Life has not been easy, or much fun, for Bill Maher over the past month. The outspoken, politically incorrect liberal comedian has seen Republicans swept into office nationwide and endured a public firestorm over his televised comments about Islam.
"It's a byproduct of saying things other people are too afraid to say," he said in a recent phone interview. "I will say what I think is the truth. If it hurts your feelings, steps on toes, befouls the sensibilities of my own audience, I think they respect that. I tell the students at Berkeley, this country needs less conformity, not more. This should be a given, especially on a college campus."
Mr. Maher -- who will perform at Davenport's Adler Theatre on Nov. 23 -- has drawn protests over his planned December commencement speech at University of California-Berkeley because of his criticisms of Islam last month on an episode of HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher."
He called Islam “the only religion that acts like the mafia that will f—g kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.” Critics like actor Ben Affleck said Mr. Maher is racist and bigoted, accusing the talk-show host of misinterpreting Islam.
A petition at Change.org, which had been signed by more than 5,300 people as of Nov. 5, agrees, seeking to block him from speaking at Berkeley on the 50th anniversary of its Free Speech Movement and calling some of his statements “offensive” and “dangerous” to the marginalized communities the university represents. A counter-petition, which has more than 560 signatures so far, supports his right to deliver the graduation address.
Though many students may disagree with Mr. Maher, canceling his invitation to speak threatens "to undermine the environment of openness to the expression of diverse ideas that lies at the core of the Berkeley intellectual tradition," according to the pro-Maher petition.
In a recent "Real Time" show, Mr. Maher said he still planned to speak. "Here’s my final plea to you liberal -- in the truest sense of the word -- college students, not just at Berkeley but all over the country. Please. Weigh in on this. My reputation isn’t on the line ... yours is.”
"I'm against intolerance and violence in any religion," Mr. Maher said in a recent Dispatch/Argus interview. "It happens that one religion is more likely to perpetrate it than others. If I was doing my show in the 14th century, when the Spanish Inquisition was going on, I'd bring that up. We're not in the 14th century."
The support of violence and/or death for certain acts among Muslims is not a fringe belief, he said. Most people's responses to his claims are "immediate, defensive, emotional and wrong," Mr. Maher said.
"I'm not saying there are not peaceful Muslims all over the world," he said, noting there are far too many "connected to violence or intolerance in a way I am not."
"I've never said that religion has not done some good," he said. "Of course, there are Catholic charities, Muslim charities, but you can do all that good stuff without the fairy tales attached."
A famously blunt critic of religion, Mr. Maher in 2008 took a documentary swipe at organized religion, with “Religulous,” directed by Larry Charles (“Borat”).
A 58-year-old New York City native, Mr. Maher went to Cornell University, and now lives in Los Angeles. He started his career as a stand-up comedian in 1979, and he still performs about 75 dates a year in theaters all across the country.
Three of his nine stand-up specials for HBO -- 2007’s “The Decider,” 2005’s “I’m Swiss,” as well as his most recent, “Bill Maher … But I’m Not Wrong,” were nominated for Emmy Awards.
First on “Politically Incorrect” (Comedy Central, ABC, 1993-2002), and for the last 12 years on HBO’s “Real Time,” his combination of unflinching honesty and laughs has garnered him 33 Emmy nominations. Mr. Maher won his first Emmy earlier this year as executive producer for the HBO series “Vice."
Compared to TV, he said in the Election Day interview, his stand-up act "is even further out there, the last bastion of utter free speech," he said. Audiences for the talk show get in free. "The commitment isn't that great. They're much more politically correct," Mr. Maher said. " I'm often tussling with them -- they're groaning, oohing. What show were you expecting? I've been on television 20 years.
"In stand-up, that never happens," Mr. Maher said. "Whether I'm in Jackson, Miss., or Bangor, Maine, they want me to be the ultimate. That's one reason I love doing stand-up."
A September review at Politco said of his act: "Maher’s irreverent, sometimes over-the-line style of no-apologies liberal commentary that jabs sharply at Republican leaders and conservative ideology has a passionate following from a primarily left-leaning crowd."
Of Republicans now controlling the Senate and House, Mr. Maher said: "Nothing gets done now. I don't know how it could be worse," predicting Senate appointments could be derailed. He also said he worries about the next Supreme Court vacancy.
Mr. Maher’s public “flip a district” campaign failed to boot Republican Minnesota Rep. John Kline from his seat; instead, Rep. Kline earned a seventh term in Tuesday's election.
"There are hundreds like Kline -- colorless figures, but in their voting record, they are just what's wrong with America. They're owned by corporate interests," Mr. Maher said. "He does the bidding of his donors -- for coal mines; there are no coal mines in Minnesota. For-profit education, which is also absent."
Mr. Maher said he doesn't understand the GOP's demonization of the unpopular President Barack Obama, who's been labeled both aloof and incompetent, and a bulldozing dictator working around Congress.
"At the same time, he's super ineffectual, he is weak, he emboldens other countries; but at the same time, he's pulling the strings," he said. "He's simultaneously the weakest and most powerful man on Earth. They think of Obama like a teenager thinks of their mother -- a complete loser."
Mr. Maher said he thinks Democrats don't need to be more centrist to succeed; instead, they need to be true to their liberal roots. "They don't stand up for what they achieved. They should have run on Obamacare and not away from it," Mr. Maher said. "That was their signature achievement."