American satirist Bill Maher is the biggest brat in showbiz. He takes an almost salacious pleasure in butchering sacred cows, which he did for nine years as host of ABC’s Politically Incorrect—before an inflammatory remark led to the show’s cancellation. Disputing President George W. Bush’s claim that the 9/11 terrorists were cowards, Maher said, “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building—say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” Maher may have just been quibbling over semantics, but he struck a raw nerve.
Now he’s carving up the most sacred cow of all with Religulous, a comic documentary that ridicules evangelical Christians, Islamic suicide bombers—and anyone gullible enough to believe in God. (The title is an amalgam of “religious” and “ridiculous.”) Directed by Larry Charles (Seinfeld, Borat), Maher tours the world, meeting and mocking true believers from Middle America to the Middle East. Why go after religion? “It has always been the ultimate taboo,” Maher told me by phone from Los Angeles. “And as a comedian, it was amazing to me that this giant elephant of comedic gold has been sitting in the middle of the room for all these hundreds of years.”
Taking aim at Christians, Muslims, and Jews, Maher tends to pick soft targets on the lunatic fringe of faith. He has the most fun with American evangelicals, from beefy born-again Christians in a truckers’ chapel to a Jesus impersonator in Orlando’s Holy Land Experience theme park. Ambushing Senator Mark Prior, a creationist Democrat, he tells him: “It worries me that people are running our country who believe in a talking snake.”
Maher’s assault on Islam seems tame by comparison. Was he worried about reprisals? Was there a line he was afraid to cross?
“No, I’ve been in the line-crossing business for as long as I’ve been out there,” he says. “I stopped reading the hate mail a long time ago.” Oddly enough, nothing provoked more outrage than going to a Halloween party costumed as the late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. “I had the costume department at the studio fix a stingray right in the middle of my chest,” he explains. “I’ve been told I can absolutely never go to Australia now.” Still laughing about the gag, Maher remains unrepentant. “I’m a PETA board member; I love animals. And I think if you get killed by an animal in the wild it means you were doing something you shouldn’t have been doing: this guy did nothing but taunt animals.”
As for taunting the faithful, Maher agrees he’s preaching to the converted, or rather the unconverted. “There are tens of millions of people in America who think like I do already. This is their Passion of the Christ, and they deserve a movie like this. There are also millions who are like I was for a large part of my life.” Maher, who abandoned Catholicism as a teenager, says, “I still had this idea of an imaginary man who lived in my head, who I had to bargain with. I was not a total disbeliever. I just didn’t think about it very much. And there are so many Americans like that.”
But unlike Michael Moore, who plays the disingenuous bozo in his documentaries, Maher is no populist. In Religulous, he blithely flaunts his intelligence and humiliates his subjects. It’s funny for a while, but as polemic vies with satire, Maher’s own missionary zeal takes over—as it does in our interview: “How can you sit here on this little planet in the middle of the universe and say how it all began?” he rants. “It makes your head hurt. So don’t try! When people didn’t know what an atom or a germ was, or where the sun went at night, they made up stories. It’s much less forgivable to cling to those stories today.” But what if those stories give comfort? “Well, diamonds make people feel good,” he laughs, “and then we found out they were cutting off the arms of African children to get them.”
So does Bill Maher aspire to any kind of spiritual practice? “Spirituality is on my to-do list,” he says. “I would love to meditate. I’m always trying to get more into yoga just for practical reasons, because you can make yourself go to sleep easier. I’m 52. I’m not young but I’m not old. I hope when I’m 80 the addictions that have been the hallmark of my adult life—sex, ambition—will not be front and centre. You won’t want to hit on girls and you won’t care about another television show.”
And just how does Maher want to, uh, not meet his maker? “I don’t know. I’m toying with the idea of having myself frozen, so when they come up with a cure they can bring me back. Or cut off my head and put it in a jar.”