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“I thought, there is one inviolate rule in show business,” he says, “and that is a dead guy always gets the award, and I was happy. He didn’t win, which tells you something about America. There is one exception when the dead guy doesn’t get the award, and that is a real truth teller like George Carlin. Sorry, George.”
Mostly, what Maher remembers about his childhood is being obsessive. “As a control freak, it’s difficult to be a child because you’re not in control. That really bugged me.”
Which may be why Maher’s career as an actor (in such classics as D.C. Cab and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death) was short and inglorious. His favorite forum remains standup, “where I’m totally in control. There’s just me and the audience. There are no guests, no commercials. It’s utter autonomy.”
Making Religulous was difficult for him. Charles, who has become a close friend, says that the experience was “like working with a very rich 5-year-old. Bill is very set in his ways, and he gets cranky.”
Maher found the work pleasurable, “but the travel, the being away from home for months at a time, eating the food that’s not my food, all that was difficult, and I don’t like having makeup on my face all day. If I were 20 years younger, I’d have accepted it more, but I’m not at the backpacking stage anymore. I’m at the comfort stage.”
Let’s hope not. Over the course of his career, as he made his way up through the comedy clubs with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser, into the outfield areas of television from Comedy Central, via ABC to HBO, and as a gadfly guest on other people’s talk shows, Maher has done his best work on the unpackaged margins (it helps that he’s not a telegenic looker, like Jon Stewart), where he can be both outrageous and, in his own unpredictably wild-card way, committed. Like many comics, Maher is a natural naysayer who destroys sacred cows by the dozen.
“Must everything be for and about the children?” he quipped gleefully in his standup show, Be More Cynical. “Our most precious resource is petroleum.”
He’s willing to goose everyone (sometimes to a fault, as with his comparison of public breastfeeding to masturbation), himself included. Defiantly single and frequently photographed with bosomy black women on his arm — the former model and fashion designer Coco Johnsen unsuccessfully sued him in 2005 for breach of palimony, and he has dated video vixen Karrine Steffans — Maher often makes fun of his love life on his show. Not without reason, he’s been called a misogynist, and he rarely misses an opportunity to twit feminists.
“Men are only as loyal as their options,” he crows in Be More Cynical. “Like in the late ’60s, when all the wrong women were burning their bras.”
But it’s also true that Maher invites more smart women of all political stripes on his show (among them, Camille Paglia and Roseanne Barr) than does any other talk-show host. And he’s the only one who admits up front to having given money to the Obama campaign — with a note on the check exhorting the candidate to “get medieval.”
“I’m often told, ‘I’m a conservative, I voted for Bush, but I watch your show,’” Maher says. “I think this gives the lie to the old adage that you have to play it down the middle on television. People are totally okay with liking someone they don’t agree with. The Johnny Carson playbook, which most television hosts go by, is that you never reveal your politics, and he never did. I’m very close friends with Jay Leno and I can’t get it out of him. I have a suspicion that Jay is a sneaky liberal, but he plays it right down the middle for the audience. And, of course, he’s heroic to Middle America.”
Somewhere between left and libertarian, Maher may be carving out a fluid new cultural-political mindset that sidesteps the traditional left-right divide, though it’s unclear yet what shape it will take. Religulous notwithstanding, Maher is more provocateur than cynic, though sometimes he can sound like one in the give-and-take of banter on his show. In the current context of economic collapse and vacuous political bombast, he sounds like a sober realist.
“We are the Roman Empire in its declining years,” he says, “and bread and circuses are what we live on.”
In between Maher’s astute, outrageous observations of the mad illogic of American ways of life and death is a spirit of moral inquiry (“I get it from my parents,” he says, “not from religion”) and an ornery love of country.
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