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Bill Maher, TV's pugnacious pundit in chief

The longtime host of HBO's political slugfest 'Real Time' skews rabidly liberal on most issues, but when his dander is up, even President Obama isn't safe.

October 21, 2012|By Greg Braxton, Los Angeles Times
  • Bill Maher rehearses his monologue at CBS on the set of his show on Oct. 4, 2012.
Bill Maher rehearses his monologue at CBS on the set of his show on Oct. 4,… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Look out, President Obama. Bill Maher is feeling conflicted about your reelection.

Has the sky fallen? Has the relentless basher of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, conservatives in general and undecided voters on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" really been flipped? Is the veteran comedian who made headlines when he contributed $1 million to Obama's reelection campaign earlier this year having second thoughts? Is Maher joining forces with Clint Eastwood and "the chair" for a new stand-up tour? Was Obama's first debate performance that pathetic?

Bill Maher: An article about Bill Maher in the Oct. 21 Calendar section misidentified Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) as Daniel Issa. —

Judging from Maher's subdued demeanor the afternoon after that debate, the question was not too far-fetched. The 56-year-old comedian with his trademark "But I'm not wrong" line was far from the upbeat, self-assured host who had gleefully declared just a few weeks earlier that numerous stumbles had cost Romney the election. Dressed casually in a bright blue New York Mets baseball cap and jeans, Maher gathered his seven-member writing staff in a jumbled corner of Television City studios in Los Angeles. Almost all of them have been with him since "Politically Incorrect," the politics-celebrity series he created and hosted on Comedy Central and ABC from 1993 to 2002.

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Seated at the head of the table, he expressed bewilderment at the debate and quietly said that at least some of the material that had been written before the debate would have to be reworked and "re-set" because of Obama's lackluster performance. He then rushed off to tweak his monologue in the solitude of his office while his writers launched into a frenzy of trading one-liners that he could incorporate into the show.

On the next day's live installment, Maher, who usually aims at the right, zeroed in squarely at the president. "Obama looked like he took my million dollars and spent it all on weed," he quipped. "I haven't seen a black man look that disinterested since I dragged Chris Rock to a Beach Boys concert."

The comedian was much more encouraged last week. "Obama came out strong, and, to use a cliché, did what he had to do," he said in a quick phone call. "I do think it will make a difference. Romney didn't want to look like he was less than a man — he notched it up to 11 and came off looking mean and arrogant. He looked like that CEO you don't like."

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Come election day, Maher, who has labeled Romney a "buffoon," is certain to cast his vote for Obama. But while he believes a second term for the president would be good for the country, a selfish part of him is pulling for Romney. "Nothing would be better for this show," he said, flashing a mischievous grin. "Romney as president would just be a font of comedy material. I mean, this is a guy who lights his cigars with $100 bills. Having him in the White House would be incredibly better for the show."

Not that "Real Time" needs an extra boost. Fueled by the contentious presidential campaign, the series is having a banner season, its best in three years. The show, which combines Maher's rants, interviews, comedy bits and his "New Rules" riffs ("New rule: Since President Obama seems to be having so much trouble defending his record on the economy, the next debate must be held in a mall. Any mall. It doesn't matter. They're all packed!") with animated, often fiery discussions with an ever-changing group of celebrities, media personalities and public officials, attracted an average gross audience of 4.1 million viewers per episode when factoring in repeats and on-demand viewing. Now in its 10th season, "Real Time" has already been renewed through 2014 as part of the comedian's new three-year-deal with the network.

Maher's popularity has remained consistent in the face of strong competition in TV's political satire arena, which includes "Saturday Night Live," Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and the late-night troop of Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jimmy Kimmel.

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While conservatives may have Fox News' dominance of the news cycle, liberals can console and amuse themselves with Maher, who does not have a Republican counterpart. And unlike Stewart and Colbert, Maher operates in a bleep-free zone, able to use profanity, raw language and coarse sexual imagery with abandon. His live audience gives him a rock-star welcome each week — and after all, to a large extent he's preaching to the converted.

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