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George W. Bush has been good for Bill Maher.


His administration’s image problems have fueled every season of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” and, before that, Maher’s ABC “Politically Incorrect” chat fest.


Sample jab:


“Republicans must get honest about why they oppose stem cell research. It’s not because a frozen speck on a microscope slide constitutes life, it’s because stem cell research shows promise of restoring spinal cord tissue—and that could help Democrats.”


Maher, who turns 51 Saturday, realizes his forte is political humor—both on TV and in his stand-up routine. But if there were no Bush or Dick or Condi to pick on, if there was an administration he’d deem “competent,” wouldn’t that kill his act?


“Well, I try to think I’m a citizen before I’m a comedian, so I should root for that,” he says, chuckling on the phone from his Los Angeles home last week.


Say what you will about Maher, the man is fastidious about details. To prepare for “Real Time,” Maher reads a host of newspapers such as The Los Angeles Times, New York Times, USA Today, “and I have a staff that puts things in front of me.”


His HBO show, which returns Feb. 16, opens with a satirical sketch, follows with a monologue and roundtable interviews with politicians, entertainers and activists from all sides, and concludes with a segment of “New Rules” (a sort of Top 10 list of witticisms) and Maher’s snarky summation of the week’s events.


“‘Real Time’ takes more out of me than `Politically Incorrect,’ which was an every-night show. No matter what, with that kind of show, you can only make it so good,” Maher says. “Jay Leno and David Letterman will tell you that’s the charm. They are brilliant about making that format work. When you do a once-a-week show on a network like this you have to make it `something’ every week. I work a lot harder. A lot of written pieces. I work hard on the editorial and the `New Rules’ so I’m pretty much at my desk every night. I don’t have much of a life when the show is in session.


“We try to make the show seem like a cocktail party,” he says of his eclectic guests, which have included actor Ben Affleck, noted feminist Gloria Steinem and U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.


“She’s a good guest, she’s strong, she’s not a phony,” Maher says of the Republican from South Florida. “A lot of politicians are afraid of the forum,” he adds. “We have their feet held to the fire. In this day and age, politicians are so used to getting softball treatment on TV except on our show or MSNBC’s `Hardball with Chris Matthews,’ so it takes a certain type of person to step up to that. She’s one of them, she’s not afraid.”


On the phone, Maher is friendly, quick to laugh and a fount of memories, telling stories about his first paying gig as a stand-up comic at the Jade Fountain Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles and, later, recalling one of his first road gigs in 1981. He was performing at the old Diplomat Hotel in Hollywood, Fla.—not in the main room, he points out, but across A1A in the annex. He says he was bemused watching the elderly trying to cross the busy thoroughfare.


Maher has come a long way since those days of calling out jokes during dinner shows—but he’s done it under his own set of rules.


“When I went into `Politically Incorrect,’ I’d read reviews saying, `He’s breaking that rule you can’t break in TV that Carson never broke: If you have a talk show you can’t tell people what side you are on, you have to stay in the middle.’ I thought that was a hollow rule and here I am 15 years later and I still think it’s a hollow rule. People are more mature than given credit for. They can take it that this guy doesn’t agree with them. It’s better to be honest.”

Tagged as: bill maher
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