-frills bungalow office at CBS Television City, a short golf-cart ride from the studio where he shoots Real Time on Friday nights. "This election is so not in the bag," he adds, his voice rising, as it often does on Real Time, with the semi-righteous and hyper-informed outrage that has won him loyal fans and prompted the kind of death threats that require a full-time security guard at his Beverly Hills home. "It's a scarier group of Republicans than I've ever seen in my life, and it's a different world with Citizens United," he says, referencing the 2010 Supreme Court case that has led to GOP backers like casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson giving many millions of dollars to unregulated super PACs.
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With his donation, Maher -- whose politics aren't exactly down-the-line liberal -- has become the highest-profile celebrity to give so much to the Obama re-election cause, which has struggled to gain steam in Hollywood (DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg remains the industry's largest donor, giving $2 million to Obama's super PAC as of Jan. 31). In the process, the bomb-throwing provocateur -- a devout atheist who wants to legalize most recreational drugs and famously was kicked off ABC for saying the 9/11 terrorists weren't cowards -- has crossed the line from pay cable commentator to mainstream activist. Unlike late-night peers Jon Stewart, with his Rally to Restore Sanity, or Stephen Colbert, who launched a satirically eponymous super PAC, Maher is publicly putting his own money where his big mouth is. And in doing so, he is setting himself up as an increasingly powerful voice as the presidential campaign heads into its defining months.
"I never used to give money because I thought, well, I don't want to tip my hat one way or the other," Maher says. "But I thought, who are we kidding at this point? I think the cat is out of the bag which side I'm on." Maher says he still considers himself a moderate but believes the Republican Party has shifted to exclude nonextremists, making Obama the crucial best option. He considers his $1 million gift a challenge to Hollywood's political donors, who, driven by a diminished entertainment economy, dissatisfaction with Obama's policies, residual SOPA anger, or all of the above, have been sitting idle as the Republicans' American Crossroads super PAC has thus far outraised Democracts 2-to-1. In addition, a recent study showed that Obama election support from the entertainment industry had fallen nearly 60 percent from $2.8 million in 2008 to $1.2 million in 2011.
"To all rich liberals: This is where the game is now," he says. "There's only one place in this country where the millionaires and billionaires are liberals, and that's here in California."
Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the late-night comedy of the Maher, Stewart and Colbert ilk thrives on opposition-party humor. All three hosts helped popularize a new TV genre during the eight-year reign of George W. Bush, riding a wave of Dick Cheney antics and anti-Iraq War sentiment. Many posited that the election of Obama in 2008 would somehow temper the bite of liberal-leaning late-night programming (the antidote to the rise of Fox News). But the opposite has rung true. Thanks to the surge of the Tea Party, the Republican Party has been propelled further right, causing Congress to stall in nearly comical deadlock since the inauguration. Those fat targets, as well as Obama's own missteps, have become fodder for even more aggressive monologues, with late-night comics now driving the political conversation arguably as much as their "serious" news counterparts.
Although Stewart is the wiseguy watchdog and Colbert the smarty-pants rabble rouser, Maher stands out as the increasingly aggressive line-crosser, a position enabled by both a personality that loves to shock and nearly zero restrictions thanks to his decadelong perch on HBO.
His schedule, like his latitude, is enviable. He produces one live show a week with as many as 20 weeks off a year. For 10 years, HBO has let him do and say pretty much whatever he wants, from calling former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin a "dumb twat" who heads "a strange family of inbred weirdos" to performing an "un-baptism" on Mitt Romney's dead father-in-law. Unlike the rest of late-night, Maher is not beholden to overnight ratings, commercial sponsors or pressure to book the kind of celebrity guests who increasingly shy away from the raw political debates that are a hallmark of his show ("There's not 20 thinking celebrities in all of Hollywood," he quips).
Despite the freedom, Maher says he works harder to distinguish his act from the Jays and Daves -- and even the Stewarts and Colberts (some of whose audience he likely attracts on Fridays, when the Comedy Central shows are dark). "You can only make an everyday show so good," he says. "But if you have a once-a-week show, you feel like you have to make it great because you're only once a week." During the March 2 edition of Real Time, for instance, Maher segued from pointed jokes about Rush Limbaugh's "slut" comments to an informed discussion of campaign finance reform with former Sen. Russ Feingold to a heated debate with former GM executive Bob Lutz over global warming -- all live with no commercial breaks or second takes. "I don't get to re-rack like every other host does," he notes. "I have to be ready for the whole thing before it starts."
He's also willing to directly challenge guests and push the taste envelope further than his rivals. "I am so much more edgy," he boasts. Only Maher would ask a conservative guest why Limbaugh hadn't "croaked" instead of Heath Ledger from prescription drug abuse. And only Maher would lead a discussion in which gay columnist Dan Savage said, "I sometimes think about f--ing the shit out of Rick Santorum." ("Pretty sick stuff," according to Fox News' Sean Hannity.) He often uses his show-ending editorial -- a segment he meticulously hones over several days -- to lambast such frequent Republican targets as Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who this election cycle have stepped in for Palin as Maher's favorite foils. "I mean, she was great, but it's like Spartacus," he jokes. " 'I'm an idiot!' 'I'm an idiot!' They're all idiots!"
Not that Maher only books the like-minded. On the final night of his life, right-wing pundit Andrew Breitbart said that being a guest on Maher's show helped him learn how to handle a hostile audience and be booed. "He signed a book for me," Maher recalls of Breitbart. "He wrote something really nice: 'Thank you for giving me a chance and not prejudging and accepting me.' " Other conservative guests have included former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum and Rep. Darrell Issa. "This is a forum of ideas," says executive producer Sheila Griffiths, "and you can't necessarily do that if you don't have the other side's point of view represented."
After each edition of Real Time, Maher invites his guests to a small reception. He doesn't talk to anyone before the show, so the party is often an opportunity for Maher to meet those with whom he has just sparred on-camera. After a recent show, for instance, Lutz, the former GM executive and the panel's lone conservative, revealed he had never seen Real Time before agreeing to appear on the show, during which he was grilled by Maher over his denial of global warming. "My wife said, 'Don't go on that show; that guy's a left-wing asshole,' " says Lutz. "But I said, 'What the hell?' I like a good, smart debate, and that's what it was."