Smug? As he said about Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s claim that President Obama was condescending during a White House meeting about immigration: “It’s hard not to be condescending when you’re explaining something to an idiot.”
Maher has a penchant for taking it too far—like when he called Sarah Palin a “twat” last month, drawing him into a debate over sexism and misogyny after Rush Limbaugh called the Georgetown student who testified to Congress about contraception a “slut”—but it’s part of his brand now, certainly after his career-defining moment in 2001, when he was booted off ABC for arguing that the 9/11 terrorists weren’t necessarily “cowards.” To hear him tell it, Maher simply enjoys that moment of being Wile E. Coyote when the ground disappears beneath him.
“Because I feel like I’m on the edge,” he says. “You have to go over it to know where it is. I also like the idea that there’s some place I can go with people so that the next time they see me, maybe they’re a little more on my side.”
Since he started as host of Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central in 1993, he’s occupied a weird zone of libertarian-left politics, more or less a fusion of Ron Paul and Al Franken. Pro–death penalty and pro-pot, anti–flu vaccines and antiwar. The postmodernists on Comedy Central, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, have inspired a devoted following by eviscerating our political culture from the left, and rightly so, but they’re never going to disturb their own audience’s sensibilities like Maher does.
It helps that Maher’s comedy is caged inside a format as familiar and comforting as an old Zenith. For all his rebellion, Bill Maher is an ecumenical late-night host, a devotee of Steve Allen and Johnny Carson, whose shows were creature comforts built on Borscht Belt rhythms dating back to Milton Berle and the dawn of television. No reality-bending fake super-PACs here, no fictional personae who in reality are Catholics living in suburban New Jersey. Maher has always played himself, a belligerent atheist and dope-smoking womanizer, putting on a version of the same show for twenty years: an old-school monologue, a lively political debate that’s half–cable news, half–Dick Cavett, with a “Weekend Update”–style op-ed, “New Rules,” as a closer. He has the same producer and head writer he had in the nineties. He inspires loyalty in his crew: Most of his staff moved to Los Angeles with him when Politically Incorrect left New York in 1997.
Perhaps most impressive, Maher has sustained his sense of outrage. He’s still pissed off about corn subsidies and people’s blind faith in their “imaginary friend” in heaven. Maher isn’t aware of becoming angrier, he says, only that the things that make him angry have met him more than halfway: “I will say this: The Republicans are, for sure, worse than ever. If I am more angry, they deserve it. They’re worse than ever, obviously.”
That scathing certainty is why he can’t get conservative politicians to come on the show (a problem Stewart and Colbert don’t have, by the way). But it’s also why Maher is on HBO. Real Time serves as HBO’s unofficial VIP lounge, offering a little Hollywood sparkle to the pundit class, who in exchange lend a halo of political relevance to HBO.
What makes Maher “real” is also what makes him a perennial outlier to his East Coast guests: his louche lifestyle as a Hollywood lounge lizard who is as much at ease with hip-hop playas as with Barney Frank. He told me he originally wanted his HBO show to be called True Dat, which the network rejected. But even the title Real Time was meant to signal he was “getting real” in the Jay-Z sense. Among his closest compadres is Christopher Reid, “Kid” from the nineties hip-hop duo Kid ’n Play, who wrote the sample-and-beat-driven theme song for the show and who has played Virgil to Maher’s Dante in a years-long tour of L.A. nightclubs, where Maher got acquainted with black women. Reid says they maintained a list of the hottest clubs called “The Royal Scroll.”
“What people of color like about Bill is his honesty,” says Reid. “Black people can smell fear in white people. They’re like bloodhounds. When Bill and I hang out, and there are people of color around, they gravitate to him.”
Maher calls Reid, “in the best sense of the word, ‘hip.’ ”And Maher still believes in hip, though his idea of it probably hews closer to Dean Martin. Which brings us to pot, his version of the highball: Maher has become perhaps the most prominent user and advocate in America. Ten years ago, he gave a speech for the pro-pot organization NORML and outed Ted Turner and Harrison Ford as pot smokers. Zach Galifianakis famously sparked up a joint on Maher’s show last year (though Maher later revealed it wasn’t real). For Maher, it’s not just a comedian’s vice (though it’s that, too) but a litmus for his idea of liberty, a measure of America’s moral hypocrisy. Maher says he couldn’t even joke about pot when he was on ABC eleven years ago.