Bill Maher and Fran Lebowitz: When Comedy Cuts Deep

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Like Mr. Maher, Ms. Lebowitz often takes outrageous (and outrageously funny) positions, fueled by her supreme self-confidence. She has long eschewed the ubiquitous trappings of modern society: the cellphone and computer. After publishing two best-selling collections of comic essays, “Metropolitan Life” and “Social Studies,” decades ago, a famous case of writer’s block took hold, and Ms. Lebowitz transferred her wit to public speaking. A documentary about her, “Public Speaking,” directed by Martin Scorsese, was released in 2010.

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“I hope we had a teachable moment about race: trying to make something good from something bad. But maybe also about how to handle something like this: apologize sincerely if you’re wrong — and I was — and own it.” — Mr. Maher

Credit
Hilary Swift for The New York Times

Over lunch at Il Cantinori in Greenwich Village (fritto misto for Ms. Lebowitz; scrambled eggs for Mr. Maher), the two spoke candidly on a range of subjects, including Mr. Maher’s use of the N-word on his TV show.

Philip Galanes Let’s start with comedy in the ’70s, when you both began your careers: “All in the Family,” the comedy clubs. So much humor was racial or ethnic then. Was there a new permission to explore identity?

Bill Maher My first act was all about being half-Jewish and half-Catholic: “I brought my lawyer into confession with me.” Johnny Carson made me do that joke every time I went on. But that’s what you talk about when you’re a young comedian: your personal history. It hasn’t been covered yet.

Fran Lebowitz Stiller and Meara did that. It was their whole act. He was Jewish, and she was Irish-Catholic. And the borscht belt comics did jokes about being Jewish.

BM But that was different. The borscht belt comics weren’t drawing a distinction between themselves and the audience. I don’t think they wanted to do that.

PG Maybe it was a generational freedom. I’m the grandkid of immigrants. They were wary of Americans. It was “us” versus “them.” But I rolled my eyes at that.

FL My grandparents were immigrants, too. To me, the really American kids were the ones whose grandparents spoke perfect English. I always noticed that. I remember once in Sunday school, the teacher said to me, “If America had a war with Israel, what side would you be on?” I was shocked by this. I’m American. I’m always on our side.

BM My mother didn’t tell us she was Jewish, and it never came up, even though my sister, my father and I would go to church every week.

PG And you never said, “Mom, why aren’t you coming?”

BM Exactly! Not until I was 13 years old, which says a lot. Whatever you’re doing around a child, they assume is normal. That’s why so much abuse goes unreported. A kid only knows what happens and doesn’t think it’s weird.

FL Religion wasn’t a topic of conversation in the ’50s the way it is now. There were very bad things about the ’50s, but the great thing was the absolute belief in the separation of church and state — though it wasn’t totally separate. I grew up in a town that was largely gentile. In public school, the week before Christmas, we went in early to gather around the Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols. This is something I adored. We said the Lord’s Prayer every morning. The 23rd Psalm was read from the Bible.

PG Which one is that?

BM “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death. … ”

PG Seems a bit dark.

FL Children weren’t so pampered as they are now. We spent the other half of the day under our desks, waiting for the Russians to launch nuclear war. There were billboards all over the place: “Worship at the church of your choice.” Church? No one said, ‘What about the Jews?’ The Jews were just happy not to be in Germany. They weren’t so picky. You didn’t talk about religion.

PG You mean: We didn’t talk about minority religions. This reminds me of Yale Law School, the first place I heard really smart people say: “I don’t see race or gender. Those labels are literally invisible to me.” How did that happen in the world?

BM I don’t think it happened in the world; it happened in America.

FL When I was a child, the idea was the melting pot. All immigrants would become Americans. And the civil rights movement was not meant to make two separate people; it was meant to make one people. But assimilation is hard. The white culture doesn’t let you in right away. But assimilation is a much better goal than slicing and dicing people up into seven zillion little things. That’s a very bad idea.

BM It didn’t serve the Democratic Party very well.

PG Is identity at the root of political correctness?

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Mr. Maher and Ms. Lebowitz, who often take outrageous (and outrageously funny) positions, agreed that parents used to take the teachers’ side. Always.

Credit
Hilary Swift for The New York Times

BM It’s certainly a part of it, along with the busybodyism going on in the country. Pointing your finger at other people and saying, “You’re insufficiently liberal.” In a lot of ways, the Democratic Party went from protecting people to protecting feelings. Did you see the story about Sean Spicer, that stroke victim waiting to happen? He wasn’t on camera one day, and a reporter asked Steve Bannon about it. And Bannon said, “Sean got fatter.” Now, I’m not a big fan of Steve Bannon, and that’s not the funniest joke I ever heard, but it was a joke. And Chelsea Clinton tweeted ——

FL Are you making this up?

BM No! Chelsea tweeted: I never find fat-shaming funny, ever. And I thought, “This is why you guys lost.”

FL No, it wasn’t.

BM Not entirely.

PG Can we get back to Bill’s distinction between saving lives and saving feelings? Is it the difference between the important work of Black Lives Matters and, say, trigger warnings?”

FL Trigger warnings are ridiculous. I’d never heard about them until I was speaking on a college campus. What world are we preparing these young people for? Actual life does not give you a trigger warning before it comes up behind you and mugs you.

BM I never had children.

FL Neither did I.

BM But it looks to me, from what I see on television, like the system broke down with the parents. What’s wrong with schools is the parents, not the teachers. When I was a kid, no child could ever drive a wedge between parents and teachers — as it should be. The parents took the teachers’ side.

FL Always.

BM And now that’s not the case. Teachers have miserable jobs because parents always take the side of the child. Their perfect, genius child. And if the kid isn’t doing well, it must be the teacher’s fault. And when we see these videos of college kids screaming at teachers — remember the one at Yale? Kids screaming at professors about Halloween costumes. It’s a Halloween costume!

FL Or at Princeton, where they want to change the name of buildings. When I saw it on the news, the protest was full of black women. I thought: Girls go to Princeton now. When I was that age, girls couldn’t go to Princeton. Hardly any black people or Jews could go to Princeton, girls or boys. But they don’t know that, so they never think, “I’m pretty lucky to be here.”

PG But you can’t be saying we’ve leveled the playing field, that minorities are now getting a fair shot, because black girls get into Princeton?

FL Of course not. Only men could think that. They’re the majority of people in power — on the Supreme Court or in Congress. White men think they’re only competing with other white men, and they basically are. That’s changed quite a bit, but not enough.

BM We need to find a middle ground on race. If you look at the polling of conservatives, Republicans and Fox News watchers, they think racism is over — which is insane. Denying racism is the new racism. And on the other hand, you have that liberal white guilt, #WhiteSoLame. They think they’re making things better by beating themselves on the back like that albino assassin in “The Da Vinci Code.”

FL But we’re not really in the era of the middle ground.

PG Maybe the only middle ground now is the outrage over episodes like your recent N-word incident. Total fury! Did you think you were toast?

BM No.

PG Really? Were you not looking at Twitter?

BM I think most people understood that it was a comedian’s mistake, not a racist mistake.

PG Your first guest on the follow-up apology show, Michael Eric Dyson, was pretty softball with you. But Ice Cube was righteously indignant. He wanted to hold you to account.

BM Listen, I hope we had a teachable moment about race: trying to make something good from something bad. But maybe also about how to handle something like this: apologize sincerely if you’re wrong — and I was — and own it.

PG Mission accomplished, as President Bush said.

BM But we don’t have to grovel, and we don’t have to admit things that aren’t true. When Ice Cube said something about my telling black jokes, I wasn’t going to be: “Oh, well, I made one mistake; I might as well admit mistakes I haven’t made.” I’ve never made black jokes. I’ve made jokes about racists. But my fan base knows that, so it never went anywhere.

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“Remember that whole period when Charlie Sheen was news. That’s not news, O.K.? You can watch Bill; you cannot watch Bill. But you can’t not have this Congress. That’s the misplaced moral outrage.” — Ms. Lebowitz

Credit
Hilary Swift for The New York Times

PG Can you distinguish this episode from the one after 9/11, when your show on ABC was canceled? Then, you agreed with a guest who said the 9/11 hijackers weren’t cowards. Frankly, willingness to blow yourself up isn’t my idea of cowardice, either. It may be crazy or evil. I hope I don’t get fired for this.

FL You don’t work for Disney.

BM Part of the difference, as Fran says, is that I was on a network with sponsors. And when sponsors pull out, the network has no choice. But also, the 9/11 statement had meaning behind it. The recent thing was just a mistake. I should not have used that word, even reaching for a joke.

FL The worst thing about this is that there’s always outrage over people in show business, who have no actual power. They’re entertainers. We would prefer that they agree with us, and do the right thing. But moral outrage should be reserved for Congress or the Supreme Court. To me, the fact that people can’t tell the difference between these things is why we have Donald Trump as president. People want to be entertained 24 hours a day. And they’re seeking from entertainment what they should be seeking from other branches of life.

PG Have you ever had to do a public apology?

FL No. This is very specific to people who have mass audiences. Remember that whole period when Charlie Sheen was news. That’s not news, O.K.? You can watch Bill; you cannot watch Bill. But you can’t not have this Congress. That’s the misplaced moral outrage.

PG Better to save it for Paul Ryan?

FL I’m glad you brought him up. Every time I see the sentence “Paul Ryan is the conscience of the Republican Party,” I think: What is that? Is that like being the quarterback of the New York City Ballet? But yes, that is where your outrage should be.

PG I know you don’t consider yourselves contrarians, but when The Times said there was a 91 percent chance of Hillary winning, did you see Trump coming?

BM I don’t remember anyone else in the media taking Trump as seriously as I did when he talked about running for president. In the years leading up to it, people would say: “Oh, he’s just doing it for his brand. He’ll never run.” And I remember thinking: “No, this is a giant egomaniac. He thinks he should be president.”

FL I was flabbergasted that he won. I spent a year going around the country, telling thousands of people: “Don’t worry. There’s zero chance he will win.” The reason I thought … well, there are a million reasons Donald Trump is a joke. He’s always been a joke in New York, which is why Hillary Clinton won, 9 to 1, in New York City. He’s not even taken seriously by other real estate developers, who aren’t exactly theoretical physicists.

BM You can tell he still thinks he’s in the real estate world. The way he tried to influence Jim Comey, that’s something you do to a housing inspector. You call him up over and over, “I know there are rats in the building, but can’t you let it go?”

FL Actually, you give a housing inspector 20 bucks.

PG Both of you spend a lot of time on the road, doing speaking engagements and stand-up.

BM When you’re a comedian, there’s nothing greater than comede-ing, getting up on a stage and making people laugh. It’s also a great benefit for doing “Real Time” because I see the country. People talk about “flyover states.” I land in them. I do shows in them. I talk to people, and I think I have a greater understanding of America because of that.

FL I wish I had less of an understanding. I already know the country too well.

PG Including the so-called Trump voter?

BM It’s a bitter pill that the Trump voter is my age, my race and my gender.

FL But not your I.Q.

BM And I knew they were asses in high school.

FL I am so tired of hearing about what the Trump voters want. I don’t care what they want. How’s that? And you know what? We do know what they want. They want a Confederate flag. We all know what this is about. I’m tired of hearing people, particularly men, explain to me what Hillary Clinton did wrong. Donald Trump didn’t win because he did something right; he won because he did something wrong. We always knew you could win that way — appealing to the worst. You’re just not supposed to win the presidency that way.

BM He’s a great con man.

FL He’s not even a great con man.

PG That said, would you book him on your show?

BM Of course. I invited him the Friday after he won the election. And he’s just crazy enough to do it.

PG Did he respond?

BM Not since he filed the lawsuit against me. I said his father was an orangutan and offered $5 million to anyone who could prove he wasn’t — as a joke. But Trump marches into court with his birth certificate — like it’s going to say orangutan on a birth certificate — and he wanted the money. Ever since then, since he got laughed out of court, it’s been radio silence. But that’s O.K. I don’t want to be on his radio.



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