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Bill Maher Puts His Money Where His (Big) Mouth Is

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Button-pushing humor came early and easily to Maher. Born in 1956, one of two kids, he was raised by his radio-news announcer father and nurse mother in middle-class suburban New Jersey. A shy, diligent student who rarely missed The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, he came out of his shell emceeing a school talent show during his senior year. Maher adapted a slew of age-inappropriate jokes from a Carson monologue, raising the ire of parents and the amusement of peers. "Jokes [Carson] was doing about Zsa Zsa Gabor really didn't fit the ones I was doing about some 17-year-old virgin at Pascack Hills High School," he says, chuckling as he recalls the performance. "I seem to remember succeeding in destroying the entire show. … I guess I haven't changed much."

After graduating from Cornell with a degree in English, Maher moved to New York and began dabbling in stand-up at The Improv and Catch a Rising Star. After landing a gig in the 1983 Mr. T comedy D.C. Cab, he spent the 1980s on a series of short-lived sitcoms, including NBC's heavily hyped Sara, in which he starred opposite Geena Davis and Alfre Woodard.

"Bill was going to buy a house, and I said, 'Of course [Sara is] going to get picked up," recalls Gurvitz. "Then [showrunner] Gary David Goldberg had a screaming match with [NBC chief] Brandon Tartikoff on the set, and the show was gone. That was the first big disappointment."

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By 1989, the then-fledging Fox network had commissioned a Maher star vehicle, which he crafted with Shandling. But the pair's Bill Gets a Life, about a man who marries a woman way out of his league, never made it to air. Shortly after, he abandoned acting and decided to shift his full attention to stand-up.

Maher had appeared with some frequency on his idol Carson's Tonight Show as well as Late Night With David Letterman and was encouraged to pitch a male version of Comedy Central's topical female comedy show Women Aloud. By 1993, the same network bit, and Maher launched a nightly politics-themed comedy series titled Politically Incorrect. It aired for four seasons on Comedy Central before then-programming chief Ted Harbert brought it to ABC in 1997. "When I started at the network, we were doing repeats of The Love Boat and Charlie's Angels … so I needed a show, and I was a real fan," recalls Harbert.

The series, which featured a panel of four celebrities debating hot topics (Maher now calls it a "purposeful train wreck"), lasted five seasons, during which time the Disney-owned network often battled with Maher over things like a Harry Pot-Head sketch, which caused what Maher describes as a "knock-out, drag-out fight" that ultimately he lost.

Then Sept. 11 happened, and Maher provoked the biggest fight of his career. On the Sept. 17 edition of Politically Incorrect, he refuted President Bush's statement that the terrorist hijackers were cowards. "Lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly," he said. "Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."

The comments incensed many, including White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, who slammed Maher. (A newspaper headline from that era that reads, "White House Keeps Heat on Maher," still hangs in his home office.) By June 2002, the show had lost such major advertisers as Sears and FedEx, and more than a dozen ABC affiliates refused to air it. Maher was shown the door. "What bothered me is they lied and said it was because our ratings went down," Maher says. "And our ratings never went down. My audience never left me."

Former ABC chairman Lloyd Braun maintains that Maher's cancellation had more to do with the network's desire to launch a more traditional late-night comedy show than it did the controversy. Still, Braun admits, "One of Bill's great qualities is the purity of his thinking and the way in which he's able to convey his opinions with clarity, honesty and obviously great humor. At HBO, you can do that. It becomes much more complicated doing that at a broadcast network."

Indeed, Maher's 10-year relationship with HBO has been the longest of his career. His most recent two-year deal, signed in 2010, pays him in the high-seven figures for 35 shows a year. Sources say he's already in talks with the network to extend the pact, this time for longer than two years. And despite the mountains of hate mail the network receives (religion and Palin are frequent topics), HBO is happy with its sharp-tongued host. "He knows how fast to drive the car, and I've actually never seen him lose control of the conversation or the direction that he wants it to go," says HBO co-president Richard Plepler. Adds programming chief Michael Lombardo, continuing the metaphor, "He's always in control of his car, and he's not someone who goes to the edge just to go to the edge."

When the executives do speak up during rehearsals, it's sometimes to ask that a joke targeting religion be tweaked slightly. "Most people are religious," acknowledges Maher, who produced a well-received 2008 documentary on the topic titled Religulous, a project he calls his Moby Dick. "I laugh when the Republicans talk about how the left is faithless. What? No. Just me. Just me over here. It's just me you're talking about."

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Before writing the million-dollar check, Maher told almost nobody -- not his Real Time crew, not HBO, not even his close friends. But the media immediately took notice, leading to appearances on Piers Morgan's CNN show and MSNBC's Hardball as well as conversations with other potential political donors (he won't say whom). "It's an example, and I don't really want to push it any further than that," says Maher. "I said at the moment I gave it, 'Look, just know, this hurts me.' People should take that to mean what it means, which is that for a lot of people, it wouldn't hurt at all."

Still, despite the attention, Maher says he's "done writing checks this year." Instead, he'll keep his activism to the confines of Real Time, though he's hoping Obama stays away. "I don't want to do anything that would hurt his re-election chances … and it could because I'm the most 'out there' host," he says. "You can go on any other show, and they wouldn't hold it against you because those people don't say the things that I say."

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THE BUSINESS OF BILL MAHER: The veteran comic splits his time among his HBO show, stand-up gigs and several best-sellers

Television: Maher is pulling down in the high-seven figures for his HBO talk show Real Time With Bill Maher. "People were surprised I had $1 million [to contribute to Obama's super PAC]," he says. "I don't have kids, I don't collect art or cars or jewelry. You don't think I could save $1 million in 19 years with a TV show every week plus stand-up? Really?" Turns out Maher, who owns only one house and travels largely for his stand-up act, is his accountant's "best saver."

Stand-Up: The Real Time host does 50 to 60 stand-up gigs a year, which, like TV, pay him in the high-seven figures. Maher says he not only loves the act but also believes it helps his HBO show. "To just sit in your ivory tower in L.A. would be very claustrophobic," he says, noting that traveling to such destinations as Huntsville, Ala.,  and Albuquerque, N.M., allows him to get out of the "liberal bubble" and "feel this country in a way I can't from here."

Books: Maher has sold about 500,000 copies of his five books during the course of his career, including two New Rules editions: New Rules: Polite Musings From a Timid Observer and The New New Rules: A Funny Look at How Everybody but Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass. Others include True Story: A Novel and the best-seller When You Ride Alone, You Ride With Bin Laden.

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MY ONE QUESTION FOR THE REPUBLICAN CANDIDATES

Rick Santorum: "Does the fact that your wife used to live with the doctor who delivered her affect your views on birth control?"
-- on wife Karen's relationship in her 20s with the doctor who delivered her and also performed abortions

Mitt Romney: "Where is the planet Kolob? I'd like to know."
-- in reference to a planet described in Mormon scripture Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich: "What's it feel like to get blown in a car?"
-- on the candidate's past infidelities