Bill Maher has been called many things, but we won't go there. He has also been described as a comic, actor, political commentator, pundit, agitator, host and moderator of HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, and more.
"I guess 'entertainer' is the most general term I've used on the tax form and passport," Maher says, chuckling. "I always think of myself as a comedian first, not just because I did it first and always maintained it – it's the one consistent thing I've done in my life – but because everything really flows from that."
Sometimes people ask him why he still goes around the country doing stand-up.
"I do it because I love it, and I also do it because it helps Real Time, which I shoot out here in Los Angeles," Maher says. "When you get out into the country, as I do, and you're meeting people everywhere, you stop being in an ivory tower. If I just stayed in L.A. and did the show every week from here and never saw America, I don't feel it would be the same show and I don't think I'd be fulfilling my obligation to the audience."
Maher's longevity is nothing if not amazing. Talk shows are a very risky business, and few last more than a season. More to the point, Maher's liberal leanings have made him the target of conservative groups and some elected officials who have dubbed him anti-American and pushed hard to get him off the air. His critics surely didn't shed a tear when an ill-advised Maher comment about the 9/11 hijackers set off a chain of events that led ABC to cancel his first show, Politically Incorrect, which ran from 1993 to 2002 (first on Comedy Central, then on ABC). Real Time started in 2003 and is now deep into its 10th season.
"Sometimes, I am amazed," Maher admits. "It's almost 20 years that I've been on the air, going back to Politically Incorrect, which in some ways was more controversial because it was on broadcast television. I had to deal with a lot more than I have to deal with here at my indulgent patrons, HBO. But, I think one thing that happened is if you're around long enough, you become inoculated, to a degree, from people trying to get rid of you. They just understand that's who you are, you're not going away, and if they try to make you go away, you will fight it.
"The other thing is," he says, "when you're HBO, you don't have to worry about advertisers pulling out, which was a big problem, obviously, when I got kicked off ABC. It was never that our ratings went down. It was that advertisers found the show too controversial to be associated with."
Maher realizes that like-minded thinkers comprise the bulk of his audience. As he points out, no one's going to watch you if they don't share your point of view.
"But we get a fair amount of conservatives in our audience because, for one, I think they appreciate the fact that the conservative voice is almost always represented on our show," Maher explains. "Two, I think there are a lot of epublicans, old-school Republicans, who are, quite frankly, embarrassed at what the Republican Party has become and pine for what we call 'the space cowboy Republicans,' the Bob Doles, the Alan Simpsons, the first George Bush. Those kinds of Republicans, who are mostly in their 80s or 90s now, were a much more reasonable breed of Republicans who you could deal with and who didn't deny things like global warming. They tried to resolve them, although in a Republican fashion.
"The other thing is, when you make people laugh, they just like you," he says. "I hear that all the time: 'I don't agree with everything you say, but you make me laugh, so I watch your show.'"
Maher lives and works in Los Angeles these days, but for him, Bergen will always be home. He grew up in River Vale and attended Pascack Hills High School in Montvale. Maher occasionally returns to the area, both to visit family and friends and to perform. In fact, he'll be appearing May 20 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
"There's nothing like going to the place that spawned you," Maher says. "I get to see my sister and some cousins. My sister lives in Park Ridge, and she's a teacher at Bergen Community College. My earliest gigs were in New Jersey. The first time I ever walked on stage as a comedian was at the Jade Fountain restaurant in Paramus. It's my old haunts, my old friends. There's nothing like it.
"I always say that I had the last Leave It to Beaver upbringing in America, because my childhood was free of so many of the controversies kids today have to face," he continues. "I don't remember drugs being an issue. Race was not an issue since it was pretty much an all-white town. Class was not an issue. We were all, it seemed, middle-class. I'm sure kids were richer than we were, but I didn't seem to notice and I didn't wish I had better clothes. Bullying, which has become a big issue, I remember that very well, remember being bullied a lot and being ostracized. That's just stuff kids are going to do to each other. But as far as any of the societal pathologies that have bled into the educational system, we were blissfully unaware."
As the conversation ends, Maher shares one last Bergen County anecdote. "We always joked when I was growing up that New Jersey was the mall capital of the world and we had more malls than anybody else," he says. "When I go back and I have to get a last-hour Christmas gift, believe me, I'm at the Paramus Park Mall, just like I was as a teenager."