Maher, Bill
▪ 2004

      The title of Politically Incorrect, the often controversial television talk show that nightly featured four outspoken guests from the world of entertainment, arts and letters, and politics, was never more appropriate than when its host, comedian Bill Maher, implied that the terrorists who had attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, were braver than U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan. Those remarks not only prompted condemnation from the White House but led ABC to cancel Maher's show, which had run on the network for more than five years after having premiered on cable television's Comedy Central. Although Maher initially tried to explain his comments, he was anything but contrite in his opposition to the war in Iraq when he returned to television with Real Time with Bill Maher, which first aired on Home Box Office (HBO) in February 2003. He remained steadfast in his views when he took to the Broadway stage in May with his one-man show, Victory Begins at Home.

      Maher was born on Jan. 20, 1956, in New York City but grew up in River Vale, N.J. As a boy he idolized The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson but hid his aspiration to be a comedian until his junior year studying English at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., when he first tried his stand-up act in a New York City comedy club. After graduating (B.A., 1978), Maher became a regular in clubs throughout the country. He also made many appearances on The Tonight Show and came to the attention of Steve Allen, who cast him as his sidekick on the cable series Steve Allen's Music Room. Beginning in 1983, Maher tried acting, appearing in several forgettable films. He also was a regular on a short-lived sitcom, Sara, and briefly hosted The Midnight Hour, a talk show on CBS. It was his cohosting of Indecision '92, Comedy Central's irreverent coverage of the presidential election, however, that jump-started Maher's career and led to the debut of Politically Incorrect in 1993.

      In playing ringmaster to PI's eclectic selection of notables, Maher deftly prodded his guests into heated and hilarious discussions of current events and punctuated the talks with his acerbic quips. On HBO's Real Time, he limited his guests to a smaller “A list,” which included author Ann Coulter, journalist Christopher Hitchens, humanities professor Michael Eric Dyson, politician and author Ariana Huffington, and actor Alec Baldwin. Although less likely to satirize the left than the right, Maher was more libertarian than liberal. Above all, he was defiantly out of the mainstream. As an iconoclastic social critic he might not be the H.L. Mencken of his generation, but he might be the Mort Sahl.

Jeff Wallenfeldt

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▪ American comedian and talk-show host
byname of  William Maher, Jr. 
born Jan. 20, 1956, New York, N.Y., U.S.

      American comedian and talk-show host known for his acerbic political commentary.

      Maher grew up in River Vale, N.J. As a boy, he idolized The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson (Carson, Johnny) but hid his aspiration to be a comedian until his junior year studying English at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., when he first tried his stand-up act in a New York City comedy club. After graduating (B.A., 1978), Maher became a regular in clubs throughout the country. He also made many appearances on The Tonight Show and came to the attention of Steve Allen (Allen, Steve), who cast him as his sidekick on the cable series Steve Allen's Music Room. Beginning in 1983, Maher tried acting, appearing in several films and television shows. Maher's career was jump-started by cohosting Indecision '92—a program that provided irreverent coverage of the presidential election—for the cable network Comedy Central. His success led to the debut of his own show, Politically Incorrect, in 1993.

      Politically Incorrect was an immediate success, at least partly due to Maher's ability to humorously mediate the discussions between a rotating panel of journalists, entertainers, and politicians. The program proved to be so popular that it moved from Comedy Central to the ABC network in 1997. In 2002 Maher implied that the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks were braver than U.S. forces fighting in Afghanistan. The remarks proved highly controversial and led to the cancellation of the show soon thereafter. Although Maher initially tried to explain his comments, he was anything but contrite when he returned to television with Real Time with Bill Maher, which began airing on Home Box Office (HBO) in February 2003. In 2006 Maher hosted the Internet talk show Amazon Fishbowl with Bill Maher on the Web site Amazon.com. His writings include When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden (2002) and New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer (2005). Maher, a self-proclaimed agnostic, also wrote and produced the irreverent documentary Religulous (2008), in which he interviewed people of various faiths, including Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.

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Universalium. 2010.

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