O.G.

Bill Maher: The ‘Indisputable’ Godfather of Political Late-Night

For the past 24 years, Bill Maher has been making politics funny on television. The Trump era marks his biggest challenge yet.

Rebecca Cabage

Bill Maher delivered the first late-night television monologue of Donald Trump’s presidency. Bounding onto the stage at his Los Angeles studio Friday night, the Real Time host blew his cheering audience a kiss and told the many fans watching live on HBO, “It happened. It really happened. We Americans have a new leader: Vladimir Putin.”

Maher prides himself on his ability to get out ahead of his competitors—he was also the first host to weigh in on Trump’s “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape—and has been doing so for decades. All the way back in 1993, he essentially invented the genre that now dominates late-night TV.

Long before Jon Stewart revamped The Daily Show to go all in on politics, Maher launched Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central. After moving that show to ABC for a six-year run that ended when he was fired for saying he did not consider the 9/11 hijackers to be “cowards,” Maher went to HBO, where he is now entering his 15th season as host of Real Time.

This past season of Real Time was the show’s most-watched since its 2003 debut, averaging 4.4 million viewers per episode, another point of pride for Maher. That means more people watch him than even the most popular late-night host on network television, Jimmy Fallon, who averaged 3.6 million viewers per night over the same time period. Yet while Real Time has been nominated for 19 Emmys over the past 13 years, it hasn’t taken home a single award.

When Maher called The Daily Beast this past week, he was in the middle of preparations for his season premiere, which just happened to coincide with both Trump’s inauguration and his 61st birthday. But there was only so much he and his writers could do before the big event took place.

“I’d love to know what he’s going to say in his speech, because they say he’s writing it himself, which I don’t believe,” Maher says. “I don’t think he’s ever written anything.” He also has a theory about why Trump so rarely uses a teleprompter: “I think he doesn’t want to alienate his base by reading.”

Maher was still laughing to himself about a recent interview in which Trump said that even though he would be sworn in on Friday, he was considering Monday to be his real “day one” as president. “That’s what I love about this guy, he’s just funny,” Maher says. “He doesn’t mean to be funny, but he’s funny.”

There’s something almost sweet about the fact that Maher is still able to laugh about a man who once sued him for joking that he was the spawn of an orangutan.

In this wide-ranging interview, Maher talks about the skepticism he received when he proposed the idea of a political comedy show, the criticism he has for his fellow late-night hosts, and how he would handle an interview with President Trump. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Politically Incorrect’s debut on ABC. When that show began, there really wasn’t any other political comedy on late-night TV. Now it’s everywhere. Do you feel like a pioneer of this genre?

Well, I think that’s indisputable. I think the numbers of viewers is also something that would argue well for that. As far as pioneering, yes, there was nothing like that. And remember, the show was on Comedy Central before ABC, starting in ’93. And there was nothing like it. Now I certainly did not invent the idea of a roundtable or people talking to each other, but what was new in ’93 was the idea that politics could be entertaining. Because I remember, everybody said it. They said, are you crazy? Why do you want to do a show about the one subject that is the most toxic thing? Politics, it’s just not interesting to people. They’re turned off about it, it’s dry, they’re cynical. Do anything else. Do any other show, but don’t do a show about politics. And I was like, yeah, let’s see. And we found out that, yes, it can be quite entertaining for a very large number of people.

So when you moved the show to ABC, did they give you that same pushback even though you’d been on the air for a while?

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I’m not sure that the folks at ABC had ever seen the show. [Laughs] I think that they just liked the title and the fact that it got a lot of press in those early years when it was on Comedy Central. I’m not so sure they really took seriously the fact that I was politically incorrect. But then once it was on, and we started to have fights about stuff, then I guess they got the idea that, oh yeah, this guy really is going to speak his mind. That’s probably not so good here at the Disney corporation. And I was surprised that it lasted six years, because I thought I would get fired before that and I didn’t. Because it’s all about sponsors in broadcast TV and the sponsors were with it because it did pretty well in the ratings. It did incredibly well as far as retaining the Nightline audience. It actually was a good idea. They had Nightline, from 11:30 to midnight, and then they were like, well that’s a news show, so we’ve got people who are interested in the news at that hour. How about a show after that that’s news but with a comedic flavor?

Now there’s a whole new crop of political shows in late-night television, whether it’s John Oliver on your network or Samantha Bee or Trevor Noah or Seth Meyers, who’s gotten very political. Do you view what you do as the same as what those hosts do, or do you feel like you’re doing something different?

Oh, fuck yes. I mean, what I do is more like them than say, Dancing With the Stars. And look, I’m not the biggest expert on those shows because, like the people who do those shows, who would probably tell you the same thing, we don’t generally watch each other’s shows, because it’s not a great idea to do that. You don’t want some idea to seep in by osmosis. I don’t know if the other shows do what I do, which is have someone on my staff watch those shows so that if there’s any joke, like in a monologue, that’s been done by somebody else that week, I’ll just not do it. I don’t like when I see jokes that I’ve done pretty much done on another show. I’m not saying they ripped it off deliberately, sometimes comedy writers have the same thought. But we do go to great pains to make sure that we don’t repeat something. But we don’t usually repeat anything, because I think that we have a completely different point of view. I think those shows, I’m sure they’re funny, but they have a very reliable point of view. It’s a point of view that will never make anyone in their completely liberal audiences do anything but clap like seals. And that’s not what I’ve ever been interested in doing. And I’m a liberal too, but liberals are unfortunately often wrong also. Not nearly as much as conservatives, but they need to be told when they are wrong. And I don’t think those people are ever interested in challenging their audience.

You finally got President Obama to come on your show last fall after he’d appeared on seemingly every other show.

Finally.

Why do you think it took him to long to come around to the idea of sitting down with you?

It’s a great question that only he can answer and he apparently never will. We had a petition that went out there and quickly got a requisite hundred thousand signatures and then went way above that. And the petition said, look, if you’re not going to do the show, just tell us why, because you’ve done every other show. A year ago, it was my 60th birthday and that was our special end of the show. It went on for 10 minutes, I think it was the longest one we ever did, where I laid out my case. And asked the audience for the first time to help me with the petition. I was just saying, just tell me what it is. Is it the fact that I’m a pothead? Is it the fact that I’m an atheist? Because it’s very strange why you would be on every other show in the universe, except for the one show, which has a bigger viewership than pretty much all the other shows you’ve ever done and also, I’ve been supportive. I did give him a million dollars, which I never mentioned. It was not part of the petition. But I’m sure he’s aware of it. So, why? What did I have to beg for eight years and have a petition to get the guy on my show? And even then, he didn’t come to the studio. OK, that’s fine, but it does make it a very different interview. When you come to the studio, first of all, there’s an audience. That changes everything. It makes it a comedy show. When you do it in the East Room of the White House, it’s very prestigious and I was very appreciative, but it does make it more like 60 Minutes. And I’m not Steve Kroft.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon got a lot of shit for the way he interviewed Trump on his show. If Trump somehow decided he wanted to come on your show, would you have him on? And if so, how would you approach it?

Absolutely. I invited him on our last show of the season, after he won the election. Of course, he’s the president. I’m just about to go over to do Jimmy Kimmel’s show tonight and I was reading that Jimmy was saying he would have Trump on and he was kind of criticizing others who said they were going to boycott him. He said, of course, he’s the president and you should have him on. And I agree with that. But if you’re going to have the president on, no matter who the president is, you have to hold their feet to the fire. If you’re just going to have them on so they can use you—and I do mean use you—to burnish their image and to present a side of themselves that’s inaccurate because they’re not being challenged, then you shouldn’t have them on at all. And maybe because that’s the way I feel about it and that’s the way I conduct my business, maybe that’s why I have trouble getting politicians on. But a lot of these people are just being used. And they’re not celebrities if they’re politicians. It’s a different animal and you have to treat it differently.

Someone who has been able to get on your show and hopefully will have on again is Kellyanne Conway. She flatly dismissed the idea that Trump could use the “tools of state” to go after you. What did you think when you saw those comments from her? Do you have any reason to trust her assurances?

[Laughs] You know, it’s hopeful. And I take her at her word and hope it’s true. But I also don’t think anyone can influence that man when he wants to do something. Look, one of his flacks [Corey Lewandowski] also said the editor of The New York Times should be in jail. This is third-world-country stuff when you start talking about putting people in jail who are in the press. Now, I don’t know if you saw his press conference

Of course, yeah.

Did you notice something different about it? That he had people in the room, his flacks, like it was The Howard Stern Show. So when he’d say something, they would all clap, or when he’d put the press down, they would all, “Woo, woo, woo!” This is new, this guy, and everything he does is kind of a new way to do it. This was a press conference where it was all about attacking the press. And because he had this group of supporters cheering him on, to the people watching at home, I guess it looked like he was in the right, when of course he wasn’t.

Yeah, to the people on his side, it doesn’t seem like he can do any wrong.

There is always going to be that third of the country that is for the hard-right-winger, and he is a right-winger at this point. I mean, he has some interesting populist notions, we’ll see if he follows through on them. But look at the Cabinet. It’s the Koch brothers Cabinet. It’s packed with billionaires who believe in nothing but increasing corporate profits and decimating the atmosphere. It’s very distressing.

In your first show after the election, you struck an almost conciliatory tone toward Trump, giving him credit for doing the “hardest thing in the entire world to do: win the election as the leader of the free world.” Do you stand by that in light of all the charges that his win was not “legitimate” because of interference from Russia?

Well, I think both things are true. I don’t think he’s legitimate. But I don’t think it does any good to harp on that because he is the president and you only get one at a time. It also is the hardest thing in the world to become the president of the United States. And everybody has to admit that. That he was able to blow through that field of 17 Republican candidates. A lot of the people in their field were seasoned politicians and the smart money was on them. And I listened to people come on my show for a full year. At first they said, yeah, you know, the polls, he’s doing OK, but people aren’t voting yet. Wait until they vote, he’s not going to get any votes. Then he got votes. They they said, yeah, but he’s not going to win any primaries, and then he won primaries. OK, but he’s never going to win the nomination. And then he won the nomination. And then he wasn’t going to win the election.

So, c’mon, everybody was wrong. He went all the way. And that is a pretty hard thing to do. I don’t admire the way he did it, but what’s distressing to me more than Donald Trump as one man is the fact that half the country went along with it. That half the country is willing to vote for someone who’s just this outrageous liar. How do you know when he’s lying? His lips are moving, it’s that old joke. And a tax cheat and a draft-dodger. I don’t want to say he’s a Russian agent, but he certainly is more loyal to Vladimir Putin than he is to the loyal opposition of America. Obviously that’s a big story, it’s still not a big enough story. I don’t want to say for sure that there’s some tape that Vladimir Putin has of him doing something in a hotel room with a hooker, but he sure acts exactly like a man would if you had a blackmail tape on him.

You were all over the Trump-Putin connection back in July of last year. Why do you think this didn’t become a bigger story until after Trump became president?

Because Hillary’s emails! [Screaming in mock horror] Because Hillary was using a private server… I mean, that’s part of it. James Comey released that letter. I mean, James Comey is the head of the FBI. The FBI, these are the people who should be keeping an eye on Putin, not working with him. Because that’s what it amounted to. Putin and the FBI were somehow on the same side, which is electing Donald Trump as president. When I really freaked out was when I was reading all of that stuff about how the FBI was so in the tank for Trump that Comey basically had to release that letter or else he was going to lose control of his own agency. That’s scary stuff.

On a lighter note, how insane do you think it drove Trump that he couldn’t get bigger celebrities to perform at his inauguration?

I don’t think it’s driving him insane. I think he is a man who would rather have a Scott Baio talk about him in glowing terms than have the biggest star in the world equivocate in the least about his wonderfulness. If you tell him he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, then ipso facto, you are a giant celebrity, and a genius. And you may be secretary of defense.

Or Vladimir Putin.

Exactly.