If you were disappointed that Bill Maher brought Milo Yiannopoulos onto his HBO show “Real Time” last week, Mr. Maher is not especially bothered.
In a telephone interview on Tuesday night, Mr. Maher batted back criticism of the booking by arguing that the appearance of Mr. Yiannopoulos actually helped expose the incendiary right-wing personality’s views to a wider audience and hasten his sudden downfall.
Mr. Yiannopoulos’s collapse was set in motion Sunday when a conservative group called the Reagan Battalion resurfaced a 2016 interview in which he endorsed sexual relations with boys as young as 13. Mr. Yiannopoulos — known for a history of offensive remarks about Muslims, Jews, transgender people and other groups, and as a ringleader in a notorious incident of online harassment — lost a speaking slot at the Conservative Political Action Conference and a book deal with Simon & Schuster, and then said on Tuesday that he was resigning as a senior editor from Breitbart News.
Mr. Maher has been dealing for days with the fallout from his booking of Mr. Yiannopoulos. The journalist Jeremy Scahill, who had been scheduled to appear on the same episode, withdrew from the show. Mr. Maher has defended the booking on free-speech grounds, saying last week that if Mr. Yiannopoulos was indeed a monster, “nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed.”
But following the show, Mr. Maher came under attack for the chummy and conciliatory vibe of his conversation with Mr. Yiannopoulos and for a panel segment, broadcast online, in which his guest made more inflammatory remarks that seemed to go unchallenged.
Speaking on Tuesday night, Mr. Maher, who counts himself as a liberal, did not sound particularly chastened by these assessments. He said he knew his interview with Mr. Yiannopoulos would never be satisfactory to some viewers. “No matter what I did,” he said, “it was never going to be enough for that slice of liberalism that would much rather judge a friend than engage an enemy, because it’s easier.”
Mr. Maher spoke further about the experience of having Mr. Yiannopoulos on “Real Time” and its aftermath, and why he will continue to seek out provocative conservative guests. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Given all that has transpired since Friday’s show, how do you feel now about your decision to have Milo Yiannopoulos as a guest, and how those segments transpired?
Well, let’s recap. About a week ago, I went on Van Jones’s show, and somebody asked me about the booking. I hadn’t really gotten into the details of Milo yet. He was just getting on my radar. I said, specifically, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Then we had Milo on, despite the fact that many people said, “Oh, how dare you give a platform to this man.” What I think people saw was an emotionally needy Ann Coulter wannabe, trying to make a buck off of the left’s propensity for outrage. And by the end of the weekend, by dinnertime Monday, he’s dropped as a speaker at CPAC. Then he’s dropped by Breitbart, and his book deal falls through. As I say, sunlight is the best disinfectant. You’re welcome.
You think his appearance on “Real Time” helped lead to his downfall?
That’s what I was just saying. And by the way, I wasn’t trying to get him removed from society. I’m somebody who, many times, people have tried to make go away. They were successful that one time, for six months in 23 years, because that’s how long it was between the two shows [“Real Time” and “Politically Incorrect,” Mr. Maher’s previous talk show, which aired on Comedy Central and ABC]. It just rubs me the wrong way when somebody says, “I don’t like what this person is saying — he should go away.”
Do you feel that way even about the kinds of things Milo was saying on your show, or in the other platforms he was given?
Can he do damage? I suppose he can. To a degree. Not a great degree, I don’t think. Could he offend people? Could he even inspire a borderline person to do something violent? I guess so. But nothing is free in life. People seem to want to live in this world where everything is a win-win. That’s not how life works.
Could there have been more accountability in your segments with him? For instance, it seemed like he was allowed to grossly understate his role in harassing Leslie Jones on Twitter.
It’s not my job to hold him accountable to everything he’s ever said or done. I had eight minutes with him, on the show itself. Sorry I don’t have time to go over everything everybody else would want to do. We just had time to, sort of, start a discussion of the broad view of who he is. I don’t think he frankly knows what he’s going to say half the time, or knows what his philosophy is. But to see him as this monster is a little crazy. You know what he is? He’s the little impish, bratty kid brother. And the liberals are his older teenager sisters who are having a sleepover and he puts a spider in their sleeping bag so he can watch them scream.
So how does someone deal with a personality like Milo, who is going much, much further than other guests, saying things that are demonstrably false?
The president says 10 things a day that are provably wrong. If I threw everyone off my show who says things that are provably wrong, I’d never book a conservative and probably half the liberals.
When he said that transgender people have a “psychiatric disorder,” do you just move on from that?
Move on? It dominated the entire [online] segment. The other guests attacked him. When I say, “That’s not unreasonable” [to not want to share a bathroom with a transgender person] it’s because women have said that to me: “I want to know,” or “I’m not comfortable with someone in the bathroom, even if they, in their minds, have decided they are a woman.” Doesn’t that opinion count at all?
But you don’t agree that transgender people have a psychiatric disorder.
No, I don’t agree with that. But I don’t know that much about the situation. If somebody feels like they’re a woman, fine, then you’re a woman. I’m O.K. with that. If they’ve studied that, and they say it’s not a psychiatric disorder, I’m O.K. with that too. If that’s what scientists decided, that it’s not any psychological disorder, it’s fine with me. I agree.
Since the start of your new season, you have had other guests like Tomi Lahren and Piers Morgan — not nearly as provocative, but with whom liberal viewers aren’t likely to agree. Are you trying to create conflict on your panels, or rile up your audience?
I’ve never tried to push anybody’s buttons. I think everybody else in TV — everybody else who does political commentary in a comedic way — they’re all in one box. It’s so predictable, what they’re going to do, which is, never say anything that would make anything — that would make any liberal give the slightest bit of discomfort. I do a show about what’s happening that week in the news. Trump is president. I’m glad that we have enough credibility with both sides, that people who are Trump supporters will still do the show.
Going back to “Politically Incorrect,” you booked conservatives like Ann Coulter and Kellyanne Conway ——
And Laura Ingraham. We had a whole cadre of blond conservatives. There was a fourth woman conservative we used to book in those days, who we kind of discovered — her name was Arianna Huffington.
Even after your experience with Milo, do you still want to have guests your viewers haven’t encountered or might want to avoid?
Yes. I like people who push the limits. I like people who are not afraid to take the slings and arrows, because they’re going to explore what’s on the edge. Now, is this guy over the edge? Yes. I mean, he’s a little cuckoo. But I would rather err on that side than on the side where everybody else is.