Born in New York City in January 1956, Bill Maher is a comedian, actor, producer, and writer known for his political satire and commentary. Maher’s Irish-American father, a radio newscaster and later an NBC-TV news editor, was Roman Catholic. His mother, a nurse, was Jewish. When Bill Maher was 13 years old, his father abandoned his Catholic faith, and Bill Maher did likewise. “It was like V-J Day in my room,” a laughing Maher is quoted as saying in the October 24, 2004 Chicago Sun-Times. “I couldn’t have been more thrilled.”
In 1978 Maher graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English. Shortly thereafter he began performing as a stand-up comic in clubs in and around New York City, leading a life of promiscuity, drugs and ambition which Maher later described in True Story: A Comedy Novel (1994).
In 1993 Maher created and hosted the show “Politically Incorrect” on the Viacom-owned cable channel Comedy Central. Acquired in 1997 by ABC Television, this weeknight program featured Maher-led discussions with four guests, three of whom were almost invariably liberals or leftists. Prospective conservative guests were often interviewed in advance by staff, and those who refused to take extreme positions got no invitation to the show.
Many of Maher’s comments were controversial and irreverent. In 2003, for instance, he likened retarded children to dogs: “…But I’ve often said that if I had — I have two dogs — if I had two retarded children, I’d be a hero. And yet the dogs, which are pretty much the same thing. What? They’re sweet. They’re loving. They’re kind, but they don’t mentally advance at all. … Dogs are like retarded children.”
Politically Incorrect ended because Maher, during a heated discussion over whether the 9/11 terrorists were cowards, proclaimed: “We [Americans] have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly. Stupid maybe, but not cowardly.” Amid the controversy that grew out of Maher’s remarks, Federal Express and Sears Roebuck withdrew their advertising from Politically Incorrect, and ABC cancelled Maher’s show on June 16, 2002.
In 2003 Maher became the host of Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO television, a debate show somewhat similar to Politically Incorrect, but with a narrower selection of guests.
A central theme in Maher’s humor and commentary is his repudiation of religion. He has said that Bibles should be required to carry warning labels. Religion, he told the Sun-Times, is “dangerous. … It stops people from thinking. And it justifies insanity. Flying planes into buildings was a faith-based initiative.” Maher used the words “poison” and “stupid” when describing to the Sun-Times his childhood religious education. He compared religion to toxic mercury in tooth fillings. “I hate religion,” says Maher. “I think it’s a neurological disorder.”
In politics Maher describes himself as a “libertarian,” but he has performed at Democratic Party fundraisers. In 2004 he and filmmaker friend Michael Moore got down on their knees on one show to beg Ralph Nader not to run again for President. Maher and Moore had both supported Nader in 2000, when his third-party candidacy drew enough votes in Florida to defeat Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.
Maher’s political views differ radically from the laissez-faire, small government, low tax philosophy of the Libertarian Party. Maher supports high progressive taxation, income redistribution, racial preferences, government funding of abortion, tough gun control, and the outlawing of home schooling.
But Maher and Libertarians agree on at least two issues: privatizing Social Security and ending the war on drugs. Maher is an Advisory Board member for NORML, an organization which supports the decriminalization of marijuana.
Maher is also an animal rights activist (he is a board member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), a vegetarian, and an environmentalist who makes frequent reference to the topic of global warming on Real Time.
Maher views conservatism and the Republican Party as havens for white racists. In July 2009, he said on his program:
“Let me broaden this out to ask about the Republican Party and racism. If you ask me, to quote John Dean, there is a cancer on the Republican Party and it is racism. I told this to Joe Scarborough last week… For a party that is trying to attract minorities or claims to be… One time side with the minority. The only racism they ever seem to be able to see is reverse racism. They never seem able to see victims of actual racism or ever once side with these people.”
That same month, Maher made the following on-air criticisms of capitalism, conservatism, and the American criminal-justice system:
“Not everything in America has to make a profit. You know, if conservatives get to call universal healthcare ‘socialized medicine,’ I get to call private, for-profit healthcare ‘soulless, vampire bastards making money off human pain.’ The more people who get sick and stay sick, the higher their [hospitals’] profit margins [are]…. The problem with President Obama’s healthcare plan isn’t socialism. It’s capitalism. When did the profit motive become the only reason to do anything? When did that become the new patriotism?… And it’s not just medicine. Prisons also used to be a non-profit thing…. It is not a coincidence that we outsourced running prisons to private corporations, and then the number of prisoners in America skyrocketed.”
In 2010, when President Obama was proposing an increase of 3.6 percentage points on the income tax rates of America’s highest earners (i.e., an increase of 10% above the existing 36% rate), Maher said: “I’ve done some math that indicates that, considering the [financial] hole this country is in, if you are earning more than a million dollars a year and are complaining about a 3.6% tax increase, then you are by definition a greedy a**hole.”1
In mid-September 2012, Maher, during his HBO program Real Time, made an anti-Semitic joke about the producers of an anti-Islamic film that radical Muslims throughout the Middle East had used as a pretext for anti-American demonstrations and violence against U.S. embassies. Shortly after accusing Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney of having politicized the violence, Maher said: “Apparently the person who made this movie originally claimed he was Jewish and got the funding by raising $5 million from a hundred Jews, not one of whom has come forward to ask for a producer credit. So we know that’s bulls–t.”
A vocal proponent of gun control, Maher frequently refers to conservatives and Republicans who support firearm-ownership rights as “gun nuts.” He has also denounced congressional Democrats for their weak efforts to restrict gun rights. In April 2013, Maher said: “I’m sorry, but this is the problem with the gun debate is that it’s a constant center-right debate. There’s no left in this debate. Everyone on the left is so afraid to say what should be said which is, ‘The Second Amendment is bulls-—.’”
On his television program Real Time on July 20, 2016, Maher chided any minority who might be inclined to vote for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Said Maher: “New rule: Marginalized black Republicans and marginalized gay Republicans have to come together and form a new group called The Uncle Tom’s Log Cabin Republicans.” Maher also compared Trump’s sons to Nazis. “There was an outbreak of Norovirus, the one they get on cruise ships, at the [Republican National] Convention,” said Maher. “They said avoid shaking hands. So, if you see the Trump boys, just Sieg Heil and walk right on by.” Maher later expanded on this German Nazi theme when he said: “Do people realize if they are elected Donald Trump, really the people that are going to be running the country are Douche Bag Von Fuckface Trump and Thurston Shit Bag III?”
In a June 2, 2017 appearance on “Real Time,” Republican Senator Ben Sasse invited Maher to his home state of Nebraska and joked: “We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.” Maher smiled broadly broadly and replied: “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house ni**er.” When the audience reacted with a mix of groans and awkward laughter, Maher said: “No, it’s a joke.”
1 In March 2013, Maher appeared to have changed his views on taxation, complaining: “It’s outrageous what we’re [the wealthy are] paying – over 50 percent. I’m willing to pay my share, but yeah, it’s ridiculous.”