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Comedian Bill Maher talks about Steve Allen, Lenny Bruce, Condi Rice, 9/11

Comedian Bill Maher talks about Steve Allen, Lenny Bruce, Condi Rice, 9/11

by Henry Edward Hardy


I did this interview with Bill Maher back around October of 2004 in conjunction with a local appearance he was making at EMU in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Bill Maher is probably the funniest and one of the cleverest people I have interviewed (or met). I was really enjoying myself during this interview.

I understand that your career got helped along by [originator and first host of The Tonight Show] Steve Allen?

That’s one I haven’t been asked about in a while. That’s true — you’re making me feel old here. When I first started in New York, there was like three clubs, and you had to belong to one of them … I was a Catch a Rising Star act. And Steve Allen was doing a show in New York called Seymour Gluek is Alive But Sick, which was silly, you know his silly songs, and then there was an MC in the middle of it. When he moved out here [to California], he just, you know, picked me to take over his part — he didn’t want to keep doing it the rest of his life. So you know, when I was 25, that was a kind of feather in my cap.

You had an illustrious film career. I noted Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death.

Henry, I can hear your sarcasm dripping there, and it’s appropriate, because it certainly was not illustrious. You know, everybody in show business has to find their way, and when we were young comics coming up, all we cared about, all we thought that mattered, was getting on a sitcom. That was our whole thing — we kind of didn’t realize that we were sitting on the golden goose, which was stand-up. What we were really doing was so much better than trying to get on Benson, or Mork and Mindy. We were young, and that was Hollywood, and that was more money and fame. And so that’s the route I went.

But you see yourself as coming pretty much out of the stand-up or vaudeville tradition?

Yeah. Vaudeville. There’s nothing that’s really different about vaudeville and a guy going out on the road performing an act in different cities — that is vaudeville. In the ’80s, when comedy was exploding, that was vaudeville. We were all on the road, we’d all see each other in the train stations — we were all together back then as young comics — Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Eddie Murphy. I worked my first gig with Eddie Murphy for 50 dollars at a Chinese restaurant.

You were born in New York City in 1956, is that true?

Yes, ’56, yep.

So obviously you weren’t going out to clubs and listening to Lenny Bruce. He comes to mind because he was so topical, and so trenchant and political…

… and ballsy.

Brave guy.

Brave guy. I just contributed to his liner notes on … a book coming out about him. I said one of my favorite quotes about Lenny was a Chinese proverb, “One generation plants the trees, the other gets the shade.” And I really feel like with Lenny, he planted the trees and a lot of us got the shade. Because I am talking about those kind of subjects that got him in trouble.

Because now you can say “cocksucker” on the air and the police aren’t going to pull you off …

Not just “cocksucker” because lots of guys say that. But I mean talking about religion, criticizing the government. Things like that. You know, Lenny Bruce had nine trials. He went to trial nine times. That’s a lot.

So he paid some dues.

He paid the dues; he planted the trees.

You have a routine about the 9/11 Commission. What degree, if any degree, of foreknowledge about the 9/11 attacks do you think there was by the Bush Administration?

Well, I don’t think there was foreknowledge of the specific attack. You know, when the commission was being set up, issuing their reports and Bush was sort of under the heat of…that he kept saying [Maher imitates Bush voice and mannerisms], “If I’d known there was an attack coming on this country, I would have done everything I could.” No kidding, asshole! We get that. I mean, I’m not your fan, but I don’t think if you knew something about the specific attack, you wouldn’t have done something about it. The bigger point is when Condolezza Rice says things like, [does Rice voice impression] “Who could have ever imagined that they would take planes and fly them into buildings.” Well, you know what, lots of people imagined it. Moviemakers had imagined it. Those two little pricks at Columbine had imagined it.

She had a briefing that said, “Al Qaeda to use airplanes …”

Yes, yes! Exactly.

“…to attack buildings.”

Plus…when your name, what you had is “National Security Advisor,” it’s your job to think about things like that.

So you don’t think she’s done a very good job?

No, I don’t. And you know, this week something else came out that didn’t reflect well on her, which is stuff about the aluminum tubes. The main argument that the Bush administration used for attacking Saddam Hussein was that he, you know, “the smoking gun might be a mushroom cloud.” Remember that?

Right. Just to background that, the aluminum tubes they claimed were to be used for processing nuclear fuel; it turned out they were missile parts?

Exactly. And the intelligence community really knew this. Again she claims, “Not my job,” like Freddie Prinze [does impression] “Not my zhob, no, its not my zhob.” She tells the President …

Well, whose job was it?

Exactly. If she had been doing her job she would have said, “You know, if you want to attack Iraq, go ahead, but I’ve got to tell you, its not because he’s building nuclear bombs in these tubes. Just stop running around the country and saying that.”

What you’re saying seems to me to say … well, let’s take an analogy of Pearl Harbor. After Pearl Harbor, Admiral Kimmel and General Short who were the Navy and Army commanders at Pearl were court-martialed and dismissed from the service. Now who has been held accountable in any way for 9/11?

No, nobody.

Aside from you.

It always gets a rip-roaring response in my act when I say, “you know the only person to have been fired for terrorism is me?”

Bill Maher
HBO: Real Time with Bill Maher
Bill Maher (wikipedia)

By the way, it is interesting to note that Kimmel and Short were exonerated in 1999 by an act of Congress. According to wikipedia (permalink): On May 25, 1999, the United States Senate passed a resolution exonerating Kimmel and Short. They were denied vital intelligence that was available in Washington, said Senator William V. Roth Jr. (R-DE), noting that they had been made scapegoats by the Pentagon. Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC) called Kimmel and Short, the two final victims of Pearl Harbor.

A version of this article appeared previously in Current Magazine and on Electric Current

Copyright © 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Henry Edward Hardy

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25 January, 2007 - Posted by | 9/11, archives, Bill Maher, comedy, Condoleezza Rice, EMU, interviews, Lenny Bruce, media, national security, politics, Steve Allen, television, WWII, Ypsilanti

3 Comments »

  1. whatever happened to is it me, Freddie Prinze Jr., anyway?

    Comment by coffee | 4 January, 2009 | Reply

    • Freddie Prinze Jr. is now the voice of Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus on Star Wars Rebels.

      Comment by scanlyze | 13 April, 2017 | Reply

  2. […] my money Bill Maher actually is a spiritual descendant of Lenny Bruce. And generally I thought his show this past Friday was even better than usual. His comparison of […]

    Pingback by Memo to Bill Maher .. Rob Ford may seem to make a few good points .. but he’s no disciple of Lenny Bruce - Counterweights | 26 November, 2013 | Reply


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