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Controversial comedian Bill Maher was known as the driving force behind edgy panel discussion shows "Politically Incorrect" (Comedy Central, 1993-96; ABC 1997-2002) and "Real Time with Bill Maher" (HBO, 2003- ). He eventually developed into one of the top political comedians of the 1990s and beyond, bringing the much-needed format of open political debate and a wide array of viewpoints to the TV airwaves. The comedian's personal approach - broaching taboo subjects or critiquing long-revered institutions - however, was the center of the proceedings, with Maher seemingly offending viewers, networks, policymakers and advertisers at every turn. For all the outcry surrounding his controversial points of view, Maher did instigate valuable debates on such critical topics as the war in Iraq and the Bush administration - and through his show, as well as stand-up specials and humorous books, helped present the issues of the day in a digestible format for the masses.Bill Maher was born on Jan. 20, 1956, in New York City, NY, but he and his older sister were raised in River Vale, NJ. Their mother was a quiet, serious nurse with a Jewish background, while their father was a boisterous Irish-Catholic newsman who...
Controversial comedian Bill Maher was known as the driving force behind edgy panel discussion shows "Politically Incorrect" (Comedy Central, 1993-96; ABC 1997-2002) and "Real Time with Bill Maher" (HBO, 2003- ). He eventually developed into one of the top political comedians of the 1990s and beyond, bringing the much-needed format of open political debate and a wide array of viewpoints to the TV airwaves. The comedian's personal approach - broaching taboo subjects or critiquing long-revered institutions - however, was the center of the proceedings, with Maher seemingly offending viewers, networks, policymakers and advertisers at every turn. For all the outcry surrounding his controversial points of view, Maher did instigate valuable debates on such critical topics as the war in Iraq and the Bush administration - and through his show, as well as stand-up specials and humorous books, helped present the issues of the day in a digestible format for the masses.
Bill Maher was born on Jan. 20, 1956, in New York City, NY, but he and his older sister were raised in River Vale, NJ. Their mother was a quiet, serious nurse with a Jewish background, while their father was a boisterous Irish-Catholic newsman who worked as a broadcast announcer and editor at WOR and NBC, among others. News was always an important part of the household, and the family not only listened to Bill Maher Sr. on the radio, but enjoyed discussing current events at the dinner table. Maher Jr. was book-smart and forever trying to make teachers laugh, but he was shy around other kids, eschewing joining sports teams and other group activities. By the time he was 10 years old, he had decided that he wanted to become a comic. He used to sneak down to the basement to watch Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1952- ) and began taping each program with a tape recorder to study them. When a teacher suggested Maher audition to host a school talent show, he recycled the jokes, got big laughs, and came off stage all fired up for a career as a comedian.
Maher did not let on to his parents, however, and after graduating from Pascack High School in Montvale, he became an English major at Cornell University. He began to try his hand at stand-up, performing at such starter venues as a Chinese restaurant in Paramus, alongside then-high school student Eddie Murphy. The summer between his Junior and senior year in college, he performed at an amateur night at the renowned comedy club Catch a Rising Star in New York and scored so well with a Yankees scandal joke, that he was asked to return. Graduating from Cornell in 1978, he headed to New York, where he became a fixture at Catch, joining future top names like Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser as they too began working their way up the entertainment ladder. From the start, Maher's routine always included a cutting take on current events. After several years of regular appearances, he was offered a job as the club emcee three nights a week. One night he was scouted by someone from "The Tonight Show" and offered a spot on the show. After nailing a joke about being half Catholic and half Jewish, he won over his idol, Johnny Carson.
At this point, Maher held similar career goals as his fellow stand-ups: make a name for himself on stage, appear regularly on Carson, and land a deal for his own sitcom. So despite the fact that he had never displayed an interest in acting, he accepted an offer to play a cynical working class stiff in the glaringly bad Mr. T feature film, "DC Cab" (1983). After making several more appearances on Carson, he moved to L.A. in 1983, where he began breaking into the city's stand-up scene. He spent the next several years acting in TV pilots that never saw the light of day and films that never should have - i.e. "Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death" (1989) among them.
By 1992, Maher had a string of screen credits and substantial respect among his peers as a stand-up comedian. He even had a house in Bel Air. But he still had not found the best medium for his particular brand of topical, cynical comedy. A late night talk show might have seemed like the obvious solution, but Maher's experiences on "The Tonight Show" - where his material was meticulously reviewed word by word and his banter with the host was scripted - turned him off. It was too pre-packaged for a comedian who thrived on spontaneous debates and, ultimately, like his father, just wanted to tell the truth. "The Tonight Show" would not even let him joke about Ronald Reagan but thankfully there were places like HBO's "One Night Stand" series, for which Maher taped his first stand-up special in 1992.
But the real solution to Maher's career quandary came later that year when he was asked to co-host an election night special with political pundit Al Franken, for the then-fledgling network, Comedy Central. The Comedy brass were impressed with Maher, and when he pitched them his idea for an unscripted political roundtable show, they signed on the dotted line, thereby saving the world from having to endure any more of his acting. "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" debuted on Comedy Central in 1993 and its blend of pop entertainment and political punditry caught on quickly. Maher described it as "'The McLaughlin Group' on acid."
With its toppled Greek columns evoking the ancient art of debate, the show featured Maher as the provocative moderator of a panel of four guests culled from different backgrounds - including musicians, authors, comedians, elected officials, etc. - and different political leanings. The show's fascinating, unpredictable blend of "party guests" and the controversial host's outspoken critique of conservative politicians, corporate welfare, and organized religion - peppered with his loud championing of animal rights and marijuana legalization - made for a riveting show, to say the least.
In 1996, "Politically Incorrect" relocated to Los Angeles where Maher taped his second stand-up special for HBO, "The Golden Goose Special." Later in the year ABC picked up "Politically Incorrect," positioning it after "Nightline" on its late-night schedule. Maher marked the passing of an era by releasing a collection of memorable moments from the show's Comedy Central run, "D s Anybody Have a Problem with That? Politically Incorrect's Greatest Hits" (1997). In its new time slot and network, the show frequently bested Jay Leno and David Letterman in the ratings in certain markets, racking up an impressive 11 nominations to add to the two Cable Ace awards it had earned at Comedy Central.
But even as Maher delivered solid ratings, the network grew uneasy over the host's brazen "incorrectness." Early in 2001, there was an outcry when Maher likened dogs to retarded children. But remarks Maher made after September 11th, regarding terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center - he challenged the common refrain that the terrorists were "cowards" and remained critical of President George W. Bush before it was popular to do so - pushed the network and sponsors too far. They ultimately decided to cancel the show in 2002, amidst cries of foul from the Maher camp and all free-speech lovers everywhere. That same year, Maher released When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden, (2002), a bestseller that showcased World War II propaganda-style posters to address the issues surrounding the war in Iraq. The title referred to a famous World War II slogan that inferred that the single car driver, wasteful with fuel, was essentially aiding the enemy - a relevant message for contemporary times.
Maher was not off the air for long - he retreated to long-time supporters HBO who launched "Real Time with Bill Maher", an hour-long, weekly version of the earlier format. This new incarnation relied more on serious, well-informed guests and also included satellite participants, an opening comedy sketch, and the popular recurring feature "New Rules." Freed of network censors, the show also enjoyed greater leeway with language and subject matter, something the host occasionally forgot as a frequent guest on other shows. Now considered a top liberal commentator of the times, Maher could be seen weighing in on "Larry King Live," "The Tonight Show," "The Late Late Show" (NBC, 1995- ), "The O'Reilly Factor" (Fox News, 1995- ), and countless others.
Maher and "Real Time" continued to incite outrage, with a Catholic League Annual Report on Anti-Catholicism naming Maher among the top offenders, and in 2005 Alabama Congressman Bachus calling for Maher's dismissal after a comment about military recruitment was perceived as demeaning. Maher's on-air Halloween costume in 2006, a likeness of recently deceased TV personality Steve Irwin with a stingray puncturing his chest, demonstrated that Maher had no intention of softening his trademarked approach to cultural commentary.
That same year, Maher made a slightly more meaningful advance in media when he began hosting Amazon Fishbowl, a 30-minute talk show accessible on the Amazon retail web site that became the first web-exclusive talk show on a major corporate website. Maher also began production on a full-length documentary about religion, teaming with renowned comic producer Larry Charles to travel the world and examine different religious traditions. The film, "Religulous" (2008), was a frank and pointed examination of the world's major religions through big news stories from recent years, from Muslim riots over Dutch cartoons to posting the Ten Commandments in public courthouses. It also focused on Maher's own transformation from God-fearing Catholic to unabashed agnostic. Shown at numerous festivals across the world, "Religulous" earned a respectful $12 million at the box office. Meanwhile, "Real Time" continued to offer sharp commentary and discussion, while earning several Emmy Award nominations throughout the years.
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"Bill is a first-rate social satirist."---Ralph Nader quoted in People, July 24, 1995.
"He's a great ringleader. He knows when to stir things up, when to agree and not agree. I like fighting with him. He calls me his feminist nemesis."---Roseanne in People, July 24, 1995.
"I told the first AIDS joke: The punchline was, 'I just want to meet an old fashioned girl with gonorrhea.' It released a collective tension. Johnny [Carson] said, 'That's one of the longest laughs I've ever heard.'"---Bill Maher
"The whole point of the show is that there's something funny about everything. And not letting the sadness of life overtake you."---Maher in People, July 24, 1995.
"I said f*** in front of the President. You're not supposed to do that, I found out. He was shocked. He actually never heard the word before and asked me what it meant. No, seriously, he was great. He has such a good sense of humor and obviously enjoys comedy."---Bill Maher in Us, December 1995.
Maher got into trouble in October 1998 for calling former US President Ronald Reagan "a crazy, reckless liar." Some felt it was inappropriate given Mr. Reagan's diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease while others, especially Mr. Reagan's son Michael (a radio host) were not pacified by Maher's apology.
The following is a transcript of the comments made on the September 17, 2001 broadcast that landed Maher in hot water: Dinesh D'Souza: "Bill, there's another piece of political correctness I want to mention. And, although I think Bush has been doing a great job, one of the themes we hear constantly is that the people who did this are cowards."
Bill Maher: "Not true."
Dinesh: "Not true. Look at what they did. First of all, you have a whole bunch of guys who are willing to give their life. None of 'em backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete."
Dinesh: These are warriors. And we have to realize that the principles of our way of life are in conflict with people in the world. And so, I mean, I'm all for understanding the sociological causes of this, but we should not blame the victim. Americans shouldn't blame themselves because other people want to bomb them."
Bill: "But also, we should, we have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly. You're right.
Maher later apologized on air for his comments, stating "In no way was I intending to say, nor have I ever thought, that the men and women who defend our nation in uniform are anything but courageous and valiant, and I offer my apologies to anyone who took it wrong.
"My criticism was meant for politicians who, fearing public reaction, have not allowed our military to do the job they are obviously ready, willing and able to do, and who now will, I'm certain, as they always have, get it done."
"Even people who disagree rarely start screaming at each other, they only do that when they're on camera."---Bill Maher to CNN.com, May 12, 2005.
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