By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
On a Friday evening in a studio on the CBS lot just north of the Fairfax Farmers Market, Billy Martin is warming up the audience for a taping of Real Time With Bill Maher, due to air later that night. The crowd is mostly middle-aged white men and women, with a sprinkling of African-Americans and, here and there, hip young men in pairs, very likely the gay men whose freedom the aggressively heterosexual but passionately libertarian Maher defends against the religious right.
“How many of you are liberals?” yells Martin, the show’s head writer and executive producer, the essence of anti-chic in thick glasses and tan chinos yanked high above the waist.
Laughter and thunderous applause erupt from the audience.
“How many are conservative?”
One timid clap is heard, and Martin says, “That’s 50-50, or, as you conservatives call it, a mandate.”
By this time the crowd hardly needs the applause meter discreetly positioned to one side, but Martin puts them through their paces and gets them on their feet, clapping wildly for Maher, who bounds in suave and smiling in a tailored suit and launches into his opening monologue.
If it’s true that a lot of people are getting their news from late-night comedy shows, they get a bracingly blasphemous brew from Maher, who pulls no punches, and not just because HBO is where you get to say “fuck” as much as you want. Getting his respectably rated show Politically Incorrect canceled by ABC for his post-9/11 remark that the terrorists who flew into the World Trade Center were not cowards hasn’t chastened the comedian one bit. If anything, he’s found a niche where he can go after anyone, but especially corporate America and the political right, with characteristic bite and bile. On a recent show, Maher dismissed Sarah Palin as a “category-5 moron” and “a mountain mama who makes George Bush look like a professor.” And with the collapse of Wall Street and passage of the $700 billion bailout this week, there’s no shortage of targets for tonight’s monologue (“the splurge is working!”), or of fodder for his chat with the wonk of the week, New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, struggling in vain for the spontaneously funny back talk that comes so naturally to Maher.
Unlike most of his fellow late-night talk-show hosts, Maher is unafraid to lay his political cards on the table. But his affiliations are those of a loose cannon. He’s an Obama supporter who has voted for both McCain and Ralph Nader in the past (he regrets both votes now), pals around with both Ann Coulter and Arianna Huffington, calls himself a libertarian who hates any form of government intervention into private life and regularly hosts conservative politicians or pundits on his show. He seats his guests close together for maximal friction, intervening like a faux-avuncular elder when things get so heated that people are shouting one another down.
“I’m tired of this argument from you two,” he says, wagging his finger playfully when Andrew Sullivan — a gay British journalist and regular Real Time guest who’s conservative but hates Palin and plans to vote for Obama — sinks his teeth into the neck of left-wing activist Naomi Klein, author of the frighteningly timely anti-Bush-administration book The Shock Doctrine. Maher hauls Sullivan off with a “Why so hostile?” but he agrees that it’s not just the government that’s responsible for our current woes. Americans are “just too fuckin’ dumb to do the right thing or make the right choice,” he says, which, as always, gets a big cheer from the audience.
“I love this guy,” a woman in her 60s next to me whispers loudly — and goes on to declare her love for every speaker on the panel. Which makes me wonder whether Maher really is preaching to the liberal choir, or whether some people will respond to anyone who puts on a good enough show.
Maher pounces on a gap in the conversation to display a USA Today headline announcing that most Americans claim they’ve been touched by a guardian angel. Religiosity is Maher’s pet peeve and a frequent target for his blistering attacks, but tonight, he’s plugging Religulous, a documentary journey around the world in search of spiritual folly. Sullivan, a convert to Catholicism, bristles at Maher lumping all forms of Christianity together under the rubric of irrational, then comes right out and calls him a bigot.
“The problem,” Sullivan insists, “is not religion but dumb religion.”
Untroubled by such fine distinctions, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas serenely admits to believing in angels and demons and says his faith got him where he is today. This is too much for Maher, who, never one to shy away from telling others they’re wrong, chides him, “It’s talent that got you where you are.” Then he grins the broad grin that his fans find endearing and his detractors call smug, and seizes the last word with, “Anyway, my movie is very funny.”
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city