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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Fearless Cynic

Laughing with Bill Maher

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   Controversial comedian Bill Maher, whose digs can strike the funny bone while hitting a nerve, wants to stimulate critical thinking through the gateway of humor. The fearless if not ruthless cynic, host of HBO’s Emmy-nominated series “Real Time,” will perform at the Riverside Theater on Thursday, July 24.

  We spoke with Maher by phone in early June, discussing politics, religion and the war on drugs. We began by probing about the relevance of his profession.

  “Too many people, especially the younger generation, don’t get their news from real sources but comedy shows, which is a little like reading the CliffsNotes instead of the actual book,” he says. “I guess it’s better than watching ‘America’s Next Top Model.’At least you’re getting some information.”

  Regarding the “dismal credibility and ratings” of the major media outlets, he continues, “there’s been a slow denigration of the quality of journalism because television is owned by big corporations that have to turn a profit.”

  HBO, which picked up Maher in 2003 after ABC dropped his late-night show “Politically Incorrect” for “politically incorrect statements,” does not answer to sponsors. The live television format of “Real Time” includes celebrity guests, politicians and journalists who debate meaty subjects. The discussions often grow heated. In one headline-making episode, Maher jumped off the stage to eject a group of disruptive “9/11 truthers,” conspiracy theorists purporting that the Bush administration purposely destroyed the WorldTradeCenter, from the audience.

  “They are very disappointed in me, but I tried to prove that Bush couldn’t possibly be behind it because it involved planning and it worked!” Maher quips. “During Katrina he couldn’t get a helicopter to the New Orleans Superdome. I just hope that he [Bush] doesn’t have one more giant disaster in him.”

Repairing the Damage

  Maher, a libertarian, believes the “liberal left has gone underground,” bombs have replaced communication and the international community has grown leery of the United States.

  “The world must say, ‘These people aren’t afraid to fight wars in other countries, they just don’t want to get their own civilians involved,’” he says. “We have to repair the image that we value American life above any other life, which is ironic because we pretend to be such a religious people and I can’t think of anything more un-Christian.”

  According to a 2008 PEW survey, more than 80% of Americans identify themselves as Christian, and Maher’s targeting of their ideological roots often draws fire. Maher’s followers are anticipating the fall release of his documentary “Religulous” with director Larry Charles of Borat. The film is a “flat-out comedy” that threatens to be a punch in the belly of religious organizations, some of which may not have the stomach to turn the other cheek.

  Before the recent crop of atheist authors such as Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Maher tooted the “ridiculousness and dangerousness” of religion. “I’ve been talking about this for 15 years; not that I’m the first: George Carlin should get the props,” Maher says. “Religion is the side of a barn door. If you’re a comedian and cannot hit this target, you should get out of the business. We are, after all, talking about people who believe in a talking snake, or that someone lived in a whale for three days or turned into a pillar of salt.”

  Aside from pummeling sacred traditions and evangelizing atheism, Maher also advocates the legalization of drugs. But he notes that the country is facing more pressing issues at the moment. “The drug cause has dropped a few notches,” he says of his campaign to end the war on illicit pleasure. “At the moment it can’t be more than No. 5 on the list. First, we have to save the planet and get out of Iraq.”

The self-proclaimed ethical humanist will return to a new season of “Real Time” starting Friday, Aug. 29, following his 13-city stand-up comedy tour.

Also from Lora Nigro and Kevin Robert Rutkowski

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