As wildfires forced Lake Tahoe residents to flee their California resort town last week, Bill Maher contemplated the wisdom of playing a show in nearby Reno, Nev.
“I’m on the phone with my manager (asking), ‘Is it safe to even fly in? Is anybody still left in town for the show?’ ” said the comic and TV host, 65. “I feel like I should call my next special ‘Climate Change Refugee.’ ”
The Reno show went forward as planned on Sept. 5, but Maher remains fired up about climate change — as he has been for years. Still, the host of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” (and formerly, “Politically Incorrect”) isn’t so easy to pin down. His attacks on “wokeness,” Islam and the media delight conservatives and get retweeted by conspiracy-theorist figureheads such as Joe Rogan.
His support for animal rights, cannabis decriminalization and atheism (see his 2008 documentary “Religulous”) do the same with liberals. Whether finding him smug or fearless, privileged or wise, Maher’s audience has made him the rare political comic who remains relevant after more than three decades in the public eye.
“I feel like I’m in a place now, and I always have been to a degree, that I can talk to both sides,” he said over the phone from Los Angeles last week. “Especially since the left got even kookier. My audience is about 50/50 conservatives and liberals, although maybe a little more liberal. But to have a political comedian play to a mixed crowd? That’s very rare these days.”
if you go
Bill Maher. Stand-up and political commentary. 8 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 11 at the Buell Theatre, 1350 Curtis St. in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. $55-$110. axs.com
Maher isn’t out to change peoples’ politics. When he headlines Denver’s Buell Theatre on Sept. 11, he’ll mostly be there to make people laugh — which is probably a good thing, considering the timing. Twenty years ago, about a week after the 2001 terrorist attacks, he used his show (then “Politically Correct”) to assert that lobbing bombs from 2,000 miles away was cowardly, while flying planes into buildings was not.
He later said it wasn’t a knock on the U.S. military, of which he’s a longtime supporter. But the swift blowback and loss of advertisers (and, a year later, the show’s cancellation) cemented him as either an idiot or a free-speech champion to many people.
Maher has been through countless more controversies since then, with apologies few and far between (comparing his dogs to “retarded children” and using the N-word on-air both compelled him to apologize). He’s more accustomed to inviting politicians and lightning-rod celebrities on his show, the latter including far-right commentator Milo Yiannapoulus — whose appearance on “Real Time” helped torpedo his faltering career — as well as Megyn Kelly, Ronan Farrow, Barbra Streisand and Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Maher may be an entertainer, but engaging with wildly divergent viewpoints is something people in this country have lost sight of, he said. His debates remain debates — not threats of physical violence or promises of personal ruin. Aided by the agenda-laden bile of social media, the latter is increasingly dragging American culture into a death spiral, he said.
“We can’t keep going down the road we’re going down, where each side is an existential threat,” he said. “It’s the road to civil war. How did we get to this place where the other side must die? We have to somehow pull back from that, and it has to begin with stopping talking politics all the time.”
That may sound oblivious from someone whose career is based on talking politics. But Maher’s dozens of stand-up dates each year provide a type of feedback he can’t get anywhere else, and in that he sees a way forward.
“Some people say, ‘You’re fair. You have conservatives and liberals on,’ ” he said. “But I don’t hear anyone saying ‘You converted me politically.’ So stop trying to do that. Stop engaging! There are some things you just have to let go. If your spouse believes in ghosts or some (stuff), or they want you to get rid of your old Playboys … you may not like it, but it’s a marriage.”
Maher’s stand-up shows, which he returned to on June 8, tend to draw the devoted, who want him to “be the full me they paid to see.” But as someone who’s been touring clubs and then theaters for more than four decades, he’s also learned to feed his road experiences back into the show.
“It’s a hybrid of funny and serious,” he said. “It’s a very odd thing to think about, standing in front of thousands of people and taking their mood on your back. If you fail, which we (comics) all did a lot in the beginning, you’re a giant (jerk). But if you succeed, you make yourself a hero to the people. And who doesn’t want to be a hero?”
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