Bill Maher: The confident blasphemist

At 2 p.m. on a balmy afternoon in  March, Bill Maher, the comedian, political commentator and host of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” was just beginning his day. He’d only been awake for three hours, though even that was unusual, since he rarely rouses before noon. “You’ll plug the s— out of my L.A. show, right?” he said up top, referring to his live stand-up tour coming to the Nokia Theater on April 18. Subtlety is not one of his strengths. His voice had the delicate tempo of the morning hour, but none of the crackle; there was still that crisp, unmistakable command of someone used to being listened to.

Maher led the way inside his small, bungalow office at CBS studios on Fairfax, in the back of a parking lot. Technically, it is a corner office, but it’s also in a trailer and has a stark, sort of gritty atmosphere. The décor is simple, woodsy, shades of brown. Maher had been working without any lights on, evidently content with a stream of natural light sneaking in from the window adjacent to his desk. It was open just enough to let in a robust noise from some construction elsewhere on the lot, which Maher took no notice of.

He retrieved a tea from his desk, then settled across from me on a narrow sofa pressed against the wall.

“It’s nice to see you again,” Maher said pointedly, indicating that he remembered our last meeting a year and a half ago, and the 15-minute phone interview that followed, during which he articulated his surprisingly staunch support for Israel: “I’ve never hid the fact that I don’t think it’s a conflict where both sides are equally guilty,” he told me in November 2012. “I’m more on the side of the Israelis.” 

Even though that comment astonished some of his loyal liberal fans, Maher was proud enough of his remarks to post the article on his Facebook page, resulting in an explosion of traffic to the Jewish Journal’s Web site that nearly crashed it. Ever since then, I looked forward to the time when we could continue the conversation, hoping that maybe the infamous atheist might reveal his inner Jew.

Israel may be the one principle that stirs Maher’s Jewish soul — that is, if he believed in souls — as his defense of it has the tremor of passion that stems from the gut.  

“Israel is held to a standard that no one else in the world is asked to hold,” Maher said on this March day, picking up where he’d left off. Now ready to rabble-rouse, he took aim at the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “You know, the idea that they would cast Israel in the role of the oppressor?” Maher said with his signature incredulity. Then added, “Of course, some Israeli policies are oppressive. But where is that coming from? That’s coming from the fact that people are lobbing rockets into their territory. I mean, what would America do if somebody was lobbing rockets from Toronto? We’d f—— nuke ’em. We’re ready to nuke Crimea, and we don’t even give a s— about it! People don’t even know where it is! It’s insane.” 

Although Maher is known as politically liberal, he does not consider himself an ideologue. “I don’t decide my politics based on ideology or on rooting for one team or the other,” he said. “And the proof of that is, my own audience is often booing me.” 

Which wasn’t exactly the case when I was in the audience the following Friday, at a taping that included authors Salman Rushdie and Amy Chua, journalist Andrew Sullivan and “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane. Maher’s fans packed the house, and even his staff hung in packs in the doorways. The air was buzzing with the charge of a live studio set: screens blazing, music pounding, the stage humming in wait for the evening’s host. No one knew Maher was just behind the curtain, throwing back his weekly pre-show shot of tequila — a little rush of fire to take the edge off. When he finally marched out, he was all smiles, strutting with the smug swagger of an established star. The crowd cheered him like he was a king.

Back in his office, he was more subdued, softer even, but still sharp-tongued: “The studio audience that I get here, the people who don’t pay, they piss me off almost every week,” he complained. “They’re too politically correct.”

Polite politics is anathema to Maher; though he does value political flexibility. That may disappoint some die-hard leftist fans, but the freedom to break script and surprise makes for good entertainment. Rather than parrot a party line, Maher chooses political favorites based on quality of character. For example, he admires Israel’s right-leaning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “He’s the Israeli Clinton,” he said. “The guy who can talk with great authority on any issue. He will be the last one in the room; he will answer every question. ‘He’s there till the last dog dies,’ as Clinton used to say.” 

In early March, Maher was among the celebrity guests at a dinner for Netanyahu at the Malibu home of Israeli producer Arnon Milchan. Also there were Barbra Streisand, Leonardo DiCaprio, Billy Crystal and James Caan. “I couldn’t believe the amount of security,” Maher told me. “There had to be 300 cops there. Such overkill. I mean, I understand he’s the Israeli prime minister, but that’s what we do in this country: We overdo everything.” 

“Anyway,” he said, chuckling, “I felt safe.”

Playing it safe is not exactly Maher’s forte. For two decades, he has been filling American television screens with his own brand of pop politics, bringing to the camera his mordant wit and trademark cool — the streaky silver hair, pinstripe suits and that wickedly sardonic smile — to speak his truth to whomever is in power.

His transition from stand-up to TV began with talk-show appearances in the early 1980s, but his name became synonymous with comedy-as-political commentary in the 1990s as the host of “Politically Incorrect,” a late-night talk show that ran on Comedy Central (1993-97) and then on ABC (1997-2002). Its title underscores his penchant for provocation, and, after one episode in which he called Americans cowards “for lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” in contrast to the suicidal sacrifice of the 9/11 terrorists, the show’s sponsors pulled out and “Politically Incorrect” was canceled. 

But it wasn’t long before Maher was sprinkled with the television equivalent of fairy dust and invited to bring his act to HBO. “Real Time With Bill Maher,” now in its 12th season, combines a comedy monologue, a one-on-one interview and a panel discussion, furnishing its host with cable TV’s most permissive pulpit. On any given Friday, 4 million people tune in to watch Maher deliver satirical sermons lampooning almost every facet of modern life. His recent guest, Booker Prize-winning author Rushdie compared Maher to the archetype of Shakespeare’s fool. “In the time of Shakespeare, the idea of the fool was a very important role in the culture, because the fool was allowed to say to the king what would get anybody else killed,” Rushdie told me. “During the long years of the Bush presidency, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were really the opposition.” That Maher now just as easily criticizes the Obama administration adds to his appeal. “The act of criticizing the progressive end of the spectrum means that he has independence of mind. He’s nobody’s patsy.”

Democrats, Republicans, liberals, conservatives, men, women, gays, straights, God, religion, Hollywood, consumerism and corporate greed all have been shivved by Maher’s shtick. He has never been afraid to say what he thinks, do what he feels and offend everyone in the process. He considers it truth serum to deliver a little pain with his politics: “When did we get it in our heads that we have the right to never hear anything we don’t like?” he wrote in 2012 in an op-ed for The New York Times.

But Maher’s tolerance for intellectual openness has its limits, too. On the subject of religion, he is notoriously ungenerous. During the March 14 taping of “Real Time,” he used the occasion of the release of Paramount Pictures’ “Noah” to malign the biblical tale. 

“No one can blame me when I say this is a stupid country, when 60 percent of adults in it think that the Noah’s Ark story is literally true,” he snarked. 

He also had great fun that night ridiculing the biblical account of Noah’s age (he lived to 900, sired three sons at 500 and was 600 when he built the apocalypse-resistant ark), and also mocking the apparent biodiversity of natural life that appears to be “indigenous to within five miles of the boat.” But Maher saved most of his scorn for the “psychotic mass murderer” he referred to as God, who was  “so angry with himself for screwing up when he made mankind so flawed — grrrrrrrr — that he sent a flood to kill everyone … men, women, children, babies. 

“What kind of a tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he’s mad at?” Maher asked. 

Then came the punch line: “I mean, besides Chris Christie.”

When it comes to biblical literalism, Maher is a formidable foil. He is clever at using logic and comedy to impugn the Bible’s superannuated and even grotesque elements. But, much like the Bible fundamentalists he loves to assail, Maher has almost no tolerance for any viewpoint outside his own.   

“If you look at the Ten Commandments, the big important list, the top 10 things we absolutely shouldn’t do,” he said to me during our interview, “well, most of it’s bulls—. The top four are just about God’s ego. There’s some nonsense about ‘don’t swear.’ I mean, if you were actually going to write a list of the 10 things that are most important not to do, wouldn’t you put on that list incest? ‘No pedophilia’? ‘No rape’? Wouldn’t that go ahead of swearing and building statues to other gods?”

“Well?” he prodded. “Come on! I can’t believe you would even hesitate at that answer. Really? Rape is not more important than swearing?” 

Maher shows no interest in symbolic, interpretive or historical readings. Instead, he judges exactly what’s written, without concern for the role of the Ten Commandments in Jewish history and destiny, their fundamental interpretability or their function as the tradition’s mandate for the rule of law. 

I try to make my case for Judaism.

“Oh, God,” the nonbeliever responded. “You’re brainwashed.”

Bruised but not battered, I tried to explain that the Bible has many laws on sexual morality, only to be met by: “The Old Testament says that if a woman is raped, she should marry the rapist!” 

He is actually wrong, but no matter — to him. Maher’s insistence is so disarming, it disables argument. 

So there’s no explaining to him that the law to which he refers, misguided though it may be, developed out of consideration for women whose status as a nonvirgin was an extreme social liability in the ancient world. Jewish tradition intelligently, virtuously, albeit insufficiently, made a provision for her, that, should she choose to marry the man who raped her rather than become an outcast, she could — and the man must comply (of course, then as now, laws were flouted, and in the Book of Samuel, Amnon notoriously rapes his half-sister Tamar, then banishes her — but I suspect that had I brought this up, I know how Maher would have responded). Of course, considering the tidal wave of progress toward female equality in the modern Western world, this biblical legal solution is both misogynistic and antiquated. All the more fodder for Maher’s sacrilegious screed.

“The Bible has no morality in it,” he concludes. “It’s pro-polygamy. It’s homophobic, and it’s pro-slavery, because it was written …”

“At a time when civilization looked like that,” I start. But there is too much to unpack in his statement (starting with pro-slavery? Has he read Exodus?), but convincing Bill Maher that the Bible is not “perhaps, the wickedest book in the canon of Western literature” is impossible.  

“This idea that people use their intellectual gifts to somehow lawyer their way to a preposterous reading of what isn’t doesn’t interest me,” he said.

To Maher, being religious is to be an unenlightened automaton; piety can be reduced to what Cynthia Ozick called “an unthinking mechanics of belief.” And even though he said he has friends he respects who are religiously inclined — he names Pulitzer Prize-winning former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat — he seems genuinely mystified that such smart people can also be spiritual. Both have written works, he said, which, “intellectually, I could never do. But,” he went on, speaking as if they were in the room with us, “if there was some ultimate judge [arbitrating] who’s smarter — me or you — you win. You win. You win all the way. And then we come to the part where you believe in the talking snake and the morals of pre-Bronze Age desert dwellers, and I cross the finish line.”

But there’s a chink in Maher’s armor. For someone staking his intellectual legacy on converting people away from religion, he’s short on background — Maher took only one college course on the Bible. “I’m not a scholar,” he said. “I did take a course at Cornell, and I enjoyed it. But I’m no scholar. I haven’t read the Quran. I mean, try. Put aside the hate on every page, it’s just really hard to read — which I think they count on because, of course, whenever you confront Muslim people about what’s in the holy book, ‘You should hate the infidel,’ [they say] ‘you got a very bad translation.’ I always seem to be getting a bad translation.”

On the air, Maher likes to tout the superiority of science: “Through science,” he said during the “Noah” segment, “we can actually get a real answer to almost every question about our world.” But here, too, he leaves no room for compromise. “This idea that you can somehow reconcile faith and science? Bats—,” he told me. Maher is happy to evangelize on behalf of science, sometimes veering into territory the intellectual Leon Wieseltier has described as “scientism,” “an ideology according to which all questions must be given scientific answers or retired as questions.” 

If his ideas and opinions take up a great deal of room in his life, it is  because Maher is almost always working. Every week, he spends countless hours writing his own material, refusing to retire into the convenience of routine. “It’s a challenging job,” he said. “Remember that [‘Real Time’] is live, so when I start the show at 7, unlike other shows with commercial breaks, I have to go from doing a comedy monologue then to a serious one-on-one interview, then to a panel, and it all has to come out, and I can’t stop and say, ‘Let me get my breath.’ ”

Maher said that because he has more time than a daily show to develop the weekly telecast, he feels more pressure to perfect it. “The editorial we do at the end of the show is only three minutes long, but I probably spend six or eight hours writing it during the week,” he explained. 

“I’m a perfectionist,” he added. “Somehow after doing this show for 12 years, I keep finding little ways to do it more efficiently. I’m a crazy kind of … I guess neurotic would be an accurate word.”  

Throughout the year, Maher also performs his stand-up act on the road several times per month. 

His constant focus on himself might make him seem the perfect mascot for the age of the ego — if it wasn’t for his obvious civic engagement. Maher often rails against the Republican Party for what he sees as a lack of empathy for minorities and the less fortunate. “It’s funny ,though,” he tells me, “when you talk to [Republicans] in person, on a one-to-one level, it is within them; they have empathy for people who are like them, or people they can actually see and touch right in front of them. But when you talk about, just in general, people that are outta sight, outta mind from their comfortable lives? They could just die on the vine. And to me, that’s just no morality, and to me, politics is an extension of morality.”

On the show that week, Maher scoffed at a Cadillac commercial he described as “40 seconds of everything that is wrong about America.” It featured a wealthy white male rhapsodizing about a ruthless American work ethic that places hard work, conquest and materialism over leisure. (“Other countries think we’re nuts,” the man says. “Were we nuts when we pointed to the moon? That’s right; we went up there, and you know what we got? Bored.”) Maher called the ad “prick patriotism.” 

Yet that commercial might look a lot like Maher’s life: He is a notorious gadabout, filling his time with late nights, lavish parties, a taste for supermodels and smoking pot. He could easily be that kind of patriot. And yet, despite his private indulgences, Maher’s political philosophy is not about the acquisition of power, but about the everyday, ordinary liberties of American citizens. 

He is skeptical of individuals and institutions with too much power. And to that end, he constantly decries American exceptionalism and what he sees as a triumphalist foreign policy tradition of meddling in global affairs. 

“America can’t solve everybody’s problems,” he told me. “We’ve got to stop this idea that we can teach everybody a lesson. First of all, we’re not the greatest moral exemplars ourselves, and if you want to teach everybody a lesson, you gotta lead by example.” 

Maher’s moral politics enter murky terrain when it comes to American intervention in humanitarian crises. On the subject of civil war in Syria, or the devastating consequences of totalitarianism in North Korea, Maher’s policy is hands-off. “What are we gonna do, invade?” he said of North Korea. “They have nuclear weapons. China backs them. I mean, it’s horrible. It’s horrible,” he said of the recent United Nations report detailing the country’s horrifying human rights abuses. “But America has got to understand we can’t fix everything, and not everything is about us. It’s so arrogant.” 

From left: Authors Salman Rushdie and Amy Chua with host Maher on “Real Time With Bill Maher.” Photo by Janet Van Ham/HBO

At 58, Maher has never married and never had children. Looking back on his childhood in New Jersey, he speaks fondly of both of his parents, though he remembers the primal scars: His Catholic father, a network news editor and radio announcer, forced him and his sister to go to church every Sunday. 

“The Catholic Church had me so scared and full of anxiety,” he said. It wasn’t until he was 13 that he began to wonder why his mother always stayed home. “It was just about, how do I get out of going to church? How do I survive going to church, and catechism, and the nuns, and the hitting? My mind just didn’t go to, ‘Why isn’t my mom coming to church?’ ”

Turns out it was because his mother was Jewish. Although nobody talked about that back then. “Religion was a private thing,” he said. “It wasn’t a point of politics. But when it did [come up], something made me curious, and I do vaguely remember, like, ‘Wait, Mom, you’re Jewish?’ I don’t think anyone [in her family] ever went to temple. Their name was Fox, from Fuchs.”

Aside from the revelation about his mother’s identity, the other formative event came after he threw an acorn at a little girl’s head. “That [was] the worst beating I ever got,” he recalled. “I couldn’t have been more than 5, and I remember my father spanked my ass hard. And then, while the tears are still streaming down my face, my father made me walk over and apologize. I walked all the way down the block, humiliated and crying and in pain.” 

“Is that why you never married?” I ask.

Maher laughed. “Nothing to do with why I’m not married; nothing at all,” he said. “But I would hope it had something to do with me being a decent human being. I’ve never thrown an acorn at a girl since.” 

At the party following the taping that week, Maher had gathered his guests in the CBS executive suite for light hors d’oeuvres and drinks when a courier arrived with an elaborate bouquet of roses. They were from Maher’s girlfriend, who was apparently stuck in Canada with visa problems. They’ve been together for almost two years now, he told me, but even in her absence, he seemed just fine, the congenital pleasure-seeker enjoying his own party. 

If Maher were to adopt a religious philosophy, it might be the pursuit of happiness. But other than that, he said he never gave religion that much thought. 

“And God I didn’t think about either — except when I was scared. Then suddenly I’d believe. I remember being scared of dying from smoking. Like the dentist said, ‘If you keep smoking, you’re gonna get cancer. I see these white spots on your gums.’ I remember praying, ‘Oh God, help me quit smoking.’ ” 

So now that he’s past all that silly talk, now that he knows God doesn’t exist, who, I ask him, does he answer to?

Maher doesn’t hesitate, for even a second.