Bill Maher doesn’t care if you’re gay and that’s why we love him: our 2006 Advocate Person of the Year is a regular guy who speaks his mind, makes TV that matters, and proves to America that real men don’t sweat the gay stuff

HeathCliff Rothman

He’s about as fearless a voice as we have in America right now. If you tell him that, as I did, over drinks at the Beverly Hills Hotel–just down the street from where he lives he’ll scoff and remind you that bravery involves dismantling bombs. But gays have no better friend in the media than Bill Maher, who treats the still-verboten topic of total equality for gays and lesbians from gay marriage to gay sex to gay anything-with nonchalant conviction as he muses, pontificates, jostles, and hammers mainstream America weekly from his television platform. Maher was practically incinerated by the media and the public immediately following 9/11 when he suggested that the hijackers were brave in their own way–a statement he meant not as a compliment but an acknowledgment of fact–and lost his ABC platform, only to rise like a phoenix on the more hospitable HBO with his weekly Real Time With Bill Maher. In 2006, as gay sex scandals helped to scuttle the Republican dream of a perpetual majority, Maher’s razor-sharp New Rules monologues became our favorite way to keep score. After the Mark Foley mess came to light, Maher listed a dozen worse threats to American youths, including military recruiters and corporate pitchmen. “Stop with the righteous indignation about predators,” he concluded. “This whole country is trying to get inside your kid’s pants, because that’s where he keeps his wallet.”

A fascinating amalgam of bleeding-heart member of the intelligentsia and man’s man–he is a regular at the Playboy mansion, has his share of hetero commitment issues, and is a sports freak–Maher is at once one of the most famous and most quoted men in America, and most disconcertingly free of attitude. I told him, and meant it, that he was the least narcissistic celebrity I’ve ever interviewed. As we sat over drinks at night in a pitch-dark romantic booth on the patio of the Polo Lounge, the unabashed hetero and I, we both appreciated the irony.

There isn’t much intelligent political or social discourse on television, like the grand old tradition of Jack Paar or even Johnny Carson. Do you see yourself carrying on the tradition?

I don’t think you need a high I.Q. to do what I do, or even be smart. David Susskind, Dick Cavett, they weren’t trivial, they weren’t pushing products. People talked about things then, other than just crap that they talk about now.

What about your peers?

I respect them all to a degree, because I respect success. They all do something different. I respect Jay Leno a lot; I don’t think he’s given his due. I think his monologue is very often hip. I don’t think it’s a monologue that suffers by comparison with what Johnny did.

Who else tells the truth on television?

Well, the truth. That’s different. [Laughs] Now we’ve cut out levels six, seven, eight, nine. The truth. George Carlin. Chris Rock. Ann Coulter, she’s someone who speaks the truth, as she sees it of course–we must add that. And Howard Stern, I think, he does a lot of other stuff I find despicable, but he’s also somebody who doesn’t really flinch. Most people flinch when they get near the truth of anything that’s sensitive. So when they get near an area, it’s easier to just say, “Ooh, Sophia Loren is still gorgeous.”

Let’s discuss Ann Coulter. You’ve called her a friend. How can you be friends with a woman who’s clearly an enemy of things you stand for?

I’m always surprised that the people who are supposed to be the champions of tolerance, the liberals, are mad at me because I’m friends with someone who doesn’t think like me. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do, reach out? Isn’t that what we hate about the other side, that they don’t reach out, they only want people like themselves? That’s the philosophical answer. The practical answer is, she is really funny, and knows politics in a kind of inside level that I can make jokes with–that I can with very few people, because we’re both junkies in that area. And we both knew not to talk about the various things where we knew we disagree. And it’s a choice we all make with just about everyone.

But you seem like a good-hearted guy, and she seems really unloving.

Very. But friend covers a lot of territory. At the high end of friend is total trust. I don’t have that with her. Because I actually think if the world changed and there was a coup in America and the right wing took over, like in an actual coup, and she was put in charge of the interior ministry or something, she’d throw me in Gitmo or Abu Ghraib and be like, “Sorry, and gee, I have to.” So do I have total trust with her? No. But as far as a person who is fun to drink with, I put her very near the top of the list. She is a riot.

You’re also friends with Andrew Sullivan, who’s a conservative.

I consider Andrew a friend, and probably my most frequent guest on Real Time. He’s one of the great bloggers and great essayists. After the show, you know, we smoke a joint together. He’s a cool dude.

So who are your heroes on the Left?

Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader are the only two people who I can think of in politics–and Nader isn’t even elected to anything–who are truly far left. This country has no far left–of people who will speak out–but America has, I believe, a large far left of people. I just think there’s no representation, and apparently there’s no demand for one. But the far left would be [advocating] things like cutting the defense budget. Or legalize drugs. Or socialized medicine. That’s the far left. And I think there are tens of millions of people on that page. And zero representation. Dennis Kucinich is considered a crazy man because he wants a Department of Peace.

So you’re a hero to the gay community, clearly. You bluntly have said, “Stop calling homosexuality an unnatural act.” You even go after Democrats, saying, “Their refusal to endorse gay marriage is a hypocrisy.” One of my favorite riffs you’ve clone is ‘The only thing abominable about being gay is the amount of time you have to put in at the gym. No, in America, when a man puts something in another man, it had better be a bullet.” Where does your unusual gay empathy come from?

My parents, though gay was something that in 1950s or 1960s suburbia just didn’t come up. I can’t remember even the concept coming up until I was much older. My parents were big on the civil rights movement, and [they talked] to me about President Kennedy’s forcing the issue about civil rights, which had a big impact on me. So the empathy wasn’t that long a leap. Either we’re all free equally, or none of us are free.

There probably isn’t another public figure–heterosexual or gay–who is as outspoken as you on behalf of gay rights. It’s a risky position and takes courage.

I get called “courageous” a lot. When I hear courage, I think, This isn’t really courage; dismantling a roadside bomb is courage. This isn’t courage. It’s just the right thing to do.

Reading your transcripts, you’re a crusader for same-sex marriage.

I think I really feel for this issue as someone who has always crusaded for legalization of drugs, especially marijuana, and was always told, “What do you care if it’s legal? You can always step outside the restaurant and take a hit.” It’s like Democrats saying to gay people, “What do you care? You can still live together, we’re not really stopping you, we’re not breaking into your bedroom.” My answer to both was “Fuck you. You step outside and drink brandy after dinner. You call what’s under your roof a civil union.” We’re all equal, or we’re not.

Were you always this socially conscious? Obviously, you used to be a stand-up comic, using the usual targets.

True. When you’re a comic, especially a younger comic and not that good, what you care about more than anything is the oxygen of laughter, the laugh every 15 seconds. You just need it to survive up there. If “bitch” or “fag” gets a laugh, you go for it, me included. I remember once, at the Improv in the ’80s, a guy came up to me at the bar after a set. He said, “You know, when you say ‘fag,’ it’s like saying ‘nigger’ to a black guy.” I still remember it. I don’t think I said it again.

Do you have gay people around you personally and professionally?

Uh, I’m in show business. [Laughs]

You got flak for outing ex-Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman on Larry King Live. Were you purposely trying to push him out of the closet, or did you think that he was already out?

The latter. You have to remember, I’m kind of in that news-junkie bubble. Things like Ken Mehlman being gay are not secret, or at least we don’t think they’re secret. So, no, I didn’t think I was outing him. But I should have kept my big mouth shut.

Then, you think it’s hurtful to out someone?

I think it can be, which is why I don’t want to go there, if I can help it. But before I leave the house, I need to check who’s in the closet and who’s not.

How is your gaydar?

Terrible! When I was about 24 years old [and] a young comic in New York, I did a set one night at the Improv. I come offstage, sit at the bar, and this guy in the show room, he says to me, “Hey, that was funny.” And we’re talking, and I tell him I’m going to do a set at another club, and he says, “Can I come and watch?” “Yeah, sure.” So we go over to the other club, I do a set. So, after, he’s talking to me, and the third time he mentions homosexuality I think to myself, Hey, I must be on a date.

And the most memorable professional gay moment?

Harvey Fierstein telling Michael Reagan, “Fuck you, and fuck your father.”

What did you say?

“Well be right back.”

Rothman, founder of Film Your Issue, has written for Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and other publications.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group

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