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Late Night's King Of Satire

March 22, 1998|LYNN ELBER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

This may be of dubious comfort to President Clinton, but Bill Maher counts himself among Clinton's staunchest defenders in the matter of Monica Lewinsky.

"They're accusing the president of having this affair. I, for one, don't believe he'd ever be unfaithful to Paula Jones," Maher informed his "Politically Incorrect" audience during the scandal's first blush.

But seriously, folks, Maher does believe Clinton is getting a bum rap--as firmly as he believes the controversy is tailor-made for "Politically Incorrect." If these are tough days for the White House, they're just peachy for Maher and "P.I."

"When there's a story that's on everybody's lips anyway, that's what this show is made for," says Maher.

He and his staff don't have to dig for hot-button topics. Ratings are up. And "Politically Incorrect" is enjoying a burst of creative energy, adding sketches to the standard format of four diverse guests bantering and verbally brawling.

Florence Henderson played Hillary Rodham Clinton and Maher was Jerry Springer in a recent skit portraying the scandal as fodder for Springer's sleazy talk show. "White House intern stole my man!" was the theme, with Henderson and a Lewinsky look-alike slugging it out on stage.

Maher does some slugging of his own. He drew gasps from the audience when he defended Clinton's fitness for office by evoking the ghost of Sonny Bono, whose widow is seeking his Congressional seat.

"Clinton has spent his life in politics ... but this woman is qualified to be in Congress because her husband, whose own qualifications were dubious, skied into a tree?" Maher says, recounting his remark.

That's the Maher charm at work: Pull no punches, take no prisoners. It's not surprising that the surest way a guest can disappoint him is to be bland on the air.

"Sometimes you book people who you know are an absolute snake and a mongoose, and they just want to make kissy-kissy, nice-nice," he says. "They're scared. It takes a level of guts to say things that are very controversial that they'd have no problem writing.

"You have to be there and take responsibility and hear people booing or objecting," says Maher.

Maher won't coddle anyone, even his potential audience. He rails against the sorry state of education and U.S. indifference to world affairs. He worries that many youngsters would answer "Brazil" if asked to name an enemy in World War II.

"Americans are so myopic," Maher says. "They have so little perspective about the world."

His candor takes on a sunnier tone when it comes to his own standing in the late-night TV world. Muse over the true heir to Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show," and Maher fills you in: It's not Leno's "Tonight Show" or Letterman's "Late Show." It's "P.I."

Maher contends his show may look different from Carson's, but appearances are deceiving.

"The focus of Johnny's show was talk. It was a true talk show," he says, noting the traditional opening monologue and occasional sketch.

Leno and Letterman host programs "that have squeezed out as much of the talk as they can. They're really doing something closer to comedy-variety shows," he says. "I'm not putting it down. I'm just saying that's a different thing than a true talk show."

Audiences seem to appreciate the "P.I." option. Since settling in behind ABC's "Nightline" 15 months ago (when it transferred from cable's Comedy Central), "Politically Incorrect" has watched its ratings climb.

Maher's half-hour show beats CBS' hour-long "Late Show" in the 17 cities and in the time period in which the shows compete directly; Leno on NBC remains No. 1.

So does Maher expect that Carson's Mantle, which everybody was measuring for either Leno or Letterman, ultimately will pass to him?

"You mean it hasn't already? You didn't read Vanity Fair this morning?" replies Maher--then anxiously checks, and checks again, to make sure a visitor realizes his dry wit is at work.

Really, he says, he doesn't want to bump Leno from ratings supremacy.

"I have a feeling you can't be No. 1 and doing the exact show you want to do. So Jay can be No. 1," he says.

And Maher can settle for late-night King of Satire.

"Politically Incorrect" airs weekdays at midnight on ABC.

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