By Jack EncarnacaoGateHouse News ServiceBill Maher is the vanguard in the blurring of the line between political comedian and political commentator. The standup veteran and longtime television hostís irreverent 1990s series ďPolitically IncorrectĒ brought a sharp edge to political chatter before warring 24-hour news networks began to spotlight punditry as much as reporting.

Maher has more than kept pace. The Los Angeles resident has grown increasingly strident on his 10-season HBO series ďReal Time,Ē skewered organized religion in his 2008 documentary ďReligulousĒ and made headlines when he donated $1 million to President Obamaís re-election campaign. Heís come to be viewed as much a bellwether for liberals as a professional funnyman.

Maher spoke with The Patriot Ledger (Mass.) about the world view that informs his act in 2012.

Though youíve been tagged a coastal elitist, you spend a lot of time touring mid-America and the South. Does that help you create an act that relates to more people?

Yeah, absolutely. Thatís key, I feel. Because L.A. is a bubble. I talk a lot about the conservative bubble, but thereís a liberal bubble, too. I mean, nobody I know watches ďNCISĒ or ďCSI,Ē and those are the biggest shows on television. Thatís a liberal bubble, and we all have to fight to get out of our bubble.

What about Boston as a market to play?

I havenít been there in a while. I know obviously theyíve got a red-hot race there, the Scott Brown/Elizabeth Warren race. Iím anxious to see what the feeling on the ground is. There was a time when the Democrat was such a shoo-in (in Massachusetts). But as my friend Joe Scarborough says, donít ever underestimate Mitt Romney. He got elected governor of Massachusetts as a Republican Mormon.

Do you think the Internet and online comment boards have made us more divided?

Probably. I think people generally with the Internet can sort of coagulate into their own tribes and form a clot. Itís funny, because we live in the information age. Information is actually more available than it ever was, readily and easily. I was born in an age when there were still door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen. And yet somehow, in the information age, it seems it is harder than ever to get information into peopleís heads.

I donít mind if someone has genuine ideological differences. But I do take offense when people have their own set of facts. Iím not the only one to point this out, but it is amazing the way the Republicans can run against a completely fictional Barack Obama. I saw it on the news just yesterday, something like half the country ĖĖ and I donít mean just Republicans ĖĖ half of everybody thinks heís a Muslim. Forty-nine percent say heís a Christian. Now this is not something thatís really in dispute. You can easily look this up. And yet they are stubbornly ignorant, they refuse to let any air into that bubble.

And so you have them running against the president, who basically in their view wants to take away your guns, even though heís never said anything about that; is coming for your Bible, even though heís always spouting spiritual nonsense; wants to get between you and your doctor, even though thatís not at all what the health care bill does. They talk about him redistributing your wealth when he only wants to raise taxes on rich people 3 percent, which is what Clinton had. Itís a far cry from what the tax rate was under Eisenhower or Nixon.

They constantly talk about (how) he wants to slash defense, even though heís done nothing but raise it. He takes his cues from Europe, (but) thereís no evidence of that. Itís complete fiction. And thatís because, partly, they can get on those chat rooms and they just hear themselves in an echo chamber.

Do you think people are wired to believe the negative more than the positive?

Thatís a good question. America is a very optimistic country. In many ways, itís very naive. Itís very religious, so it has that model in its head of believing something thatís a magical thought, as opposed to fact based. So in many ways, I think they love the positive. I mean, just watch reality TV. Itís all about (being) very positive. But they also love gossip, and they love to hear the bad about people. I donít know. It would be a good book.

One thing youíre noted for saying is that if youíre a Republican, it doesnít mean youíre a racist. But if youíre a racist, youíre probably a Republican. Have you really never met any racist Democrats?

The Democrats invented it in this country, are you kidding? I mean, that was a big part of the Democratic Party; they used to call them Dixie-crats. Iím sure there are racist Democrats. But at least the Democrats donít say things like, ĎObama is the most radical president weíve ever had.í Now, again, you look at his record. Barack Obama, heís to the right of Nixon on almost every issue. There is nothing about this man thatís radical. Socialist? Heís not even a liberal. So I think when they say Ďmost radical president,í what they mean is, heís black. Iím sorry, but that really is the translation. Thereís absolutely no basis in fact to call him the most radical president. But that is a code way of saying heís black.
Can you compare doing your show under Obama to doing it under Bush?
Well, Bush was, of course, easy pickings. And the audience was united because I didnít like Bush and they didnít like Bush. With Obama, many times Iíve had to stop in the middle of my rant or whatever I was saying to sort of tell the audience, ĎHeís not your boyfriend, heís the president.í And being president, I have to hold his feet to the fire on a lot of issues, and there are a lot of issues heís been disappointing on. But, obviously, in this country, where you only get two choices, itís no choice. You either get Obama or the representative of the mental patient party. So I think at the end of the day, everybody knows where I stand. I mean, thatís why when I gave him money this year, I thought, well, Iíve never really given money, but whoís kidding who(m) anymore? Itís not like people wonder which candidate Iím backing.

How does Romney compare to Bush?

Romney could be just as funny. I mean, I donít think heís as dimwitted, but as a gaffe machine in ways that even Bush wasnít. He has a different kind of ignorance, which is ignorance of the common man. He could be one of the funniest presidents ever. I mean, he was away on a foreign trip and every country he went to, he made a gaffe.

The late George Carlin, a comedian you admired, used to avoid political humor because he said politicians were simply products of what the American system produces, and that the public is the problem. Considering how politically active you get on some issues, would you agree with that?

I absolutely agree. I remember once Barney Frank, he was on (ďReal TimeĒ) some years ago. He was a straight shooter because he had a pretty safe district and he could say things like (this). He said, ĎYou know, the politicians arenít great. But the voters are no prize, either.í Which is pretty great for a politician to say. Because usually they just (say), ĎIf only we had a government as good as the people.í I used to say, we do. It was a routine I had, like maybe 10, 15 years ago. We do have a government as good as the people. It is an absolute reflection of the people. If the people wanted better government, they should stand up and take it back. But they donít.

You became very well known for your documentary critique of religion, ďReligulous.Ē As a comedian, do you sometimes feel boxed-in as just the anti-religion guy?

No, I love it. I feel like I own it, because no one else on TV said that or has been saying that. I mean, comics have always done religious jokes. My first joke when I started out when I was 24 years old was, ĎIím half-Jewish and half-Catholic, and I used to bring a lawyer into confession.í

Thatís one thing, to make jokes about religion, assuming that the religion is still OK. Itís another thing to say, no, religion is stupid and dangerous and should go away. And it is the one issue where I think minds are changed. I donít think that political humorists like myself really change a lot of minds about political stuff. People pretty much have their mind made up. But religion, Iíve heard it too many times from people who say, ĎYou know, youíve brought me over to the dark side; your movie did it.í Because the thing you have to understand about religious people is they know nothing about religion.

The thing about Bible thumpers, theyíve never read the Bible. So it doesnít take much. If you just show them a few things, they go, ĎWhoa, wait a minute.í Thereís a Ďpay no attention to the man behind the curtainí moment for these people. Itís so funny, everyone calls their religion the one true faith. But statistics show us that 44 percent of Americans have switched religions. Almost half the people have found another one true faith. Glenn Beck just decided to be a Mormon. Shopping in the cafeteria of religion. ĎI like this one. Jesus is an American in this one, honey.í

In the current media climate, can anyone really win an argument anymore?

Thatís a really good question. Itís very hard, because to win an argument you have to be talking to people who know facts, and the audience doesnít. And this is why, almost no matter what happens, the other side can say, ĎWell, you know, itís a wash.í I remember when they were going after Romney for the dog on the car. The dog on the car is a real thing. Whether itís important in the election, thatís for the electorate to decide. Obviously, itís not the biggest issue. But the Romney campaign came back a day later with, ĎWell, you know, when Obama was growing up in Indonesia, (he) ate dogs.í And if you can make everything a push like that ĖĖ and the media is very culpable in doing that and abetting them in that ĖĖ then it is very hard to answer your question.

Is a polarized media landscape good or bad?

Thereís a place for it. For a while, there was only Fox News. Iím glad MSNBC emerged as a counterweight. As much as Iím very fond of all of the people at MSNBC, Chris Matthews and Rachel (Maddow) and Lawrence OíDonnell, theyíre all good people. But if I watch it, like, for a whole day, I want to marry Ann Coulter and join the tea party.

Youíve said that one of the problems today is everybody wants to be on the stage and no one wants to be in the audience. Is this something youíve recently noticed or has it been the case for a long time?

Oh yes, thatís been there for a long time. People donít like to hear it. Itís so true. The discussion so often in America is of going for your dreams, which is great, but absolutely no follow-up discussion about what that dream should be. In other words, it doesnít matter, as long as you say you have a dream. Forget the fact that for 90 percent of the 12-year-olds out there, (their dream is) to be some sort of singer, baller, the ďAmerican Idol,Ē a model.

Itís not wrong to wish for that. But it seems like if your dream was to be part of Doctors Without Borders, thatís actually a much better dream. And we should somewhat differentiate between great dreams and dreams that are really just to become some sort of show-business icon, so youíre able to pig out on ego, money ... whatever it is. Wanting to be the next Justin Bieber is not as noble as wanting to teach kids in Africa.Jack Encarnacao is at