GREENSBORO, N.C. — Bill Maher is doing his homework before his appearance Saturday night at Greensboro’s War Memorial Auditorium, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
The comedian — known for his sarcastic, take-no-prisoners approach — has been looking into North Carolina politics to prepare for the show.
“There’s something about bringing it to a local level that people appreciate, even if it’s only a few minutes of the show,” he said by phone last week from his home in Los Angeles. “Certainly, North Carolina is a national story in a way because of gerrymandering, the Art Pope situation … all that kind of stuff. I think it’s very relevant to what’s going on nationally.”
In addition to localizing his work, Maher likes to keep his stand-up routines fresh. He does about 75 concert dates a year.
“I change it constantly,” he said. “I’m a futzer with my material. I love stand-up and I’m constantly updating it. That’s the nice thing about the kind of material I do, it’s always changing. My act is evolving.”
Maher is best known as the host of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” a weekly HBO series now in its 12th season. In the show, he and guests discuss and make fun of the news of the week.
Maher is one of several comedians on TV who blend news and comedy, including Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Jon Oliver and Fox News’ “Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld.”
So why does Maher feel comedic takes on the news are so popular with the general public?
“Part of it is, they’re lazy,” he said with a chuckle. “Let’s be honest, they don’t want to read the paper. That takes time…. They can get their news with the sugar that helps it go down, the humor.”
But on a more serious note: “The more profound reason is humor gets at truths that something else can’t sometimes. Satire can say something that eludes a more direct approach.”
He enjoys his TV work, but in a way he enjoys doing stand-up more.
“The show is a hybrid of comedy and serious talk,” he said. “Stand-up is pure. It’s about making people laugh. The subject matter will be similar. People should not be surprised at the topics that interest me: national politics, stuff with meat to it…. The thing about stand-up comedy is it’s really there to make people laugh — and hopefully think, too.”
But the laugh is the main thing.
“I’m never looking to send a message, though messages do get sent,” he said. “It’s ‘point-of-view’ kind of comedy. It’s not neutral, it’s not meant to be neutral.”
His work can be divisive, and Maher isn’t shy about sharing his views on politics, religion and social issues. He said that people can sometimes get the wrong idea about him.
“I think if they don’t follow the show, or just read what the right-wingers say about me, they probably think I’m un-American maybe, which is ridiculous,” he said. “I’m very patriotic, we just have different ideas about what would be good for this country…. About a quarter of the time, I’m agreeing with the conservatives.”
Maher, 58, has known he wanted to be in comedy since he was a kid.
“I was one of those kids who knew what he wanted to do since I must have been 8 or 9,” he said. “But then, I never had the confidence.”
Growing up in New Jersey, he idolized such comedians as Johnny Carson and George Carlin, but his biggest influence was closer to home.
“I think it was my father,” he said. “He was a good living-room comedian. I saw him being funny with his friends. And he was a news guy, he was in radio news.” That helped build Maher’s interest in topical subjects.
He continued to want to break into the world of comedy as he grew up.
“I was frustrated, I was too scared to do it,” he said. “I think the first time I got laughs formally was emceeing a talent show in high school. That was an intoxicating experience — the first time you’re on stage and get a laugh is a drug.”
After graduating from high school he went to Cornell University, figuring he better have a degree to fall back on in case the comedy career never came together.
“I studied English, and I use English in my career, so it worked out quite well,” he said.
When he was in college in the mid 1970s, the comedy-club scene had not yet exploded the way it did by the 1980s, so it was hard to find a place to hone his craft.
“I tried to do it at poetry readings at coffee shops,” he said. “I tried to shoehorn a little stand-up routine that I wrote into these poetry readings. It wasn’t good, and it wasn’t the right setting.”
Gradually, he built a career and started making talk-show appearances, which led to a brief attempt at an acting career on such shows as “Murder, She Wrote” and “Max Headroom” and in the cult movie “Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.”
But he ultimately decided acting wasn’t for him.
“I never liked it when I did it,” he said. “I’m not a patient person. And it’s endless hours of waiting around on set…. It’s sort of the opposite of what stand-up is and what I do. When you’re acting, you’re acting, you’re not being yourself…. I like that intimacy with the audience.”
Though “Real Time” is still going strong, he sees his future in stand-up comedy rather than on TV.
“I started as a stand-up and I will end as a stand-up,” he said. “It’s great to have guests, and it’s also somewhat frustrating — I’m not used to waiting for someone to say their part…. Doing stand-up feeds that need of mine to vent.
“I have no illusions that TV will last forever… Just as they did to my friend Jay Leno, and did that to David Letterman, I think I have some time left on television. But at some point that tap will come on my shoulder. And I can do stand-up forever.”