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A Most Unlikely Star

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He's a Moralist, a Libertarian Who Bemoans the Decline of American Values. In Fact, Bill Maher Is Like a Schoolmarm Who Has Spent Most of His Adult Life Trying to Make People Laugh. What Gives?

June 14, 1998|MICHAEL J. YBARRA | Michael J. Ybarra's last article for the magazine was a profile of competitive lifeguard Craig Hummer

Bill Maher is angry, his normally smooth face as wrinkled as a Shar-Pei's. He seems consumed by moral outrage. Sitting in a stiff leather chair on the columned set of "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher," the comic riffles through news clippings as the cameras roll: In Florida, 76-year-old Ina Brown has triggered a wave of lawsuits against American Family Publishers and other magazine purveyors because she mistakenly believed that she'd won $11 million when she saw the smiling faces of Ed McMahon and Dick Clark in her mailbox. And that makes the often detached, usually unflappable Maher just a little crazy. For God's sake, his own 79-year-old mother back in suburban New Jersey could have been misled.

"Elderly people in Florida are upset because they have basically been falling for these, and I don't blame them," Maher says, his voice quivering. "I don't understand them either. She thought she won."

"Ina went out and bought a Cadillac?" asks Rick James, the funk singer and felon, sitting on Maher's left. "No," Maher says, his comic instinct chasing away that moral outrage in a blink of an eye, "she's white." Laughter gusts off the L.A. audience in gales, followed by the thunder of applause. Maher fights to keep a smile from ruining his poker face--the kind of smile that first crossed his features 25 years ago when the shy senior with the craving for stardom recycled Johnny Carson jokes for the high school talent show.

Is Maher putting on a show now? Is his anger just a costume donned for effect, like the suit and tie he hates but wears daily? Or is it real?

"El-der-ly peo-ple," Maher moans, drawing out the syllables.

His guests--James, actors Jeffrey Tambor and Patrick Duffy and columnist Barbara Howar--don't seem to share his angst. "Just send them a card that says they won their lawsuit and they'll believe that," Duffy jokes.

"You're all being very facetious," Maher chastens. He sounds more like a schoolmarm than a man who has spent most of his adult life trying to make people laugh. Comedian, it turns out, is only one of his guises: He also styles himself a moralist, a libertarian Bob Bennett, lecturing his guests and audience about the defilement of American civic life one moment, then in the next breath dashing off a vicious one-liner. This admixture has made Maher an unlikely star.

Television critics gush over "Politically Incorrect," which throws politicians and show-business types--the famous, the infamous and the in-between--together to discuss events of the day. The resulting chatter is unpredictable, sometimes stuttering into incoherence, sometimes soaring into edification. The formula proved to be so entertaining that ABC snagged the show from the Comedy Central cable channel, and put it on at midnight following its powerhouse current-affairs program "Nightline."

"Politically Incorrect" did what no show has done in 15 years: It made a dent in the ratings duopoly of Jay Leno and David Letterman, inching up to the former in many markets and often trouncing the latter (although in most of the country "P.I." goes up against the second half of both shows). Time magazine credits Maher (along with comic Dennis Miller, who once died a living death in a late-night time slot) with bringing back political satire. Vanity Fair proclaimed "Politically Incorrect" one of the few spots on TV "where there are true spontaneous combusts." A Playboy critic enthused: "One of the few you actually wish went on longer than its allotted time."

Maher, however, rubs many others the wrong way. "He referees a food fight of the second-string famous versus the b ush-league powerful," snarled Tom Carson in the Village Voice. "If he were hosting a show that had people competing to send their pets on dates, his attitude, and even some of his jokes, would be exactly the same."

On this night, Maher doesn't even mess up the table, his wicked wit evaporating as soon as he starts talking about Ina Brown. "Some of these people flew to Florida because they wanted to beat the [contest] deadline," he says. "They took their life savings and flew to Florida."

His plea for sympathy fails. "They didn't get to be old by living in a closet," Duffy counters. "You need to accept some responsibility for yourself." Tambor joins in: "It's become a victim's sort of society." Maher's small eyes light up. "I'm so against people who say they're victims, and I certainly hate stupid people--but I feel bad for Ina Brown," he says, a smirk at last trembling across his face. "I'm as stupid as she is."

Who's talking: Bill Maher the moralist or Bill Maher the jokester? Is he genuinely offended or is this the sham sincerity of a late-night talk-show host just trying to pay the rent? Will the real Bill Maher please stand up?

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