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Maher, Bill

Maher, Bill

Personal

Surname is pronounced "mar"; born January 20, 1956, in New York, NY; son of Bill (a news editor) and Julie (a nurse; maiden name, Berman) Maher. Education: Cornell University, B.A., 1978.

Addresses

Office—c/o Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, 7800 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036.

Career

Actor and comedian, c. 1983—; creator, coproducer, and host of the comedy talk show Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, 1993-2002; HBO, Real Time with Bill Maher, talk show host, 2003—. Appeared in films, including D.C. Cab, Universal, 1983; Ratboy, Warner Bros., 1986; House II: The Second Story, New World, 1987; Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, Guacamole, 1989; and Pizza Man, Megalomania, 1991. Appeared in television films, series, programs, and specials, including Newhart, CBS, 1982; Sara, NBC, 1985; Club Med, ABC, 1986; Funny, You Don't Look 200, ABC, 1987; Hard Knocks, Showtime, 1987; Out of Time, NBC, 1988; The Midnight Hour, CBS, 1990; One Night Stand, HBO, 1990; The 11th Annual CableACE Awards, 1990; London Underground, Comedy Central, 1991; Say What?, CBS, 1992; The A-List, Comedy Central, 1992; Comic Relief VI, HBO, 1994; State of the Union Undressed '94, Comedy Central, 1994; But . . . Seriously, Showtime, 1994; Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, HBO, 1995; The 16th Annual CableACE Awards (host), TNT, 1995; State of the Union Undressed '96, Comedy Central, 1996; Bill Maher: The Golden Goose Special, HBO, 1996; Dharma and Greg, ABC, 1997; Snoops, ABC, 1999; Primetime Glick, Comedy Central, 2001.

Awards, Honors

CableACE Awards for best cable talk show host, 1995, 1996; Emmy Award nominations for outstanding variety, music, or comedy series, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, for outstanding writing for a variety or music program, 1996, 1997, and for outstanding performance in a variety or music program, 1997, all for Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.

Writings

True Story: A Comedy Novel, Random House (New York, NY), 1994.

Does Anyone Have a Problem with That?: Politically Incorrect's Greatest Hits, Villard Books (New York, NY), 1996.

When You Ride Alone You Ride with bin Laden: What the Government SHOULD Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism, New Millennium, 2002.

Author and performer of sound recording Political Incorrections. Also writer for Politically Incorrect and for his own comedy specials; contributor of articles to periodicals, including Playboy.

Sidelights

Actor and comedian Bill Maher has appeared in films, including Pizza Man and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, and has made hundreds of television appearances, including four HBO comedy specials. He is undoubtedly best known, however, as the creator, coproducer, and host of the comedy talk show Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. His efforts with this program have garnered him multiple Emmy Award nominations. In addition to his work in the entertainment field, Maher has also published several books, among them True Story: A Comedy Novel, Does Anyone Have a Problem with That?: Politically Incorrect's Greatest Hits, and When You Ride Alone You Ride with bin Laden: What the Government SHOULD Be Telling Us to Help Fight the War on Terrorism.

Maher was born January 20, 1956, in New York City, but grew up in suburban Rivervale, New Jersey. He was "an intense, serious, adult-like kid who always made lists and never watched cartoons," he told People. "I was snobby at five." Six years later he became enamored of late night talk show host Johnny Carson. "Johnny was cool, in control and naughty," he remembered in People. "But I was too scared to let anyone know I wanted to be a comedian."

Maher traces his interest in news to his father's influence. The senior Maher was a radio newscaster and later a news editor for NBC-TV. "He was also a witty man, a good living room comic," his son noted in the Los Angeles Times. It was not until after graduating from Cornell University in 1978 with a degree in English that young Bill finally gave in to the performance bug.

Soon after graduation Maher joined New York City's comedy club circuit. He honed his craft while serving as master of ceremonies at New York's famed comedy club Catch a Rising Star. It was there that he met two of his earliest comedy heroes, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson, both of whom would go on to help the fledgling comic. Allen, who had created the stage hit Seymour Glick Is Alive but Sick for himself, eventually had Maher step into the leading role. And during his first of dozens of appearances on Carson's Tonight Show, as Maher recalled in People, "I told the first AIDS joke. The punch line was, 'I just want to meet an old-fashioned girl with gonorrhea.' It released a collective tension. Johnny said, 'That was one of the longest laughs I've ever heard.'"

Allen used Maher as his sidekick on his Disney Channel series Steve Allen's Music Room. As appearances on The Tonight Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and Late Night with David Letterman piled up, Maher played the Las Vegas, Reno, and Atlantic City casino circuit. Then he decided to try acting. In addition to a multitude of television shows, Maher appeared in several somewhat forgettable films, including D.C. Cab, Rat Boy, House II, Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, and Pizza Man—none of which catapulted him to stardom.

Maher reached a sort of plateau in his career in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He told the following story in Playboy: "I remember one night I was going onstage at the Improv. This comic was coming off the stage, a guy who had been in the business a long time, and he said, 'Is this it for us, Bill?'. . .I realized that there comes a point in everybody's career when they think, jeez, is it going to pass me by?"

But fame did not pass Maher by. Having appeared as a commentator when Comedy Central covered election night in 1992, he had gained experience in a new television concept: the instant comedy analysis of a live event. The comic longed to create a show that "made controversy funny," he told New York Times correspondent Bill Carter. Maher lamented the passing of the early days of talk shows—before they steered clear of controversial subjects and before guest stars were allowed to shamelessly plug their latest pictures. He missed the Steve Allen-Jack Paar era when, as he told Playboy, "the qualification that got you on a talk show was your ability to talk." Comedy Central gave him the chance to realize his dream of developing a truly intelligent and entertaining modern talk show.

Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher

Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher premiered in July of 1993. He considers the show to be like a cocktail party where he is the host: he tries to keep everybody comfortable, but riled. "The idea," he explained to Robert Koehler in the Los Angeles Times, "is that you get a bunch of interesting people together who probably don't know each other, they may not have much in common, but once you throw out a topic, they grab it and run with it." Celebrities such as comedian Jerry Seinfeld and playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein have appeared with political figures such as African-American activist Reverend Al Sharpton and consultant Ed Rollins. Together, Maher and his unlikely blend of guests discuss issues of the day, such as second-hand smoke and the image of minorities on television. Maher told Josh Walsh of the Hoya, "The idea for Politically Incorrect came from the way I had a good time off camera.... To me, watching my friends get into heated political arguments after a couple of drinks was funny."

Richard Zoglin of Time had high praise for Maher's work on Politically Incorrect. In his words, Maher is "helping stand-up comedy escape from its contemporary cul-de-sac, where Jerry Seinfeld clones obsess about sex, TV and life's little annoyances. [Maher] . . . read[s] the whole newspaper—not just the funny clippings [his] writers collect." James Wolcott, however, complained in the New Yorker that the show's "iconoclasm . . . is a slick coat of flash over an inside attitude." He went on to lament that "the only truly politically incorrect performer to turn up on Politically Incorrect is self-proclaimed comedy pig Andrew (Dice) Clay, who isn't afraid to take a drag on his cigarette.... as he defends the good name of strippers." An Entertainment Weekly critic stated that "the show succeeds solely on the strength of its panel."

Maher's deadpan delivery, middle-of-the-road politics, choice of guests, and upstart questions have made him a star. Mark Warren of Esquire exclaimed, "Maher has created that rarest of shows: one that's smart but not boring, funny but not stupid." A Detour Magazine writer claimed that Politically Incorrect has "restored to the American airwaves a forum for humor, satire, and snappy repartee unparalleled since the days of [famous dry wits of the past] Noel Coward and H. L. Mencken." On occasion Maher has gotten himself into minor trouble. For instance, when he emceed the annual dinner for broadcast correspondents in Washington, D.C., in March of 1995 and said that D.C. mayor Marion Barry (who had served a six-month jail term for cocaine possession) had "a plan to get drugs off the street—one gram at a time," it was all over the media.

Walsh stated that Maher sometimes evokes comparisons to the British satirist Jonathan Swift, noting that the comedian has even based a comedy routine on Swift's famous essay "A Modest Proposal," which urged solving the problem of hunger in England by using Irish babies for food. Like Swift, Walsh stated, "Maher uses outlandish suggestions to overstate key points" in a "simple sarcastic style." Asked how he felt about the title of "America's best satirist," which has frequently been applied to him, Maher responded, "It's good. It's a hell of a lot better than being called America's dullest satirist."

In 1997 Politically Incorrect caught the attention of ABC television, which bought the show and put it on late night. But by mid 2002, the network had decided to cancel the program. Although television executives denied it, some observers credited the cancellation to Maher's controversial remarks following the attacks of September 11th. "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away," he said. "That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." The remarks, viewed as insensitive to the victims and families of the World Trade Center attack, moved sponsors Federal Express and Sears, Roebuck to pull their ads from Maher's program. The loss of other advertising revenue, and falling ratings, led to the show's eventual cancellation. Maher came back to television in February of 2003 with "Real Time with Bill Maher," an HBO program featuring roundtable discussions in much the same style as his previous effort.

In addition to his television work, Maher has also published several books. His novel, True Story, is about five stand-up comedians trying to make their mark on the New York comedy scene in the late 1970s. Of his motivation for writing True Story, Maher declared to Erica Kornberg in Entertainment Weekly: "There has never been an accurate depiction of what it's like to be a stand-up comedian. Somebody had to write about it. . . . I just tried to make it read like a real novel." When asked by Kornberg whether his characters were based on real people, Maher replied: "In those days, we were all in New York—Richard Belzer, Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Roseanne, and I. Yeah, they're all in there. Of course, I'm not going to say where." Kornberg praised Maher's efforts in the literary field by lauding him as "a comic who thinks beyond the joke, a comic with perspective, a comic who is . . . a novelist." A contributor in Kirkus Reviews called True Story "an authentic peek at manic jokesters, scuzzy promoters, star-struck groupies, and hostile audiences," and for capturing the spirit of the comedy boom of the 1980s.

If you enjoy the works of Bill Maher

If you enjoy the works of Bill Maher, you might want to check out the following books:

David Brenner, I Think There's a Terrorist in My Soup: How to Survive Personal and World Problems with Laughter--Seriously, 2003.

Al Franken, Oh, The Things I Know!: A Guide to Success or, Failing That, Happiness, 2003.

Michael Moore, Stupid White Men . . . and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Country, 2002.

Maher's When You Ride Alone You Ride with bin Laden is a critical commentary on what he sees as the halfhearted nature of the country's efforts to fight terrorism. Based on a slogan taken from a World War II poster advocating car-pooling to save gasoline, the book's title embodies Maher's stance: the country should be more prepared to make real sacrifices to protect itself and defeat its enemies. Wedged in between the sarcasm and satire are statements cheering the fall of Saddam Hussein and supporting passenger profiling at the nation's airports. Todd Leopold of CNN.com noted that "he calls on neighbors to be common-sensically suspicious, and criticizes our culture's propensity to make 'heroes' out of almost anyone facing a challenge." A. J. Anderson in Library Journal found that "humor of the chuckling sort is never lacking" in the book. Maher took the book on the road in the spring of 2003, transforming many of his insights into a stand-up comedy show called "Victory Begins at Home." In his review of the show, Charles Isherwood in Variety noted that, "Bush-bashing aside, Maher isn't really the type to tar the whole country with an imperialist brush. 'Our values are better,' he says plainly. 'I'm sorry, civilizations are not equal.'"

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

America's Intelligence Wire, January 28, 2004, transcript of Larry King interview with Bill Maher.

Booklist, June 1, 1996, Ilene Cooper, review of Does Anyone Have a Problem with That?: Politically Incorrect's Greatest Hits, p. 1662.

Christian Science Monitor, June 28, 2002, p. 2.

Detour Magazine, November, 1995, pp. 106-107.

Entertainment Weekly, July 23, 1993, p. 50; August 12, 1994, review of True Story, p. 50; May 23, 2003, Scott Brown, review of "Victory Begins at Home," p. 85.

Esquire, June, 1995, p. 46.

Insight on the News, October 31, 1994, p. 30.

Kirkus Reviews, June 1, 1994, review of True Story, p. 726.

Library Journal, July, 1994, review of True Story, p. 128; June 15, 1996, review of Does Anyone Have a Problem with That?: Politically Incorrect's Greatest Hits, p. 68; March 15, 1997, review of Political Incorrections, p. 103; February 1, 2003, A. J. Anderson, review of When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden, p. 86; October 1, 2003, Joseph L. Carlson, review of When You Ride Alone You Ride with bin Laden audiocassette, p. 134.

Los Angeles Times, September 5, 1993, p. 5; September 23, 1995, pp. F15-16.

Mother Jones, January, 1998, p. 67.

Newsweek, April 14, 2003, "Q & A: Bill Maher," p. 65.

New Yorker, September 13, 1993, pp. 124-126.

New York Times, July 23, 1993, p. B7; February 27, 1994; February 8, 1995.

People, July 18, 1988, p. 12; November 7, 1994, p. 13; July 24, 1995, pp. 145-146; August 7, 2000, p. 24.

Playboy, October, 1995, p. 138.

Publishers Weekly, June 20, 1994, review of True Story, p. 101; April 22, 1996, review of Does Anyone Have a Problem with That?: Politically Incorrect's Greatest Hits, p. 57; December 2, 2002, review of When You Ride Alone You Ride with bin Laden p. 22.

Rolling Stone, March 21, 1996, p. 109; April 15, 1999, p. 57.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 29, 1995.

Time, May 30, 1994, p. 67; March 27, 1995, p. 79; November 13, 2000, p. 114.

TV Guide, July 24, 1993, p. 41; August 14, 1993, p. 7; December 17, 1994, pp. 28-29; February 8, 1997, p. 30.

Us, December, 1995, p. 119.

USA Today, August 23, 1994.

U.S. News and World Report, January 20, 1997, p. 59.

Vanity Fair, September, 1994.

Variety, December 9, 1991, p. 74; May 12, 2003, Charles Isherwood, review of "Victory Begins at Home," p. 33; August 25, 2003, review of Real Time with Bill Maher, p. A48.

Vogue, October, 1995, pp. 212-216; June 23, 2003, "HBO to Air Maher's 'Victory,'" p. 2.

Washington Post Book World, September 4, 1994, Gary Amdahl, review of True Story, p. 4.

ONLINE

Bill Maher Official Web Site,http://www.billmaher.tv/ (February 3, 2004).

CNN.com Web Site,http://www.cnn.com/ (December 4, 2002), Todd Leopold, "Bill Maher Wants YOU—To Think."

E! Online Web Site,http://www.eonline.com/ (September 20, 2001), Mark Armstrong, "Maher Causes 'Cowardly' Flap."

Hoya,http://www.thehoya.com/ (February 5, 1999), Josh Walsh, interview with Bill Maher.*

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