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Like Any Referee, He Wears a Uniform : A MOMENT WITH...BILL MAHER


His job tells Bill Maher how to dress.

He's the authority figure on Comedy Central's "Politically Incorrect." The policeman, maybe even the therapist, maintaining order among the eclectic spectrum of opinionated humanity who serve as guests. The solid, witty center keeping--depending on how you look at it--the ducks in a row, the balls in the air, or the nuts from each other's throats.

"If you're going to be a referee," he says, "then you really should have some kind of uniform."

Maher quotes Gene Kelly's line about how the dance follows the music to explain the sleek, usually three-button, suits he chooses with stylist Sheryl Olivia. In early shows, he tried a knit shirt with a sport coat, but that didn't feel quite right when he had someone like the secretary of labor as a guest. Big shots are more at ease with formality. Plus, he realized that political comedy worked better with a suit and tie.

"The more formal you are in appearance, the more liberties you can take with being a wise guy," Maher says. "To be a wise guy in a polo shirt doesn't work as well as being a wise guy in an Armani suit."

Besides Armani, his uniforms come mostly from Paul Smith and Donna Karan. He likes Hugo Boss, but sometimes finds it too boxy. He avoids double-breasted; he looks good in it standing up, but there's "a little too much stuff" when he's sitting down, which is for most of the show.

Olivia says Maher "has his own distinct sense of style. He sometimes doesn't realize how hip he is. He'll come into the office wearing a vintage shirt he's had in his closet since the '70s and it looks totally current."

And while Maher might wear a sweater or something more casual if he's doing an HBO special, he's selective about wearing anything with too much color. As an example he mentions a kelly green, double-breasted corduroy suit he bought at Maxfield a decade ago that he wouldn't wear now.

"I know the idea of kelly green corduroy sounds awful," he says, "and it would be completely in place on Mick Jagger or Ron Wood, but I find I can wear it only on St. Patrick's Day."

But no matter what suit he wears on the show, it has to be checked with bulky microphone packs in each inside pocket. Maher still cringes when he recalls a show where he went on without having the electronic gear fashion-tested beforehand. Only a man who cares about his appearance would use the words "embarrassingly awful," and "beyond bad, clown-y," to describe the way the suit hung. "All the work I do to get my fabulous body in shape went completely down the drain," he says, rolling his eyes.

However much he likes the clothes sold at Barneys New York, something about the store's astronomical prices makes him angry. It's triggered by a mix of his father being "the last bleeding-heart liberal Democrat"; shirts selling for the "price of someone else's rent"; and "a mankind-and-the-gap thing that seems so wrong."

Maher says he would not object "if jackbooted police came in and just confiscated everything and brought poor families to live in the store."

Olivia cringes. "I know he hates Barneys, but Barneys loves him," she says.

For the record, Maher does not own any jackboots.

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