Bill Maher is tracking the news; the big event this day is the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez after a long bout with cancer.
Maher has already forged an opinion, and a talking point, about this episode.
“I guess it’s not unexpected,” he says during a phone interview from his home office in Los Angeles. “That’s another one of our faux-deadly enemies down. It’s the strategy of waiting him out while he dies of cancer. We’re still doing it with (Fidel) Castro, who will never die. He’s immortal.
Maher is back in town on Saturday and Sunday, performing at his latest Vegas venue, Pearl Theater at the Palms, having performed at House of Blues, the Mirage and the Orleans over the past decade. It is the first of four weekend engagements for Maher this year at the Palms. He talked of his time in Las Vegas, religion, politics and why he won’t specify the HBO “Real Time” guests he favors and those he doesn’t:
Johnny Kats. We’ve done a few interviews over the past eight years. The first time I talked to you was before a show at the House of Blues in 2005, and you’ve played a few venues on and off the Strip …
Bill Maher: (Laughs) What, are you saying I’m promiscuous?
J.K. Well, you literally sleep around.
B.M. I am promiscuous even by Vegas standards.
J.K. Do you take an active role in exactly where you play, or is more about just what dates you’re available?
B.M. I always want to play Vegas more than I do. That’s the thing. I play Vegas as much as they let me (laughs). It’s close. It’s fun. The crowds are great. I could easily play there every other weekend. That’s not what they want, so far, but we are steadily making progress.
J.K. You’re in an interesting theater for comedy. The last time I was in the Pearl was for a staged conversation between Anthony Bourdain and Eric Ripert. Kiss, Beck, Steely Dan, Billy Idol have all played the Pearl.
B.M. Oh, wow. Billy Idol? He’s next, after Hugo Chavez. They always come in threes. I am keeping track.
J.K.: Have you considered how your act would play in a place like the Pearl?
B.M. I probably should, but I don’t. As a comedian for 30 years I have found that pretty much anywhere that has lights and a microphone can work. I’m not going to quibble about the room and the acoustics, you know? It doesn’t really matter. One of the nice things about being a comic as opposed to a band is that it’s so (effing) easy. Every band I’ve ever run into says, ‘Man, you’re so lucky you don’t have to a sound check.’ No, I really don’t. I just plug in the mic.
J.K. I ask this of comics, especially nationally known comics, a lot. An example being Brad Garrett, who has his club here in Las Vegas, at MGM Grand …
B.M. He has his own club?
J.K. Yeah, he operates his own club, Brad Garrett’s Comedy Club at the MGM Grand. It’s in what’s called the Underground there. It’s kind of a Comedy Stop-type of place, a traditional comedy club.
B.M. OK …
J.K. He’s invested in it and is in town a lot, and when he’s here he always seems like he’s "on" and is as funny off stage as he is onstage. But other comics are only funny when they are onstage. Do you feel like you always need to be "on," to be the Bill Maher we see onstage or on "Real Time?"
B.M. (Laughs) Oh, I think people (expect me) to be more feisty than I really am. What I actually hear from people, all the time, is, "I’m surprised. You’re very nice." I think, because the show is combative to a degree, and it’s a debate show, and I’m pretty hard-hitting on the political people who I think are fools, I think they expect me to be a little snarly. The truth is, I’m not really very snarly, except when we’re talking about issues and people in power. I think that’s what I get, most often. If they are expecting me to always be "on," they would be a little disappointed. I’m not always "on," and people who are always "on" make me want to kill myself.
So, you know, I don’t know about Mr. Brad Garrett. I am not in competition with Mr. Brad Garrett, but if he wants to have a funny-off at a diner in Las Vegas, I am so there. I am so much (effing) funnier than him (laughing). If funny was height, I would be 7-foot-3 compared to him.
J.K. (laughing): The point is, it’s almost as if you are – for lack of a better term – a professional arguer, at least on "Real Time."
B.M. Yes. Exactly. That’s a good way to put it. That’s how they see me.
J.K. With "professional" being the operative word.
B.M. Yeah (laughs), and I do not want to argue all the time. It would be a busman’s holiday, for me, to be relaxing somewhere and have someone come up to me, "Hey! Let’s talk about John Boehner!" Let’s noooooot!
J.K. I’ve never asked you this about your show. Who are some of your favorite guests?
B.M. Actually, you’ve never asked it and you’ve never read it anywhere else because I never answer it. It’s just because I did, years ago, answer that question and got into a lot of trouble because people called me and said, "Oh, I read where you said your favorite guests were this one and that one, why didn’t you mention me?" If you talk about people you don’t like on the show, that’s even worse, because they think you’re rude and you can’t get other people to come on.
J.K. One thing we have touched on before is you’ve said that you’ve found that people are more amenable to changing their religious views than their political affiliations. Why do you think that is?
B.M. Because it’s so easy to poke holes in religion … You know, both religion and politics are promising people "perks," shall we call them. In politics, the perks are things like tax cuts, Social Security, Medicare, prescription drug programs for seniors, unemployment insurance, things like that. But in politics, because we live in the real world, if you promise them, something really has to be there at the end. It might not be as good as you promised, but you’re going to have to give them something.
In religion, because you’re selling an invisible product and the sky’s the limit, you can promise anything. Like, the Mormons promise people that if they have a good marriage on Earth, in the afterlife you and your wife get your own planet to rule over. Which is a really nice perk, compared to unemployment insurance. It’s fantastic. So we’re dealing on this incredibly ridiculous, fantastical plane, and it doesn’t take much for me to be – I always say that when I’m asked the question, what historical figure do you relate to? I say Toto from the "Wizard of Oz," because Toto was the one who pulled back the curtain to exposed the reality. All Toto did was put his little canine teeth on that curtain so people could see that it was just a man with a microphone and a smoke machine pretending to be the Wizard of Oz. I feel like that’s all I do, and it’s easy to do.
I’ve hardly converted anyone from conservative to progressive, but the number of people who have said to me, about religion, "I’m on your page now," I couldn’t even tell you how many.
J.K. Would it be more likely for you to become a right-wing conservative political thinker, or become a devoutly religious person?
B.M. More likely it would be that I would become a conservative thinker, but I don’t think that’s in the cards. It’s in the realm of possibility, certainly. Twenty years ago conservatives were much more reasonable and attractive. I liked John McCain when he ran in 2000 in the primaries against George W. Bush. A lot of people thought that he was pretty good. It’s only in the last 10 or 15 years that conservatives and Republicans have gone off the deep end and turned the party into, you know, Joe Billy Bob’s Confederate Gun Club.
Mostly, the Republicans of the Bob Dole-George (H.W.) Bush-Howard Baker era, they were conservative, but they weren’t nuts. They didn’t say global warming didn’t exist. They said let’s use a business approach to solving it, called "cap and trade." Well, now the Democrats are for cap and trade and the Republicans are not for cap and trade because their official view is that global warming is a hoax. So, you know, they’ve changed more than I have. Could I be more conservative? Yes, if they were more reasonable.
J.K. I’m remembering when McCain was considered by John Kerry as a vice-presidential nominee for the Democratic ticket in 2004. That seems impossible now.
B.M.: Yeah, yeah -- and it’s not that John McCain has not just moved to the right, he has moved to the bitter. You know, I get it. You lost an election to Barack Obama, elections are hard-fought, but he just seems to hold on to this grudge. The way he went after Chuck Hagel, who is not only a fellow Republican, but a fellow Vietnam vet. Every question was about the past. It wasn’t, "What are you going to when you’re the defense secretary?" Here are the problems we’re facing today. It was all about, "The surge! Say it worked! You didn’t say the surge worked, goddamn it, say it! Do you like the surge? Check yes or no!"
First, that’s years ago and doesn’t really matter anymore, and it all seems just a way for McCain to get up onstage and grumble about how Obama beat him (laughs). "Get off my lawn, you kids!"