Bill Maher's Trickle-Down Wealth Is No 'Zombie Lie'

July 19th, 2014 2:04 PM

“Their entire economic philosophy — cut taxes for the rich and it trickles down — is a zombie lie.” (Video below)
Bill Maher is a funny guy, so say his fans. If money is a measure, he’s very good at being funny. How good? Over here at Celebrity Net Worth it says ole Bill is so funny that over the years he has amassed a fortune of $23 million.

But wait! How can this be? Free market economics - aka “trickle down” if you’re a liberal like Bill Maher - is, in Bill’s own telling, a “zombie lie.” A malicious fairy tale that never dies and just keeps getting passed on to, in Bill’s words,  “dumber and dumber people.”

Hmmmm. Something seems amiss here. If  -- again in Bill’s telling -- “cut taxes for the rich and it trickles down is a zombie lie”, then how exactly did Bill Maher get his stash of $23 million very 1%-style bucks?

Let’s spend a little time here following Bill Maher’s career as outlined in that Celebrity Net Worth article.  Let’s focus on just how old Bill began building that $23 million nest egg, and its direct relation to what he calls the “zombie lie” that if you “cut taxes for the trickles down.”

Reports CNW as it begins outlining Bill Maher’s career:“He began his career as a stand up comedian in the late 70s, and began to appear on the Johnny Carson and David Letterman show in 1982.”

Stop. Two sources of income for Bill are identified here. Being a stand-up comedian and television. Let’s start with the first. Who pays a stand-up comedian? The job is tough - think the starving artist. You have to make a name - tough to do when no one knows who you are.

Back in 2012, The New York Times  took a look at the world of stand-up comedians. One of the venues for the struggling stand-ups is a club in New York’s Greenwich Village called The Comedy Cellar, begun in the early 1980’s by a former stand-up comedian named Bill Grundfest. In January of this year, Forbes magazine did a story on Bill Grundfest, saying:

“Mr. Grundfest has a nose for comedic talent, discovering the career of many notable comedians, including Steven Wright, Bill Maher, Ray Romano and Jon Stewart. He was also instrumental in Richard Pryor’s comeback campaign.”

Yes indeed, the Comedy Cellar’s Grundfest is credited with “discovering the career” of Bill Maher, among notable others. By giving him gigs at the Comedy Cellar.

How much money does a stand-up make at the Comedy Cellar today? According to that Times article, it notes that a stand-up named Kurt Metzger performs at the Comedy Cellar these days and makes the magnificent sum of $75 for an appearance. One presumes that back in the early 1980’s, when a young Bill Maher was getting started by appearing at the Comedy Cellar, the pay was less than that. But whatever the pay - where did it come from? In the case of Bill Grundfest - aka the boss of the Comedy Cellar as the man who created it from nothing - Grundfest “targeted an underserved section of New York and established a partnership with a restaurant that was struggling to provide its patrons with entertainment. He then consistently generated incremental customers and revenue for himself and his partner.”

In other words, Bill Grundfest, an entrepreneur, set about providing a service - two services when you count the Olive Tree restaurant with which he paired. The money earned was - gasp! - then “trickled” down to comedians like Bill Maher. Scratch the “like.” Bill Maher began building his $23 million fortune from appearances at the Comedy Cellar - where his meager wage was trickled to him by by owners who had more money - not a fortune but more money - than Bill did.

Now Bill Maher, as Forbes notes, was getting “launched.” Doubtless the Comedy Cellar wasn’t his only venue.  Surely there were other clubs, perhaps college campuses. But it is very safe to say that Bill Maher was getting paid with “trickle down” money by venues that had more money than Bill Maher had.

Which brings us to Bill’s next stop. Television, with appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman.

The Tonight Show, now hosted by Jimmy Fallon who took over from Jay Leno who took the show when Johnny Carson retired, was in 1982 owned by NBC which in turn was owned by RCA. In 1986, the network was purchased by General Electric, where it remained until a few years back when purchased from GE by Comcast.

Appearances on The Tonight Show bring money to guests, but they are in fact small standard fees. The obvious benefit from an appearance for an unknown stand-up like Bill Maher once was is the publicity received from appearing on a national show with a massive television audience of millions of Americans.  

Money, of course, is not the only thing that “trickles down.” The Tonight Show, by the time Bill Maher was finally making appearances, was an hour-long show. No guest got the full hour. The deal was the guest comedian came out, did his bit for X minutes - and then, if Johnny liked him (or the rarer her), they got the coveted invitation to sit on the couch and chat with Johnny. In other words, the precious air time of NBC, owned by tax-break possessing corporations, was “trickling down” its allotment of time to guests like Bill Maher. And that particular trickle-down helped make Bill Maher famous - which in turn trickled even more money into his bank account, setting him on the path of a trickle-down wealth of $23 million.

Time has moved on for Bill Maher as with the rest of us. With his newfound television fame in hand, Bill was launched on the rest of his career as a serious television personality. CNW lists his various projects. Politically Incorrect, which began with Comedy Central (owned by Viacom) and migrated to ABC (owned by Disney.) When Politically Incorrect was cancelled over a dustup about a -- what else? -- politically incorrect Maher routine, the comedian gathered himself and went on to host Real Time over at HBO, the latter owned by Time Warner.

Stop again.

What do all of these Maher projects have in common? They are projects that have been financed by major American media corporations: Viacom, Disney and Time Warner. And what do these three media companies have in common other than having employed Bill Maher? If you guessed they are always out there scouting the political and financial landscape for ole Bill’s bete noire -- tax breaks -- you would be right.

Here’s a detailed story in the Los Angeles Times that says, among other things:

About $1.5 billion in film-related tax breaks, rebates and grants were paid out or approved by nearly 40 states last year, according to Times research. That's up from $2 million a decade ago, when just five states offered incentives, according to the nonprofit Tax Foundation. Film tax credits have become so integral to the filmmaking process that they often determine not only where but if a movie gets made. Studios factor them into film budgets, and producers use the promise of credits to secure bank loans or private investment capital to hire crews and build sets.

Every company Bill Maher has worked for -- Viacom, Disney and Time Warner -- are in the business of making movies. The less they pay out in taxes, and clearly these three companies are getting some sort of part of that $1.5 billion in tax breaks - the more money they have to use for other projects in their respective companies.

Amusingly, the left-wing site Alternet cites a report from the left-wing network MSNBC (owned by the tax-break-seeking Comcast ) that says Time Warner  -- Bill Maher’s current employer -- goes out of its way to avoid paying taxes. Says the site of the owners of HBO which in turn trickles millions for Bill Maher to host Real Time:

Time Warner

CEO: Jeffrey Bewkes (Bewkes pulled down $48 million in pay over the past five years, which was good enough for #56 on Forbes' 2010 list of best paid CEOs.)

2010 Pre-tax Profit: $3.9 billion

How Time Warner avoids paying US taxes: According to MSNBC, “The entertainment conglomerate managed some swift accounting to use its merger with AOL in 2000 to leave it with little tax to pay. Between 2001 and 2003, Time Warner claimed tax breaks that cut its taxes by 121 percent—and allowed the company to pay nothing at all in taxes for two years.”

The Wall Street Journal reported just this week in a story on media companies and a bid by Fox to buy Time Warner that the total revenue of Time Warner for FY 2013 was $29.8 billion.

And from those tax-break-filled billions, Bill Maher, host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher,  gets the kind of trickle down millions that has, over time, stuffed his bank account to the tune of $23 million.

Amusingly, getting his millions from tax-break seeking corporations has apparently infected Bill with the desire to get tax breaks for an investment of his own.

Back in 2012, the New York Post reported:

He’s not joking — comedian and lifelong Mets fan Bill Maher now owns a piece of the team.

HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher host made a surprise announcement that he’s a minority owner before last night’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals after a VIP tour with Mets Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon.

“I think it’s a great investment,” said Maher, sporting a Mets cap for his inaugural trip to Citi Field.”

Good for Bill. Nothing like being able to trickle-down one’s own trickle-down earnings to your favorite team - which, amazingly enough, is itself out there looking for tax breaks. As Forbes reported here, with Bill’s investment in the Mets “Maher is getting a huge subsidy from low-income tax payers who helped finance Citi Field, the team’s stadium.”

Yes, you read that right. Having gathered his trickle-down millions, trickle-down Bill has invested in the Mets - whose stadium “is exempt from New York City’s property tax because it sits on public land and is legally owned by a subsidiary of the city’s Industrial Development Agency, which leases the stadium to the Mets.”

One could go on….and on and on.

But what we really have here is a guy whose entire financial fortune has been “trickle-downed” to him by everybody from the owner of a comedy club (The Comedy Cellar) to some of the biggest media companies of the day: RCA and GE to Viacom, Disney and Time Warner. All of the latter making it their business to seek and lobby for tax breaks. Giving them more cash to trickle-down on everything from The Tonight Show (that in turn  trickle-downed face time for Maher to get him in front of millions) to Politically Incorrect to Real Time. 

And quite a fortune it is, trickling a lovely home on trickle-down Bill. (The video is of Bill taking another trickle-down success -- music exec Clive Davis -- through the Maher Mansion. Laced with wonderful trickle-down quotes like “Let’s go to the screening room!” And also -- fair warning, this being Bill Maher -- a four letter word or two. ) 

Yet there he is, living in the lap of trickle-down luxury saying that cutting “taxes for the rich and it trickles down” is a “Zombie Lie.”

The only Zombie Lie here is coming from a world class champion recipient and practitioner of “trickle-down.” Somebody whose entire personal wealth has been trickle-downed on him from tax break-seeking-corporations, and a wealth he protects by investing in a tax-subsidized baseball team.

In truth? We don’t begrudge Bill Maher a dime of his trickle pile. God Bless America. But a Zombie Lie? The real Zombie Lie here is what Bill Maher was telling his audience when he trotted out the old Zombie Lie that tax cuts for the rich don’t trickle-down to for the rest of us to save and invest - and trickle-down some more.  Trickle-down -- that would be free market economics -- has made Bill Maher a very rich man.

And that’s no Zombie Lie.