When the Russell Crowe movie “Noah” was released in March, Bill Maher, comedian, satirist and host of the HBO show “Real Time With Bill Maher,” couldn’t withhold his disdain for the movie or for religion. On his “New Rules” segment of the March 14 “Real Time,” Maher excoriated the film, the story it is based on and even God himself.
“ ‘Noah,’ ” is about a “psychotic mass murderer who gets away with it, and his name is God. What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he’s mad at?”
His remarks ignited plenty of return fire from the other side. Ralph Reed, head of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, called Maher’s remarks “bigotry.” Actor Kevin Sorbo, who once starred in the TV show “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys” and recently starred in the film “God’s Not Dead,” called Maher “a very angry, lonely man.”
Maher was nonplussed about such reactions and surprised his comments aroused much anger.
“I can’t believe anyone was surprised I said that because I’ve been saying pretty much the same thing for many, many years,” he said in a recent phone conversation with The Star. “I know people have a special place in their hearts for Noah, but what I was saying in response was, ‘Anyone who ridicules religion is doing a public service.’ When people say to me, ‘It’s easy to mock religion,’ I say, ‘For a good reason. It’s (bleeping) ridiculous. It’s not a coincidence it’s easy to mock. And by the way, it’s gonna get us killed because we’re making real-world decisions based on the superstitious rantings of Bronze Age desert dwellers.’
“Like a third of adults in this country think the world is going to end in their lifetime. How are you going to solve global warming if a third of the people in this country are rooting for the end of the world? They’re actually glad global warming is coming because they’ll get to have their meet-and-greet with Jesus sooner.”
Maher, who will perform his standup routine Sunday night at the Midland theater, is no stranger to controversy. A few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, on his late-night TV talk show “Politically Incorrect,” he agreed with a guest who said the planes’ hijackers were not cowards. His remarks started a firestorm of protests. Several sponsors pulled their advertisements, and the following June, ABC canceled the show, which had moved from Comedy Central to network TV in 1997. In 2003, Maher started hosting and producing “Real Time” on HBO. The show has been a forum for political and social debate but also a showcase for his political views, which are liberal/libertarian. Religiously, Maher, who was raised Catholic, has called himself an “apatheist”: “I don’t know what happens when I die, and I don’t care.”
But religion has long been the target of his monologues and musings. In 2008, he wrote, co-produced and starred in the mockumentary “Religulous,” in which he tries to point out what he sees as the absurdities and hypocrisies in so many organized religions.
These days, religion has become enmeshed in politics, especially in matters like gay marriage, abortion and birth control, and it has become expected that candidates show some kind of spiritual or religious lifestyle, even if it’s feigned, he said.
“And that’s exactly what (President Barack) Obama does. I’ve never believed for a minute that he’s such a devout Christian like he pretends,” Maher said. “I know he told ‘Nightline’ once he gets Scripture on his BlackBerry first thing in the morning. Well, I don’t know what’s more outdated, Scripture or BlackBerrys, but I sure don’t believe Barack Obama is reading Scripture first thing in the morning.
“Of course, again, as the first black president, there are lots of places he can’t go. He also can’t, I think, come out for the legalization of marijuana. He can’t be the first black president and say, ‘Hey, let’s spark up, everybody.’ So I think he’s hemmed-in in a lot of ways. And religion is one of them.”
Like many who voted for Obama, Maher said, he has been surprised by the difference in his expectations right after the 2008 election and what has transpired since.
“I didn’t foresee, and a lot of people didn’t foresee, the ferocity of the opposition to Obama,” he said. “I guess we should have gotten the hint when the Republicans met before he was even inaugurated and decided they were not going to help him with anything.”
The ensuing political battle, which has produced so many political showdowns and displays of partisan brinkmanship, has soured many voters on the entire political process, Maher agreed, but he said one party deserves more blame.
“The Democrats are certainly not a perfect party, and he’s certainly not a perfect president. But let’s not forget where most of the blame belongs, which is on the conservative side,” he said. “There’s a term that we made up here on the show one week we called ‘black-tracking,’ which is defined as changing your mind when the president agrees with you. This has happened many times. Republicans will vote against their own bills because Obama comes out in favor of them. It’s pretty hard to get things done when people hate you that much.
“Politics and the discourse in this country are not served when people sit back and go, ‘I’m on the blue team so I’m going to cheer for everything they do and boo whatever the red team does’ or ‘I’m on the red team and I cheer for my team and boo whatever the blue team does.’ And sometimes I chide my own audience for doing that very thing.”
Yet he sees reasons for optimism, reasons to think politics will change or improve.
“I’m optimistic that if we could straighten out some of our election laws we can actually have a body politic that was more representative of the people, who are more liberal than the country would like to think,” he said. “Younger people, the millennials, are very liberal about social issues, like gay marriage, which is a complete non-brainer to them. And they’re much less religious than other generations, and that will be reflected in their politics.
“If we had, like other countries have, voting on a holiday as opposed to a Tuesday, which is when poor people have to work; if we made it easy to vote instead of hard to vote; if we had mandatory voting like a lot of countries have, you would see a very big difference in representation and, of course, that would translate into policy differences. The key thing is to get our voting laws straightened out.”
And there are potential candidates out there who he thinks have the kind of outside-the-Beltway and outside-the-box agenda he could vote for. Well, one and a half, anyway,
“Elizabeth Warren: She’s the person I most admire,” he said. “She says the things I sit back and cheer for. She says things in a much bolder way than other Democrats. But I don’t think she’ll run. It will be Hillary’s year.
“The other is Rand Paul. Like his father, I like half of him. One half is ridiculous, old-school tea party nonsense. But the other part is libertarian. He wants America to end its empire, and I love that part of him.”
Bill Maher performs at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Midland theater, 1228 Main St. Tickets are $54 to $79 through AXS.com.