The Real Bill Maher
By Kelly Carlin-McCall
October / November 2008
Bill Maher gets real with Kelly Carlin-McCall about life, work and religion.
Smart, funny, bold, proverbial line-crosser – all of these words could be used to describe Bill Maher. They also could have been used to describe my father, the late George Carlin.
Earlier this year, I got the chance to meet Bill Maher. Unfortunately it was under circumstances I could have done without – the death of my father. At my dad’s memorial service, Bill spoke about his personal feelings about my father’s work and the impact it had on him. Bill said that my father had always been his rabbit – out front keeping him sharp and striving for the next line to cross that might wake up the audience. That observation hit me hard. I thought, what are we going to do without our rabbit now? Who will push the edge of our thinking, slap us into higher consciousness, all the while doing it in such a way that you can’t help but smile?
Bill Maher. That’s who.
Maher was born January 20,1956, in New York City to an Irish Catholic father, William Maher Sr., and a Jewish mother, Julie Berman. Raised in River Vale, New Jersey, Maher was exposed early on to talk of current events and political views by his father, who was a news editor for NBC. Unlike most families sitting around the dinner table in the early sixties, Maher’s parents (his father died in 1992 of cancer) immersed their kids (Bill has an older sister Kathy who is a teacher) in conversations on the big issues of the day, such as civil rights and politics. Couple this open and questioning environment with Maher’s father’s gregarious and comedic nature, and you have a perfect recipe for a political comic to be born.
Maher knew early on that he wanted to go into comedy, although he did not share his dream with his family until after his 1978 graduation from Cornell University. He climbed his way through the stand-up world cutting his teeth at Catch a Rising Star in New York City, then began appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1982. For the next fifteen years he was a frequent guest with Carson and Letterman, and had a successful career as a stand-up comic. But, like most comics back in the 1980s, the goal was television sitcoms and movies. And although Maher did both, neither materialized in a satisfying way.
Then in 1994 a fledgling network, Comedy Central, was looking for something to put them on the map, and they turned to Maher. Politically Incorrect, Maher’s show for the network, highlighted his unique ability to bring together a disparate group (from B-list actors to heads of state) to talk about the big issues of the day. And although the show moved to ABC and then was cancelled in 2002 after Maher made what the network considered controversial remarks about 9/11, it seemed that Maher had found his calling. He continues to follow this path on HBO with Real Time with Bill Maher.
I was thrilled to reconnect with Bill recently to talk to him about his life and work, and Religulous, his new documentary about religion directed by Borat director Larry Charles, that looks at religion from many angles. Bill too was happy to reconnect and just be talking to someone who was not a professional entertainment journalist. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
What does it say about our country that it’s the comedians – Jon Stewart of The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report – who are in charge of the truth right now?
Well, I think it says that there’s a lot of bullshit [out there]. And I think it says that media, in general, is part of the problem.
I’m not even sure that they [Stewart and Colbert] are getting at the truth. I mean, just because you’re on the side of the liberals doesn’t make it true. People are lazy. And I’m talking about media people too. So they’re very insecure about what’s the right answer, and if someone with confidence gives an answer, and it seems right and people are applauding, they all flock to it. It’s a sad state of affairs when the people who are supposed to be separating truth from fiction themselves don’t know what it is. It’s like having a bad teacher in school. If the teacher doesn’t know, then the kids can’t know. And if the media isn’t up to their job in delivering the news then the people are not going to be well informed.
And then where does that leave us, as a nation?
We’re all groping. It leaves us panicking. We’re a panicky nation. We torture people. Attack the wrong country. That was panic, you know? Why do people panic? They panic when they’re in the dark. When you’re ignorant, you’re in the dark. And when you’re in the dark, everything scares you.
We had no clue [about the attacks on 9/11]. “Why did they do this to us? Why us Americans? We’re perfect. Doesn’t everybody know that?” I’m not saying it [9/11] was justified. I don’t think it was. But there’s a big difference between not being justified and people being so ignorant that they have no clue as to where it came from. [The attack] didn’t come out of thin air.
Tell me about your Irish background and how you connect with it.
I’m half Irish. My mother certainly was not Irish. But my father was very Irish. I went to Ireland to find my roots, in 1999. There were a lot of Mahers. There are variations on the spelling. I think originally it had even more weird letters in it that aren’t pronounced. I’ve seen it M-E-A-G-H-E-R, as many as seven letters. In Ireland there were a couple of towns where I took pictures of Maher’s Pharmacy and Maher’s Delicatessen and Maher’s this and Maher’s that. So yeah, being Irish is part of my heritage. But in your father’s last special, he said something that I had never said publicly but I’d always thought, which is, “I don’t see any reason to be proud of what you’re born. You’re proud of what you achieve.” It’s silly to be especially proud that you’re Irish, or Jewish, or Hungarian, but let’s say I’m not ashamed to be Irish. I’m kind of glad, because I like a lot of the traits that I think I get from having Irish blood flowing in me. So I’m kind of glad that my father was Irish.
And what are some of those traits?
The Irish are a poetic people. I think they have communication skills above the ordinary. When you look at all the Irish authors and poets and playwrights, the list is pretty impressive.
And so I probably get some of my comedic skills from [being Irish]. I imagine it played a part. And being a comedian has given me a great life. I can’t imagine being anything else. So I kind of attribute that to my Irish side. Of course, the other half is Jewish. And they [the Irish and the Jews] have a lot more in common than you might think on the surface. The Jews were denied a homeland, just like the Irish, and they too made something of the soul and the artistic, as opposed to, say, the Romans building roads. So the fact that I’m half Irish and half Jewish, they both contributed to a sense of humor. But there’s no doubt that my father, the Irishman, was a gregarious, funny, living room comedian.
As my dad used to say, “You don’t lick it off the rocks.” [Laughs] Tell me a little bit about the atmosphere you grew up in.
I think it was atypical of an American upbringing, in the sense that we did talk politics. I think it was more like a European family in that sense, as opposed to most kids I knew who had an upbringing where it was almost considered impolite to talk politics at home with your family. My mother and father talked and they certainly weren’t shy about sharing it with the kids. And my father certainly wasn’t shy about telling me how to think about matters that usually kids of a young age are not asked to think about, like civil rights. I grew up in an all-white town and yet my father did impress upon me at a young age that this country had a lot of work to do for the civil rights of black people. I think they were called “negroes” then. So it was in my head even though I really [laughs] had never even met a “negro.”
You were raised a Catholic. Did you ever buy into it?
Oh, yes, of course. Well, you’re a child; they stuff it into your head. What are you going to do? Who could argue at that age? I used to have a joke in my act that I, you know, at one time believed everything. I believed that there was a virgin birth. And I believed a man [Jonah] lived inside a whale. And I believed I was, you know, drink-eating the body of a space god when I had the wafer. But then something very important happened to me: I graduated from the sixth grade.
And that was the end of it?
Of course it certainly wasn’t over that quickly. One thing we try to show in Religulous is that my evolution to where I am today was gradual, as I think it is for a lot of people. And especially when you’re raised Catholic, you know, you’re starting from a point of indoctrinated religious belief. There isn’t a lot of wiggle room. I kept a list of questions that I was given when I couldn’t have been more then seven years old. I think it was to study for my first communion. And it’s a series of questions like, you know, “Who is God?” “Who am I?” blah, blah, blah, that we had to memorize. There was a question, there was an answer for it, and that was it. And there was no deviation from that answer. And that’s what religion is. That’s why your father [George Carlin] and I, and people like us are against it; it’s the absolute antithesis of what we would consider free thinking.
But, yes, I went to church [as a kid]. We went to church every Sunday. I didn’t go to Catholic school, but we would be dropped off at catechism class. It wasn’t like school, because I didn’t know any of the kids. The classrooms were very crowded. The nuns were mean. I was young and scared. It just frightened me and I hated it. And then we went to church, which I didn’t hate as much. I was with my father and my sister so I felt safe. It wasn’t scary. It was just boring, and I thought, “What are they rambling on about?” Half of it was in Latin.
During that time, the late 60s/early 70s, there was an evolution of thought going on in this country. People were walking away from institutions. They were questioning authority on a huge level.
My father stopped going to church when I was about 12 or 13, right before I was supposed to be confirmed, which is why I don’t have a middle name, because that’s where you get your middle name, at your confirmation. That was about 1968/’69 and my father just pulled the plug. I don’t think he ever said why, we just stopped going. And I wasn’t about to argue. It would have been like the kid asking for more homework. I just shut up. I was like, great. I hope this lasts forever. And, you know, I don’t think I ever went back. And I don’t think he did either. He was much more conflicted about it than I was. I was thrilled. He, because he grew up in a very Catholic household, and had been a devout Catholic for all those years, I think it troubled him and gave him some guilt right to the end.
It was around that time that you found out your mom wasn’t going to church with you because she was Jewish.
Right. I wouldn’t say it was traumatic to find out [that she was Jewish], but what was more traumatic for me was that here I was, 13 years old, and I was just finding out this important thing about my family that I hadn’t ever been told. It didn’t bother me that she was Jewish; it bothered me that we didn’t we talk about it.
This was one thing I really wanted to have on film, and luckily [my mother] lived long enough to be interviewed in the movie, because I had never really asked her the question, “Why didn’t we ever have a family discussion about this?” And she didn’t really have a good answer [laughs].
Why do you think that was?
I guess they just figured, well, he’s too young, he can’t really understand, or perhaps they thought it would be very confusing. You’re trying to tell a kid, Hey, there’s only one way to think about the afterlife, and that’s in these questions and these answers. I just think the years rolled by and they forgot about it. It just became part of the routine. Every Sunday my father, my sister and I would go to church; Mom would stay home. I never thought anything of it.
What did you learn about religion, or yourself, or the world by doing Religulous?
I learned I didn’t want to make any more movies [laughs]. It’s a lot of getting up really early and having makeup on your face all day. And I didn’t learn much about religion, or rather what I learned is that it’s as nutty as I thought it was, even nuttier. We spent a week in Jerusalem, which I call “the funny-hat capital of the world” because everybody in that town is wearing some weird hat and getup. There are so many different sects, so many different offshoots and branches of the three major religions, and they all got their own uniform. That place is a feast for the eyes. I would say that in general, my belief about religion wasn’t shaken. I certainly didn’t see a cross on the road to Damascus.
No Virgin Mary in your soup or anything.
You know, there’s just some crazy stuff they believe and do, and a lot of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). A lot of really cuckoo stuff there in Jerusalem. I think Judaism in America, except for the very Orthodox, is much more just cultural.
If people shouldn’t believe in religion, what would you have them believe in?
Ethics. Religious people don’t need to be ethical, because [religion] is mostly about salvation. It’s about closing your eyes, very tightly, and believing in someone so much, without question, that when you die he will save your ass. [Religion is] about saving your ass. And that ain’t ethical. There’s a million reasons I could give you as to why a religious [person] is less moral than an ethicist, but here’s just one. Religious people think that animals don’t have a soul – we’re so sure people do – so it’s okay to torture and kill and do anything you want to animals because there’s some bullshit in the Bible about how we have dominion over them and they don’t have a soul. For that reason alone I dislike religion.
Where do you think America is right now? And what direction do you want to see the country take?
I want it to go towards the light! God, there’s so many areas where it needs to be patched up and fixed. In general, I want to see America get out of the [Iraq] war, so that we have the money and the energy to do something else. I want us, obviously, to address the environmental problems that are becoming so frightening. The frogs are dying, the bees are dying, the glaciers are melting. I don’t know what has to happen before the world takes notice. And, you know, America always bragging that it is Number One. Well, if it’s Number One, it’s got to take the lead. And it hasn’t taken the lead, so why should other countries fall in line behind us?
And I would just like us to become a nation that thinks more. This stuff that’s going on now about oil drilling offshore – you know, even the oil companies [laughs] are saying, “You know what? It really wouldn’t help anything, long range or short range.” You’d think that would be enough for people. And yet, two-thirds of America are like, “No, let’s start drilling. That’ll lower gas prices.” We need the type of leader who will say, “Hey, folks, wrong answer. Not going to help anything. Not going to fix your short-term problems. Definitely is bad for the long range.” We really need to get off the oil. You know, when you’ve got 80-year-old oil men like T. Boone Pickens who are against drilling offshore and want to convert to wind and solar power, that says something about where this nation is.
One of the things that you dive into in Religulous is the Founding Fathers’ take on religion, and how the Christian religious right has said that this is a Christian nation and how you found out that that just wasn’t true.
We are a nation that was founded by people who were trying to get away from religious dogmatism and the authority of kings and priests. The founding documents are very vague. They talk about “the Creator” but nothing very specific – nothing at all about Jesus Christ. You’d think, if it was [to be] a Christian nation they would mention Jesus in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. That alone should tell you something. They [the religious right] try to take quotes out of context. Jefferson wrote that bible where he took out all “woo-woo” from Jesus; just left the philosopher. And he [Jesus] is a great philosopher. We can all admire the philosophy.
So, how would you categorize the Founding Fathers?
The Founding Fathers were more deists. If you had to categorize them as anything. There was some sort of moving prime force. But it’s an impersonal force. Some people call it Nature. Certainly not this personal god who you have a personal relationship with, who listens to your prayers and answers them, or doesn’t. You know, not the silly stuff that most Americans believe because we’re such a dumb nation.
Clearly you’ve walked away from the dogmatic stuff. But do you have your own private spiritual path?
One thing people don’t often ask me is “What do you actually believe? We know what you don’t believe.” I mostly preach the doctrine of “I don’t know.” It doesn’t trouble me that much that there are big questions that I can’t answer. I’ve never been able to answer them; I never will. I just kind of let it go. “Where did we all come from?” “What’s the meaning of it all?” “What happens when you die?” Who the f—- knows? What I do know is that it [laughs] gets my Irish up, to beg the point of our interview, when people make up stories and sell an invisible product. It’s such a scam. I just think people should man-up, suck it up, and just say “I don’t know,” instead of closing their eyes very tightly and insisting on believing something that part of them must know is not true. So when people say, “Yeah, but could it be Jesus Christ?” Yes, it could be. And it could be the lint in my navel. It could be a lot of things. I tend to doubt very strongly [the story of] Jesus Christ or any other story that just smacks of the kind of thing that primitive men would come up with.
One part of the movie that blows people away is when we present the different gods that preceded Jesus Christ, who were also crucified. Who they said died for people’s sins, died for three days, came back to life, born of a virgin, baptized in a river. Horace in Egypt and Mithra in Persia and Krishna in India – almost the exact same story as Jesus Christ.
So my main doctrine is, just suck it up and say “I don’t know.” But I also understand that it’s a bit of a luxury to not need to have this sort of spiritual reassurance. And I’m not trying to point fingers, but I do sincerely believe that, unless we shed this skin of myth turned into religion, mankind can’t progress very far, to the point where we need to solve some problems, especially now, that are becoming life-threatening. And [religion] diverts us from so much that needs to be accomplished. And there are so many people who – and this is very frightening to me – are okay with the world ending.