Obviously the main difference between HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher" and TV's other topical talk shows -- serious, funny or both -- is Bill Maher. Of all the comic commentators, Maher is the gutsiest, boldest and least inhibited. And yet he avoids the cheap exhibitionism of the professional provocateurs who run rampant and riot on cable networks and talk radio stations.

What you might call a crowded braying field.

On Maher's show, the wit is wittier, the barbs are barbier and the devil take the hindmost. In fact the devil once did take Maher's hindmost, in a way. ABC fired him and canceled his show "Politically Incorrect," predecessor to "Real Time," after Maher made remarks about the 9/11 terrorists that some people considered offensive.

The remarks were unwise and are best forgotten. But the good thing is, the experience hasn't tamed or intimidated Maher. Some people will always consider something offensive. It's a mark of distinction that Maher and "Real Time" probably irk and irritate as many viewers as any other show on television. But it's responsible irking. It's irritation that often contains illumination. And Maher can be proud of that.

"I don't think anybody does our kind of show with the kind of raw honesty we do," Maher said recently from his home in Los Angeles. "I don't think I ever have a lot of competition in that field -- people who are willing to say things that get you booed." Asked to comment on TV's most overpraised series, "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central, Maher begs off. Host Jon Stewart, he says, is a friend. But "The Daily Show" hasn't nearly the chutzpah of "Real Time," and Stewart looks into the camera begging, pleading to be loved. He sometimes looks as though he's either kissing the lens or using it as a mirror to fix his lipstick.

On Friday's season premiere of "Real Time," not all the highlights were verbal. Late in the show, Maher joined guest Michael Moore ("Fahrenheit 9/11") on the studio floor so they could both beg Ralph Nader, on their knees, not to run again. Nader just grinned that evil grin of his. Okay, not evil -- but increasingly annoying.

"The first time, I never blamed Ralph for Bush winning, though I know a lot of people did," Maher says. "But this time, everybody I know who voted for Ralph last time is not going to vote for him this time. We all got a little reality slapped into us by George W. Bush. I regret that vote now. I see it as a bratty thing to have done."

A certain amount of brattiness, of course, is essential to "Real Time." Like Maher's earlier show, but to less radical extremes, it features quirky and quixotic guest lists. In addition to Moore and Nader, Friday night's show had former Canadian prime minister Kim Campbell, Colorado Gov. Bill Owens (R) and rapper Andre 3000 from OutKast.

Still there are guests whom Maher and his producers find ungettable. "John McCain won't do my show," grumps Maher. "He wouldn't do my old show and he won't do this one. We haven't been able to get John Kerry so far. Those are the two main ones who stand out as politicians. The other one is Noam Chomsky. I've been chomsking at the bit to get him on but can't seem to do it. Maybe he doesn't do TV.

"I think we'll get Kerry this year. Bill Clinton we never had on. He was president during my last show, mostly. I don't know if we've ever tried hard enough to get him. I think he's one of the people we'll go after full-force this time. With the old show, I could see why some people were reluctant to do it. When you're stuck on a panel with Carrot Top and Danny Bonaduce, God knows what they would say. Even if I behaved myself, you never knew who else you were going to get stuck with.

"The old show there was always the pressure to book what they call a 'face,' but I think [HBO Chairman] Chris Albrecht said, 'I don't think people care about that on a show like this.' And I agree. This is a show people tune in to hear good conversations."

Maher loathes Bush and sounds like a liberal Democrat on many issues -- but not all, which helps explain how he's able to get prominent Republicans, including hard-core conservatives, to come on the show. On Friday night, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), wearing by far the night's best necktie, became a punching bag for most of the others, unfortunately. At one point Maher scolded the audience for being too mean to Dreier.

But then Dreier is a big boy and wasn't all that sympathetic. Spewing an obviously rehearsed line, Dreier told Moore, "Your movie is as much a documentary as Pravda was a newspaper." Cute? Moore admits his movie is a personal tract as much as a documentary, Pravda in fact was a newspaper, and, perhaps most important, Dreier had to admit he hasn't even seen Moore's film yet.

Probably never read Pravda all that often, either. But at least Dreier had the guts to show up on the program.

Maher has to tread somewhat carefully, because if the show becomes simply a forum for diatribes from the left, conservatives won't come on and the electric arguments and passionate debating will fade away. Then again, he does have something that all politicians and most public figures covet: television time. Appearing on HBO probably carries more prestige than appearing on Maher's old ABC show did. Also, if those on the political left will continue to appear with Bill O'Reilly on Fox's "O'Reilly Factor," then conservatives are likely to continue showing their faces on Maher's hour.

Maher will severely limit the guest pool, however, if he continues to use as many four-letter words as he did on Friday's show. We know it's HBO and a dirty word never hurt anybody, but governors and senators and former prime ministers may start shying away if Maher or other guests overdo the naughty language. At some point it can begin to sound childish, and a viewer is likely to feel embarrassed for the guests.

Freedom is there to be used, however, and the additional freedom Maher enjoys on HBO makes a big difference in the show, if not in the opinions Maher expresses.

"Many people say to me, 'Hey, you're on HBO, you can say whatever you want now,' " says Maher. "Which is not really accurate, because I always said whatever I wanted. The difference is, I got fired for it before. But I'm happier because the show is better. It's a very different animal to do a show once a week as opposed to five nights a week. If you're on every night, you're kind of in the business of getting into the office and throwing it up against the wall and see what sticks.

"HBO executives are all heads and shoulders above network TV executives, that is true, although they're under more pressure than they used to be -- more corporate pressure because of the merger." (The merger that produced the monstrosity AOL Time Warner, HBO's owner.)

"But they just 'get it' more over here. If you do a show for them, I don't think they want to be in your life very much. Their method is to pick people to make shows who they trust and you make 'em. And if they work out, great, and if they don't, we'll go on to the next, but they do not micromanage. I don't really get any 'notes' -- you know, the famous 'network notes.' Maybe they do it with their other shows, but I doubt it. 'The Sopranos' is David Chase's vision. And 'Deadwood' is the vision of whoever that guy is [David Milch]. He's [expletive] nuts!"

Obviously Maher has to have fairly thick skin himself if he's going to dole out zingers on, and off, his show. Of Jimmy Carter's appearance at last week's feel-good Democratic convention, Maher says: "I think maybe that should be his last. I don't mean that in a mean way. Yeah, we get it: He was president and he's a Democrat, but maybe Jimmy should just keep building the houses."

One personal criticism that will get you Maher's goat, if you want it, is to stoop to ridiculing his appearance. "Most of what I would laughingly call in-depth articles written about me, including the last one in The Washington Post, always seem to find a need to include one paragraph about how ugly I am. And at this point, whatever it is, people know what I look like, so why spend an entire paragraph saying, 'You know, in person Bill Maher has a big nose and he looks like Dracula' or 'His hair is thinning' or whatever. We get it! I'm not a matinee-idol-looking guy."

We get it too. But ugly? No. In fact if Maher is ugly, we'd have to call one of our nation's most beloved founding fathers ugly, too. Take out a one-dollar bill and check the portrait in the oval. Imagine that man with his gray hair swept back more from the front and the resemblance is clear: Bill Maher and George Washington. Two patriots -- one of them, so far as we know, quite a bit funnier than the other.

Bill Maher returns with more comic commentary in "Real Time."Bill Maher on "Politically Incorrect," which was canceled for being so.