Bill Maher Tries to Laugh a Representative Out of Office

The host of Real Time With Bill Maher has repeatedly told us the sky was falling, and the events of August have sort of proved him right Janet Van Ham/HBO

More than three decades after his first stand-up gig, Bill Maher is still crossing things off his show-biz bucket list. Things like smoking a joint onstage, a 25-year-old dream the comedian finally made real at a Denver show last month. Or daring Dick Cheney to set himself on fire, which he did in a Funny or Die video three weeks ago. Or going directly from a taping of his HBO show, Real Time With Bill Maher, to the taping of an hourlong standup special.

"It's never been done, and yes, something could go horribly wrong," Maher tells me when we chat on the phone in August. In two weeks he'll be heading to Washington, D.C., to execute his one-two punch performance, a special taping of Real Time followed immediately by his 10th standup special for HBO. While the logistics of the show-to-show transition aren't particularly onerous—a police escort will shepherd Maher from the taping at D.C.'s Sidney Harman Hall to the Warner Theater just four blocks away—the mental demands have Maher a little rattled. He's been researching preshow brain foods, and has settled on a combination of fish, nuts and avocados.

"Comedians, we have to get our head together before a show," he explains. "The image of the comedian pacing backstage—I'm that guy. And I know how I feel after a taping of Real Time, which is completely spent. I can't even remember my name."

But in the packed Sidney Harman Hall on September 12, those nerves were in short supply. With guests that included Jerry Seinfeld and Nancy Pelosi, Maher held forth on everything from Iraq to Washington dysfunction, and was successfully escorted to a sold-out standup performance (topics included Pope Francis and Donald Trump, and zero joints were smoked onstage). Chalk it up to the restorative power of peanut-avocado-fish tacos.

Or blame it on a news-heavy summer. In the month between Real Time's midyear finale on August 1 and the D.C. taping, Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea; Israel and Palestine resumed hostilities; an Ebola outbreak killed thousands in Africa; Ferguson, Missouri, erupted into riots; and American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff were beheaded on camera by the militant Islamic group Islamic State (commonly known as ISIS).

Maher concedes that the summer of 2014 seemed especially attuned to his recent causes of choice: the militarization of police, racism in America and the rise of militant Islamic extremists. He calls all of them "issues hiding in plain sight," Islamic radicalism in particular. "To me, this is very similar to global warming, in the sense that there are people who deny this threat, but only if you don't read the paper. If you read the paper, every day there's something about global warming, and every day it's worse than we thought. Every article starts off with, 'Scientists find ice melting faster than they thought.' 'The sky is falling faster than we thought, and we thought it was falling pretty fast.' It's sort of the same thing with Islam."

Maher's description of Islam as a religion that fosters extremism has long earned him critics, including guests on his own show. Last month, he tweeted a New York Times story about the proliferation of Islamic militant groups with the note, "But by all means let's keep pretending all religions are alike."

"People always say to me, 'Stop saying all Muslims are terrorists.' I'm not saying all Muslims are terrorists. What I'm saying is that the beliefs of terrorists are sometimes widely held among the population at large. It's widely held in the Muslim world that if you insult the Prophet you get what's coming to you, including violence or death. That is not a liberal point of view."

Maher has a long history of sneering at excessive diplomacy when it comes to political discourse. His long-running show Politically Incorrect was canceled by ABC in 2001 after he suggested that Americans were cowardly for "lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away" and compared them to the 9/11 hijackers. "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building—say what you want about it, it's not cowardly," Maher said on the show. Sears and FedEx pulled their ads from Politically Incorrect, prompting its cancellation, and since Real Time premiered in 2003, Maher has wasted few opportunities to remind viewers that HBO isn't subject to the same commercial whims, or standards and practices.

When Maher donated $1 million to the super PAC supporting President Barack Obama's reelection campaign in 2012, some criticized him for moving from political commentary to political activism. ("I was just trying to point out to liberals that if they didn't get in on the game, the election could be lost. Because the game has moved to the million-dollar level.")

Fortunately, Maher's latest foray into civic engagement is significantly less expensive. At the September 12 Real Time taping, the comedian revealed the results of his Flip a District segment, which invited viewers to nominate elected representatives they want to see kicked out of office. "Winning loser" John Kline, of Minnesota's 2nd District, was one of more than 200 submissions, including former New York Rep. Michael Grimm (currently awaiting trial for a 20-count fraud indictment) and Iowa Rep. Steve King, who in 2008 said Obama would be viewed "as a savior" to radical Islamists, ostensibly because his middle name is Hussein.

"There are a lot of clowns in Congress," Maher says of the impetus for the Flip a District campaign. "There are a lot of people who are very easy to make fun of. But the real problems in Congress aren't necessarily the clowns who get all the publicity. It's the quiet killer, the party hack who goes to his office every day and votes to slowly kill the planet and rob from the poor and give to the rich."

Despite Flip a District's enthusiastic participants, Maher isn't particularly optimistic when it comes to politics, or the engagement of the average American in current events ("Most people probably think Crimea is an artificial sweetener"). He doesn't hesitate to point out that despite Congress's low approval rating—a recent poll found that 51 percent of Americans disapprove of the way their own representative is handling his or her job—more than 90 percent of incumbents keep getting reelected.

"I think that what America does predictably well is talk about [an issue], then move on," he says. "Remember when we were going to get Joseph Kony? Remember when people were absolutely incensed at Boko Haram—'Bring Back Our Girls!' And then Lindsay Lohan got a new boyfriend or something, and we forgot."