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Bill Maher Takes a Stand

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher” became a hit on Comedy Central after it was launched in 1993. When it moved to ABC in January, some observers wondered if the irreverent talk show would thrive.

So far “Politically Incorrect,” which airs weekdays at midnight, is more than holding its own in the late-night ratings game. The issue-oriented gabfest trails the “Tonight Show” but routinely beats “The Late Show With David Letterman” in the 17 markets in which the shows compete. “P.I.” is also keeping an impressive 75% of “Nightline’s” audience in areas where it follows the venerable news program.

Much of the credit for that success goes to its 41-year-old creator, comedian Bill Maher. As mediator of the show’s spirited group discussions on current events, he has hosted everyone from rapper Coolio and actor Alec Baldwin to law professor Susan Estrich and former U.S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan.

“P.I.” has been a mixed blessing. Going network has forced Maher to neglect his true love, stand-up comedy. But he will return to it briefly Saturday when he headlines two shows at the Coach House.

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Question: You’ve said that “Politically Incorrect” is as much your guests’ show as it is yours. Is stand-up more rewarding because it’s a chance to do your own thing?

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Answer: Some nights [with “Politically Incorrect”] I think, “Oh God, I wish I could have gotten in there and made that point.” But as the host, [interrupting] would not only be impolite but counterproductive, especially if you have a big movie star or politician who people want to hear. Stand-up is great because I can get everything off my chest.

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Q: How frustrating is it to do fewer live shows?

A: I miss it a lot because it’s the one thing I’ve done my whole adult life. I started right when I got out of college. I’ve never had a relationship that’s lasted this long. It is the love of my life.

If you look at some of the people who loved stand-up and did it for a long time--Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Robin Williams--eventually they all stopped. They probably felt the same pangs of remorse. But life is about making tough choices. Sometimes you have to go where your career is going.

Q: Has your live audience changed since you launched “Politically Incorrect”?

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A: I saw a big change when the show achieved popularity on Comedy Central. We had a pretty nice following there, though not as big as at ABC.

The big change was when I went from a generic comedy club headliner to a sort of a brand name where people were buying tickets to see me specifically, as opposed to just seeing comedy. You don’t have to spend the first 20 minutes of the show getting them in tune with what you do. That’s a great luxury. Recognition is one of the three big elements of comedy. Bob Hope once said, “It’s timing, material and recognition.”

Q: What about the freedom of performing on stage?

A: A lot more. I sometimes get someone after the show who will say, “You seem like such a nice young man on TV, but the [live] show was dirty.” I don’t think it’s dirty. Yeah, there are definitely things that I can’t talk about on TV. That’s the beauty and joy of doing stand-up.

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Q: You dislike the tag of political satirist?

A: I just don’t think I deserve it. A real political satirist is someone like Mort Sahl. We do some political satire on the [TV] show. But I wouldn’t want anyone to come out [to a live show] and think they’re going to see a lot of political stuff.

The act I was doing last year had a lot of political stuff because we were in an election year. That’s what was on people’s mind and what was on the front page. But my attention shifts just the way the people’s in the country shifts.

Q: Are you surprised by the success of “Politically Incorrect” on ABC?

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A: It has surprised me, but everything is subject to change. I’m not getting complacent about it, because who knows? I thought it would only be an image show--it would do well with the critics and get award nominations and things like that. But I’m as surprised as anyone that as many people are watching it as are watching it. When people see me, they tell me they like the show’s spontaneity.

Q: Americans are often viewed, especially by Europeans, as less politically conscious than people in other countries.

A: They certainly aren’t that interested in foreign affairs. A good indication is the network nightly news, which is a half hour to cover the entire world. Local news? Two-and-a-half hours of what’s going around “me.” People are very narcissistic. It’s not all their fault. We live in a society where there is a magazine for you, a channel for you, a perfume for you.

Q: How would you describe your own politics?

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A: I’m really all over the map. All I can say is, I’ll never take a stance on the show that I don’t really believe. I get about an equal amount of mail saying, “You’re too liberal” and “You’re too conservative.” As long as that’s happening, I know I’m OK.

Q: Do you find that most of the celebrity guests on “Politically Incorrect” relish the opportunity to talk about issues?

A: It works two ways. Some of them are afraid: “What do I have to gain? It’s not a show that’s going to plug something for me. And what if I suddenly have to match wits with the secretary of labor about taxes or something?” That’s an unfounded fear. I never let it get so [academic] that everyone can’t participate.

Then there’s the other side of it, especially after [guests] have been on once. They really enjoy getting their teeth into a real issue. It’s not about drumming up conversation or digging into their personal lives.

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Basically, we’re going to ask you about your opinions, and you decide when you want to come [into the conversation]. It’s a jump ball. There’s the ball; there’s the issue; everybody run after it.

BE THERE

Bill Maher appears Saturday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano, 7 and 9:30 p.m. (714) 496-8930. $19.50-21.50.


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