Bill Maher’s not new to this whole comedy game, but still, the liberal-minded soothsayer is making the news and making people think.
Most recently, the stand-up comic and 14-year host of HBO’s Real Time took some flack for booking then-Breitbart writer and prominent alt-righter Milo Yiannopoulos on his show — a move Maher answers thusly: Sunlight is the best disinfectant. “Everyone was telling me that you can’t give this guy a platform. Then he came on and within 48 hours, he had lost his book deal, was dropped by Breitbart and was dropped as a speaker at the CPAC convention,” the comic coos. “We put him on Friday night, and by Monday dinner everything he had was gone. As I said, sunlight is the best disinfectant. You’re welcome!”
Beyond that, the stunt paid dividends in the form of buzz. The couple made an odd pairing at the start, but they ended up having a lively conversation on the topic of free speech and the nature of comedy and criticism. While Yiannopoulos may have steered the conversation a bit, he came across as about as charming as a B-list wrestling villain and the retribution on him was fierce. Besides, those nearly 6 million YouTube views speak for themselves – Maher came out on top.
Hot off the win, Maher is hitting the road and returning to Houston for a one-night event at the new comedy Mecca of the Bayou: the Smart Financial Centre of Sugar Land. And boy, does he ever have a lot to discuss these days. “I don’t remember a president ever affecting people in their personal life the way this president has,” he says. “I don’t know how it is where you are, but in California there’s a lot of people who don’t sleep well. I think Trump has been very good for the pharmaceutical industry — there’s a lot of sleeping-pill prescriptions, anti-anxiety-pill prescriptions. Doctors are saying, ‘Take this Trump inhibiter twice a day.’ It even sounds like a pharmaceutical ad – I’m living with Trump, but I’m not letting Trump control my life."
As funny as the Commander-in-Tweet may appear on his surface, this is a different Maher from the one people may have seen in 2016, and his comedy is reflecting it. “We’re all nervous right now for a very good reason – we’re living with this malignant narcissist in the White House. He has no moral compass and lives only for vengeance. There’s only two metrics for him: If you praise him, whether it's Putin or neo-Nazis, then you’re great and I like you and will defend you. If you criticize him, you must be destroyed. That’s not a way we can run a country."
And unlike many in the media, the 61-year-old New York native said a President Trump has felt like a possibility for quite a while. “I was certainly screaming for months that he could actually win, but my fellow liberals were all saying, ‘Don’t worry, she’s got this in the bag.’ But let’s face it – Donald Trump is probably the most famous person to ever run for President from the beginning. Everyone knew who he was from the 1980s.” In fact, upon closer inspection, Trump had been in Maher’s rearview from the beginning of his career. “I was looking over all my stuff over the years and we were doing Donald Trump jokes all along. In New York especially, he was front-page tabloid fodder for years. Democrats should learn – we saw a clown. Most of America saw the guy they watched on The Apprentice acting like an authority figure – somebody who could take control of the oval office,” he says, adding, “We should have run Judge Judy; she would have done better than Hillary.”
Even with the near-daily deluge of unsettling information leaking from the Trump White House, Maher has a reminder for “those on the left whistling past the graveyard” – Trump is still very popular with his base and his party.
His advice to the Democrats is multi-tiered and incisive:
1: ”It’s not enough to just go out there in an election with a platform of ‘I’m not that great, but this guy’s fucking NUTS!’ Never tell the American people that they can’t be that stupid, because they’ll tell you to your face [that you’re wrong].”
2. “Go where the energy is in the party. There was a 74-year-old man who was drawing 20,000 millennials to his rallies. Hillary Clinton was a nice lady, but she couldn’t fill the function room at the Olive Garden, for Christ’s sake. Rallies work; Trump proved that.”
3. “Realize: People don’t really follow the issues anymore. They don’t read a paper anymore; they just know what people shared with them on their stupid Facebook page. In a world like that, people gravitate to authenticity. You gotta give it to Trump, he is authentically a douchebag from Queens. He’s not really pretending he’s not."
4. “We gotta reform the electoral process — this gerrymandering, this electoral college – these things are killing us. This whole pattern where we get the most votes and they get to be president? That’s gotta change. Trump lost the popular vote by a lot – he won most of the land; what counts is the people! So first it was Al Gore and now Hillary Clinton wins by 3 million and doesn’t get to be president. Even Kim Jung Il is gotta be like, “That’s fucked up!”
Maher’s fifth suggestion may be the biggest – the media has to make a massive credibility comeback. “Our show-ending rant this week is about the fact that the public actually trusts Donald Trump to the tell them the truth MORE than the media. That HAS to change; they’ve got to get their reputation back because we can’t living in this world where there is no truth and there are no facts. That’s what they’re trying to do with alternative facts — I mean, Jesus Christ!”
Longing for days gone by, Maher recalls the CBS evening news sign-off. “When I was a kid, the news ended with Walter Cronkite saying, ‘And that’s the way it is,’ — because that’s the way it was! Huntley and Brinkley weren’t on the other station saying, ‘Aw, he’s full of shit.’”
Perhaps scariest to the comic is what he describes as The Easter Bunny Syndrome. “When the crazy king says he sees the Easter Bunny, and all the other courtiers of the kingdom go: “Let’s all look for eggs.” Because that’s what Sean Spicer's job is,” he declares. “When Trump said he saw a million and a half people at his inaugural, Spicer just said, “This is what the president believes.” In other words: You’re on your own, okay? Moving on, nothing to see.” Yikes, yikes, yikes.
All this leads to the big question: How far can we be from the big I-word? “Time magazine says he should be impeached already because of the financial shenanigans with his family. Others say he should be because he’s mentally unfit for office…but how’s that gonna really happen with the Republicans in charge of Congress. I don’t think it’s really realistic right now, but this guy does crazy shit every week!”
But Maher is against pining for political courage from the other side of the aisle. “John McCain, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you. There’s a guy I’ve seen do that, but not many Republicans will – so don’t count on it.” On the positives, the stand-up lists the strengths of his party at the moment. “What we have on our side is the streets – when people protest, it means a lot, it’s a statement that we care and aren’t just going away. We have the courts, or at least some of them. We’ve seen them check Trump so far, but what worries me is judges die. We could lose that. And there’s also the free press — also under attack. We have our ways of fighting back, but all of them are vulnerable.”
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From behind his HBO set’s desk, Maher also sees another potential failing if impeachment ever comes about – a perception one. But on this front, the host appears more hopeful. “When a name like Mike Pence comes up, people boo. But something I try to impress upon my crowd is, of course, he’s a person who does not share my politics at all. But...if you say Mike Pence would be worse, you’re completely wrong. Mike Pence will not blow up the world. Mike Pence is within the normal parameters of awful.”
Comparing the Veep to the younger Bush, Maher sees Pence as a bit more of the loyal opposition. “We’ve seen Mike Pence before; he’s not all that different from George W. Bush, also a Jesus freak. But the thing with Donald Trump that’s upsetting, it’s not his policy. They keep saying he’s not a Republican, but when it comes to what’s really important to them — tax cuts for the rich elite they pretend to hate — they’re all on the same page. What’s different about Donald Trump is temperament. This is what is so frightening about this guy. The guy can never let anything go. Here’s a phrase you’ll never hear him say: I stand corrected. He’s got the impulse control of a grease fire.”
Dark times tend to call on those who use their gifts for good. Maher’s clearly is his sharp-eyed wit, and his aim remains true: “relieve the burden of Trump with humor.” And as long as free speech continues to go both ways, the President can tweet his feelings…and Maher can broadcast his.
Bill Maher's performance is scheduled for 8 p.m. on March 4 at the Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land. For information, call 800-745-3000 or visit ticketmaster.com. $50-125