National Treasure

Celebrating Real Time’s 19th season, we spoke with Bill about all things America, and why he’ll never stop fighting for the truth.
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 05: Bill Maher Performs During New York Comedy Festival at The Theater at Madison Square Garden on November 5, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

If you care at all about democracy and the way our world works, you should be watching Real Time with Bill Maher. As January 2021 marks the show’s 19th season, it’s one of the most in-demand shows on air. With good reason. 

What the world needs now—right now—is someone brave enough to fight for the truth. Someone who will put himself out there, be willing to be despised as much as he’s revered, and say the things that make us ponder and squirm. From religion to healthcare, mass media to political correctness, Maher enlists experts to help start the all-essential conversations. He leaves it up to you, the thinker, to do the rest.

Nineteen seasons, FYI, doesn’t happen to any TV show by accident. Before Real Time there was his round-table, idea mosh pit Politically Incorrect (1993 – 2001), still regarded as one of the best shows of its kind. “I always said it was a designed train wreck,” he laughs. “You would have Bob Dole sitting next to Carrot Top… it was an everyday show. We had 20 seats to fill. There weren’t 20 intellectuals in America.” At the end of the day, Bob Dole and Carrot Top have the same vote in America. “It was a cry to care about democracy, that we all get a vote. Our votes are equal. Our voices should be equal, too, and that led to some funny exchanges and odd pairings.”

Decades later, Maher is still trying to get us all to give a shit, and have a laugh at the same time.

If you happen to be someone who loves to hate Maher, well, there’s a reason for that, too. He’s not looking to make friends and, no doubt, he speaks his mind. But he doesn’t actually ask you to agree with him. He asks you to consider, converse and stand for something. If this makes you uncomfortable—and you’re working through your ability to care and “get involved” with what’s happening around you—just know: You’re already in it, friend. 

And awards people, whoever you are, give this guy the accolades he deserves. Awards are supposed to be based on merit, right? You don’t like him? Get over yourself and do the right thing. What are you so afraid of? 

Read on to find out what Maher’s afraid of (hint: nothing!) and what he really thinks about the current state of things.

 

 

SPIN: Why do you think Real Time is one of the most successful, longest-running shows on TV today?
Bill Maher: The people who do want what we do, I think appreciate it a lot. We’ve never been appreciated, by what I would call, the establishment. That’s the media and awards, but I understand why that is, and I stopped caring about it long ago.

Why do you think that is?
Because I tell the truth.

Just because the truth pisses people off, especially as we’ve moved into this binary world where you are either on the blue team or the red team. Truth doesn’t really matter to people so much as just that. Which side are you on? My side is the truth and that means I am going to criticize the left a lot when they’re wrong, and they’ve become real goofy about way too much shit. They don’t like that, but tough shit.

In standing your ground you’ve been on your own—how does that feel?
That’s, again, why I think we have a large loyal audience because I don’t think they can go anywhere else. I think if you want the other thing that’s going on, which is, I would say, reliably liberal philosophy regurgitated to you, you have many choices. That audience is divided, or they can watch all of them, but you’re not going to be challenged anywhere else. Certainly, I consider myself a liberal but Politically Incorrect itself, we were just talking about the old show, was not a liberal sentiment. Political correctness is a function of the left, let’s be honest, and Politically Incorrect was a revolt against that.

Getting lost in this world of caring too much about sensitivity has elevated over the concept of what’s real. That only got worse. I was trying to drive a stake through the heart of it, and Jesus Christ, I failed miserably at that. [Laughs.]

When I think about how much the world—or the country, at least—has changed as far as what is unsayable, or at least what’s going to get you in trouble for saying it. That doesn’t go back just to the ’90s. That goes back just five years ago, things are very different. Ten years ago when Twitter started, Twitter used to be, when it first started, the design of it was here’s a fun place where you can just say whatever comes into your mind and share it with the world. The problem with Twitter now is anything I’d want to say on Twitter, I can’t say on Twitter. [Laughs.] Or else I’ll get my head handed to me. The fun of Twitter was, “I’m just going to dash off this thought I had.” Now, if I want to tweet something, it’s like, “I better think about all the people who are going to go apeshit because I said this fairly innocuous thing.” They live on Twitter to basically get outraged — the professionally outraged people. That’s why I don’t tweet very much anymore, it’s no fun.

Of course, it’s a small minority who does that and the rest of the cowards always bow down to their ruling on what is acceptable. Twitter just winds up a graveyard for stale ideas and a Thunderdome for those who want to get canceled. It’s just annoying.

Why do you think the media, in general, can’t be more intelligent—and meaningful?
I’d say I think a lot of it is what I was just alluding to, the binary nature of our politics. It used to be that late-night TV was there to make you laugh. That was job one. That’s not what they’re there for anymore, and it’s not what the audience cares about anymore. You don’t really have to be funny. Sometimes, they are, of course, but you just have to be on the right side of the blue/red divide, which for that audience, is always blue. They’re not even trying. Jay Leno was — again, that’s not that long ago and it seems like ancient history, because Jay had his finger on the pulse of middle America.

That’s why he was number one for so long because he had that broad middle of the country, the same as Johnny Carson did. He would take shots at both sides. That doesn’t go on anymore. On my show, in a different kind of way, that’s what we’re doing. Jay Leno would do it in the monologue. He would, I think, reflect more on what the whole country was thinking. Just like Johnny Carson, we didn’t really even know what his politics were.

They tried to keep it close to the vest. We’re just the Will Rogers type standing on the street corner, watching the parade go by and commenting on it, and noting the hypocrisies in politics, stuff like that. That’s all gone. Now, it’s just, “Let’s get the audience clapping for the right team.”

Is there a place for political shows that also make us laugh?
The laughs have to come at the expense of the other team. I can do 1 million fat jokes about Donald Trump and that’s fine. If I say anything about obesity, even in a more serious context, and it’s not about someone who we hate, like Donald Trump or Chris Christie, then it’s fat-shaming, and I’m the worst person in the world. That’s not a good place for comedy to be.

It was not always like that. I had on Jonathan Haidt [author of Why Do They Vote That Way? amongst others]. He’s terrific. He wrote a book about it and he basically said things really changed with Generation Z around 2015. We thought Generation Z, we hoped, [chuckles.] was going to be a rebellion, and bring us back to sanity. Of course, it just got way worse. Generation Z really is the generation of micro-aggression, trigger warnings, this kind of stuff. That really ultra-sensitive. Sometimes, I can’t even tell what they’re mad at.

I just think they were raised by these helicopter parents. Again, it’s not the majority of people because they’ve studied this in The Atlantic, they’ve studied it in The New York Times. The vast majority of people, they don’t like what goes on, on Twitter. They don’t like political correctness. It’s certainly one reason why Trump was elected once and almost reelected, was because people felt they were choking on political correctness. They do not like a world where they have to walk on eggshells. They do not like a world where you could get fired for saying something that they don’t think is terrible.

Maybe they got the wrong pronoun or something. There’s this little minority. It’s really well-to-do, mostly, I think, well-to-do, upper-middle-class, white people on the coasts, what are often called the elitists. These people are nuts [Chuckles.]. We see it here in California. They believe some really goofy shit these days. These are the people who go into media. These are the people who wind up running the internet newsrooms. I’ll put it this way: much more woke and much less wise.

Is there a pivotal moment you can pinpoint when you’d say we felt strangled by political correctness, or you can just see it change?
For me, it was 1993, when I started the show.

I just think it slowly evolved more and more in that direction, and it was a juggernaut. I think if you ask some ancient, esteemed historian, like Edward Gibbon who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, he would say that the pattern that goes on in civilizations is fairly consistent, that when civilizations become very successful, they become soft and defeated, and they are victims of their own success.

Look at the way they dressed in the French court in the 18th century with the powdered wigs and the faces that were rouged. I feel like we’re not wearing the powdered wigs and the rouge, but we kind of are that way now. We’ve become obsessed with just the smallest things. When you think about what people get so exercised about, oblivious to the fact that so much is going on around the world. I can’t even tell you how many times worse they get crazed if you use the wrong pronoun, something like that, while so many women around the world in Muslim countries, for example, have to wear a, what I call the beekeeper suit.

Shrouding women. This is not a bigger offense than getting the pronoun wrong? They just don’t seem to have any perspective on the world. Or they don’t want one.

It’s just so much easier to get pissed off about a pronoun! Because if you really care about the world, then you have to do something, and most of these people don’t. They don’t do anything, you know that.

Because we’re so binary, what reaches them is only the echo chamber. Everyone lives in their information silos. If I open up my newsfeed or my Facebook account, I will see one set of ideas and one set of stories told in a certain narrative, and other people will see what they want to believe. That’s the way the algorithms are written so that you keep coming back, so that you are just constantly reinforced with the idea that you already believe.

You are not challenged. They don’t want challenging, if you watch MSNBC. I once, I think, said this to one of their anchors, I don’t know if it was on the air, and I said, “I heard you get your ratings every 15 minutes.” The person said, “It’s every minute.”

If you’re an anchor on the liberal news station, there’s an audience out there. You’re getting those ratings. Someone is seeing them. You don’t want to say something that makes the dial go down. I’m not saying they’re lying. I’m just saying, they’re not going to bring it up. They’re not going to bring up things that make the audience go, “I didn’t know that. That doesn’t sound right to what I already believe. Let’s just not talk about that.” It’s dishonesty by ellipsis. You shade the truth by leaving out parts.

You don’t have to actually lie about anything. You just don’t bring up things that would upset people. You only really hear one side of the story. You don’t have to have guests on that would upset people. That’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do on the show. We have a true debate show. We have different points of view. Sometimes, my own point of view is at variance with the audiences or sometimes, the guest is, but you are hearing different ideas.

That’s not what they’re doing on MSNBC. What they’re doing is, here’s a guest. I ask him a question and the guest says, “You are so right. [Chuckles.] Now, let me tell you how right you are.” That’s not good for democracy either or media.

Then, what does “news” mean now? What does the media deliver? How do we get news?
That’s a great question because as we see, half the country thinks Trump won the election. The other half believes some things that I don’t think are true either, but nothing nearly as damaging as that or as obviously false as that. I’m reading the paper today, I’m sure you saw the story. He’s making these calls to the secretary of state in Georgia and basically threatening him with jail if he doesn’t “find the votes.”

I don’t think it’s going to work, but…just the fact that it’s happening, to answer your question, says a lot about the fact that nobody trusts the same news anymore. No one trusts a common set of facts. There are no facts. It’s just what you believe and what you want. It’s scary.

It feels completely dystopian.
Because it is.

Do you think the new administration can turn things around to restore confidence in American government and society?
I’ll just say, I’m cautiously optimistic right now, like a guy who’s on a first date and he spots a condom in the girl’s purse.

I know this is going to sound terrible and pessimistic, but I don’t think anything is going to arrest or slide the situation because I think the problem was so much bigger than Donald Trump. It’s so easy to blame everything on him, and we should, because Keith Olbermann used to do that tongue-in-cheek segment on his show, The Worst Person in the World.

You literally cannot overstate how horrible this guy is, but it also is true that the problem is so much bigger than Donald Trump or else he wouldn’t have gotten elected.

 

Bill Maher John Russo

 

Seventy million people thought this was the guy. How does that happen?
That’s the last show that we did, my ending editorial was about Democrats have to figure out why so many voters pull the lever for him, again, when he’s the worst person in the world. They were supposed to flip state legislatures, they didn’t get one. They lost seats in the House. He did way better with minority voters.

This was supposed to be the big year of, “Now, we’re all aware about racism.” He did better. Quite a bit better.

My point was libera