Feature: Bill Maher returns to HBO

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter

LOS ANGELES, July 30 (UPI) -- Just in time for the 2004 presidential campaign season, "Real Time with Bill Maher" returns to HBO's schedule, delivering what has become one of the most popular commodities in contemporary entertainment: amusing, smart talk about substantive issues.

The show premiered earlier this year, and Maher was recently nominated for a prime-time Emmy for Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program. The show has been on hiatus since March, and plans call for HBO to air 13 new episodes over the next three months.


Maher's topical humor show "Politically Incorrect" was canceled by ABC not long after he placed himself at the center of a political controversy by saying on the air that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists were not cowards and that it was more cowardly for the United States to fire missiles at targets 1,000 miles away.


The observation prompted White House spokesman Ari Fleischer to remind "all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do." It also resulted in some advertisers pulling their ads, even though Maher waged an extensive campaign to explain himself and rehabilitate his image.

In an interview with United Press International, Maher said the ABC cancellation was a blessing in disguise.

"I enjoy doing this show more than the other one," he said. "I'm older, and it's a different kind of show. The other show was fun in its way, but I guess -- maybe I'm justifying it because I got fired."

Maher said he can't imagine doing "Politically Incorrect" now.

"I don't think I would be happy at this point in my life talking to people who really aren't informed," he said.

Maher said guests on "Politically Incorrect" -- often including people who were there strictly because they were celebrities -- often had nothing meaningful to contribute to the discussion.

"We'd have to dance around celebrities and what they knew about," he said. "We would say, 'We really shouldn't talk about that with Pam Anderson because she's only into animal rights.' Can I really have a conversation with Carrot Top about gun control?"


The guest list for the first returning episode of "Real Time" includes filmmaker Michael Moore, Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., and former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell. The show will also feature a one-on-one interview with Ralph Nader and a report from Andre 3000 of OutKast from the site of the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

The guest list for future shows includes George Carlin, Michael Eric Dyson, Steve Harvey, Michelle Malkin, Graham Norton, Andrew Sullivan, Cornel West and James Woolsey.

"They're always on their game and they are serious people with something to say," said Maher. "There is nothing they don't know anything about."

Maher said he expects "Real Time" to avoid, for the most part, the tendency on cable and talk-radio shows to allow misstatements of fact to pass unchallenged and uncorrected.

"The process hopefully is to have someone from both sides who know what they're talking about and will keep each other in check," he said. "When you're having a debate among informed people, it's hard for one of them to go too far off the trail."


The guest list suggests the show will aim for political balance, but Maher said it has proven difficult to book conservative guests.

"I do believe it's because they're afraid they're going to have their feet held to the fire," he said. "Most of the top Bush administration people, you would not find them on our show, but we would welcome them. We have done back flips to get them."

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson did appear on the show this year. Maher said his producers asked Thompson to pass the word to colleagues in the Bush administration that they should come on as well.

"But nothing ever changes," he said. "Having said that, we're also having trouble getting John Kerry and John McCain. There are lots of people who don't want to go someplace where they're not going to be able to get away with their (stuff)."

Maher rejected the suggestion that politicians don't want to come on the show because they run the risk of getting their message stepped on.

"If you're a politician and you can't get your message out when you have TV time, then you're not doing your job very well," he said. "Yes, I'm going to ask them questions, and that's my job."


As for the controversy over his post-Sept. 11 comments, Maher said he feels vindicated by the findings of the Sept. 11 Commission investigation.

"I noticed when they had the 9/11 hearings, I remember hearing Richard Clarke and even Condoleezza Rice saying -- not in the words that I used -- but basically the same spirit, about how attacking with cruise missiles from 1,000 miles away was not going to get the job done and didn't send the right message to the world that we are serious about terrorism," he said.


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