Bill Maher has no use for religion, supports drug legalization and railed against the Iraq War years before it became fashionable. So Oklahoma, arguably the fire-engine red of red states, might not seem like a natural fit for the often-controversial stand-up comic and host of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
But Maher, who performs Saturday at the Civic Center Music Hall, argued that is not the case.
“I have more fun in the red states than anywhere,” he said in a recent phone interview.
In fact, he added, the ovation that greeted him onstage in Tulsa a few years ago was among the best he has received anywhere.
“I just stood there for five minutes and let them basically say, ‘Thank you for coming to Tulsa and not forgetting us and not thinking we were to be written off,’” Maher said. “Even in the reddest of red states, there are thousands upon thousands of progressive-thinking people marbled into the population, and they’re more excited because they live in a place where they are in the minority. When someone who speaks like them and thinks like them comes to their town … red states are my favorite places to go.”
And if there’s one thing Maher likes, it’s speaking — particularly if the topic is provocative and sure to piss someone off. “Real Time” is a combustible brew of comedy and serious political discussion in which he tackles the news of the week with panelists who range from Hollywood types to more traditional pundits like Arianna Huffington and Mike Huckabee.
“The audience has taught us that, while they appreciate a famous face on the panel, that is not the most important thing to them,” said the 55-year-old Maher.
“There’s a lot of stupid people and vapid conversation all over television. What they want on this show is smart. And if you can get smart out of Ben Affleck or Alec Baldwin — and you can out of them — then great, because they’re good-looking movie stars. But let’s not have good-looking at the expense of interesting, smart conversation.”
Love him or hate him — Maher doesn’t inspire tepid reaction — his blunt delivery and heated opinions make for interesting conversation. ABC cancelled his previous foray into TV, “Politically Incorrect,” in the summer of 2002 after Maher said the 9/11 terrorists could be accused of many things, but cowardice wasn’t one of them. Maher then made the jump to HBO and “Real Time,” which is now in its ninth season.
Although Maher insists he is a comedian and not a political commentator, he concedes that he has merged the seemingly disparate spheres.
“Sometimes I think it’s a shame we don’t live in Plato’s ‘Republic,’ where only the true philosophers were the pundits,” he said.
“But considering who some of the pundits are in this country? I don’t feel that bad at all. I mean, most of them are just assholes with an opinion. At least I’m an asshole with an opinion who’s funny about it.”
On a few subjects, however, Maher is less funnyman than fulminator. He is clearly aggrieved by what he sees as the steep divide between the very rich and … well, everyone else.
“The folks that should be voting for the populist party so often vote against their own economic interests,” he said.
Maybe they just want their taxes lowered by a white president.
“You can almost understand why the Democrats don’t bother catering to them because if they did, they would probably get it wrong and vote for the Republicans. The tea party movement should be a populist movement. I’m sure they think they’re a populist movement. They’re a populist movement that somehow has the exact same agenda as Steve Forbes,” he said. “If you’re a regular guy and you’re calling for the repeal of the estate tax, you’re just corporate America’s useful idiot.”
His needling of the tea party crowd then turned almost gleeful, positing that a cause named after a tax revolt is clueless about their own taxes.
“Something like 2 percent of them at one point understood that Obama had lowered taxes for, like, 98 percent of families in this country,” Maher said, deadpan. “Taxes went down under Obama. You’d think they would be his champions, but they just don’t get it. Or maybe they just want their taxes lowered by a white president. That could be it, too.”