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Bill Maher: 'I just think I'm too controversial'

The outspoken panel host talks about viewer loyalty, advertiser skittishness and the dangers of booking celebrities.

March 20, 2011|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Bill Maher in his office at CBS.
Bill Maher in his office at CBS. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

"Real Time With Bill Maher" is in its ninth season on HBO, the political satirist's happy home since ABC canceled "Politically Incorrect" — a fluffier more-celebrity oriented version of Maher's show featuring panelists tackling the day's topics.

I know you interview actors and performers, but why don't you have them on the panel of your HBO show the way you did on "Politically Incorrect" on ABC? Because they aren't on a level playing field?

They come out two-thirds of the way into the show and sit to my left. I wish we had started the show at the beginning doing that. That evolved slowly over time, and we just found out it was a much better way to use the celebrities, because there are not that many celebrities who can really keep up with the A team when you're having a very serious — I mean serious with hopefully funny moments — [discussion] with people who know their [stuff]. I can name them on one hand: There's Ben Affleck and there's Alec Baldwin and there's Michael Moore. There are a few others, but mostly, it's just not their field.

I used to find them really annoying.

Most of them were, and I'll tell you that in my audience, I've found over the years that they will punish us for putting up somebody who isn't up to the discussion. It's the one thing they find intolerable. They will tell you they like having celebrities and famous people there, but not if they look like they should be sitting at the children's table. That's the one thing they will let you know about and say, "So-and-so was stupid on your show, and I don't watch your show to be stupidized."

How else does having your show on HBO compare to broadcast? What can you do that you couldn't do before?

Not very much. There's a misconception that I've heard for almost 10 years now that I was somehow freed when I came to HBO. "Finally you can say what you want." I've always said what I want. The only difference is that eventually at ABC — or I might say inevitably, perhaps — I was fired for it. At HBO that probably isn't going to happen because we do not have sponsors that will pull out. Now if we had sponsors, I'm sure the same thing would have happened already over any number of things I could have said. But that's what HBO likes, is that it's something you can't see on commercial TV because if it was on commercial TV it would get yanked.

Do you think the show you have on cable is as impactful on the greater cultural landscape as it was when it was on broadcast?

I think way more. I don't think it had any impact on ABC because it wasn't as serious a show. You're right in the sense that anyone with rabbit ears could get it, but that doesn't mean there were necessarily more total viewers watching it. And certainly it wasn't seen as prestigious a show. It was a fun show, I think. Part of the charm of it was that it was a train wreck by design. To mismatch four different people, and of course when you have 20 guests a week, you have to cast a very wide net. Almost anybody could get on "Politically Incorrect." Paul Schaffer once said at a roast, "Who doesn't want to see Carrot Top debate Pauly Shore on gun control?"

So I think the show we do now has much more serious people. Every year the caliber of people who want to do this show gets better and better. Whereas on the old show, most serious people stayed away because you didn't know who you'd be paired with. You might have a serious person and have them shouted down by Dice Clay the whole show. People would say, "Look, I'd love to do your show, but I just don't trust who I'm going to be on with." And that was a fair point.

Are there any guests you'd love to have who wouldn't be caught dead on your program?

There are many who wouldn't be caught dead, and those are mostly the right-wing Republicans whom I'm just anathema to. But there are other ones like Bill Clinton who has promised me this year finally — I finally got him to promise on air when I was on the final "Larry King Show" last November. And he said he would, but so far it hasn't happened. What is he afraid of? I defended Clinton endlessly through impeachment. We all made jokes about him being horny, but Jay Leno made even worse jokes than I did and I see Clinton going on that show.

I see that you've beaten Susan Lucci as the person with the most Emmy nominations without a win.

I'm a little sensitive about the Susan Lucci comparison. She's on a soap opera, and I do a pretty thoughtful show. I feel like I'm ahead of her just by showing up and doing what I do. But as far as the 26 Emmy nominations, I'm hoping to get it up to 100 before I go. At this point it would really ruin it if they actually gave it to me one year. I might have to refuse it.

Do you think it will happen?

No. I just think I'm too controversial. First of all, it's a very religious country, and a lot of people would never vote for an outspoken atheist. And they just play it safe. I think in Emmy voting, only 10 people get to vote on the actual winner. The nominations come from the academy as a whole. That's your peers, the 4- or 5,000 people in the voting academy. So I do take pride in the fact that every year, they put me up in the elite grouping, and I don't take that for granted.

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