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?
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.
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 after the second debate last week. “Obama came out strong, and, to use a cliche, 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.”
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.
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.
“Real Time” is a more timely and provocative revamp of “Politically Incorrect,” which was unceremoniously canceled in 2002 after nine years following Maher’s inflammatory remarks during a discussion about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Debating the theory that the hijackers were cowards, Maher said of the U.S. government strategy: “We have been the cowards, lobbing missiles from 2,000 miles away.”
In retrospect, the ouster from ABC that soon followed those comments was probably the best thing for Maher’s career, eventually leading him to HBO, which offered him a no-holds-barred forum without the weight of risk-adverse advertisers. “Real Time” also pumped adrenaline into his comedy career — he performs constantly around the country to sold-out audiences; his books, with titles like “The New New Rules: A Funny Look at How Everybody But Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass,” are bestsellers. He produced and starred in 2008’s “Religulous,” an attack on organized religion, and his HBO specials score solid ratings. The activity has made Maher, who is single, extremely well off — in addition to his Obama contribution, he purchased a piece of the Mets this year.
Still, the core of his professional world remains “Real Time,” which, unlike the tape-delayed “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report,” airs live on Friday nights. HBO produces 35 episodes each season, and each installment is repeated many times.
Maher said the ratings are just as strong if not better than his competitors, though they work in parallel universes: He has an hour-long weekly show on premium cable, while Stewart and Colbert host half-hour shows nightly on basic cable. “People think we’re this cult show, but we’re not,” he said in a barely decorated office complete with black-velvet portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. “It’s just gratifying that people are watching a show about politics, which used to be considered the most toxic subject of all.”
Maher, who grew up in New Jersey, theorized that the popular perception of him has evolved as well. “I take many stands that people have never seen on TV before. But over time, I’ve become like that outrageous relative you see at the holidays. By that 20th Thanksgiving dinner, you say, ‘Yeah, he’s an atheist, but you know what? That’s OK. He might even have a point about that.’ You might even call it an acquired taste. This is a high-wire act, but I’ve been doing it for 20 years.”
The success of the show has been a buoy through the ebb and flow of the presidential race. Though he supports the president, he has not been shy about criticizing and even mocking him (he once joked that the country thought it elected a cool basketball player but instead got a boring, Ike-like golfer), which can set off his predominantly liberal studio audience. Some of the conversation has also landed him in the hot seat at times. His jokes and comments targeting Sarah Palin (he called her a raw name during a stand-up routine) and religious football star Tim Tebow have been blasted, even by some liberals.
“I’ve been booed in my own studio,” Maher said.
And though some of the cockiness that distinguishes his stand-up persona is evident, the comedian who called one of his specials “Bill Maher ... But I’m Not Wrong” also has a more vulnerable side.
“I don’t edit myself,” he said. “I always feel like doing the show is an out-of-body experience. Sometimes I surprise myself, and sometimes I feel terrible about it. Sometimes I have a hard time sleeping Friday nights because I’m turning the show over in my mind, where I started to explain something but didn’t finish, where I might have left the impression that I think something that I really don’t. All of those things bother me.”
“Real Time” has no shortage of celebrity flash with guests such as Ben Affleck and Brad Pitt, but the main attraction is Maher’s face-offs with the so-called enemy. Though many avoid the show, other prominent conservatives such as Ann Coulter have been among Maher’s favorite guests. On a recent show, he said without a trace of irony that he had made stars out of Coulter and other outspoken conservatives.
“What makes Bill unique is how he mixes it up with the friendly enemy. He does provide a forum for conservatives as well as liberals,” said Marty Kaplan, director of USC Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center. “He’s very comfortable with conflict, and he is the master of his material. Giving a million dollars to a super PAC also sets him apart. Being a militant atheist is a distinction — it’s not a persona he adopts, he truly believes in it. Bill is perfectly content with alienating his audience.”
Michael Lombardo, president of programming for HBO, said of the show, “Bill’s voice has become much clearer and is now at a place that is undeniable in the American political conversation.”
The “Real Time” panel discussions usually have at least one and often two conservative participants. “I’m always concerned about those guests being intimidated — they are at a tremendous disadvantage,” Maher said. “But they come on because of the 4.1 million — that’s a pretty big audience if you’re trying to sell a book or reach people or be seen. And we treat them well. I have the nicest staff on TV, and there’s always an after-party.”
But he can also be rough. One of the season’s most volatile exchanges occurred when Dinesh D’Souza, the filmmaker behind the anti-Obama documentary “2016: Obama’s America,” came on to promote the film. Maher had a more pointed agenda: D’Souza had initiated the discussion on “Politically Incorrect” that led to Maher’s Sept. 11 statements, and the host felt that D’Souza should have publicly clarified the context and defended him. “But you snuck away like a rat,” Maher said, sneering.
Later, he confided with a chuckle: “I am who I am up there. I didn’t lose any sleep that night.”