[Weekly Q&A]

Bill Maher talks about his residency, pot and his dream ‘Real Time’ guest

Bill Maher begins his Palms residency this weekend.
Photo: Janet Van Ham

The Details

Bill Maher
March 23-24, June 8-9, September 6-7, November 2-3, 8 p.m.
$49-$89. Palms, 944-3200.

Las Vegas’ newest resident act is also one of the country’s most polarizing. Bill Maher, whose residency begins this week at The Pearl inside the Palms, makes no secret of his disdain for religion, the Republican Party or Donald Trump, and this year was famously sued by The Donald for joking that, just as Trump wants to see Obama’s birth certificate, he should have to produce a birth certificate to prove he’s not the offspring of an orangutan. Maher spoke to the Weekly about what it means to perform in Las Vegas, the future of marijuana in America … and what he thinks of Trump’s reality show.

You tour all over the country. What is it about Las Vegas that made you want to establish a residency?

Well, I don’t think you’re anybody in show business unless you have a presence in Las Vegas. I mean, it is the capital for live entertainment. It has been since I was a kid. You know, it’s the tradition of the Rat Pack and everybody that came after it. You can be a television personality, and that’s great, but I’m also and always have been a live entertainer, a comedian. And so you want to be a big act in Las Vegas. You want people to come and see you. Now on a practical level, it’s close to LA. You can play it many times a year. It’s the one city, unlike any other place you go to, where the audience comes to you, and also it’s a fun place. You can bring your friends for the weekend. It’s kind of a getaway. It’s an adult playland. It’s got great restaurants and fun things to do, and so, you know, if it wasn’t for the damn dryness, and hundred-million-degree weather, Christ, I could live there.

You once famously went into a Real Time crowd to help throw out a somewhat scary heckler, so it’s clear you’re not intimidated by the crazies. But does the constant stream of haters ever get to you?

You know, you learn to block it out. It’s funny. I think when you’re a comedian like me who, I’m not gonna lie, is somewhat polarizing to the public, you mostly—like the president, who is also polarizing—only see the people who like you. You know, half the people in America hate Obama too, but he generally doesn’t see them because in my instance, what I’ve found over the years is that people who hate you just don’t come up to you. You would think it would happen to me all the time. People would come up to me at the airport and jab a finger in my face and say, “You know, you son of a bitch, I hate what you said about blah blah blah.” Almost never happens. They may be thinking it, but people who actually approach you like you. Now if I read my Twitter feed, that’s a different story. I could say “Good morning!” on Twitter, and in six seconds it would be 20 people going, “You bastard, how dare you say good morning? Ronald Reagan owns morning!”

So you never really hit a breaking point?

Oh no no no, not at all. I mean, first of all there’s so much love. I mean, I go to all the red states, the most redneck-y places in the country, and I get a lot of love, because everywhere there are people marbled into the population who are progressive-thinking people, even in Huntsville, Alabama. I was in Tulsa, Oklahoma, two weeks ago. And there’s lots of liberal people, and they are thrilled when someone who thinks like them comes to their town. So I just concentrate on those people. I don’t even think about the haters out there. First of all, if you’re hating a comedian, the problems are in your life, not mine.

You obviously stay well-informed. How much of your week is just spent reading?

Quite a bit. I work quite a bit harder on this show even though it’s only on once a week than I did when I had an every-night show. Because an every-night show you can only make so good because it is every night. Whereas a once a week, you’re really trying to put out an incredible product. It’s kind of like football and baseball, which is every day, whereas football you just work work work. So yeah, I read as much as I can all week, specifically for the guests and the issues we’re gonna do. Then of course, more broadly, you just try to keep up with what’s going on. I read the New York Times, LA Times, USA Today and as many of the news magazines and other magazines as I can and what I can online. Huffington Post—obviously you cannot be a liberal without getting into the HuffPo—once a day. But any other blogs, Andrew Sullivan … I have a huge list. It makes for a rich diet.

Speaking of Real Time, got any dream guests you’d like to get on the show?

My big get that I never got was Bill Clinton. I’m still trying to get him, even though I saw him at a party about a month ago, and I asked him … and he laughed right in my face. But in a nice way (laughs). I said, “Why don’t you ever come on my show?” He just laaaaaaughed. So that’s my big one. Other than that, I’m pretty happy with the guests. We get some real interesting people. They’re not all household names, but that’s not what our show is. Our show is trying to be entertaining and catch you up on what you should know about what’s going on in the news. So, you know, it’s a mix.

Do you think that in your lifetime we will see the nationwide decriminalization of marijuana?

Well, we’re off to a good start here with two states. I never thought I’d see that! I was really very gratified that two states in the last election voted for pot. And by the way, also a state voted for gay marriage, and we have 20 women in the senate now. We’re practically Canada with nukes. But yes, that’s a great step forward, and I would say yes, at this point. I wouldn’t have said it two years ago, but now I would say I do think that I will see a time when the country legalizes marijuana.

We do seem to be evolving somewhat as a country.

Yeah, and that’s of course what the right wing hates more than anything. It’s not even specific issues that affect them. It’s just this general feeling that the country is changing. You know, they kind of remind me of the beginning of Gone With the Wind, where there’s, you know, the little passage about “there was a land of cavaliers and cotton fields where gallantry took its last bow. Look for it only in books now, it is gone with the wind.” And I think that’s the way they feel about their America. I think that’s the one thing they liked about Mitt Romney, was that he represented that old 1950s America, before they let negroes in the FBI, and before there were trial lawyers, and recycling and Dora the Explorer. That was really Mitt Romney, the last unapologetically super-white guy who ate meatloaf and told knock-knock jokes and said “darn” and bought his shirts at Costco. It’s just this fuzzy feeling in their gut that that America is going away, and that’s why they hate President Blackenstein.

Would you ever go on Celebrity Apprentice?

NO! No, if he wanted to explain himself on my show, he could, but I’m definitely not going on that stupid, dumb show. First of all it’s a tremendous investment of your time. Don’t you have to go to New York and live there for weeks and do stupid tasks that Donald Trump thinks up for you? No, you could put a bullet in my brain; I wouldn’t do it.

Who have been some of your major influences?

Comedically I grew up on Johnny Carson. I still feel like I’m channeling him in the monologue on Friday night. And of course George Carlin was one of my great heroes. I did the gig he was booked to do at the Orleans when he died. They called me and said, “You’re the one who really should be doing this. We want to pass the baton,” which I thought was really nice and I was of course thrilled to do it. Of all the comedians, he’s the one who I most try to emulate. He always spoke his mind and was completely fearless and, of course, extremely funny. Also Robert Klein. All the comedians of my generation—Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser—all of them I think really were influenced by Robert Klein. He sort of was the bridge between the old Catskill types like Alan King and the new generation, and still a funny motherf*cker.

Some of my favorite memories in the ’70s were watching Robert Klein on HBO.

That’s right. He did the first HBO special.

But it seems like he doesn’t really get talked about much anymore.

He never had the work ethic that Carlin did. Carlin was the kind of guy, like I am, out on the road, almost every weekend, working it. Just loved the craft of putting together an act, finely honing it, tuning it, always changing it, always writing. That’s not Robert Klein. He works more from instinct and just doesn’t have that work ethic.

It must have been a great thrill to have George Carlin on your show.

Yeah, I wish we could have had him more. He was booked right before he died. And then the bastard died and stood me up.

You spend a lot of time talking about politicians you do not feel are doing a very good job. Is there anyone currently in the political atmosphere you feel deserves a shout-out?

Well, I mean look … I have some issues with the president, but I certainly feel he deserves a shout-out. As opposed to what the alternative would have been. And also I think in his heart he probably agrees with almost everything I would say on a given issue. But again, he has to deal with these crazies. If he’d had his druthers, we would have passed a Jobs Act, and we would have that, and the economy would be in better shape. If he had his druthers, we would have a public option in Obamacare and then health care would cost even less. If he had his druthers we would be doing something about global warming and putting carbon in the atmosphere. Everything he wants to do, of course, because of our system of checks and balances, is checked by the Republican Congress. So I gotta give the guy credit not just for trying but the patience he has with these people. I mean, my god. Have you ever seen him talking with John Boehner and Eric Cantor and these mental midgets, and he comes out of the meeting, and he’s so nice, you know, he gently criticizes them when he has to. And he praises them when it’s at all appropriate. It’s like watching a really good special ed teacher.

I couldn’t help but wonder about Boehner’s stone face during the State of the Union address.

Oh, right, that puss on his face the whole speech. The things that these people could not see fit to applaud. Like, “Let’s all work together.” Things that previously I never felt were controversial at all. Let’s solve our problems—“Boo!”

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Magazine's managing editor, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant features ...

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