The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Bill Maher hates your (fill in the blank) religion

August 7, 2008 |  6:00 am

Bill Maher and Larry Charles getting ready to get Religulous

In Bill Maher's new documentary, "Religulous," the film's protagonist--Maher himself--feels the same way about the film's subject matter at the beginning as at the end: In other words, he thinks religion is a big crock of spit. You know irreverence is the order of the day when Maher, reacting to a smooth-talking black preacher's boast that he got a great deal on his $2,000 suits, drolly observes, "I find it interesting that you're a Christian, you used to be a Muslim but you buy all your clothes like a Jew."

"Religulous" doesn't open until Oct. 3, but after seeing the movie I couldn't wait to grill Maher about how he managed to get so many deeply religious figures to actually talk to him, since it's obvious to anyone whose ever watched Maher's act (on "Politically Incorrect" or HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" or in a comedy club) that he wasn't much of a believer. In many ways, the film is a comic bookend to Sam Harris' "The End of Faith," a humorless best seller that views religion as a bastion of superstition and moral hypocrisy. Although Maher embraces Harris' belief that religion is a destructive force that has brought great pain and suffering into the world--at one point he calls it a neurological disorder--Maher is always searching for the humor in every situation. A longtime acolyte of George Carlin, when Maher confronts a religious zealot or hustler, he prefers mocking over scolding.

Rolling his eyes, often full of derision, Maher gets in his licks with everyone, from a guy playing Jesus at a Holy Land theme park in Orlando to Muslims at a gay bar in Amsterdam to a rabbi who advocates the dissolution of Israel (he wears a card with the slogan "A Jew Not a Zionist"). As everything from "The Gong Show" to "Borat" has proved, real people and situations are often undeniably funnier than anything scripted by the best comic minds. In Holland, Maher is in the midst of questioning a somber Muslim cleric when he's interrupted by the cleric's cellphone, whose ring tone is Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir."

So how did Maher manage to get all these people to actually talk to him? Since "Religulous" was directed by Larry Charles, who also did "Borat," I suspected that subterfuge and trickery were involved. I was not far wrong. Here's how Maher pulled it off:

On how he got people to talk to him: "It was simple: We never, ever, used my name. We never told anybody it was me who was going to do the interviews. We even had a fake title for the film. We called it 'A Spiritual Journey.' It didn't work everywhere. We went to Salk Lake City, but no one would let us film there at all."

On the element of surprise: "Larry Charles' theory is--just keep going till they throw you out. I guess he learned that on 'Borat.' The crew would set up and at the last second, when the cameras were already rolling, I would show up. So either they'd be seen on camera leaving the interview and lose face or they'd have to talk to me. It was like--'And now here's ... Bill!' You could usually see the troubled looks on their faces. At the Holy Land theme park, the PR woman freaked out and finally told us to leave. She was definitely not a happy camper."

On his encounter with Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, who tells Maher he believes the biblical account that Earth was created 5,200 years ago: "He's not going to be happy with this movie. I suspect he's going to say that the editing is not favorable to him [laughs]. And he's not completely wrong about that. But we didn't make anything up. When I told him I was worried about people [with such literal interpretations of the Bible] running the country, he's the one who says, 'Well, you don't have to pass an IQ test to be in the Senate.' "

Tomorrow: Bill Maher tells us what he really thinks about religion.

photo of Bill Maher and Larry Charles by Alexandra Lambrinidis/Lionsgate

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