The easy way to say this is he lives in a bubble: Bill Maher is a famous comedian and political commentator. He’s based in the Hollywood-opolis of glitz and smog – we call it Los Angeles – where he hosts a live television show, “Real Time with Bill Maher,” every Friday night on HBO.
Then you could say he gets out of the bubble: Every few weekends, Maher does stand-up comedy around the country, including a Nov. 12 show at Shea’s Performing Arts Center. The “Real Time” guy parachutes into middle America to meet real-life people.
Spend a few minutes talking to Maher, though, and you’ll get this quickly: His bubbles aren’t the ones he’s living inside. They are the ones he is bursting.
Maher took time to chat on the phone on a recent afternoon. He had just finished a “Real Time” meeting at his L.A. office and had 15 minutes to chat. The conversation was deflating — and this is by design. If you want to feel fuzzy about humanity, Maher is not your guy.
He started by talking about one of his most favorite subjects: the president. When asked what he has learned about America a year into the Trump administration, his muffled chuckle was barely detectable over the phone.
“That we’re hanging on, you know?” he said. “I guess the optimistic view would be that we’re still here. And the pessimistic view – the one I take more often – is it’s only year one. Whatever you think is insanely abnormal and crazy about America could get worse, and I think it will get worse.”
A brief note of context: Maher, whose views mostly lean steeply left, takes aim at Republicans and Democrats alike. But Donald Trump is his most frequent target, and a favorite one even before he became president. In 2013, Maher – seeming to poke fun at Trump’s questioning of Barack Obama’s birthplace – jokingly offered $5 million to anyone who could prove Trump isn’t the son of an orangutan. Trump sued Maher (and later withdrew the suit).
They are not fans of each other.
“I worry especially about his proclivities toward dictatorship,” Maher said. “He loves dictators. Those are the people he admires. He makes no secret of it. He loves Putin, and he loves the nut in the Philippines and he loves the dictator in Turkey. Those are his boys. The guy in Egypt. Those are terrible role models to have.”
Trump has historically low approval ratings and failed to push health-care reform through Congress. Still, Maher said, “He’s winning.” Trump got conservative judge Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. The president may yet get a big tax-cut bill on his desk. And Republicans are winning all the special elections. “He’s beating the Democrats,” Maher said. “He’s beating the Republicans who are opposed to him. He’s beating the media. He lies with complete impunity.”
Maher doesn’t think the liberals will “get him on the Russia thing.” He doesn’t like the White House admonishing reporters for questioning a general. Maher doesn’t see Congress impeaching Trump. “In general, Republicans get in line, even behind this guy,” he said. And he thinks we we might look back at year one of the Trump Administration and say, “Those were the good old days.”
He invoked some names: H.R. McMaster, the national security adviser; Gen. James Mattis, the secretary of defense; and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. “The voice of reason,” Maher said. “And he’s gotten mad with all those people. He could replace them with just the true believers. Just the people who live and die to be loyal to Donald Trump.
“That’s when I look into the lovely city of Vancouver.”
Maher laughs again. It’s louder this time.
In the presence of Maher, you have to remind yourself he is not just a political commentator, but also a comedian. On one hand, that should make you question how literal he is being. (Was he really offering a $5 million bounty for a birth certificate the proves Trump was conceived by homo sapiens?) Stand-ups tend to take small truths, experiences or observations from their own lives and build them into jokes and stories.
But then Maher, 61, has not been that type of storytelling comedian for a long time. Back in the ‘90s, he had a television show called “Politically Incorrect,” which first aired on Comedy Central, then on ABC, until Maher was fired for a comment he made after the 9/11 attacks. (More recently, Maher came under fire for using a racial slur word on his HBO show. He quickly issued an apology, and HBO removed the reference from future showings of the episode.)
His brand of comedy is built right into the name of that show, and into the name of his current HBO show: He talks about real issues and uncomfortable truths.
“The country is choking on political correctness, and has for many years,” Maher said, repeating one of his most oft-used phrases. “I mean, my God, I did the show called ‘Politically Incorrect’ starting in 1993.
"So this has been around for a long time, and people are sick of it. You have to ask yourself, ‘Why is the Democratic brand so toxic in about at least half the states in America?”
Among Maher’s answers: Extreme political correctness.
A few weeks ago, Janice Min of The Hollywood Reporter joined Maher on “Real Time” to talk about the Harvey Weinstein sexual-abuse scandal. Maher pointed out that “Saturday Night Live” didn’t do Weinstein jokes, while CBS late-night host James Corden did, and both were criticized for it.
“We are just too afraid to talk about things,” Maher said.
Min agreed. “I feel like we’re a little bit in Robespierre French Revolution times here.”
“I say it every week,” Maher told Min. “The purity police.”
Maher said the problem has been building gradually. He think it’s been worsened by the Internet, which he calls “the place where virtual vigilantes can just park themselves and wait for someone to say something that is not exactly the way they think it should be said, so that they can see themselves as morally superior...
Maher continued: “And then it went completely off the rails. I always ask in my stand-up shows, ‘Where are my millennials?’ and there are always a hell of a lot of them. So obviously, this is not the entire generation, because they must know my concerts are not a safe space. But there is something going on in this generation that is just insane.”
Maher started spitting out frustrations: Trigger warnings. Micro-aggressions. “Free-speech zones?” he said. “They used to be called America, free-speech zones.”
When, he wondered aloud, did we become so fragile?
“I don’t want to live in a country where nobody ever says anything (that is) offensive,” he said. “That’s why we have Canada.”
And so it went. Maher’s confidence is shaken. It’s shaken in Trump. (“I don’t have any confidence that he has any checks on his morality.”) It’s shaken on the “Democrats’ ability to defeat a man like that.” And it’s shaken by those safe-space-seeking political-correctness “bullies” whom he thinks have made this all possible.
He asked, “Aren’t you glad you called me today, Tim?”
Real glad, Bill.
Bill Maher on...
President Trump: “In a country that is overrun by insane political correctness and the bullies behind it, somebody like Donald Trump does have an appeal. Now, I’m not saying that he’s preferable. I’m saying I understand why somebody who doesn’t apologize in this kind of atmosphere that we live in – where everybody is always having to apologize for everything – has some appeal.”
Democrats: “If Democrats think that they can win in a world where facts don’t matter, where an apple is a banana, they’re fighting the last war — and they’re using outdated weaponry.”
How the world would be different if Trump had bought the Buffalo Bills: “Well, the Buffalo Bills would be standing for the anthem!”
His approach: “I’m not here to hurt or offend people. I’m here to tell the truth. Sometimes the truth is offensive, and I’m sorry about that, but I can’t do anything about that.”
The “purity police” as he often calls them: “Could the outrage industrial complex maybe just take a few years off until we get rid of Donald Trump? Because I don’t think they’re helping.”
7:30 p.m. Nov. 12 at Shea's Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $36 and up at ticketmaster.com