Bill Maher Keeps Them Guesting : Comedy: The host of award-winner 'Politically Incorrect,' who credits the show's success to his stand-up experience, brings his humor to San Juan Capistrano tonight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bill Maher is home for the holidays, and he couldn't be happier. For three seasons now, he has been taping his offbeat "Politically Incorrect" Comedy Central talk show in New York. The fourth season will be taped in Los Angeles.

"I've been trying to get home for years and years," Maher said from the home he bought three years ago in Bel-Air. ("But it's the poor section," he was quick to add.) "I was like Odysseus. I've always wanted to be here, because this is where I live. I can't give you any more noble reason other than I want to sleep in my own bed. And there's no reason not to do the show out here."

Some skeptics disagreed. Maher said he got "the impression from people that you can't do a smart show from California, [that] there's no smart celebrities here." He said he hasn't found that to be true.

In any case, added Maher, who brings his stand-up act to the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano tonight, "I will never miss New York. I basically don't like urban living to begin with. I don't like anywhere I have to take an elevator every time I leave my house. It's too noisy, too rat-racy. And at least people in Hollywood are honest about being phony."

His TV show features host Maher and his guests discussing two or three topics per half-hour installment. It is not, however, a knockoff of your typical late-night talkfests, which Maher views as publicity stops for guests plugging something with controversy-shy hosts. His frustration with that format led him to develop his own round-robin, free-for-all offering.

"I thought maybe there was a different way to do it. We certainly didn't need another one of those [standard talk shows]. NBC has three of the same shows in a row--Jay, Conan and Greg Kinnear."

"Politically Incorrect," currently between seasons and slated to return in late January to coincide with President Clinton's State of the Union address, is "the major joy in my life," Maher continued. "If I had to do it from Phnom Penh, I'd do it from there. It doesn't really matter where you do it if the elements are right."

He does four new shows a week, with reruns on Monday. His topics have included "Are people getting stupider?" and "Does show business make people [jerks], or do [jerks] go into show business?" Guest pairings have included Roger Clinton and Roseanne, Kato Kaelin and Garry Shandling, and Dr. Dre and GOP Congresswoman Susan Molinari.

In three seasons, Maher and "Politically Incorrect" have won two CableACE awards, one for best talk show and one for best talk show host. Maher credits much of this success to his extensive stand-up experience.

"What helps Letterman and Leno and me is that when we do this, we bring to the table a bag of tricks we've developed from being vaudevillians for 15 years. Things come into your head that you filed away years and years ago. What makes someone ready for a talk show is experience and living. I'm going to be 40 next month. If I were 10 years younger, I don't think I'd be able to pull it off."

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Still, he says he doesn't rely on memory as heavily as some comedians do. "Leno says he's never written a thing down. That's how he works. I'm the complete opposite. I put down reams and reams, then nervously put it together . . . I've been honing bits all summer, like a fighter going into a gym getting ready for a fight."

So what has the fighter got ready for the Coach House?

"Side-splitting hilarity. I've been doing stand-up since 1979, so it's not like we're sending a boy to do a man's job down there," he said with a laugh. "We could call this the 'If I Don't Have It Down by Now, I'll Never Get It Down Tour.' "

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His observational humor can be unpredictable. "It's Christmastime. There are stores in the mall that sell a bunch of [stuff] no one needs, like a store with all sorts of soap. I'm all for cutting Medicaid, and here's a store called Everything Purple. I think there's a problem with the wealth gap."

As he gets more comfortable with his talk show, Maher said, he is finding more time for concerts and other outside jobs. His leisure time, however, remains a work in progress, with no clear focus.

"I just got home here. I've been seeing friends I haven't seen much of in the past few years. I have no hobby. I like to stay in, watch TV. I read.

"And I do like to party, have fun, stay out late and drink a lot. But not every night. But definitely tonight, so I'm going to have to wrap this up."

* Bill Maher performs tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $18.50. (714) 496-8930.

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