Hard to believe given his mega-fame on HBO these days during the Barack Obama era, but there was a time when Bill Maher was a pariah.
Ironically fired from a show called Politically Incorrect for being, uh, politically incorrect, Maher's crime was to insinuate that you could call the 9/11 suicide hijackers a lot of names, but "coward" was probably not one of them.
During the height of the Bush era? Big mistake. Big, big mistake.
But fast forward through the collapse of the economy, the dramatic disintegration of the Republican brand, and the election of the first black president, and Maher is riding high after eight years of continued success on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher.
You know you're successful when Savannah's Republican congressman, Jack Kingston, never turns down an opportunity to wrangle with you on live TV in front of millions.
Maher brings his no-holds-barred politics & religion themed stand-up show to town Sunday night. We spoke to Maher last week.
So a couple of weeks ago there was a new Pope and everyone was Catholic. A week later the Supreme Court was taking up gay marriage, and everyone was gay. Does this give you whiplash?
Bill Maher: Well, they are related — as we know the Catholic Church certainly has issues with gay stuff (laughs). But basically what we're looking at is the changing backdrop of the country itself.
A third of the nation just doesn't want to see any change. How does gay marriage actually affect their own marriage? It doesn't, but to them gay marriage is a sign of their country slipping away from them. And that's what Obama symbolizes for them. He's a black guy — not even particularly liberal, he's really more centrist — and he's a symbol of the change they're so terrified of.
They keep saying "I want my country back." "We've gotta take our country back." They want to go back to the country where they knew it was always going to be a white guy stepping off Air Force One and giving that salute. But now we've got a bunch of women in the Senate, a bisexual senator, an openly gay congressman.
One thing they really liked about Mitt Romney was he represented that country they see slipping away. He looked like a 1950s TV dad. He embodied the America that was all warm and fuzzy.
And that's actually who he is, genuinely. He says darn, and durn. He buys shirts from Costco.
But I got news for ya, folks: That America ain't coming back.
The change in public opinion on gay marriage in particular has been stunning. I've never seen any major social issue reverse itself so quickly. Why do you think that is?
Bill Maher: I agree, and I really do chalk it up to TV. People see something on TV and that makes it OK. Before they may have only had an image in mind. Looking back at the lessons of their youth, probably they didn't know anybody they thought was gay. People were just too reluctant to come out. Everybody had a gay cousin or gay brother, but they didn't know. People hid it. But once they got a look at them in real life or on television, things began changing. Look at the Republican senator, Rob Portman, who just came out for gay marriage. Why? Because his own son is gay.
That exposes a deep psychological flaw among Republicans in particular. They tend not to be nice to people who aren't like them. They forget to be empathetic except to people just like them. To affect them, you've got to be close, right in their family.
Look at Dick Cheney. Who's a harder ass than Dick Cheney? But he has a gay daughter, so he supports gay marriage. Republicans just have to learn to extend empathy to people they don't know, people who are not in their family.
It's like Rachel Maddow said the other night: Now we just have to find a Republican with somebody poor in their family! Once they know someone who is affected by their economic policies, maybe we'll see some change on that front too.
We keep hearing that the Republican party is killing itself because it's lurching so far to the right. But my theory is they're mostly suffering from brain drain. High IQ people identify themselves as Republicans less and less, and many of the officials remaining in the party seem to be real dumbasses.
Bill Maher: I think that's very true. Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor, about a month ago came out and said, "we have to stop being the party of stupid." Good luck with that, Bobby!
But there is a brain drain, you're right, and that's why every month the Republicans come up with a new guy, the leader of the future. They just roll him out and say to everybody, "hey wait until you get a load of this guy." They've done it with Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, and many others.
There's still this myth of a Republican genius waiting in the wings to knock everybody's socks off. But they just don't have people with intellectual gravitas anymore, like William F. Buckley.
The problem is their base. The snakehandlers and early-onset dementia patients who make up the Republican base are tethering them to be the stupid party. I think the party would like to move on immigration reform, but the base hates immigration reform. They think it's just Mexicans in an evil swarm coming over the border.
Every time Republicans want to modernize, their base pulls them back. It's like Michael Corleone in one of the Godfathers: "Every time I try to quit they keep pulling me back in."
Speaking of bases: As the Democrats consolidate their working class minority base of African Americans and Latinos, will we see a return to the Democratic Party's historic role as a protector of lunchpail, working class people, like back in the day?
Bill Maher: Well, I don't know. If Democrats were really the party of that working class lunchbucket guy, they might be against immigration. Immigration lowers salaries and drives wages down. Part of the problem is that Democrats really should be getting a much larger percentage of the vote. Especially now that Republicans really are unabashedly the party of the one percent.
That's the real elephant in the room when Republicans do these autopsies after another election they've lost: "Well, we just didn't do the messaging well. But our ideas are fantastic." Actually their problem is their economic policies.
Marco Rubio will say something like, "Democrats divide the country into haves and have-nots. Republicans divide the country into haves and soon-to-haves." He says, "When Republicans drive through a rich neighborhood we don't have jealousy, we say congratulations, because we know in America everyone has an opportunity to have one of those mansions one day."
That works on a fair number of people. But come on. Seriously, what path is there these days for the teacher or the soldier or the cop or the fireman to get a mansion like that?
All these salaried people we say are our heroes are not going to be joining you soon in the mansion, Marco Rubio. It's a cruel carrot they hold in front of people.
For 30 years the media has failed to push back against this idea that if we just cut taxes on the wealthy, the wealthy will create a whole bunch of jobs, despite there being zero evidence of that ever happening.
Bill Maher: Oh, yes, the "job creators," the sacred job creators. That term was coined by Frank Luntz, the guy who does all the Republican messaging. Let's talk about job creators — come on, when were millionaires and billionaires ever our heroes?
Yes, they're busy laying those job-creating eggs, we can't bother them! (laughs) They are all that stands between us and darkest night. As you say, there's zero evidence.
Whenever we do give the rich big tax breaks, they just sit on the money. They're sitting on an absolute mountain of cash right now. They're not putting it back into the economy at all.
In 2004 we gave a giant tax break to multinationals so they could hide offshore revenue. The idea was they would repatriate that money. But they didn't reinvest any of it.
That's the nature of rich people. That's how they got rich. By being greedy.
I'm sure you don't ever want to cannibalize the HBO show for your stand-up show. Do you tweak the stand-up show based on current headlines?
Bill Maher: It's right up to the minute. One of the great pleasures of doing political comedy is your act gets to change all the time. I'm glad I'm not one of those observational comics: "Hey, look at these salt and pepper shakers."
My act comes from the headlines, as you say. What I was doing a year ago doesn't resemble anything I do now. A year ago I guess I was talking about Rick Perry and Herman McCain. That seems like it's from another century now.