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“I still love this life, doing both things,” says Bill Maher, the 60-year-old veteran standup comedian and longtime host of HBO’s talk show Real Time With Bill Maher, as we sit down in his bungalow at CBS Television City in Los Angeles (where Real Time shares a set with The Price Is Right) to record an episode of the ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “But I also am aware that, look, the flesh has to be willing. At this moment, it’s willing. We’ll see what it’s like at 70, if I’m still here — if the planet is still here, when it’s 158 [degrees] in Palm Springs and we have to wear a Hazmat suit to do a show!”
Click above to listen to this episode now, or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Harvey Weinstein, Jane Fonda, Aziz Ansari, Brie Larson, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart and Michael Moore.)
Maher, drawing upon comedic influences as varied as Steve Allen, Johnny Carson and Mort Sahl, essentially pioneered, with his previous show Politically Incorrect (1993-2002), the format of a late-night talk show that humorously tackles the news, variations of which followed in the form of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight With John Oliver and, of course, Real Time, which is similar except that it tapes just once a week, on Friday nights, and recruits less wacky guests to discuss current events with Maher. “This show, even though it’s on once a week, takes so much more out of me and so many more hours than Politically Incorrect, which was every night,” he notes. “This is a different kind of show and I want it to be somewhat polished.”
Maher says he had “the last Leave It to Beaver upbringing in America,” marred only by a period of depression during high school. “I always knew I was gonna be a comedian,” he insists, “and I was too shy to even tell anybody.” He went off to Cornell and double-majored in English and History, making money on the side by selling pot, among other drugs. After graduating, Maher moved to New York City, where he became a fixture at the comedy club Catch a Rising Star, was mentored by Allen and made appearances on Carson’s Tonight Show before deciding, in the early ‘80s, to go west in pursuit of sitcom and film work.
In L.A., Maher found limited success and considerable frustration as an actor, so, in 1992, he agreed to serve as a comedic commentator for the new cable network Comedy Central at the presidential conventions. Comedy Central, in need of product, then accepted his pitch for Politically Incorrect, which went on the air six months later. After three-and-a-half years, Maher, seeking a larger audience, moved the show to ABC, but feels the Alphabet Network never really supported him. (“Ted Koppel is a dick,” he says of the former Nightline host who never promoted the show that followed his own.)
ABC fired Maher in 2002 for, well, politically incorrect comments he made in the week after Sept. 11, 2001 — “the tragic events of 9/17,” as he now laughingly refers to them. On that night, Maher, in response to comments from a guest, insisted that the 9/11 terrorists, while evil, were not “cowards,” but, he realizes now, “nuance was not what they were in the mood for on 9/17.” His comments, taken out of context, provoked condemnations all the way to the White House. “It’s not a great feeling to think the whole country hates you,” Maher says, adding of his firing, “I didn’t know what was going to come next. Luckily, HBO was there with the net.”
The premier cable network got that way, Maher says, because it hires talented people and then leaves them alone. “It’s a great place to work,” he says, noting that he has been free to talk about whatever he pleases. Lately, that has been Bill Cosby (“What ever happened to that guy?” he cracks); Donald Trump, who once sued Maher for not paying him $5 million after Trump was able to prove that he was not fathered by an orangutan (“I think he’s an unemployed actor from Queens whose net worth is $14,000 and also a gay serial-killer … he’s LOL every day”); and Islam (“There are very few liberals who are as clear-eyed about the Islamic situation as I am, and I certainly have paid a price for that”).
While Maher is a favorite of liberal intellectuals, who are supposedly heavily represented in Hollywood, his work has never been embraced at the Emmys. He received 32 nominations, between Politically Incorrect and Real Time, before he finally won an Emmy in 2014 — for his role as an executive producer of HBO’s Vice. (“I do not accept it,” he says of that prize. “I’m not gonna take one for a show that isn’t my show.”) Last year, for the first time in over a decade, Real Time was not even nominated for an Emmy, although Maher did pick up his 35th nom (for, you guessed it, Vice). “I wear it as a badge of honor at this point,” he says of his Emmy track record.
But it does frustrate him that the two shows that did win in each of the last 13 years — Stewart’s and Colbert’s — borrowed his format and, in his view, “never say anything that challenges their own audience. There’s no guts in that. That’s just pandering to me, to always say the thing that your clack of liberals will reliably applaud. I mean, I could do that. I know what they want to hear. That’s not what I’m looking to do.”
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