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The iconic self-proclaimed bachelor is a clever, charismatic, and quick-witted man to watch onscreen, but speaking with him on the telephone, away from the spotlight, borders on irritating. His cutting tone and biting wit convey a sense of mild contempt for his audience that renders him more than slightly unlikable a trait that clearly doesn't transfer through the TV screen; ratings of his new HBO talk show, Real Time with Bill Maher, are soaring, and tickets for his one-man show are more difficult to find than an Iraqi weapon of mass destruction.
The 1610 seats for his provocative stand-up act Saturday, November 12, at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts sold out in a week. But that didn't deter him, during a recent phone call, from trying to drum up business.
"The Bible is an old book of Jewish fairy tales," he says, knowing his verbal assault on the most popular book of all time could end up published in a weekly read by one of the most historically Jewish communities in the nation. "I'm against what religion is: made-up stories meant to scare people about what happens when you die. It's a corrupt bureaucracy between man and God that takes advantage of people's fears, mostly of the unknown, that corrupts people in ways that are unimaginable."
Appearing on MSNBC's Scarborough Country earlier this year, Maher told host Joe Scarborough that organized "religion stops people from thinking. I think it justifies crazies."
Maher regularly admonishes both the American public and government officials, alleging that not only evangelicals but also "religious" people in general are largely to blame for many of society's problems, including its ill acceptance of homosexuality.
"It's all because of religion," he contends. "In ancient Rome they didn't have any hangups about sex. Then Christianity comes along and makes everyone feel guilty. There's no other reason to look at homosexuality and to be afraid. A rational mind recognizes that homosexuality exists and it's not a plot to piss off Jesus. The Christians think if [homosexuals] love Jesus more, they'll learn to love pussy."
Citing an incident in Pakistan in which a Mastoi tribal council sanctioned the gang rape of a young woman as a way of preserving her honor, Maher remarks, "If the phrase honor rape comes up and you're not thrown out of the room, then ... it's neurological-disorder thinking that there's nothing in the world but religion."
On the other hand, Maher advocates spirituality. "I hate religion, but spirituality is different," he says. "People have an innate striving to connect to something greater than what they experienced on Earth. We should journey toward selflessness, renouncing the trappings of materialism and ego."
The political satirist is most notable as the former outspoken host of the late-night talk show Politically Incorrect. But in June 2002, ABC network execs canned him after he made a controversial on-air remark in which he objected to the President's claim that the September 11 terrorists were cowards. "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2000 miles away. That's cowardly," Maher said. "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
Six days after getting the boot, Maher received the President's Award for championing free speech from the Los Angeles Press Club, and within months, the 49-year-old was back on the box attacking celebrities, writers, political figures, and deities alike under the HBO banner.
These days the man who has been entertaining and infuriating audiences with his candid rapid-fire commentary for more than a decade is regarded as one of the most fiercely outspoken critics of the Bush administration.
"Bush is a liar," Maher says. "If you do involve yourself in [politics] to a more detailed degree, you see there is a very big difference between this and the last administration. I don't like it when people lump them together."
The controversial host has also criticized the Bush administration's war on drugs and the more recent war on pornography. "We've got to go after people whacking at their computers?" Maher muses. "That we would go after people and throw them in jail for having sex just shows how shallow and unserious this administration is."
Maher repeatedly expresses affection for America but also confesses he's often embarrassed by it. "It's about this administration not understanding priorities, and religion plays a big part," he states.
The author of When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden and New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer sneers at being labeled a liberal, and he has denounced many of the left's positions on topics such as hate crimes and sexual harassment for being "things that make women nod."
Described by Vanity Fair as a "throbbing boner libertarian," Maher has been regarded in conservative online chat rooms as someone who's "okay with the Leviathan state as long as he gets his Hustler, his hookers, and his hash." However, he does support many stances that directly oppose libertarian ideologies, including government regulation of corporations and a ban on home schooling.
In Miami, Maher will perform solo, which might rob him of the opportunity to do what he does best: battle wits with a panel of guests, teasing participants into ferocious rants and stupefied silences. Whether you wholeheartedly agree with the sharp-tongued comedian's opinions or think he's the anti-Christ, Saturday's show is guaranteed to spark some serious reaction and the greater the reaction, the more bad-ass this American seems to become.