Q&A with Bill Maher

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Bill Maher

Bill Maher became famous for his irreverent-bordering-on-outrageous approach to current issues. His first television show, Politically Incorrect, derived entertainment value from getting celebrities to talk about politics (whether they knew anything or not) and purposely pitting against each other representatives of completely opposite points of view. Fourteen years later, such programming stunts are the purview of Fox News, and Maher is conducting a surprisingly high-minded conversation on his HBO show, Real Time, now in its fifth season. He still mixes celebrity with punditry, but guests come from the Meet the Press side of the ledger: Sen. John Kerry, counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke, comedian/actor Robin Williams, and talk show host Chris Matthews. TIME's Ana Marie Cox called Maher in Los Angeles to see what's changed.

TIME: You've been doing pugnacious, sarcastic political critiques that blur the line between news and entertainment for almost 14 years. How has that form changed "straight" political debate?

MAHER: Detractors would say we started the trend of mixing politics and show business, but my view is that unless you're a true journalist, a true intellectual, if you're gonna talk about politics, you might as well be funny. I mean, I like Bill O'Reilly, but what are his qualifications? He's just a guy with an opinion.

Other people have picked up on the idea of booking a snake and a mongoose. On Real Time, it's more like a real conversation. And, honestly, it started because I noticed that on Politically Incorrect, the more interesting things were said after the show, because the guests didn't feel the pressure to shout at each other.

How have you changed?

I've mellowed into a pussycat, of course. I'm not interested in the shouting match or in the fireworks. I'm happy to do a show unabashedly for adults. On the old show, we certainly had network pressure, but we had our own pressure as well, to book guests that were, shall we say, demographically appropriate. On the current show, we rarely book anyone under 30, or even under 40. You want to book the people who are best at it. That is what the audience was asking for.

Are there guests — serious guests — you'd like to have on now that still refuse because they think it's a shouting match?

I don't think I'm ever confrontational. But I don't think I've ever pulled a punch. [As far as guests:] The Clintons come to mind. And I like them! I just don't kiss anyone's ass.

Do you ever think that it's strange that the arc of your career (which began with the movie DC Cab) now has you interviewing the likes of Noam Chomsky?

I did used to think that, but it's been awhile. I don't pretend to think I'm as smart as Noam Chomsky, but I'm smart enough to ask him questions.

So are you surprised you're not in a place in popular culture where it's credible that you'd have that kind of guest?

There are people who think it's completely incredible. The thing about America is that it is without walls. You can get almost anywhere, if you insist upon it. There are no credentials for this kind work. There's no kind of credentials to be President! Except age and place of birth. It's kind of a low bar.

I hope that next time people go to the polls they vote for the guy who can read rather than the guy they'd rather have a beer with.

Can't you get both?

It's very rare to find both a real intellect and a man of the people. Bill Clinton was last one who had the common touch — no jokes — and was a real intellectual.

I was really mad when George Bush went and told 60 Minutes that he was reading this book about Algiers, which he said [slight drop into Bush mimicking voice] "has a lot of parallels to the Iraq war." Well, really great to be reading that book three years into the war. Maybe it would have been good to be reading that before we got into this. Why don't you try reading about a country we're about to invade instead of praying about it.

You've played, at the very least, a guest star role in some of the major political debates of this administration (prompting Ari Fleischer to tell Americans they better "watch what they say," among other things) — how do you feel about that?

I'm proud of that role. I'm proud of everything that happened after 9/11. The country was in a traumatized state and retrospect clears a lot of things up.

Some would argue that bloggers — or the blogosphere — is continuing the snake-versus-mongoose kind of debate that you've left behind. What do you think?

Well, that's fine. It's gonna go on somewhere. They say all sick jokes start in prison, and wherever they start, we're all gonna hear them. Every level of debate is going to get out in the culture. We don't need the attitude that if someone says something we don't agree with, they need to GO AWAY. This country doesn't need more censorship, it needs less.