Comedy

Despite His Many Years Doing Late-Night, Bill Maher Still Believes in Standup

Bill Maher is filming his latest HBO special at the Fillmore Miami Beach.
Bill Maher is filming his latest HBO special at the Fillmore Miami Beach. Photo by David Becker
While Bill Maher admits that his audience skews mostly liberal, Florida fit the criteria he looked for when selecting a location to film his upcoming HBO special. Namely, loose COVID-19 restrictions and a crowd that's game for whatever Maher's got on his mind.

"Red-state crowds — not groaners, not looking to be offended. That's more my red-state experience," Maher tells New Times. "That's more what you're going to get in Miami as opposed to San Francisco."

No, Maher isn't becoming conservative — far from it. But he certainly won't bite his tongue when it comes to the Democratic Party in its modern incarnation.

"I feel like the left has gotten way off course — a certain part of the left," Maher says. "I think the way I put it on a show a couple of weeks ago was there's a certain contingent that has gone mental and a large contingent that refuses to call them out for it — but I will."

Maher doesn't subscribe to any specific political ideology, although two particular issues prevent him from getting too cozy with Republicans.

"I think, again, the left has gone way off course in a lot of ways. They've done stuff that truly reverses what liberalism was all about," Maher explains. "But the Republicans do not believe in the emergency of climate change, and they do not believe anymore, apparently, in American democracy or the sanctity of elections, which are the two biggest issues that are facing us."

Hearing Maher rant about politics, you can't help but feel that you're a panelist on Real Time, his long-running HBO program.

Maher talks about serious issues in such a way that doesn't get weighed down by the gravity of the subject matter. His charm lies in his knack for finding a way to make you an accomplice in his own anxieties, like how the California drought has him questioning the integrity of the very water he drinks at home.

"I don't understand how I keep turning on the faucet and water comes out," he says. "Where is this shit coming from? Where are they getting this? How could it be coming out of my tap and the taps of tens of millions of people who live in the area if it never rains here?"

"Republicans do not believe in the emergency of climate change, and they do not believe anymore apparently in American democracy."

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The typical career trajectory for a comedian is to spend years performing in any dingy little place with a microphone, then fight your way up to clubs, then maybe theaters. And in Maher's case, you fight to get yourself behind the desk of a late-night talk show — twice.

Many comedians who make the jump into late-night live out the rest of their career as some kind of mythical beast — half-man, half-desk. But Maher still enjoys stepping out of the studio and getting his hands dirty with a live audience.

"I love doing the act I'm doing now," he says. "I mean, it's just a joy for me, even when having to fight."

When asked about a recent report suggesting that Maher was going toe-to-toe with hecklers at a Bay Area show, he shrugged it off as nothing more than a rowdy audience member who just got a little excited. He thought nothing of it until New Times brought it up.

"It's kind of a compliment," Maher says of the encounter. "They're so excited that they can't control themselves from wanting to participate and be heard."

For Maher, the headlines were nothing more than clickbait.

"People who write headlines and work on the internet — it's a beast that has to be fed 24 hours a day," Maher explains. "They're always looking for some grist for the mill. They're going to write about anything now, and it'll be forgotten in 12 hours with some other nonstory that's reported on."

This constant feedback loop of stimulation reminds Maher of one of the first segments he did when he was hosting Politically Incorrect in the early '90s: Are people getting dumber?

"It only got worse with social media because at least people used to have time at the end of the day perhaps to read — like actually read a book," he says. "Now people never read because their time is taken up with nonsense. Whatever is going on on their phone or whatever else they could scroll through — it has weaponized a lack of an attention span."

Dwindling public intelligence aside, Maher still makes an effort to put out material that engages his audience on a cerebral level.

"There are no low points, and it takes time to build that up," he says about his latest material. "I wanted to also do a set that even if you took away the laughs — and I'm not going to because I love the laughs — there's just a lot to think about. If you took out the laughs, it would still be like, 'Oh, that was an interesting series of thoughts he had there.' But, of course, it's way better with the laughs."

Although next year marks Maher's 20th year hosting Real Time, it's his stand-up specials that he feels will make a more lasting impression.

"Standup is much more passionate," Maher says. "You know, when you're kind of doing a stand-up special, it's much more permanent. More big-picture. Better."

Bill Maher. 8 p.m. Friday, March 4, and Saturday, March 5, at the Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 305-673-7300; fillmoremb.com. Tickets cost $62 to $149.50 via livenation.com.
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