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Bill Maher in New Orleans 

The comedian/commentator feasts on sacred cows.

Bill Maher

7:30 p.m. Thursday

Mahalia Jackson Theater, 801 N. Rampart St., 525-1052; www.mahaliajacksontheater.com

Tickets $42.50-$55

click to enlarge Bill Maher skewers politics and current events on his HBO series - Real Time with Bill Maher. - PHOTO BY SAM JONES
  • Photo by Sam Jones
  • Bill Maher skewers politics and current events on his HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher.

Irascible, contemptuous, even anti-American — people have called Bill Maher all these things and worse, and despite his reputation, he probably wouldn't dispute them. "I'm all for unsettling people's opinions," Maher says. "For my money, that's the best kind of comedy." The former host of Politically Incorrect (ABC canned him in 2002 for refuting the supposed cowardice of 9/11 hijackers) and current mastermind of HBO's live-format Real Time with Bill Maher (9 p.m. Fridays) brings his incite-ful standup routine to New Orleans for the first time, and Gambit rang just to push his buttons. Easier done than said.

What's your reaction to the reaction to (your film) Religulous?

Very few religious people saw it. I didn't really hear a lot from them. There were some people who said, "I'll be praying for you."

And they were serious.

They're very serious. But the people who saw it adored it, I have to say. We did what we set out to do. This was my Moby Dick, if you will. This is something I'd been trying to make for over 10 years. It's the one subject that really has always fascinated me, that I thought deserved to be made into a feature-length movie. There's never been a movie like that. And I do think we harpooned that f—ing white whale.

Does your act — or the reception to it — change in heavily Catholic cities like New Orleans or Boston?

You know, it really doesn't, because wherever I go, the people who appreciate what I do come out of the woodwork. I've played Salt Lake City and Tulsa, Okla., places you might think are hostile, and I have no illusions — probably a good percentage of those places are hostile to what I have to say. But those people don't come out to the theater. That's the good thing about charging.

Kick open the doors and it would be a different story.

Right — it would be a very different story, and I'd need firearms. Actually, they're very grateful that someone came to their town who thinks like they do. The redder the state, the more excited the crowd. And, really, the funnier the show.

(New Republic editor) Leon Wieseltier said about you and Ann Coulter recently, "They share the assumption that the most extreme formulation of an idea is its truest one." Your retort?

My retort would be, he sounds like he's expressing one of the problems with the media, which is what I call "fake fairness." Sometimes the truth is all on one side. One of the problems with our media is that they don't really know what's up, so they always have to posit the idea that everything is a 50/50 situation. You'll see a cover story in Time or Newsweek on legalizing marijuana, and they'll give the pros and the cons. Well, you know what, be honest with yourself. There really aren't any cons. It's one of the most benign drugs in the world. Pharmaceuticals and liquor kill hundreds of thousands of people a year; marijuana doesn't kill anybody. This is, I think, the biggest cash crop in America. But of course it's all going to drug dealers and illegals instead of the government. It's really a no-brainer issue, but it's not treated that way in the press. So I would say to this guy, to paraphrase Barry Goldwater, "Extremism in the defense of truth is no vice."

Are you still on the board of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML)?

You know, that's a good question. I haven't had much contact with them in recent years. I was a little disillusioned. I've always said, one of the reasons there's been so little progress on the marijuana front is that what the movement needs more than anything is some kick-ass, take-no-prisoners, Karl Rove-type lobbyist, you know? And that just never happens, because it's all a bunch of stoners. You got to get up for that 8 a.m. breakfast meeting with the congressman on Capitol Hill!

What's your take on the Obama administration? You were on CNN recently with some harsh words.

I've certainly gotten a lot of shit from the liberals, because I have been criticizing our president. I have a nasty habit: I still read the paper. And I think a lot of people stopped reading the paper after he got elected. I happen to love newspapers. They may be dying, but they still have information. And the information about him is not promising, I'm sorry. He's not standing up to the corporations that have a stranglehold on this country. If you look at almost any of the problems that are besetting us, from health care reform to the environment to the financial meltdown, it's almost always because the fat cats, the corporations, the lobbyists, won't let change pass. [Obama] was going to be the hero, and the crusader, I thought, who fought for real change. And he doesn't seem to be doing that.

Is he playing it safe in his first term to ensure there's a second?

That's not how you're going to get a second term. We voted for him to effect this sweeping change. "Change you can believe in!" "The audacity of hope!" I said the other night, audacity of hope? Hell, I'm hoping for some audacity.

  Now, he has done some good things: closing Guantánamo Bay; we can have stem cell research again; we can talk to Cuba; no more abstinence education; no more raiding marijuana/cannabis compassion clubs; we can talk to countries without preconditions; we're raising mileage standards. It's like he's spraying the country with a big can of Bush-Be-Gone. I don't expect the world to change overnight, but it's good he's at least getting the smell of stupid out of the furniture.

  There is another side to the story, and that's that every time [Obama] tries to take on a progressive cause, there is a major political party standing in his way. And that would be the Democrats. The Democrats are kind of the new Republicans. They're the ones who basically stand up for the credit card companies, the banks, big agriculture, the pharmaceutical lobby. The Democrats have been co-opted and bought off by that group. The Republicans, they're not even that relevant anymore. So we don't have a good situation in this country, because there's nobody who's really standing up for the little guy.

Who fits that bill that is remotely electable? Ralph Nader fell short.

I think somebody like that would be electable if the media would treat them like they're not crazy, and if more people would rally around them. Michael Moore is an awfully popular filmmaker. He's not a politician, but Nader basically has the same platform as Michael Moore, I would say. Nader just doesn't have the charisma. Or a second suit. [Laughs] But you see in somebody like Michael Moore, there is that potential. People love Michael, and they rally around him and they believe in him in giant numbers. You take somebody like that, with that platform and the right charisma, I think you'd really have something.

  Maybe Obama will become that person. Presidents do grow in office. Kennedy, when he took office, was also very conservative. He had no intention of taking on civil rights. But he came to see that this is the moral issue of our time, and he wound up sending troops into Alabama and costing the Democratic Party, basically, the solid South for the next two generations. So that same kind of thing could happen to Obama on the issues of health care or the environment or the banks. But I wish it would happen tomorrow.

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