Bill Maher has shared his opinions on today’s top issues for nearly two decades on HBO’s “Real Time.” Now, with his new podcast “Club Random,” the comedian turned political commentator tells Variety he wants to “light up a joint” and talk about other things, like “gossip, pop culture, music and what you had for lunch.” So far, Maher has interviewed the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Mike Tyson, Lisa Kudrow and Aaron Rodgers on the podcast, which debuted in March.
Below, Maher — who has a high hit rate for sparking controversy week after week — discusses fighting against America’s “echo chamber,” who he would never have on “Real Time,” whether he’s concerned about Donald Trump running for president again and what he views as Democrats’ biggest problem heading into 2024.
Is the guest selection process different for “Club Random” than it is for “Real Time”? It’s not like the show doesn’t have on entertainment figures or athletes, people outside of politics.
“Real Time” does, but I would say we’re very sparing with them because “Real Time” is probably the hardest job for anyone to do, which is why I would say the vast majority of people in show business avoid it and, quite frankly, we avoid them. Not because we don’t like them, just because you have to really know what’s going on in the world. And people just do not. Do we have the occasional celebrity? Yeah, but not usually on the panel. I mean, for example, we had David Duchovny a few weeks ago. David Duchovny is, I think, Yale and Princeton. He’s a really bright guy who writes novels. That’s a good example of somebody who we have on “Real Time” who’s a celebrity, but the vast majority of people are just not really up to speed on the kind of things we’re going to talk about on that show. “Real Time” is a show that is intended to catch people up on the news of the week and give a perspective on it. You’re just not going to get that from Carrot Top [laughs]. I don’t know why I always use him as an example. I love him, but he lets me.
How often do people decline invitations to come on “Real Time” because they either aren’t up to speed on politics or they just don’t want to wade into that discourse?
Not often. I think both parties know what’s best for them. In other words, the people who would not really shine on our show don’t want to do it, and we don’t want anyone who’s not going to shine. What I’ve learned doing this for all these years is that if you have a big famous name, it does pique the interest of the audience, but man, they will punish me for having someone — anyone — who doesn’t keep up with good conversation. They’re watching “Real Time” for good conversation. And if someone fails on that, they don’t care how big a star they are. They hate it, and I hear about it.
What were the conversations like with HBO when you said you wanted to start a separate podcast?
They were a little curious at first, I must say. I think it took a minute to convince them that this actually would be good for both of us. And it has been, because what I kept telling them was, “If you want to get new audience — and we always do — you have to fish somewhere where they’re not already.” There are people who watch the podcast who would never think to go to “Real Time,” especially younger people… but they get a little older, they get married, they have taxes and children and a mortgage and they care about politics a little more, and then they’re going to turn hopefully to “Real Time” to get the skinny on what’s going on in the world. And HBO understands “Club Random” is such a different show. I don’t have any agenda when I come here, and I don’t work on the podcast the way I work on “Real Time.” I work on that all week. It’s my real job. [With the podcast,] I barely know who the guest is. I sit down, I light up a joint and we just go.
Do you ever see yourself giving up the show and just doing the podcast? Or is the end of “Real Time” not in sight?
It’s not in sight because I have a contract I just signed for… I can’t remember how many more years. But both parties, “Real Time” and HBO, are very happy with where we are going. It’s not like anything else on television. People see that show as the one place where there’s a real conversation between parties who are not already in their bubble. This country is way too tribal, and it’s very hard to find anything anywhere on television where people don’t already know what the other person is going to say and don’t already agree with it. It’s just a big echo chamber, and we’re fighting against that and always have been. I’m thrilled with what’s going on with “Real Time.” I’m not thrilled with the country. The country’s going to hell in a handcart, but it’s not my job to fix the country. But I’ll do what I can to comment on what’s going off the rails with the country. I just want to keep doing that as long as they’ll have me.
You’ve had some pretty provocative guests on “Real Time” over the years, like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. Many argue that these people have dangerous opinions, and that it’s irresponsible to give them a platform on your show. How do you respond to that?
I don’t agree with it. Platforming… It’s a form of censorship. It’s a form of clamping down on free speech. I don’t think we teach civics or history anymore. So I don’t think a lot of people, especially the younger generation, even understand free speech or why it’s so important. What they have been steeped in is sensitivity and not having to endure too many moments where they encounter something that they don’t already agree with, or that makes them uncomfortable. That is not what college should be. It’s not what the free press should be. If you don’t like Milo, don’t watch. Or if you do, write him a letter, write him an email to do something. And by the way, after he was on, he did more to hurt his career than anything he had done up until then. So the people that didn’t like him and didn’t want him to do my show, the joke was kind of on them because he lost his book deal. He lost his touring contract. He lost everything. He’s a provocateur. There are certainly people I would not bring on [the show]. I wouldn’t have on someone from the Ku Klux Klan or a Nazi or something like that. You mentioned Ann Coulter — she’s a hard right-winger. A lot of the country likes Ann Coulter and listens to her, and she’s not stupid. I don’t exactly read her books. But I know from when we’ve covered her issues in the past, it’s not like she doesn’t do research. Sometimes people say to me, “Is she just saying something to be provocative?” I don’t think she is. I think you need to hear from all voices. And if you don’t like these people, just understand sunshine is the best disinfectant.
So where do you draw the line in terms of who you’d have on the show?
It’s a case-by-case basis. I don’t know. Sometimes people change. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. I’d have to hear the specifics of who we’re talking about. If it’s David Duke, I already know enough about him and I’m not going to talk to him. It’s not gonna help anything or shed a light on anything. You’d have to tell me a specific person and then I’d make up my mind.
What do you view as the Democrats’ biggest problem heading into 2024?
The biggest problem with the Democrats is their woke baggage. I think the Democrats could easily win every election if they didn’t do the kind of things that make people go, “Oh my god, this is the party of no common sense.” Stop talking about pregnant men and stuff that makes people go, “Who are these fucking people? What are they talking about? Men don’t get pregnant.” It’s the stuff that makes them very vulnerable because it’s very close to home. The environment is an issue, and democracy is an issue, but those are rather vague in a lot of people’s minds. [Imitating the average American parent] But when my kids come home from school and they’re telling me things that are going on in the school that I don’t agree with, or the teachers think that they have more say in my child’s life than I do as the parent… that kind of stuff that’s going on in this country. Stuff about race and gender and personal stuff. That’s very up close to people.
Do you think Trump is going to win again?
I’m certainly very concerned about that. I said from the very beginning, he’s definitely going to run again. There’s no doubt. He hasn’t conceded the last election. He’s absolutely going to run again. I can’t imagine, if he wants the nomination, the Republican Party denying it to him, and I can very easily see him beating Biden, but it doesn’t matter because even if Biden beats him, which he probably will, Trump will never concede. And this time, of course, he’s put people in place who will back up his phony claims of winning the election. So the coup that he tried last time could work much better this time. That’s what I worry about and have been worrying about.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
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