September 23, 2008

Cornell Connection: Bill Maher '78

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Let’s face it, Bill Maher ’78 is not the most loved of American comedian-cum-political-pundits on night time television. Bitingly honest, equally-oppurtune satirical and cutting to a fault, he’s alienated religious citizens, conservatives and liberals alike. And yet the one time host of the now-deceased Politically Incorrect and current host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher accepts his lot in life as the comedian who tells it straight. Here’s an excerpt of The Sun’s conversation with the infamous Cornell alumnus:

The Sun: We’ve read that you decided to start your stand-up comedy career while you were at Cornell. What inspired that?
Bill Maher: Well, I didn’t decide then. I knew I wanted to be a comedian when I was 10 years old. But when I was at Cornell, I of course was at that point in my life where you’re thinking about what you’re going to do with your life. So it was rather frustrating being in a place where I really couldn’t do stand-up comedy anywhere. But I did once try to shoehorn — and I mean that in the worst possible way [laughs] — some stand-up comedy that I wrote into the Temple of Zeus poetry reading, which at the time were on Wednesday afternoons or something. And people got up in the Temple of Zeus and read their poems, and I got up and tried to do something funny. It was just not the right venue, but it did, I think, at least make me feel like I was trying to get in the game.
Sun: Was it received successfully?
B.M.: No. [Laughs.] First of all, I had never really done comedy. I was still in the stage of just thinking about doing it, and it was the wrong venue for it.
Sun: Were there any student groups that you could’ve gotten involved with?
B.M.: Oh, for comedy? No. There was definitely nothing … I mean, I did end up doing some Greek plays. I was taking classics courses at the time. I had a great professor — I can’t remember his name — but he was cool as hell, and he put on some of the Greek plays. You know, they had phallic props and stuff. They were fun. And I remember doing that. And that was also at the Temple of Zeus.
Sun: Was it at Cornell that you’re personal philosophy — whether about politics or religion or whatever — was really cemented? Did it happen earlier or later that you grew into the views you’re expressing through your work developed?
B.M.: I think it’s always going on. It’s an evolution. It should be. I think one of the great things about not being a politician is that you’re allowed to change your mind throughout your life, whereas when you’re a politician you have think the same thing when you’re 60 as you did when you were 18 or you’re flip-flopping. So I’m always evolving, but I will say this about Cornell. I never really [laughs] thought it was a great place for a social life; but, man, did I get a great education. Of course, I was not trying to turn my Cornell years into something that was going to make me money after I graduated, so I was just free to take the courses I wanted. ’Cuz, honestly, what courses can you take if you want to be a comedian? But I do remember just having so many fabulous educational epiphanies up there, and for that I’ll always be grateful.
Sun: So you have a tendency to say what you think, regardless of whom you may offend along the way — and we’re not criticizing, it’s a trait we admire — but was this also a trait of yours when you were a student, and did it ever get you in trouble?
B.M.: You know, I never got into trouble, but I was sort of a wise guy in class. Not in a destructive way. I think a lot of the teachers like that because I think teachers are bored. As long as you’re working with them — as long as the humor is sort of working with them — I don’t remember alienating teachers with my humor, although sometimes it did de-rail the conversation a little. But, as I say, I think they’re bored, and I don’t think they mind. I wasn’t the kid in class who was in the back throwing spit balls, but I was the kid who was always dreaming of being a comedian, and was using any medium I could to sort of hone my skills. So yeah, I was sort of a cut-up in class.
Sun: I think it’s interesting how so many recognizable political figures have gone to Cornell — Keith Olbermann ’79, Ann Coulter ’84, Ruth Bader Ginsberg ’54, Paul Wolfowitz ’65. Are there any Cornell graduates that you’re close with? I read somewhere that you and Ann Coulter are buds.
B.M.: I don’t think so. I just found out — I don’t think I’ve ever met Keith Olbermann in person — and I did his show a couple of weeks ago by satellite, and I heard him say we both went to Cornell, but I don’t remember seeing him. So we probably walked past each other on the Quad but, you know, there were 30,000 kids there. Ann Coulter — she went to Cornell, but not the same years. We did used to be friends, but I haven’t seen her in many years and I don’t know what’s going on with her. That I can’t tell you about.
Sun: I think we just sort of have this vision of a Cornell crowd and secret meetings, like “I’m Big Red and you’re Big Red. Let’s be friends.” But I guess that’s not the case.
B.M.: No … of all the things that might inspire me to bond with someone, I don’t know why I would put that at the top of the list.
Sun: Changing gears — what do you think about Sarah Palin? Do you really think people out there will vote for her just because she’s a woman?
B.M.: Oh, I think the polls are showing it. McCain is doing better with white women — a lot better apparently — than John Kerry did in 2004. And they are attributing that, to a degree, to Sarah Palin. I think that’s also attributable, to a degree, to Barack Obama being black and having a funny name. You know, a certain percentage of the morons in this country thinking he’s a Muslim.
Sun: How’s this election been, comedy-wise, for you? I’m sure Sarah Palin provides a good amount of fodder for you to fire off on.
B.M.: Oh yeah, comedy-wise it’s a pile of gold. You can’t do better than a creationist hockey-mom and a 200-year-old man.
Sun [laughs]: At the same time, though, there’s a lot of stuff going on right now that might not be so easy to put a comedic spin on. How do you, as a comedian, address issues like the current financial crisis?
B.M.: Well, not forcing it, first of all. I never force anything. If there’s not a joke there, then I feel like an idiot who hosts a show. My job, it’s a weekly wrap-up show that we do, basically. Our main job is to cover, in an educating way, the big stuff that happened that week. It’s sort of a that’s-the-week-that-was show. And some areas are just more comedy-friendly than others. Financial stuff — yeah, our lead guest this week is going to be Paul Krugman, the financial writer for The New York Times [Editor’s Note: the show aired last Friday night].
And we will find a way, I’m sure, to do it in an entertaining and informative way where people are laughing at points. But it’s just, you know, it’s not as funny as the Jesus A-Bomb Lady. It’s just not. And that’s OK. The worst that you could do as a host is to force. It’s like being a quarterback and throwing an interception.
Sun: There are critics — for example, Steven Colbert’s conservative persona — that accuse you of “blaming America first.” What would you say to those people who think you should just shut up?
B.M.: That’s what conservative morons say about people who are critical of America. But people who are critical of America love America and want to make it better. People who look at the world through rose-colored glasses are the ones who have gotten us into this giant mess. I seem to remember at one of the Republican debates this year, one of the questions was, “Name something you don’t like America,” and Mitt Romney said, “Gosh, there’s nothing I don’t like about America.” Really, Mitt? [laughs] There are nearly 50 million people without health care. That’s not something you don’t like about America? The fact that we’re in debt up to our eyeballs, and then look what happens. That we’re torturing people. You know, this country is way, way off the rails, and people get that. So I hope it comes back at the fascists, to be able to criticize your country and have that be seen as patriotism.
Sun: Do you think students were more politically involved when you were at Cornell? Or less than they are now? I think this election has really boosted student involvement.
B.M.: Yeah, that I definitely see. Not just young people, but especially the youth vote seems energized in a way I don’t remember seeing in any election I’ve covered.
Sun: Would you attribute that mostly to Barack Obama? Why do you think it is?
B.M.: I do think it is Obama. It’s personal charisma. There’s no doubt that people feel that. And they feel that here’s somebody who’s young, who’s not some stiff who’s going to carry on business as usual.
But I also think it’s because things are bad. Things have to get very bad for people to pay attention, and right now things are bad. I was just watching this documentary about our debt and — wow, this is a subject that people your age should really be paying very close attention to, because you’re the ones who are going to be paying this enormous debt. The federal debt is something enormous like 9 trillion dollars, and somebody is going to have to pay that back some day. And not to mention, what’s the world going to look like environmentally when you’re my age?
Sun: OK, wrapping it up, the first presidential debate is coming up pretty soon now. Considering all the issue’s you’ve just pointed to, what would you like to see the candidates address in the debates? What would you be pleased to see?
B.M.: I would be pleased if the American voter, who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, would get a look at McCain against Obama and in the same room. I think that’s the one thing that might be able to tip the election. It’s happened before. The election of 1980, for example, was very close until they saw Reagan against Carter, and then they went “OK, Ronald Reagan. I used to think he was a joke, but now I see that he could be president.” And they liked his ideas better, and that election was not close. And, you know, with McCain and Obama, it’s just such a clear choice.
I would hope that people would look at that picture and listen to what these guys have to say when they’re finally in the same room, where Obama can shoot down [McCain’s] lies as they’re being fired and finally get this country back on the right track.

Hysterically serious? Seriously hysterical? You decide. Catch Bill Maher Sunday, Sept. 28 in Barton Hall at 7 p.m. For tickets, visit