The Last Liberal
December, the public research firm WPA Intelligence came out with a small survey with potentially huge—and widely ignored—implications for institutional media, entertainment, and government.
Asking 1,000 registered voters which of eight listed media personalities they trusted, the firm found podcast iconoclast Joe Rogan—who has been serially singled out by the Joe Biden White House for COVID-19 “misinformation”—in second place with 36 percent, just edging out former Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s 35 percent and Daily Wire impresario Ben Shapiro’s 33, and far ahead of the industry-respected CNN anchor Jake Tapper (23 percent).
In first place, with 40 percent, including the highest ratings of the group among political independents? Comedian Bill Maher.
Maher, whose 22nd season of HBO’s Real Time debuted January 19, the day before his 68th birthday, finds himself in an unusually important position in American discourse as he enters a 30th consecutive year hosting a political talk show on TV. As elite journalists increasingly shy away from “platforming” allegedly dangerous conservatives, Maher eagerly slings the bull with the Steve Bannons and Vivek Ramaswamys of the world. As late-night comedians elicit “clapter” for their dutiful swipes at Donald Trump, the HBO host still aims for actual laughs, in part by making his own political side uncomfortable. And in an era when both left and right are abandoning bedrock Enlightenment values of due process and free speech, Maher has become one of the most insistent (critics would say hectoring) voices for old-school liberalism.
“It’s a small band of us,” Maher says at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s famed Polo Lounge, “but we’re the ones who haven’t gone insane, and people know it.”
Maher is stubborn, tolerant, energetic, and a tad eccentric. He brought a dropper of organic water flavoring to lunch, explaining: “Am I a chemist? Have I vetted it? No, but I really believe them. And Aaron Rodgers texted me and said he’s doing it.” Over the decades he has been one the most influential public figures to normalize the recreational use of marijuana, sitting on the advisory board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Twice during the 2023 Writers Guild strike he came close to breaking ranks and bringing his show back sans writers, as he had in 2008.
As a potentially insane 2024 election year wheezes into gear, Maher is calling for Biden to step down, gearing up for a comedy tour titled “WTF?” releasing a book collecting his editorials over the past two decades, and continuing his popular new video podcast Club Random, where he gets high with celebrities and tries not to talk about politics.
Reason‘s Matt Welch sat down with Maher on January 5 to talk about his career, the state of free speech, and wrestling with such characters as Kanye West.
Reason: How often are you stoned on Club Random?
Maher: Oh, constantly. The whole point of the show is I’m completely stoned. And I’m not hiding it.
Who’s the best stoned interviewee? Who has just lost it so far?
Probably Kanye, but we never aired that one.
You’re suppressing sweet Kanye material!
Oh, I would’ve been canceled. I mean, I try to resist bending the knee—I think I do it better than almost anybody else in media—to the woke shit, but sometimes, you know, you will just be canceled.
We did that right around when he was first starting ranting about the Jews. I wanted to have him over to instruct him, in a nice way. Everybody else was yelling at him, and that’s not the way to get through to somebody. And he’s a sweet guy—I mean, he’s not a terrible guy. He is a narcissist in the sense of the last thing he would ever think to say to me was, “What’s going on with you?”
But I did, I think, get through to him about antisemitism. I don’t know if it stuck. Apparently it didn’t, because he said things since like “I like Hitler,” so.
He was on time, very normal. I think he had been thrown off social media, so he had no outlet and he wanted to go to a few places and get his story out. And he was cool; we laughed our asses off for a couple hours and smoked a lot. And I tried to explain to him about people who are successful in business—you know, that’s capitalism. They’re going to be rough in business. It’s just capitalism, and Jews are good at it, so maybe that’s why you’re beefing so much about it.
But it was still risqué enough that you didn’t want to—
No, it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to get canceled. It was that I thought giving him, with the level of his antisemitism, more oxygen—no, I didn’t want to participate in that. I was hoping I could get him to recant, basically, and I could not. I got him to listen, and then we’d go onto something else and laugh and laugh and laugh, and then it would just sort of like come back again, and he would say something. I’d be like, “Now Kanye, OK, there’s that Jew thing again!” So I thought I had a noble purpose, but then when it did not come around to what I hoped: No, I’m not going to help him. That’s just a bridge too far.
I want to talk a bit about the program that you do on television and look on its history, because you’re in year 30 of doing political comedy.
Thirty consecutive years on TV: That’s a lot! It’s amazing that it gets no coverage in the mainstream media. Really, that’s not a story? I know I’m a bad person because I don’t bend a knee to the woke doctrine, but wow, that’s a lot to look past.
I don’t know, in your age and decrepitude, whether you remember where your memory was 30 years ago—
It’s not the age, it’s the pot!
But when you were starting [Maher’s previous TV show] Politically Incorrect, and to the extent that you had a mission of what you were doing besides getting laughs and getting ratings and getting renewals, what was that mission? And how has that changed over the years?
Well, it’s in the title, Politically Incorrect. That was not a phrase at the time. But that was really what it is. Political
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