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Oblivion couldn’t hold Bill Maher

David Ehrenstein is author of "Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928-2000."

ACCORDING to Bill Maher, his latest book, “New Rules,” was assembled “not just so there would be something else for people to discuss with me at airports, but also because it seemed about time that this ‘structureless’ society of ours got back to the idea of rules, limits and boundaries.” That may well be true. But as anyone with even a passing interest in show business knows, these days a comedian needs a book the way a singing cowboy in 1940s westerns needed a sidekick -- it’s a virtual arrow pointing back to the comedian’s jokes for the benefit of those who may have missed them on the first go-round. And in what is ever-so-politely referred to as “the current political climate,” that first go-round can be treacherous.

An “observational” humorist in the vein of Mort Sahl, Maher took off in the 1990s, rising to the heights of late-night network fame with an ABC show trendily titled “Politically Incorrect.” Its mixture of puckish ribbing and Beltway chatter proved pleasing -- until Maher said something truly politically incorrect, that it was inaccurate to call the Sept. 11 terrorists “cowards” for their murderous deeds. Faster than you can say “Pee-wee Herman,” he was off the air. But instead of exile in the comedy wasteland with Yakov Smirnoff, Joe Piscopo and Gallagher, Maher has bounced back on cable, where his HBO show “Real Time” finds him wiser but by no means sadder.

Whereas he once took the likes of right-wing propagandist Ann Coulter seriously, he now picks apart a political landscape of what he calls an armed camp of “poseurs” armed with verbal “bombs” they imagine have the force of actual ones. But rather than display a red-hot style like Lewis Black on “The Daily Show,” Maher has adopted a laid-back, almost Alan King-like demeanor: “Moms and Dads these days are like the Democratic Party: lame, spineless and not holding up their end of the equation. And kids are like the Republicans: drunk with power and out of control.”

It’s a neat joke, conflating the traditional stand-up territory of familial squabbling with the “cosa nostras” of the supposedly contrasting parties -- which on closer inspection are often only slightly distinguishable from one another. He contends that the media’s insistence on seeing Democrats and Republicans as offshoots of the World Wrestling Federation keeps us distracted from the real bottom line -- healthcare, the economy, social justice and the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

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“The president must stop saying that Osama ‘can run but he can’t hide,’ ” Maher observes. “Boy, can he hide. We can’t find him with cruise missiles, satellites or million-dollar bribes -- although, oddly enough, he is reachable through Classmates.com.”

And oddly enough, although George W. Bush’s second term offers a target-rich environment for a political satirist, Maher doesn’t aim the bulk of his barbs in the president’s direction, like his chief rival Jon Stewart. The majority of Maher’s mots justes are reserved instead for the Republican Party’s biggest bete noire, homosexuality:

“I don’t get that your air is poison and your job is gone and your son is scattered all over a desert you can’t find on a map, but what really matters is boys kissing.”

“The only people who don’t think you’re born gay are Pat Robertson and Anne Heche.”

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“If the government forbids gay men from tying the knot what’s their alternative? They can’t all marry Liza Minnelli.”

Best of all: “Dating a self-proclaimed 26-year-old virgin is probably not the best way to stifle the gay rumors.”

On second thought, Maher had better watch it. Tom Cruise could see him sent into the wilderness once again.


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