Bill Maher was a Cornell University grad in search of a career when he discovered stand-up in the ’80s. Searching for an outlet for his often-controversial viewpoints, Maher created Politically Incorrect, an Emmy-nominated round-table interview show that established itself on Comedy Central in 1993 before concluding its run in 2002 on ABC. Maher’s one-man Broadway show received a Tony nomination for 2003, the same year he re-entered the television sweepstakes with Real Time with Bill Maher, yet another interview program that currently airs on HBO.
Maher’s frankness has landed him in hot water. He drew fire in 2001 when he asserted that the 9/11 terrorists were anything but cowards. Just recently, an Alabama congressman accused Maher of treason for his remarks regarding army recruitment efforts. But like him or not, Maher, 49, resists clear-cut political categorization. His support for the privatization of Social Security, his 2000 endorsement of Ralph Nader for president, his disdain for some dearly held women’s issues and his pro-death penalty stance have helped to make him a shape-shifting media figure.
Maher’s latest book, New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer, is a collection of wry, often caustic observations about everyday American life, the world, politicians, celebrities in short, any topic within range of his opinionated mind. Maher took the time to answer a few questions for BookPage during a publicity tour. This book is a chance for me to rail and vent, he says, often with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The collection calls out people, traditions and institutions in no uncertain terms, as it addresses my personal pet peeves and frustrations in a raw and hopefully a humorous way. The idea of new rules might be at odds with a personality America knows as a stalwart freethinker. Could this be an older, mellower Bill Maher? I don’t start with a political agenda and then craft my opinion, explains Maher. I start with my opinion and let the chips fall where they may. I’ll leave it to others to . . . try to categorize my thinking. The idea of rules and structure, by the way, are not exclusive to conservatives. Liberals fight tirelessly for rules guaranteeing a woman’s right to choose, minority and gay rights, a living wage, etc. As far as getting older and mellower goes: guilty as charged. Where I used to reserve Tuesday nights exclusively for my poker buddies and Jack Daniel’s, I now have a standing date with Ã”Judging Amy.’ New Rules is as likely to praise Hollywood and California as easily as it lambastes elements of culture that originate from those places. To hear Maher tell it, it’s okay if Billy Joel marries a woman 35 years his junior, but he’s firmly against older women posing in Playboy. But give the guy credit: his scattershot musings are consistently inconsistent. I’m not a black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinker, says Maher. I can defend Hollywood in general while decrying some of its individual practices, just like I can have a huge problem with Western medicine but still see a Van Nuys doctor about my ingrown toenail. As for defending Billy Joel, the logic is perfectly consistent: most heterosexual men are attracted to young, nubile women. I don’t state that to be popular or fair-minded, but simply as a fact. The book has plenty to say about the Bush administration, and Maher’s animosity is palpable. Still, he isn’t working for any political party. For some reason, Maher says, many regard an intellectual free agent as threatening. If you don’t declare allegiance to a team, they’ll pick one for you. People spend way too much time trying to categorize others, trying to place them in an easily definable, one-size-fits-all box. I guess because, once in a box, you’re more easily dismissed. [My] goal was never to forward an agenda. It was to entertain, to enlighten and to meet chicks. New Rules also takes potent aim at media and lifestyle icons such as Trekkies, movies, cell phones and more, in a way that seems to position the comedian somewhere between a tastemaker and a Miss Manners for the modern age. A Miss Manners for the modern age? I like it, Maher responds. But mostly these are funny jokes in rule form. The reason these rules are so popular, however, is that they strike a pretty universal chord. It’s amazing how so many of us are annoyed by so many of the same things. Political pundit, social critic, stand-up comedian. Maher is all three (and possibly a few other names that his detractors might call him). But first and foremost I’m a comedian, he says. After promoting his book, Maher will return to TV with all-new live installments of Real Time. He’s also got a new stand-up special entitled I’m Swiss airing on HBO. And, as always, he concludes, I will be touring my comedy act as a means of creative expression and to avoid my student loan officer. Martin Brady is a writer in Nashville.