A Real Live Wire

From left, John Ridley, Joe Scarborough and Barney Frank with Maher on
From left, John Ridley, Joe Scarborough and Barney Frank with Maher on "Real Time," which he likens to a dinner party with "really opinionated guests." (Photos By Janet Van Ham)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 9, 2007


It's time for the Friday-afternoon writers' meeting in Bungalow 27 at CBS Television City, which is just a fancy way of saying that 10 guys are sitting around a trailer trying to come up with two more Ann Coulter jokes.

Then in comes Bill Maher, to the head of the table. Maher is male-model trim, a bit of a waif, actually, with smooth pale skin, dressed in designer jeans accessorized with a biker belt buckle. In person, he looks almost delicate.

Maher seems to be subdued, tired, congested -- or maybe he is just not "on." Still, everyone in the room defers to him. Most of the writers on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" have been with him for years, some dating back to his run on his show "Politically Incorrect," which he hosted until shortly after 9/11. He was fired by ABC after famously saying that the suicide hijackers who hit the twin towers might have been many things but they weren't cowards, an opinion that earned Maher a warning from White House press secretary Ari Fleischer that all Americans "need to watch what they say, watch what they do."

In many ways, these are the happy times for "Real Time," which recently began its fifth season. The Democrats have taken control of Congress (so there are new ankles to bite), the Bush White House has its first convicted felon, and the 2008 (high-stakes, wide-open) presidential campaign has gotten off to a roaring start with a field filled with oversize personalities capable of generating lots of raw material for comedy. Clean and articulate, indeed.

The Friday meeting is the last gathering before the show airs that night, and Maher and his writers are always looking for the last good ping, for the latest news to fold into the show -- do they do anything about the eight U.S. attorneys being fired? Or the secretary of the Army being ousted over the Walter Reed hospital scandal? Or a riff on Coulter, who slurred presidential candidate John Edwards with a gay epithet while addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference?

Political satire on TV increasingly is becoming its own hot genre. And the perfect breaking news for Maher occurs late Friday -- too late for Leno or Letterman. Stewart and Colbert don't even air on Fridays. Maher, who broadcasts live, adds stuff until the very last second.

This is topical TV as competitive sport. There are the late shows, the late-lates, the Comedy Centrals, "Saturday Night Live," MadTV. Even Fox News entered the fray with its conservative-bent "1/2 Hour News Hour." Plus, HBO is planning to throw into the mix "The Gaggle," to cover the 2008 elections -- hosted by a rotating younger demo of political pundits, like former Wonkette blogger Ana Marie Cox, stand-up comic Marc Maron and Republican operative Mike Murphy.

With so many vying to be political and smart and funny, perhaps some kid out there is gunning for Maher's salary?

"On our old show," Maher says about "Politically Correct" and its celebrity guests, "you had to play to their issue. Pamela Anderson? You talk about animal rights issues. You're not going to Bosnia. This show is different because our guests are bright."

Among the panelists this season: former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, playwright David Mamet, the Dutch parliamentarian and "Infidel" author Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

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