At a time of hyper political tribalism, it’s hard to find major voices who will challenge their own side.
Bill Maher is one of those voices.
He’s a liberal who is anti-woke. He owns guns but is outspoken against Hollywood’s culture of violence. He’s pro-choice but understands the pro-life position. He doesn’t like organized religion, but he’s a staunch defender of the Jewish state. Maher doesn’t believe in tribalism. He’s over it.
“I’ve never voted along party lines,” said Maher, who is the host of “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO. “I’ve mostly voted along Democrat party lines because a Democrat was someone I liked or because it was the lesser of two evils. But there is no guarantee I would vote Democrat this time.”
Along with pointing out the flaws in the Republican party, on his weekly show Maher also goes after his own party.
Along with pointing out the flaws in the Republican party, on his weekly show Maher also goes after his own party. One of the reasons he’s become so disenchanted with the Democrats is their handling of the pandemic and the fallout from it.
“There is an issue that could absolutely make me vote Republican, and that’s COVID vaccines and paranoia,” he said. “[California] is talking about criminalizing medical misinformation. So much of the misinformation we had about COVID came from them. Misinformation according to whom?”
Maher seeks out the truth no matter the source. In regards to COVID, dogmatic worship of the mainstream medical establishment in his own party was just too much for him.
“People want to believe there is a priesthood in white lab coats, and I could prove very easily that this is not the case,” he said. “There are a lot of people who have different understandings of medical science. There are thousands of dissenting MDs who have various opinions on COVID and everything else. I’m not an anti-vaxxer. I just want to treat my body as I see fit.”
Even though Maher disagrees with the Democrats on COVID, among other issues, he still believes they have a good chance of winning in the midterm elections because of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
Even though Maher disagrees with the Democrats on COVID, among other issues, he still believes they have a good chance of winning in the midterm elections due to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade.
“A few months ago, I would have thought the Democrats would be beaten pretty badly, but obviously things have really turned around,” he said. “Abortion turned out to be an issue that I’m wondering if the Republicans now are regretting being the proverbial dog that caught the car. They’re finding out people don’t like what they’re doing.”
At the same time, Maher is recognizing Biden’s change in his approach that he displayed in his September 1 speech, where he bashed Trump supporters in front of a red wall and two Marine officers.
“Previously, Biden has been all about reconciliation and working with the other side, and now he is calling them out,” said Maher. “Of course, they say he’s attacking half the country, but it’s a specific group of Republicans. Everyone is so tribal these days that they say even if someone attacks part of a tribe, you’re attacking half the country. We’ll see how it works out. I think the Democrats are going to do a lot better than people think.”
Maher has always been interested in politics. Growing up in River Vale, New Jersey, he’d hear the news-radio his parents would play in the home. The liberal values he learned from his parents were compassion and common sense.
“[The liberals] used to be known for common sense,” he said. “That is a little shakier these days. We wanted to make sure that everybody in our country had an equal shot. I think that’s pretty basic to liberalism.”
Maher’s father, who worked in radio, was Irish Catholic. He brought up Maher in his religion and took his son to church with him.
“I was so traumatized by church,” Maher said. “My mother never went, and I didn’t think to ask why.”
At 13 years old, he discovered why. One day, it was revealed that his mother was Jewish. However, she wasn’t practicing.
“Maybe she went to temple when she was a child,” he said. “They weren’t the religious side of the family. They didn’t deny their Judaism, though.”
Despite being Jewish, Maher is an atheist who doesn’t engage with his heritage.
“I’ve never been in a temple,” he said.
What he did was film part of his 2008 documentary “Religulous” — in which he challenges all types of religious beliefs — in Israel. He didn’t have a religious experience there or change his mind about faith, but he did gain a tremendous amount of respect for Israel.
“It’s a beautiful country with great people and an inspiration, or it should be, to the part of the world that values freedom and democracy,” he said.
Maher doesn’t hold back when he expresses his support for Israel. In May of 2021, during the fighting with Gaza, he went on his show and blasted anti-Israel activists like Bella Hadid, as well as anybody who got their information from her.
“You can’t learn history from Instagram,” he told his viewers. “I would submit that Israel did not steal anybody’s land.”
Maher said, “Israel is one of the main reasons the woke hates me. Somehow, in their mind, in their blinkered view of it and limited understanding of history, Israel is the bad guy. My analysis is they don’t know very much about history, especially the history of Israel. They don’t know much about anything.”
Maher pointed out how people who are anti-Israel often compare the problems in the Middle East to America’s racial issues.
“The Israelis must be the bad guys and the oppressors because they like to divide everything into the oppressor and the oppressed. That’s an incredibly simplistic and positively ridiculous way of looking at it…You can’t learn history from Instagram.”
“In their view, the Palestinians are browner and poorer than the Israelis, who are whiter and richer,” he said. “The Israelis must be the bad guys and the oppressors because they like to divide everything into the oppressor and the oppressed. That’s an incredibly simplistic and positively ridiculous way of looking at it.”
When Maher made “Religulous,” he was 51 years old; now, he is 66. His views on religion have not changed — he still thinks organized religion is a sham. However, he acknowledges that people have their genuine reasons for being faithful.
“What’s important to them is when they put their head on the pillow at night, if they die in their sleep, they will go to a better place. I guess that gives them great solace. It wouldn’t work for me.”
Where Maher takes serious issue with religion is when people use it to justify doing bad things.
“Belief in God can keep some people on the straight and narrow,” he said. “Some people believe in God and worry God will punish them. Others believe in wicked things and think God is endorsing them. That’s how you get people flying into a building. It’s a faith-based initiative. The people bringing down the World Trade Center believed they were on a mission.”
Maher often makes provocative statements and takes flack from both the left and the right. He feuded with Donald Trump before Trump became president, and Trump went so far as to launch a $5 million lawsuit against the comedian. He eventually dropped it, but he still occasionally attacks Maher, as he did when he was president, calling Maher “the enemy” and “a jerk.”
When Maher says something on his “Real Time” show that upsets the left, many will go after him. On Twitter, thousands of people may condemn him for whatever thing he’s said they have deemed offensive that day. A recent spat with Rob Reiner over Hunter Biden’s laptop led to people taking sides; many agreed with Maher, while others called Reiner a “true American patriot.”
Maher wasn’t sticking to the liberal talking points on the Biden laptop story. Unlike most of the late-night talk show hosts, he took on the mainstream media for downplaying, if not ignoring, the story.
“They’re normally so scared of saying anything that will get anybody upset in any way,” he said of liberal talk show hosts. “They will just say the thing that makes their audience clap like seals.”
So, the mainstream media is biased and the country is more polarized than ever. Where do we go from here? Maher has an idea.
“My prescription has always been to stop talking politics all the time,” he said. “One of the biggest problems is that people go on Facebook and argue about Ivermectin with some kid they went to third grade with.”
When Maher was younger, he said his parents didn’t know what their friends’ religions were, or if they knew, they wouldn’t talk about it. They may have known what politics their friends believed in, but it was considered private and almost rude to engage in political conversations.
“As long as we are in this place where we think the other side is an existential threat, I don’t know how we’ll move forward…My prescription has always been to stop talking politics all the time.”
“It worked out a lot better,” he said. “We had no idea how much we hated each other, and that worked. We’re constantly trying to convince people to come to our side, which never works. You’d have better luck convincing Tom Cruise to give up Scientology than convincing a conservative to be a liberal or a liberal to be a conservative. As long as we are in this place where we think the other side is an existential threat, I don’t know how we’ll move forward.”
Maher has always had conservative friends, and it isn’t a big deal. He can have civil conversations with them. He focuses on the things they have in common, which is what he recommends others to do, too.
His latest project, a podcast he launched this past spring called “Club Random with Bill Maher” features guests with a wide range of views. Many of them would probably disagree with Maher on most issues. But politics rarely comes up. So far, he’s had a fun time talking about all kinds of subjects with people like Jay Leno, Leslie Jones, Jeff Ross, Quentin Tarantino and Howie Mandel.
“It’s a nice outlet that’s completely different from my show,” he said. “It could veer into politics, but I have no agenda. I barely know who the guest is when I walk into the room.”
With “Club Random,” Maher hopes to reinvent podcasting. To set up his studio, he brought in a reality TV production crew to put cameras in the walls. That way, guests forget they’re being filmed and can relax and enjoy themselves. There are no bright lights like a studio has; instead, it looks like a nightclub.
“I created something I didn’t see anywhere else,” he said. “That’s a fun thing to do, to take an art form and make it into something it hasn’t been before.”
In his long career, Maher has toured the country doing standup. He’s acted, written books and been on TV for over three decades. Now, he has a new podcast as well. Reflecting on his career, he feels lucky for having been given a platform, and a way to speak out about what matters the most to him.
“You find out what you’re good at,” he said. “For me, that’s podcasting, touring and my show. If you’re very fortunate as I have been, they let you do it for 30 years.”
He added, “In general, if you can do one thing in show business, count yourself lucky and just do it.”