Q&A: Bill Maher
Whether on camera or onstage, Bill Maher has never been one to pull punches. When the veteran standup and host of HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher gets irritated about someone or something—which is usually most his waking moments—he’s going to give you his unfiltered two cents. Which was the case when Maher recently spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Jacob about his upcoming performances at The Mirage, the #MeToo movement and, of course, Donald Trump.
We might as well dive right in and talk President Trump. Do you still wake up every morning in shock over who currently occupies the White House?
It goes from day to day. Certainly, every day begins with you checking your phone and asking yourself, “Oh, what did the mental patient do now?” There are days when it [seems] normal, and then you’re shocked back into reality that it’s not normal and a man like this shouldn’t be in a position like that. The problem we face in the media is we don’t want to give him too much oxygen, because he feeds on it. But on the other hand, how can you ignore it? I keep trying to tell my younger millennial friends who haven’t seen as many presidents that all the previous presidents—Democrat and Republican—kind of go in one basket, and then there’s this virus from space that happened. I always try to impress upon those who haven’t seen as much history that we’ve never had anything like this before.
You were one of the few people who believed very early on that Trump’s presidential campaign wasn’t a publicity stunt and that he was serious about running. Why were you so sure?
I always thought (someone with) an ego that big really believes he should be president. And I also thought he would win—or certainly could win. But he’s also lucky. You have to remember that everything had to break just right: Russia meddling in the election, Hillary (Clinton), the Electoral College. It was a little like when the Titanic went down—it was almost fool-proof for that ship not to sink, but everything went wrong. But as (President) Obama always says, “You get the leadership you deserve.” And people have become so divorced from following the issues that matter in their own lives and so disconnected from politics in general that they were vulnerable to the message that, “Oh, everything is broken in Washington; let’s just try something different.” Which is a very lazy approach, because it’s not that simple.
Perhaps the American voter has learned a lesson and will be more engaged going forward.
I don’t know if they’ve learned a lesson. I think what they’ve learned is they hate Donald Trump. Although it’s amazing that he hangs on to four-tenths of the population even now. His approval rating in the poll that came out yesterday was 41 percent. So even after the treason and the bigotry and the insane tweets, four in 10 people are still (supporting) him. And, perhaps even more telling, Republicans still lead Democrats in this poll in key areas like jobs, like the economy, like national security—the party that’s selling itself to the Russians is leading in national security. I don’t know how you win a debate on facts in an era when facts don’t matter anymore.
If I asked you to list all the things Trump did wrong in his first year in office, we’d be here all day, so I’ll spin it this way: What’s the one thing he’s done that you agreed with?
Moving the capital of Israel to Jerusalem, where it’s actually been since 1949—I do agree with that. A country has a right to declare where it’s capital is. Israel is a country that has been attacked by its neighbors multiple times, and yet somehow, when they win the war, the rule is, “Well, never mind—give back the territory!” Whereas if it was the other way around, I don’t think they’d be giving back the territory.
This being Las Vegas, I have to ask: What do you think the odds are that Trump finishes out his term?
That is a great Vegas question. If it was my own money, I’d really think about that. (Pauses.) At this point, I would say 50-50. Because, first of all, he can’t be healthy. He’s 71 and he eats fast food all the time.
If the news cycle isn’t dominated by what’s going on in Washington, D.C., then the focus is on the #MeToo movement. Did you see this one coming as fast and furious as it has?
I don’t think anybody did. We all read the Harvey Weinstein story last fall and thought, “Oh, good. What a horrible person!” Of course, in show business, it was an open secret that he was a pig. I mean, I’m not in the movie industry, but I do remember once hearing an actress—I can’t remember who it was; I was talking to her at a party—after Harvey Weinstein’s name came up, she said, “Oh, God, he’s a pig!” And I thought, “He’s a pig” meant … well, certainly something less than rape. Maybe he tried to have an extramarital affair with lots of actresses. But I don’t think a lot of people knew the extent of it. And then what happened was they got a lot of the low-hanging fruit, and by that I mean the really creepy guys like Kevin Spacey and (filmmaker) James Toback and, of course, Bill Cosby, who came before Weinstein—people who I don’t think anybody doubts were doing a lot horrendous stuff.
Is there anything about the MeToo movement that concerns or confuses you?
Of course, like every movement, it somewhat devolves to a point where, now, sometimes I don’t know what they’re doing. Much like George Bush, MeToo doesn’t seem to want to do nuance. But I think that’s changing. I think people are understanding when Matt Damon said, “A pat on the butt is certainly different than rape,” that should’ve been received as a completely noncontroversial statement. And yet it was not. People argued with him about that, which I don’t even understand—how can anybody argue that?
You’ve been part of the Aces of Comedy rotation for some time now, but I’m curious to know about the very first time you performed in Las Vegas. Do you remember your first gig here?
Oh, like it was yesterday. It was 1982, I had just done my first Tonight Show, and the call came in: “Would you like to go to Las Vegas and open for Diana Ross?” Then she held me over for the second week. It was very exciting—in theory. The actual shows were tough. First of all, I was 25 years old and had no idea what I was doing. I remember I got the lecture from the guy at Caesars Palace—I don’t know who he was, but he certainly put the fear of God in me when he said, “You’re doing 20 minutes. Every minute you keep people out of the casino, we lose money. So when we say 20 minutes, we mean 20—not 20½.” I was shitting bricks up there. I’d be like in the middle of a joke, and I’d run off stage—“Ladies and gentlemen, goodnight!” But also, the crowd was there to see Diana Ross, and I was a complete unknown. And it was two shows a night. It was tough. I had more fun the next year when I came back and was the opening act for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. That was at the Riviera, it was a little bit of a looser atmosphere, and also Frankie got “Vegas throat” like every other day, and they’d cancel the show. Which meant I was off, so I’d go see some other shows on the Strip.
What do you recall about the Strip during that time?
It was such a different era—what I like to call Vegas’ dead-ball era. It was the time after the Rat Pack. Or if they were still there, they were in their decline. It wasn’t really their town anymore. And Vegas had not yet reinvented itself. I remember (the visitors were) very old—there weren’t a lot of young people. Because I was a young person, and I was like, “Wow, this is like Miami.” It was a whole different time.
Now you’re headlining a showroom in a megaresort like The Mirage. How much do you enjoy that?
I love it. The Mirage is such a great home. I cannot overestimate the night and day experience from the era I was talking about (in the early 1980s) to the way it is now. It’s literally my favorite gig of all. And the hippest. I love the room, and I love being able to say I’m headlining in Las Vegas. When you’re a standup, there are certain pillars you have to have achieve if you want to be taken seriously, and one of them is headlining a major room in Las Vegas. I’m there five or six times a year, but I would be there 15 or 20 if they’d let me.