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Bill Maher: Grilled

On Letterman, Polanski, atheists and whether he’s ever done his show high.

Winding up his seventh season of “Real Time With Bill Maher” on HBO, the straight-talking comedian (or is he a stand-up pundit?) started the season soft, but found his footing round about the time his ardor for President Obama finally started to dim. This season his guests have included Jay-Z, Michael Moore, Gen. Anthony Zinni, Thomas Friedman and Sarah Silverman.

Sharon Waxman got to grill the politically incorrect oracle on David Letterman, Roman Polanski, why Bill Clinton won’t do the show and if Maher has ever hosted while high.

So what happened to the show this season — you had panels with two people, and  then switched back to three. Was this a failed experiment?
No, we just don’t have that rigid a format. Some weeks it’s three guests, sometimes it’s two. We did change. We used to have the two single interviews, almost always by satellite. We like it better when it’s live.
Well, what’s up with interviewing Ron Howard?
That was a whole different type of show.  In the first six seasons we had to take a giant break in the middle of the year budgetwise, we could only do so many shows. So we’d go from mid-February to mid-May, and be off till September. Every year we thought, "It’s such a drag when you take a big break like that, some of the audience goes away. You have to get them back again, do all the talk shows.’”
Mmm. You must hate doing talk shows.
It is a drag to always have to be priming the pump twice a year.
Do you think the show is more challenging because of the left-wing Obama lovefest? You’ve been pretty slow to criticize him.
Not over here I don’t. We were the very first place to get on his case. Three or four months ago I was being booed by my own audience for doing it. Quickly everyone else was doing it, and I wasn’t getting booed by my own audience.
Someone has to go first. Obama has been a big disappointment to progressives. We all thought it was going to be a new day.
You’re not really that hard on him.
I have been as hard on him as anybody – of the people who voted for him. Of rational people who are not insane.
I thought the first 100 days would be a time of enormous change, radical change. And it looks just like business as usual. Corporately controlled type government that we’ve had forever. It’s still early, but it doesn’t look good.
The fact that health care lobbyists wrote the bill — isn’t that what we were rebelling against? Corporate lobbyists writing legislation?
If he passes health care, will you change your mind?
It depends. If he passes something that says health care on the cover but underneath it’s a mess, I don’t think that’s very good. They’re going to pass something that’ll cover more people, but if they don’t control costs it will get us into more deficit problems.
The health care industry is of course looking forward to being delivered 45 million guaranteed new customers.
OK, what about Roman Polanski?
I don’t understand why Hollywood defends somebody like that. It makes us look so bad. It makes it so easy for conservatives to say that Hollywood has no values. Why people I respect, like Martin Scorsese and Harvey Weinstein and Whoopi Goldberg … How can these people not see something so black-and-white? You cannot give a 13-year-old girl drugs and f— her in the ass -– it’s absolutely ridiculous.
For Hollywood to rally around these guys smacks of what the Catholic Church does when it defends its pedophile priests.
Have you taken any heat for saying that?
I think most people would agree with that. I’m not friends with any of those people. And I like Harvey a lot.
He should come back and go to jail.
Roman, not Harvey …
He never paid the price for a pretty horrible crime. I don’t have kids. I’m not the one who should be out front making this case. But I am a human being. This girl — if you read the testimony — makes the hair on back of your neck stand up. She was saying no. I guess to a director you have to say, "Cut."
So what’s your opinion about the David Letterman affair? Not just the extortion, but how Dave has chosen to share the news?
OK, this is not an important topic. But I will say, as the years roll by, and the scandals roll in, never marrying and making no apologies for loving women just looks better all the time.
You did ask Jay-Z tough questions about his lyrics and his message. Is that hard to do?
No. Jay-Z’s a straight shooter. He knows I’m a fan.
Most people just kiss his feet?
He didn’t have to do the show. He told me point-blank, "I’m doing this because I’m a big fan of the show."
You used to complain you couldn’t get guests. Has that changed?
Sure. Yes. We do very well with anyone who isn’t a current office holder. Certainly we don’t do as well with conservatives. They try to put out the word not to come here.
Who have you not been able to get?
The Clintons. Bill Clinton, not a current office holder —  he does shows that make way worse fun of him. And no one defended him more vociferously during impeachment than I did.
But he’s a public figure and a horn dog – I’m not going to pull my punches. I don’t know what the deal is there.
Not to rub it in — he just did "Jon Stewart."
You know what — it’s almost better. When someone does your show, I don’t care who you are, you do feel a slight obligation to pull a punch. When they haven’t done your show, you feel no such obligation.
Do you have hope of winning over any right-wingers?
I never think about it. I used to say, modestly, I’m just an entertainer. But too many people have come up to me over the years and said just that — I used to think this way, and you changed my mind.
Do you think your anti-God message has gotten any traction?
Especially that. Oh my God. All the time. "I saw ‘Religulous’ and boy, you opened my eyes." That thing about the Jesus Christ biography not being original — born of a virgin, resurrected after they die, born in manger or cave — if you look at details about the Persian god Mithra or Krishna, or Buddha it’s the same. That really reached people.
Have you ever done a show high?
Never. Oh my God. That would be a disaster. Marijuana is not meant for when you have to focus. I smoke pot sometimes for that reason, when I’m alone writing. It’s very good to get the creative juices going.
I don’t know any other show on TV that’s an hour long, with no commercial interruption to catch your breath — you do the monologue, the newsmaker, panel, comedy piece, New Rules and editorial — all these elements. And I can’t say, “We’ll be right back."
If I was high for that — Oh my God. That’s the kind of thing I might have a nightmare about. I love me some pot, but not when I’m working.