The often divisive entertainer talks about his comedy idol and why Al Franken won't appear on his show anymore.
Bill Maher may show off a hard crust on his long-running HBO series, “Real Time With Bill Maher,” but he’s got a soft spot for Minnesota. He taped his first major comedy special in 1995 at St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater.
“I remember it very well. I went on vacation right after that and hit a bunch of places in the Midwest, like Mount Rushmore,” said Maher, who returns to the Twin Cities for a Friday night performance at the State Theatre in Minneapolis. “Lincoln’s still there, right?”
Maher, 58, spoke recently by phone from Los Angeles.
Q: Al Franken really emerged as a political comedian on your old “Politically Incorrect” show. Do you take any credit for him becoming a senator?
A: We used him a lot, especially on that running bit with Arianna Huffington called “Strange Bedfellows.” I was always a giant fan, even going back to his days with Tom Davis. He was always interested in politics. It was a great coup for comedians when he broke the rubber-chicken barrier.
But Al was going to be on the map no matter what I did.
Q: Why hasn’t he been on your show since he took office?
A: He has to be careful. I totally get it. Someone else may come on to soften their image, but he has to do the opposite and serious up his image. If I was his political adviser, I would probably tell him not to do the show. In fact, Al Franken is banned from “Real Time.” Just kidding.
Q: And then there’s your girlfriend, Michele Bachmann.
A: My girlfriend. Yeah, I’m cheating on Ann Coulter to be with Michele Bachmann. It’s interesting how diverse politics is in Minnesota. Michigan and Wisconsin are the same way. But actually, there’s no place in the country that doesn’t have that mix.
I’ve been to Alabama twice this year, and guess what? They’ve got Thai restaurants and a Pottery Barn, just like anywhere else. I was doing a show in Birmingham and there was a bass-fishing competition in the same hotel I was staying at. These people looked like the cast of “Duck Dynasty.” At one point, they were walking to an awards ceremony and my crowd, which looked like folks from San Francisco, were going in the opposite direction. It was a snapshot of two Americas.
Q: You’ve always reminded me of Johnny Carson, not so much the material, but your cadences and rhythms during your monologue.
A: Absolutely right. That comes from watching “The Tonight Show” every single night from the age of 10 to 22. That gets in your DNA. I don’t feel bad about it because Carson always said he was lifting from Jack Benny. I’m a little bit different when I do stand-up. I’m more influenced by Robert Klein and the way he prowls the stage.
Q: One thing that’s different about you and Carson is that when a joke bombed, he’d become very self-deprecating. You often seem to get angry. Or is it part of the act?
A: I only get angry at very politically correct crowds. We were just talking about this in the writers’ room, that political correctness is making an unwelcome resurgence. There was that comedian [Leslie Jones] on “Saturday Night Live” whose sketch died because she was talking about slavery. The audience just froze up.
There’s something in the liberal mind that doesn’t allow them to be seen laughing at something inappropriate. Sometimes they don’t even wait until they hear the joke. They’re just waiting for you to do something wrong. Audiences are particularly sensitive here in Los Angeles.
Q: So why do you live there?
A: The weather is terrific. I’m not a big fan of the cold or humidity. I’d rather have good weather than a great museum down the street. It just affects my mood. Plus, everyone lives here. Brad and Angelina, Johnny Depp. Prince lives right down the street.
Q: Who would you like to have on your show who hasn’t appeared yet?
A: Politically, the Clintons. I understand why the Republicans are afraid of me, but I don’t know why they are. I used to have a long wish list of showbiz celebrities, but the kind of show we’re doing now, not everyone can do it. Ben Affleck is really politically motivated. Alec Baldwin and Kerry Washington are really good. Even Ashton Kutcher did well. But most actors can’t deliver without a script. That’s why they went into acting.
Q: What has been your favorite moment from the show?
A: I really enjoyed the last show of last season, which landed on Nov. 22, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. I did an editorial comparing John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan and then got sentimental. I almost lost it.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @NealJustin