LOS ANGELES — Bill Maher strides into the weekly writers meeting for his HBO show and puts his feet up on the table. His team of scribes, many of whom he’s worked with for 22 years, pepper him with ideas and information: the new Republican presidential candidates, the latest outlandish political moves, background on upcoming guests.
Every Tuesday, they brainstorm. And every Friday, Maher brings his pioneering brand of political humor to late night TV on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” saying he’s “not one bit less engaged” than when he launched “Politically Incorrect” in 1993.
As Jon Stewart takes leave of “The Daily Show” and David Letterman no longer in the late-night landscape, the 59-year-old Maher becomes its resident elder, fearlessly voicing his personal views on TV and on stage, and for the first time, taking his act overseas.
“I’m still standing,” Maher said. “I’m like the heterosexual, nonmusical Elton John.”
A forebear of “The Daily Show” and other comedy-news shows, “Politically Incorrect” lasted nine years, first on Comedy Central, then ABC. It was reborn in 2003 as “Real Time with Bill Maher,” now in its 13th season. “Real Time” averages 4 million viewers a week, according to HBO, keeping pace with shows helmed by younger hosts. In January, HBO announced Maher would continue with “Real Time” through 2017.
“I’m not sure that Bill Maher gets enough credit for creating this space,” says Larry Wilmore, who borrows from Maher’s format on “The Nightly Show.” “ ‘Politically Incorrect’ was really a trailblazer of a show. ‘The Daily Show’ hadn’t started yet, and no one was really doing that type of honest comedic talk in late night.”
And Maher is still at it, criticizing politics and politicians with fervor. Call him a prickly optimist: He’s sincere when he offers his opinions and believes hopefully that change is possible in American politics.
“Of course I care!” he said. “It’s my country. I want it to live up to its great reputation. It has a great past and it has great ideals, it just got off course. It became too greedy and selfish.”
Even though he used to feel guilty about it (“People shouldn’t really get their news from a comedy show.”), Maher considers cracking about the news an important responsibility. He wants to fill viewers in on the latest happenings, he said, sneaking some potentially provocative ideas in among the jokes.
“I’m not a reporter. I don’t break issues,” he said. “What I like to do is break new ways of looking at issues.”
“Real Time” is part stand-up, part interview and part discussion panel. Guests include politicians, entertainers and other newsmakers.
Like Maher, executive producer Scott Carter (one of the 22-year guys), thinks about the show constantly, revising copy until air time.
“All the other shows have four or five chances to do our jokes first,” Carter said, referring to nightly competitors such as Stewart, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon and others. He keeps watch on their shows and scrubs “Real Time” jokes throughout the week so the material is fresh for Friday.
As executive producer and head writer on “Real Time,” Maher isn’t afraid to disagree with his creative team or his guests, as he famously did last year in an argument with Ben Affleck about Islam. Whether serious or played for laughs, whether on TV or in his stand-up, Maher insists he always expresses his sincere beliefs.
“That’s the one thing you can count on,” he said. “I will accept my own audience booing me, and I think they accept that even if they don’t agree with me all the time, at least they know that it is sincere. I’m not pandering to them.”
Fellow broadcaster and “slobbering mutual admiration society” partner Bob Costas describes Maher as “well educated, well read, extremely smart and gutsy, but he also thinks for himself.”
“He’s crafted a program where — and this is important in television — where what may be said is unpredictable,” Costas said.
Maher doesn’t call himself a workaholic, but acknowledges being a “control freak” and says he’s “not a good vacationer.” He spends five days a week working on “Real Time” and does stand-up on weekends. He recently spent a week performing in Europe for the first time, because “it’s very important to always be pushing yourself periodically outside your comfort level. Otherwise you get in a rut.”
His first 10 years as a stand-up comic were so brutal, he says, “so now that it’s fun and great and easy, now’s the time to enjoy it. Because I did pay my dues.”
It also gives him a chance to see the country he speaks so passionately about. Maher tours year round and plays all over the U.S., in Baltimore and Durham and Wichita and Fargo.
“I feel more real about talking about America because I’ve seen it up close,” he said.
Back in Los Angeles, “Real Time” is shot on the same stage as “The Price is Right.” By the time Maher steps in front of the camera, he’s been consumed with the episode he’s about to make for almost 36 hours straight.
“From the time I wake up Thursday until the show’s done on Friday is like one long day,” he said.
After the show, he can relax for a minute. He slips into his dressing room and loosens his tie.
For all the griping he does about the sorry state of the nation, he looks content. More than legacy or competition, he’s fueled by finding comedy and truth in the daily news. Even bad news.
“It’s bad, but I can make it funny,” he said. “There’s a great pleasure that I get out of working the whole week and thinking, ‘Oh, you know, (the audience) is going to love this.’ ... That’s what I can give people. It’s not the cure for cancer and it’s not solving global warming, but it’s not making things worse.”