As the lights go down for a taping of Bill Maher's "Politically Incorrect" in Los Angeles, co-executive producer Scott Carter lays out the ground rules for the audience: When the signs say "laughter," laugh. When they say "applause," applaud.
Leaving the stage, he reminds the audience members of their duty: "Let's try and fake it for the people at home." It's an appropriately cynical introduction to the world of "Politically Incorrect."
The popular 30-minute talk show, which follows "Nightline" weeknights on ABC, features a guest roster that sounds like the start of a bad joke ("So Chris Rock, Dr. Ruth, and Sammy Hagar walk into a bar..."). Maher is the anti-John McLaughlin, moderating as, say, Donna Shalala and Ted Nugent debate dreadfully familiar topics: Is welfare a safety net or an incentive to stay unemployed? Is affirmative action a remedy or reverse discrimination? Is the government covering up evidence of alien visitation or not? No one really gets anywhere, and no one really loses, but it sure is fun to watch—kind of like celebrity intellectual Jell-O wrestling.
At the center of this galaxy of stars is the 42-year-old Maher, a Jersey boy who, before he became a vaudeville pundit, was a moderately successful stand-up comic and B-movie actor (his film credits include Ratboy and D.C. Cab). The four-year-old "Politically Incorrect" joined the majors in early 1997, moving to ABC from Comedy Central, where it had ranked as the cable network's top-rated program. Since then, Maher's been lauded by everyone from Elle to the New York Times for his willingness to "get back to just the talk." U.S. News & World Report went so far as to liken him to Will Rogers.
Critical acclaim aside, Maher has faltered at ABC: Ratings haven't been up to par; a much-hyped series of prime-time broadcasts was discontinued due to lack of interest; and both Vanity Fair and the Weekly Standard recently attacked him, launching the first salvos in what may become a press backlash. Maher's prickly persona helps him withstand such slings and arrows with stoic equanimity ("If they don't laugh, I will stand there and take it"). But his arch dismissal of popular tastes ("Most of what people read now is complete crap") may be what makes him such an appealing target to begin with.
Q: Do you find it ironic that you're hosting a political show from Los Angeles?
A: I don't understand the question.
Q: I don't think of Los Angeles as a real political center...
A: That's your prejudice, and I do mean prejudice. Every important political issue is played out here in California. It's the biggest state, the state that the president visits the most, it's the state every politician covets the most, the state you cannot do without for winning an election. I mean, come on, step into the '90s. We are not Costa Rica. We are California. It's like the people who say TV is a vast wasteland—it's not 1970 anymore. That's so anachronistic. Reading does not necessarily have any sort of intellectual advantage over watching TV, because most of what people read now is complete crap. Of course, you can read something good, but there is also a lot of really interesting educational stuff on TV: the Discovery Channel, PBS, and, every once in a while, our show—although I would not put ourselves on that level.
Q: You don't think of your show as educational?
A: I get a lot of comments from people who say, "You started talking about this point and this point. You didn't bring up this other point," as if we were doing some sort of Jim Lehrer report. We're competing with the entertainment shows, as an entertainment show. They'd never level that criticism at Letterman. But I raise some hopes of brain activity. Therefore, they get mad at me and say, "You should've brought this up as long as you are talking about gun control." We just don't have time, and we're not that deep.
Q: But when you don't go that deep, don't you run the risk of dumbing down important information?
A: I don't dumb down at all. It's an art. It's a talent. It's not a matter of dumbing down. I do what I want every night.
My mother calls me frequently and she'll say, "I had no idea what your monologue was about last night," because my mother doesn't know who the Notorious B.I.G. is. There's people all across the spectrum who are not going to understand one reference or the other. But I don't take out any of the references. I don't care. I am doing what I think is the right thing.
If I do a joke about Joe Kennedy—"He didn't drop out of the election, he said he annulled his candidacy"—you have to know the reference. If they don't laugh, I will stand there and take it, because I'm doing the show for the crowd at home. But I'd rather lead than follow. And I think people respect that.
Q: Do you find it troubling that the only way people take an interest in politics is if you dress it up as a comedy routine?
A: People say to me all the time, "I get my news from your show." And that isn't the way they should get their news. But the choice is not between getting their news the right way and getting their news from my show. The choice is that they won't get any at all unless you give it to them in an entertaining package. So what would you prefer? It's a marketed-to and pampered culture out there. You have to market to them. You have to pamper them.
Q: The same way George magazine or USA Today pampers them?
A: Yeah, I've made that comparison many times. For the pundits, George has no substance. But for the country at large, they might learn something, because George makes it a little more entertaining and glossy and has a few more pictures and pie charts. People pick up USA Today because they go, "Look—there's a purple pie chart." But when they look at that purple pie chart, they might learn something. Whereas they look at the New York Times, and they just leave it on the stand. I can't even get the Wall Street Journal. I look at all that print, and it just looks too intimidating to me. I'm much more comfortable with USA Today.
Q: But a lot of that news is all the same.
A: Well, go to the newsstand. There used to be magazines everyone read—like Life or Time. Now there's Gay Indian Biker magazine. That's what I mean by overmarketing. You don't just get your coffee. You get your decaf Frappuccino latte. Whatever you are, there's going to be a magazine about you. Just for you.
People have a choice. Mother Jones is hardly anything like Newsweek or Time. It's there for people if they want it. They just don't want it. Same with candidates. There's always a candidate who tells the truth. People don't want to vote for him. They didn't want to vote for Paul Tsongas. They don't want to hear it.
Everybody has a magazine and a channel. There are 500 channels and 500 magazines, and we wonder why we're not united as a country.
Q: Do politicians approach your show differently than the entertainers?
A: Well, sure. They see our show as a way of reaching people and making themselves seem very human, which is hard for a politician to do, because the public doesn't really want them to be human. If you ever cheated on your wife, if you ever smoked pot, if you ever did any of the things that people in America are doing all the time themselves, you're not fit for office. So you get very robotic people. They make fun of Al Gore for being robotic, but that works, or else he wouldn't do it.
Q: You've said before that people don't want their politicians to be human and that in fact people are full of shit.
A: I said Clinton was the right president because he's full of shit and we're full of shit. We claim we want one thing but we really don't. Or we claim we want two things that are diametrically opposed, like cutting taxes and saving entitlements. Short of a war, I don't know how it will be remedied. I don't think it will be. Unless there's some catastrophe that wakes people up and makes them realize that there are values in life that are more important than having a pump in your sneaker.
Q: Do you worry about that?
A: It doesn't keep me up at night. But you know, I'm probably bad like a lot of people in that way. My generation didn't face the kind of urgent, pressing issues that my parents did, who fought through a war and a depression and know what suffering is. That's why Bob Dole had a tough time with this electorate. He was an old-fashioned curmudgeon who knew about sacrifice, and we didn't know if we could live up to his standards. But we knew we could live up to Bill Clinton's. He's more like one of us.