The Best of Times

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

HBO’s pol-chat salon, Real Time With Bill Maher, is a successor of sorts to Maher’s late-night ABC roundtable, Politically Incorrect, which ended its eight-year run in 2002, pursuant to, as Maher calls them, “the tragic events of 9/17.” (The night Maher agreed with a conservative pundit that the September 11 hijackers had not been cowardly, which caused advertisers to desert the show.)

As it turns out, the move to HBO was all silver lining, no clouds. Premium cable ended up freeing Maher and his weekly guests (a motley assemblage of outspoken celebrities, politicos, and intellectuals—pointedly both liberal and conservative) to be even more politically incorrect. On the most recent season, which ended November 12, Maher arguably hit his cantankerous apex as he skewered President Obama’s neo-Camelot, to say nothing of Sarah Palin, Christine O’Donnell (who first proclaimed her witchcraft dabbling on Politically Incorrect), and the tea-baggers—gifts that will keep on giving during his new season, beginning January 14.

We asked Maher about events that occurred during his hiatus. Per usual, he was not at a loss for words.

You and Keith Olbermann took Jon Stewart to task for his Rally to Restore Sanity, which exhorted partisans of all stripes to try straight, civilized dialogue. You also accused Stewart of false equivalency—for essentially equating Keith Olbermann with Glenn Beck, and Code Pink with the tea party.
I like Jon, and it was not a personal jab, but I don’t think I did anything during the last season that got as many people e-mailing and saying, “I’m glad you said what you said.” And all I did was quote him! Beck and Olbermann are not equivalent: One of them sticks to facts, and one of them doesn’t!

What was your response to Stewart’s recent hourlong sit-down on The Rachel Maddow Show, which was largely devoted to a defense of the rally?
It made me lose a lot of respect for Maddow’s show, and I’m a huge fan of Rachel—her show is part of my daily diet. It’s not Jon’s fault. If you’re offered a full hour, in that setting, as he was, sure, take it. But for that show to treat a comedian like you would a head of state … that is part of the problem.

Stewart argued that he is a mere satirist while Maddow is “in the game,” politically speaking. Around the same time, the media was citing Stewart and The Daily Show as instrumental in overcoming Republican obstructionism to get the 9/11-responders bill passed. That seems to be about as in the game as you can get.
But the media does this all the time. They claim something that they created, then stand back from it, as if it’s a fact. I saw a Barbara Walters special recently where she was saying about Sarah Palin, “No one has ever been on our Most Fascinating People list three years in a row.” And I felt like saying, “Yeah, because you put her there!”

You’re an avowed atheist and pothead. What do you make of Pat Robertson’s coming out in favor of legalizing weed?
Great, I guess. It should shame the Democrats in California. Prop 19 was the first realistic attempt to legalize pot in the state—and not one Democrat would get behind it … So often, on so many issues, we have two parties, but we do not have two positions on pot, on Afghanistan, on gay marriage, gun control, rendition, wiretaps—and, up until a few weeks ago, “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Did you buy the argument that the lame-duck Congress was a sign of an emerging bi-partisanism?
Oh, please. It’s going to go right back to a horror show—it’ll be worse, because the Republicans have great numbers and they are feeling their oats.

Julian Assange: hero or villain?
I’m not completely sure, but he’s certainly not a villain. The only way he would become a villain is if he got somebody killed, but he’s been rather careful about that. The argument I hear from the right is that he might be endangering the troops. Well, you know who really endangered the troops? George Bush. He got 4,000 of them killed in Iraq. I get that there is some loss to diplomacy because some things are better done in secret. But so far, what we’ve learned has been very valuable, like finding out that the Arabs are really more concerned about the Iranians than the Israelis. Now the Arabs can’t hide behind that anymore, or use it at the negotiating table. That’s kind of a big thing. Look, if we had a government I thought we could trust, I might say differently, but they haven’t earned my trust in my lifetime.

Maher with Real Time guest Zach Galifianakis.Photo: Janet Van Ham/Courtesy of HBO

On Larry King’s last show, you said you were in the Leno camp in the whole Leno-Conan situation. That surprised some people.
The whole idea that Leno was taking away Conan’s dream—it’s Jay Leno’s job to safeguard his dream? This is show business. It’s cutthroat and competitive! I thought it said so much about that younger generation that is Conan’s fan base—their issue of “the baby-boomers took everything good and there’s nothing left for us. There they go taking all the jobs!” Somebody who got a $32 million payout was a peculiar person to put up as a victim.

Your show, more than any other, has given voice to progressive frustration with the Obama administration and feckless Democrats, which was once again stoked during Obama’s December cave-in on tax cuts for the wealthy. Do you agree, as many in the mainstream media have said, that the disillusioned left just needs to live in the real world?
I like Obama a lot and appreciate the difficulties he’s had to work with. And I know he knows things that I don’t. But when he was talking about giving in to the Bush tax cuts and said, “This reminds me of the fight for the public option,” I wanted to say, “Yeah, exactly! You blew that one, too.” People say they miss Rahm Emanuel; I say this administration needs Ari Emanuel, an agent who knows how to negotiate. Unlike the Republicans, the Dems don’t get that you have to start negotiating from a far-end position. Right after I read about Derek Jeter’s deal, I thought, Now here’s how the Republicans would have played Jeter—just like his agent did. They asked for $24 million for five years for a guy who is in the twilight of his brilliant career. Ridiculous. But Jeter’s agent knew the Yankees would come back to what they got, $16 million for three years. Obama would have asked for $16.5 million and gotten $450,000 for one year.

The Best of Times