In person, he's rather quiet, not at all the razor-tongued wit who, with an offhand crack, cuts down Republicans, Democrats, the oil lobby, the Arabs, marriage, children and anything else that occurs to him.
The person would be Bill Maher, resident thorn in the side of the American Establishment and other institutions that conventional wisdom holds dear. He will be appearing live tonight at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington to offer his unvarnished views about American profligacy, President Bush, airport security and the so-called war on terror.
"The government is abdicating the role it played in other wars," says Maher, hunched over in the front booth of the Polo Lounge at the big pink palace called the Beverly Hills Hotel. It's noon and he's having his first coffee of the day, while a piano man tinkles "Killing Me Softly" in the background, making it a little hard to concentrate on American profligacy.
But Maher continues: "This government says 'Shop, travel, go out and eat.' It has treated us from the beginning as victims, not as soldiers. In other wars the citizens at home were in the war." No longer, he says: We've even lost interest in the post-9/11 soul-searching about why the rest of the world seems to hate us so much.
"You notice they don't ask that anymore," he says. "They," as in, everybody; the Establishment.
In the months since ABC canceled his talk show "Politically Incorrect," Maher has been down but not out. He spent three intense months writing a book of essays, a heavy, glossy coffee-table affair called "When You Ride Alone You Ride With bin Laden," and now he's taking his show on the road in live appearances as a political stand-up comic.
But he'll be back on TV soon enough. HBO has signed him up to do a weekly talk show scheduled to air around next spring, according to two sources. The show still doesn't have a title and won't be exactly "Politically Incorrect," but will be Maher doing what Maher does, skewering his favorite targets with a group of invited guests.
The comedian was uncharacteristically reserved when asked to comment on the HBO deal, and HBO spokeswoman Nancy Lesser would confirm only that "we are in conversations" with Maher. Still, the network is planning to preview the show to television press at its annual January presentation.
Meanwhile, the book's title -- a riff on a famous World War II propaganda poster -- suggests different interpretations of Maher's point of view. Nominally it refers to his contention that the Bush administration is irresponsible for failing to encourage oil conservation. Worse, he says in the book, the government is hypocritical for running ads on television that suggest America's drug habit finances terrorism -- a teenager buys from a supplier who supports an arms dealer, and so forth -- while ignoring the nation's dependence on oil-rich Arab kingdoms that finance terrorism.
But the title also suggests Maher's own lone-wolf status, a reminder of the painful public drubbing he received last year for suggesting that those who flew airplanes into the Twin Towers were not cowards -- that instead, Americans, bombing our enemies from a safe distance, were the cowards.
When asked about it at the time, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer chillingly suggested that people "need to watch what they say," and Maher says he knew that the show was doomed from that point on. (It was finally canceled last summer.)
He is still sensitive to the suggestion that his motivations are anything but patriotic. "I don't ever lose sight of the fact that this country is the best one," he says. "I don't care nearly as much about other societies. My country is the one I want to make better.
"But I do think the patriotic thing to do is to critique my country. How else do you make a country better but by pointing out its flaws?" And then the zinger: "You know, here in America we're loyal to our flaws. It's like, if we change even our flaws there's something wrong."
What flaws, for the record? "Gluttony, greed, myopia."
Maher is 46. His hair has thinned and gone white. His skin is vampire-pale and thin, like an old man's. He wears a brown bomber jacket over jeans and button-down shirt; his eyes are pale blue. The day-in-day-out stress of doing a talk show for nine years -- first on cable, then for ABC -- has left its mark. He isn't married and doesn't want to be, he has no desire for children and doesn't find them charming, two more unpopular views he expressed frequently on TV.
The experience with the "coward" comment was particularly draining, he says. "I learned that it's people who don't know what you do, who don't watch the show, who have way more power over you than those who watch it and know what you do."
In the end, though, "It's hardly the first time I'd been in trouble. ABC didn't understand when they bought the show that I wasn't kidding with that title."
In the book and in his various rants, Maher has some policy suggestions: We need racial profiling at the airport, focusing on men of Middle Eastern origin rather than a balanced cross-section, as current policy dictates. To spend time frisking grannies, he says, is just stupid.
"It's not an issue of racism, for me. We're under attack by radical Islam; that radical wing has a lot of support." Plus, he notes, "it's what [Attorney General] John Ashcroft is doing every day" in scrutinizing the status of young Middle Eastern men. Arabs "should be tolerant of our suspicions, because they're perfectly reasonable."
Also: Americans need to learn more -- okay, just learn anything -- about the larger world. Stop driving SUVs and other gas-guzzling vehicles; Maher did (he drives the Hollywood ride of the moment, Toyota's hybrid car).
About the war he says: "I want to win. A lot of people just want to feel better. We used to want to win to feel better, now we want to feel better to win."
And on the whole, where's the rage, he wants to know? Americans "should be outraged at the state of paralysis in our homeland security, and they're not." Americans should be outraged that terrorists were able to strike at the heart of our security apparatus, the Pentagon, and they're not. "People should be screaming" at the ads that say drugs fund terrorism.
"Of all the huge lies I've heard from the president, this one I can't get over," he fumes. "Or that Iraq has morphed from herpes to cancer?" (What he means, probably, is that all of a sudden Iraq has become a mortal threat rather than a pain in the derriere.)
Maher himself obviously has rage to spare. And he seems to have America's best interests at heart. Does he really think he can change something with his book, his appearances, his show?
"You've gotta try," he says. "People want to do something, they're just not directed to what. There's a hunger to do, not just to feel, not just to tie ribbons around trees. All I can do is try."