That doesn't go just for his topical weekly talk show, "Real Time" on HBO. It's true for his live stand-up performances as well. Maher, who plays
"That's the difference between music and comedy," Maher said in a phone interview from Los Angeles last week. "With a musical show, people want to hear what they're most familiar with. If you go to see the Eagles and they don't play 'Hotel California,' you're upset – even though you've heard it 1,000 times.
"With comedy, it doesn't really work like that. There are certain routines that I always try to do because people ask for them, but I try to incorporate them with the news. There's always something happening to comment on, and that keeps it fresh."
Maher, 57, shudders at the thought of the alternative.
"I'd hate to be one of those observational comedians who has to look in his sock drawer and come up with something clever to say about it," he said.
Two decades ago, with his late-night talk show "Politically Incorrect," Maher helped to pioneer a genre of straight-from-the-headlines comedy in which the humor was (a.) as current as the evening newscast, and (b.) explicitly political. The success of that show helped open doors for other incisive comics such as
Before "Politically Incorrect," Maher notes, comedians on television were warned to keep their political views to themselves. It was OK for
"Back then, the belief was that if you expressed your political views you would immediately alienate half of your audience," Maher said. "I challenged that. I said, 'I bet I can express my views, and even if viewers don't agree, they can take it.' If the show is good, people will watch even if they don't agree with everything I say."
One person who has been disagreeing lately is
“The cynical view would be to say that he picks these fights to drum up publicity for his stupid reality show,” Maher said. “He’s got a lot of feuds going with a lot of different people. Any time anyone says anything about him, he gets angry and breaks out the hyperbole. He’s passed over the line and left reality. He’s in
Maher joked that the lawsuit will go all the way to the Supreme Court. Asked if the future composition of the high court could affect the outcome, Maher replied, “
In nine years on "Politically Incorrect" and now 10 years on "Real Time," Maher has specialized in smart – and often controversial – humor, as well as conversations and interviews that avoid standard talking points and actually cut to the heart of issues.
It's a style that Maher traces back to his childhood in New York. His father was a radio broadcaster back in the day when every station stopped its formatted programming at the top of the hour to deliver five minutes of news.
"What I do now is very much the culmination of my father's influence," Maher said. "He was a funny guy. He wasn't a comedian, but he was a living room comedian. My parents talked about politics at the dinner table, and they brought the kids into that discussion."
Maher talks with pride about a collection of stopwatches that his father gave him – timepieces that he used to make sure his top-of-the-hour newscasts were precisely timed.
"I wish he had lived to see the career that I've had," Maher said. "He died the year before I started 'Politically Incorrect.' He saw the first part of my career, when I was in comedy and on 'The Tonight Show.' But he didn't get to see what I've done for the past 20 years, and I think he would have liked that."
WANT TO GO?
Who: Comedian Bill Maher
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 2
Where: Chrysler Hall, Norfolk
Tickets: $49-$75, available at the box office and through Ticketmaster