Bill discovered he was Jewish at 12 - but he still hasn't been to shul

By Simon Yaffe

BILL MAHER does not do religion, so it might be churlish to suggest that the American comedian thanked God for stupid people, religious nuts and incompetent politicians.

Without those three categories of people, the talk show host may not be in the position he is today.

The host of political satire show Real Time with Bill Maher, he has made a name for himself with his cynical, sarcastic attitude to religion, politics, bureaucracies, political correctness and the mass media.

"Certain arrogance rubs me up the wrong way and that is why America's right-wingers hate me," Bill told me from his Los Angeles home.

"I actually prefer a foreign audience to an American one.

"The Europeans, for example, are more laissez-faire in their attitude to sex, drugs and rock and roll - which is good for me."

Never short of an opinion, Bill, who received a Hollywood Walk of Fame star in 2010, supports the legalisation of marijuana, same-sex marriage and is passionate in his beliefs surrounding America's current hot topic - gun ownership.

He explained: "We have something called the Second Amendment, which is enshrined into law and over decades has become something it was never intended to be.

"It was written in the 18th century and had to do with quartering soldiers in your home and that you might need a gun to overthrow the government.

"That idea today is preposterous, but you cannot tell that to people who have become so enamoured of their guns.

"Their love of guns is sick - it is almost like a romantic fetishism. For them, it is a love affair and as long as it is that, I don't think it is going to change.

"True, the Democrats want gun control, but it would not fundamentally change the fact that there are millions of gun owners in this country."

A live audience will be able to indulge themselves in Bill's views as he is in the middle of his first stand-up tour - which he will bring to the UK and Europe next year.

"I am nervous as hell, but super excited, as I have always felt the sensibility of my show was always something which would appeal to a European audience," said Bill, who will appear at London's Eventim Apollo on May 23.

"I will be 59 in January and I am not getting any younger, so I thought if I didn't do a tour now, then when?

"I am pretty good at what I do now. I might fall on my face, but I think I have enough in my bag of tricks to give a great show."

He may now perform in front of millions on television, but he used to do so in front of "three drunks at two in the morning".

He recalled: "I wanted to be a comedian when I was a little kid, but I never told anyone because I didn't have that kind of confidence.

"I thought I would be mocked and called ridiculous. Later on, I thought if I don't at least try it, I will always question why I didn't do it.

"Also, I didn't have a plan B, so it was a case of 'do this or bust'. I threw myself into it.

"In those days, you had to move to Los Angeles or New York and I went to the latter. I hung out in comedy clubs and started to perform.

"It was hard, depressing and poverty-ridden at first, but like with anything, you slowly pull yourself up."

His positivity paid off and he became the host of the New York comedy club Catch a Rising Star in 1979.

Bill's talents led him to appear on Johnny Carson and David Letterman's talk-shows in 1982, as well as acting roles on television and minor roles in a number of films.

But it was political satire where Bill's future led when he assumed the host role on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, in 1993.

The late night show ran on Comedy Central until 1997 and on ABC until 2002.

Perhaps he was destined to go into current affairs, as his father, William was a network news editor and radio announcer.

Bill was actually raised Catholic in River Vale, New Jersey, and didn't discover he was Jewish until he was 12.

His father was Irish-Catholic while his mother, Julie (nee Berman), was Jewish, of Hungarian descent.

Bill recalled: "When I asked her why she never told me she was Jewish, she said she was not keeping it from me or my sister, it was just something which did not come up in conversation.

"We went to church every week, although my mother never came.

"I didn't think anything of it because, I guess, when something is habitual to children, they don't mention it.

"She probably thought the church would give us structure and discipline - but it gave me pain and heartache."

Bill was surrounded by Jews growing up in New Jersey, though.

He said: "I had lots of Jewish friends and our next door neighbours, who were my parents' best friends, were Jewish, too.

"There were many Jewish people in our area.

"My family took a great interest in showbiz and entertainment which, of course, was Jewish-dominated.

"I don't know why that is - I know the Jewish partyline is that suffering creates humour.

"It goes back to the shtetls and Yiddish theatre. It is an interesting subject which I would like to delve into, but I don't have a scholarly answer.

"Both of my parents were funny in a living-room comedian type-of-way. That gets into your DNA as a kid."

Bill has never set foot in a synagogue and discussed his and his mother's beliefs in his 2008 film Religulous.

In the documentary, directed by Borat director and Seinfeld writer Larry Charles, Bill travelled to numerous religious destinations including Jerusalem, the Vatican and Salt Lake City, where he interviewed believers from a variety of backgrounds and groups."

Bill added: "When I was little, I was scared to death of the nuns at church.

"We stopped going to church when I was 14 and I thought: 'Great, I can stop being a Catholic'.

"But I was still scared that some omnipotent being would punish me if I messed up. Slowly, though, I grew up and became an atheist.

"When I say words such as 'atheist' or 'agnostic', we are splitting hairs.

"Richard Dawkins said if you put atheism on a scale of one to seven, as in seven, you definitely don't believe, even he is a 6.9 - as am I.

"That is what differentiates an agnostic or atheist from a religious person. I acknowledge we don't have the answers or an absolute truth.

"Could there be something in the sky? Of course there could, it just seems highly unlikely, especially the way it is described in the Bible."

The first time he visited Israel was while making Religulous.

"Travelling between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was like travelling between two different planets," he recalled.

"I call Jerusalem the 'funny hat capital of the world' and it's not a city I would choose to live in.

"Tel Aviv, however, is fantastic - it is like New York in the fact that it represents a thriving democracy and economy.

"The broad issue about what to do with Muslim radicalism is something America and Israel, among many things, have in common.

"There is no doubting there is a connecting tissue between groups like ISIS and Hamas.

"Israel was absolutely right doing what it did with regards to Gaza in the summer.

"The idea that a country is shelled from across the border and, what, they should do nothing?

"America would drop a nuclear bomb in two seconds if it was being shelled from Mexico or Canada.

"And, don't forget, if the people in Gaza had the weaponry Israel has, I have a feeling they would use it without hesitation.

"I never understand why Israel is constantly held to a standard in the world which no other country would be asked to do."

Politically liberal, as his parents were, Bill believes American policy towards the Jewish state is the same in every administration - whether Democrat or Republican.

"Israel is America's greatest friend in the world, even though every president pressures Israel to make concessions for a two-state solution," he explained.

"America, of course, has a lot of evangelical Christians who love Israel, but for the wrong reasons.

"They think the world is going to end and when it does they want Jesus to come back to a place which is full of Jews - Israel - otherwise he won't come back.

"But the fly in the ointment is that the Jews all have to die when it happens."

Despite hosting Real Time since 2003, Bill thinks of himself as a comedian above anything else he may be labelled.

"If I stop making people laugh, they would stop listening to anything I say," he explained.

"I use the news and political affairs as fodder for humour. I never forget it is all about making people laugh."

Bill has never married and never wanted children.

"I have understood the concept of inviting the government into my love life," he added.

"I understand the love people have for children, but it is not a chip which was put into my brain.

"My sister doesn't have children either, so I guess we are doing our best for population control."

Outside of his work, Bill two years ago bought a minority ownership interest in the New York Mets baseball team and he loves watching films, too.

He added: "I am on the road an awful lot of weekends, so there is nothing better for me than to finish my show, have a great dinner and watch a film in bed."

© 2014 Jewish Telegraph