When told he’s being interviewed from North Carolina, Bill Maher guffaws for a good long while.
“Ah, North Carolina,” he says with relish. “So much there for a comedy show to work with!”
North Carolina’s recently wrapped 2013 legislative session certainly gave the comedy-pundit host of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” plenty of material, including a very pointed “New Rule” segment in last week’s show that summarized our state’s current political climate thusly: “Take every crazy, angry idea your drunk right-wing uncle mumbles at Thanksgiving, turn it into a law and that’s North Carolina today.”
But Maher travels a lot farther afield than just one state. He’s spent the past two decades drawing laughs and outrage in equal parts, bluntly speaking his mind in ways that offend various orthodoxies – especially the conservatively and religiously inclined.
We caught up with Maher by phone in advance of his Saturday night engagement in Durham.
Q: So what do you think of North Carolina politics right now?
A: One reason I like to travel the country is I feel like I should know what’s going on if I’m going to talk about it. So I get out there, talk to people. Wherever I am, I’ll ask the kid driving me from the airport what’s going on, what people are talking about, local political issues. But in the case of North Carolina right now, I don’t have to do that because it’s been all over the national news.
The point of last week’s editorial was that Citizens United had a much bigger impact locally than it ever did nationally. It certainly had a huge impact the last election when you saw the kind of money spent – just by me! But Obama won, so the people who were supposed to steal the election didn’t because the Democrats scared up enough of their own PAC money to scrape by. But not at the local level, like in North Carolina. Look at Art Pope, one man was basically able to take over the entire state. And the sad thing is it wasn’t even all that expensive. It should have cost more than it did.
Q: Every era seems to have the conceit that things are more dire now than they’ve ever been before. What’s your take on that?
A: When you look at statistics and actual data, right now is actually one of the better times to be alive. I feel like it was good to hit the window after antibiotics and electricity – reading by candlelight, dying from an infection from using tree bark for toilet paper – I would not have wanted to live that way. Now environmentally, we are gonna toast this planet in another 50 to 100 years, or sooner. Aside from that, though, the world is a lot less violent now. The time of our parents, the “Greatest Generation,” they were going through world wars and genocides that wiped out amazing numbers of people. That’s not going on now. The murder rate in this country is actually at a 100-year low right now.
Q: Do you think of what you do as primarily comedy or primarily punditry?
A: Comedy always comes first, although the subjects that interest me have always been important ones. Even when I was starting out doing stand-up at 23, without the gravitas I needed to address anything, I was never into the (Jerry) Seinfeld-ian minutiae about socks in the dryer or dogs and cats. I was always interested in politics, religion, weighty stuff. But it still has to be funny, especially if you’re doing stand-up. “Real Time” is a hybrid with comedy, but we have serious panelists who want to make real comments. Still, you’ve got to have the humor. People come for the jokes.
Q: Why does it seem like more truth and substance can be found in comedy than news now?
A: It’s always been that way. People said the same thing in Will Rogers and Mark Twain’s day, that Mark Twain was more truthful than whatever the media of that era was. Humor has always been that kind of unique way to get at the truth. That’s why people love it.
Q: When you see Jeff Daniels’ Will McAvoy character on the HBO series “The Newsroom,” are you flattered or offended?
A: Well, that’s not me. “The Newsroom” is not a comedy show and he’s not funny. I always thought he was more like Keith Olbermann. We do have the end-of-show editorial that we do, the last “New Rule,” which has some heft and makes a real point. It also has to be funny. Sometimes my writers come back with something that just isn’t funny enough, and that’s when I tell them, “This is not Keith Olbermann” – not to knock on Keith. But he’ll do these long diatribes with no laughs, and that’s not what I do. I think it’s got to be funny or it’s too much about you. If it’s funny, it’s about the audience. If you’re just going on about something that’s bugging you, it’s narcissism.
Q: You seem to drive the people who disagree with you crazy. Do you relish their scorn?
A: I don’t relish people despising me just because I think the world would be so much better if more people just agreed with me. But if it’s a choice between being despised or pulling a punch, I’ve always chosen being despised. It’s like what FDR said about the bankers who were against him when he was trying to pull us out of the Great Depression: “I welcome their hatred.” We could use more of that from Democrats right now, by the way. But the people saying stupid things, I welcome their hatred as a badge of honor.
Q: The Emmy Awards are next month and you’re nominated again. Is this the year your winless streak at the Emmys finally ends?
A: I’ve had 32 nominations, including three this year, and I hope I’ll keep running up the streak because it would ruin everything if I started winning now. It’s more distinctive to add to that number. There are 10 or 12 Emmy voters who vote for the winner out of the final five nominees, and at a certain point this will make them feel bad – or it should. You’re nominated by your peers, and mine have thought me worthy enough to nominate 32 times. At this point, there would almost be no point to winning. I feel like it’s something I said. It might be.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat