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'P.I.': Where Celebrity Guests Fear to Tread?

Television: Bill Maher prides himself on his show's renegade image, but that makes it harder to attract some big names.

March 31, 2001|BRIAN LOWRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first glance, it looked like just another installment of "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher," the ABC late-night series featuring a quartet of mismatched strangers discussing the day's headlines, with the acerbic Maher presiding over the free-for-all.

Then Arsenio Hall, of all people--who developed a reputation while hosting his own late-night series of fawning over guests--accused Maher of being a lackey for his corporate masters, of doing a show that must meet the approval of Michael Eisner, chairman of ABC parent the Walt Disney Co.

"This is Michael Eisner's show. Disney runs this show, and there'll be another Bill Maher tomorrow if you don't admit that. . . . This is a business," Hall said.

Clearly angered, Maher let loose with his own barbed response. "You don't think I run my show?" he snapped back. "I fight every day to keep the integrity of this show. . . . This show fights harder to be real than any other show on television," Maher continued, to applause from the audience.

"No one does tell me what to do, and I pay the price all the time. More people hate me than anybody else. . . . I say many things that get [Disney] mad. The censors are mad at me. The network doesn't particularly like me. I'm not a liked person. So this is all I have, [and] you can't take that away from me."

That heated exchange, broadcast March 16, underscores what has long been muttered behind the scenes--that "Politically Incorrect" struggles to attract big-name stars because the show is not as neatly manicured and "celebrity-friendly" as Maher's late-night competition, and that ABC has pressed the producers to book more recognizable faces.

And so it goes with "Politically Incorrect," which has fared well enough in the ratings after "Nightline" to maintain its renegade image. This season, the series has averaged 2.9 million viewers a night, an 8% increase over last year. The show also set a ratings record with its post-Oscars show, watched by 4.8 million people. Having marked its fourth anniversary on ABC a few months ago (it originated on Comedy Central), the series received another two-year extension in October.

Maher and his staff insist the show makes the guests, not vice versa, that interesting and articulate discourse is more appealing to viewers than marquee names--an assertion that reportedly hasn't stopped the prodding from ABC.

Against that backdrop, "Politically Incorrect" does the occasional theme week, from a stint inside an Arizona prison last spring to a week of teen-themed shows beginning Monday, which follow two recent school shootings and precede by a few weeks the second anniversary of killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.

ABC describes the latest stunt as "an in-depth look at teen life in America," with Maher joined by ordinary teens--including Santana High School student John Schardt and Columbine High student Devon Adams--as well as celebrity guests, among them Frankie Muniz of Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle," Danny Bonaduce, Howie Mandel and Kathy Griffin.

"We're on 46 weeks a year. Every once in a while you've got to do something different," Maher said.

Maher remains a combative personality who has no qualms about confronting guests when he disagrees with them--a far cry from "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" or even "Late Show With David Letterman." On those programs, stars and celebrities may endure good-natured joshing but rarely receive truly pointed questions and are even helped to look good, with jokes occasionally written for them and shows sometimes edited to delete awkward moments.

Maher, by contrast, characterizes his show as an evolutionary step away from the other "preplanned and overproduced" talk shows in late night. And as he told Hall, he contends there is a price to be paid for that.

"I'm not celebrity-unfriendly, but I don't do plugs," he noted. "It's not, 'Hey, what was it like working on 'Battlefield Earth'? That's why John Travolta doesn't come on."

By that criteria, "Politically Incorrect" is perceived as more treacherous terrain for celebrity handlers, who often want maximum exposure for their clients' projects with minimal risk.

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One veteran publicist, who asked not to be identified, said, "You've got to have the right person" to do the show--someone who isn't afraid to mix it up with Maher or overly concerned about saying something that might boomerang back at them.

"I can understand why a publicist might say, 'Oh, I don't want to put my client on that show,' " Maher said, adding that stars "are not used to being challenged in any way" on other talk shows.

In that respect, Maher contends he will never deliver precisely what ABC wants of him and that pressure to get more famous names on the show will never completely subside. "That's like saying, will the network ever say, 'Please, don't have the ratings go up any more,' " he said.

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