Comedian Bill Maher comes to Tampa Bay

Comedian Bill Maher comes to Tampa Bay

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Though the next season of comedian Bill Maher’s talk show on HBO doesn’t start until February 2010, Maher may have already found his first guest. When interviewed by Watermark last week the show’s acerbic host admitted he was not yet familiar with Will Phillips, the Arkansas fifth-grader who refuses to say the Pledge of Allegiance at school until gays and lesbians are afforded equal rights.

“Wow! And he’s 10 years old? I feel like I should book him on Real Time when we get back to work,” said Maher.

The comedian will likely be up to speed on the young media darling by the time he brings his stand up act to Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts (formerly known as the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) on Thursday, Dec. 3. Known for his political satire and sociopolitical commentary Maher pulls no punches in his beliefs. He’s for the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage. He also serves on the board of PETA. Last year Maher took his criticisms to another level with the release of Religulous, a comedic documentary that tackles the ultimate taboo: questioning organized religion.  

The film went on to become the highest grossing documentary of 2008 and Central Florida plays host to several scenes in the movie. Maher visited Orlando’s Holy Land Experience and interviewed several of the theme park’s guests and staff, including an actor portraying Jesus. Maher also traveled to Winter Park’s Exchange Ministries, a conversion therapy group, to chat with its executive director Pastor John Westcott. Westcott claims to have overcome his homosexual lifestyle through a dedication to Christianity.

Maher reflects on his Religulous trip to the Sunshine State, his Real Time interview with Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, and why ex-Miss California Carrie Prejean could actually help pass gay rights.

What did you think of the Holy Land Experience?
Loved it. We had endured a rather grueling journey to the Middle East before that doing the movie. When you’re filming in the Palestinian territories it’s a lot more tense. When we got to Holy Land we were joking with each other that we didn’t even have to go to the Middle East, we could have just skipped that and gone to Holy Land instead.

We have our major differences with religious people. They’re usually very nice—if they’re not killing you or having sex with children or committing suicide bombings. These little things they can get into: crusades and inquisitions, arranged marriages to minors, ethnic cleansings, suppressing women and homosexuals, fatwas, blowing up girls’ schools, human sacrifices, burning witches. Other than those things they’re very nice.

Did you happen to catch the cutaway replica of Noah’s Ark that had dinosaurs in steerage?

Yes. There’s another one, the Creation Museum in Kentucky we went to for the movie. That’s very big on the dinosaurs with saddles on them. Man rode dinosaurs! It’s like I said when I was pitching this movie: I don’t have to make fun of religion, it makes fun of itself.

When you were filming in Orlando you also went to the Exchange Ministries.
With the ex-gay minister? One of the funniest parts of the movie, everybody always tells me.

For a straight man your gaydar seems pretty well on point.
You know, it’s not usually. But you can’t really miss it with that guy. He was very self-revealing. Christians don’t admit there’s such a thing as being gay. It’s just sinning. You know, as if heterosexual men are dying to have a penis in our mouths—but it’s sinning! It’s like a diet: Gee, I didn’t suck any yesterday, I guess I can have one today.

But that guy, I liked him too. I thought he was misguided, of course. I don’t know if I approve of what he’s doing. I don’t think it’s going to improve lives. But he was a sincere, sweet guy and you could tell. He couldn’t help but reveal himself as “still” a heterosexual man. At the end he asked me for a big hug. I asked him if he a hard on. And under his breath he said, “Uh, can’t do that anymore.” Which is very revealing.  
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Why do you think Florida is such a haven for so much religious craziness?
I think Florida is a haven for all craziness. Carl Hiaasen, he’s a very famous author from Florida, has some interesting theories as to why Florida is always a good place to set a crime thriller. It’s because there’s such a conflux of all kinds of people that come from Florida. The Jews come down from the North. The Cubans come up from the South. They breed. Old people, young people. I don’t think a lot of Americans even realize that Florida is massive. It goes all the way underneath Georgia and Alabama; it practically goes to fucking New Orleans. That panhandle part is as rednecky as the country gets. It is a world, Florida. You have everything there. 

Representative Alan Grayson, whose district is in our area, was recently a special guest on the season finale of Real Time.

Love him! He’s great. We’ve actually been communicating on MySpace lately. I hooked him up with my friend Arianna Huffington; I think she’s going to throw a fundraiser for him. I like Alan a lot. That’s what the Democrats need more of—his kind of guts and outspokenness. He’s not the typical Democrat that progressives complain about—spineless and so forth. He’s really right out there. It’s especially brave because he’s not in a safe district. Its one thing for Barney Frank or Nancy Pelosi—she’s from a liberal district in San Francisco. She’s not going to lose her seat if she’s notably and outspokenly progressive. But Alan is from a district that’s not particularly liberal. He’s very brave.

It appears as though the Republicans have yet to find a strong candidate to run against him.
You know they’re going to target him. I have no doubt. He’s definitely on their hit list.

What are your thoughts on Carrie Prejean?
She’s insane. She makes Sarah Palin look like Bertrand Russell. In a weird way it’s good that there are people like Carrie Prejean because she’s too dumb to fake what she’s saying. A lot of the religious right, they couch their homophobia and their hatred of gay people in all sorts of clever and cute and circuitous language and reasoning. Carrie Prejean is too dumb to do that. You see what this is in a more upfront way, which I think is valuable. She’ll come right out and say, “The Bible says it’s a    sin to have gay sex so they should burn in hell.” Most of the rank and file is also thinking that, but they’re too clever to say it out loud.

The more out front these people are the more they scare away independent voters, which is a good thing.

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