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

This story appears in the Mar. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.

Bill Maher has three words that should terrify Hollywood: Obama could lose.

To the moneyed political class living in what Maher calls the "liberal bubble," it might seem like a long shot. The economy is recovering, unemployment rates are dropping, and the Republican candidates are talking about how to limit contraception and why college is for snobs (if not the occasional "slut"). But though the president might seem a shoo-in to win a second term among certain bicoastal elites, Maher sees trouble ahead. That fear -- and not to promote himself or his long-running HBO show Real Time With Bill Maher, he says -- is why the comic firebrand interrupted his stand-up act in San Jose, Calif., on Feb. 23 to present an oversized $1 million check to Priorities USA Action, the political super PAC working to re-elect President Obama.

"I threw a snowball hoping to cause an avalanche," Maher, 56, says a week later in his no-frills bungalow office at CBS Television City, a short golf-cart ride from the studio where he shoots Real Time on Friday nights. "This election is so not in the bag," he adds, his voice rising, as it often does on Real Time, with the semi-righteous and hyper-informed outrage that has won him loyal fans and prompted the kind of death threats that require a full-time security guard at his Beverly Hills home. "It's a scarier group of Republicans than I've ever seen in my life, and it's a different world with Citizens United," he says, referencing the 2010 Supreme Court case that has led to GOP backers like casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson giving many millions of dollars to unregulated super PACs.

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With his donation, Maher -- whose politics aren't exactly down-the-line liberal -- has become the highest-profile celebrity to give so much to the Obama re-election cause, which has struggled to gain steam in Hollywood (DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg remains the industry's largest donor, giving $2 million to Obama's super PAC as of Jan. 31). In the process, the bomb-throwing provocateur -- a devout atheist who wants to legalize most recreational drugs and famously was kicked off ABC for saying the 9/11 terrorists weren't cowards -- has crossed the line from pay cable commentator to mainstream activist. Unlike late-night peers Jon Stewart, with his Rally to Restore Sanity, or Stephen Colbert, who launched a satirically eponymous super PAC, Maher is publicly putting his own money where his big mouth is. And in doing so, he is setting himself up as an increasingly powerful voice as the presidential campaign heads into its defining months.  

"I never used to give money because I thought, well, I don't want to tip my hat one way or the other," Maher says. "But I thought, who are we kidding at this point? I think the cat is out of the bag which side I'm on." Maher says he still considers himself a moderate but believes the Republican Party has shifted to exclude nonextremists, making Obama the crucial best option. He considers his $1 million gift a challenge to Hollywood's political donors, who, driven by a diminished entertainment economy, dissatisfaction with Obama's policies, residual SOPA anger, or all of the above, have been sitting idle as the Republicans' American Crossroads super PAC has thus far outraised Democracts 2-to-1. In addition, a recent study showed that Obama election support from the entertainment industry had fallen nearly 60 percent from $2.8 million in 2008 to $1.2 million in 2011.

"To all rich liberals: This is where the game is now," he says. "There's only one place in this country where the millionaires and billionaires are liberals, and that's here in California."

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Conventional wisdom would have you believe that the late-night comedy of the Maher, Stewart and Colbert ilk thrives on opposition-party humor. All three hosts helped popularize a new TV genre during the eight-year reign of George W. Bush, riding a wave of Dick Cheney antics and anti-Iraq War sentiment. Many posited that the election of Obama in 2008 would somehow temper the bite of liberal-leaning late-night programming (the antidote to the rise of Fox News). But the opposite has rung true. Thanks to the surge of the Tea Party, the Republican Party has been propelled further right, causing Congress to stall in nearly comical deadlock since the inauguration. Those fat targets, as well as Obama's own missteps, have become fodder for even more aggressive monologues, with late-night comics now driving the political conversation arguably as much as their "serious" news counterparts.  

Although Stewart is the wiseguy watchdog and Colbert the smarty-pants rabble rouser, Maher stands out as the increasingly aggressive line-crosser, a position enabled by both a personality that loves to shock and nearly zero restrictions thanks to his decadelong perch on HBO. 

His schedule, like his latitude, is enviable. He produces one live show a week with as many as 20 weeks off a year. For 10 years, HBO has let him do and say pretty much whatever he wants, from calling former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin a "dumb twat" who heads "a strange family of inbred weirdos" to performing an "un-baptism" on Mitt Romney's dead father-in-law. Unlike the rest of late-night, Maher is not beholden to overnight ratings, commercial sponsors or pressure to book the kind of celebrity guests who increasingly shy away from the raw political debates that are a hallmark of his show ("There's not 20 thinking celebrities in all of Hollywood," he quips).

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Despite the freedom, Maher says he works harder to distinguish his act from the Jays and Daves -- and even the Stewarts and Colberts (some of whose audience he likely attracts on Fridays, when the Comedy Central shows are dark). "You can only make an everyday show so good," he says. "But if you have a once-a-week show, you feel like you have to make it great because you're only once a week." During the March 2 edition of Real Time, for instance, Maher segued from pointed jokes about Rush Limbaugh's "slut" comments to an informed discussion of campaign finance reform with former Sen. Russ Feingold to a heated debate with former GM executive Bob Lutz over global warming -- all live with no commercial breaks or second takes. "I don't get to re-rack like every other host does," he notes. "I have to be ready for the whole thing before it starts."

He's also willing to directly challenge guests and push the taste envelope further than his rivals. "I am so much more edgy," he boasts. Only Maher would ask a conservative guest why Limbaugh hadn't "croaked" instead of Heath Ledger from prescription drug abuse. And only Maher would lead a discussion in which gay columnist Dan Savage said, "I sometimes think about f--ing the shit out of Rick Santorum." ("Pretty sick stuff," according to Fox News' Sean Hannity.) He often uses his show-ending editorial -- a segment he meticulously hones over several days -- to lambast such frequent Republican targets as Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who this election cycle have stepped in for Palin as Maher's favorite foils. "I mean, she was great, but it's like Spartacus," he jokes. " 'I'm an idiot!' 'I'm an idiot!' They're all idiots!"

Not that Maher only books the like-minded. On the final night of his life, right-wing pundit Andrew Breitbart said that being a guest on Maher's show helped him learn how to handle a hostile audience and be booed. "He signed a book for me," Maher recalls of Breitbart. "He wrote something really nice: 'Thank you for giving me a chance and not prejudging and accepting me.' " Other conservative guests have included former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum and Rep. Darrell Issa. "This is a forum of ideas," says executive producer Sheila Griffiths, "and you can't necessarily do that if you don't have the other side's point of view represented."

After each edition of Real Time, Maher invites his guests to a small reception. He doesn't talk to anyone before the show, so the party is often an opportunity for Maher to meet those with whom he has just sparred on-camera. After a recent show, for instance, Lutz, the former GM executive and the panel's lone conservative, revealed he had never seen Real Time before agreeing to appear on the show, during which he was grilled by Maher over his denial of global warming. "My wife said, 'Don't go on that show; that guy's a left-wing asshole,' " says Lutz. "But I said, 'What the hell?' I like a good, smart debate, and that's what it was."

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Maher says his bookers have no trouble filling the panel each week, though Hollywood celebrities and sitting politicians often aren't interested. Many showbiz publicists discourage their clients from going on, either because they fear they'll appear unintelligent or, perhaps worse, be associated with Maher's politics. "I'm very toxic," he says with a laugh. Exceptions include Alec Baldwin, Ashton Kutcher, Ben Affleck and Kerry Washington, all of whom have appeared on the show and are well-known political junkies. Maher's buddy Jon Hamm will make his third Real Time appearance March 9.

Even without a steady stream of celebrities, Maher's unfiltered voice now generates 1.2 million viewers in its Friday 10 p.m. timeslot -- his highest Real Time numbers since 2003 (by comparison, Stewart averages 2.4 million viewers; Colbert, 1.6 million). In addition, he will headline as many as 60 live shows this year in such places as Huntsville, Ala., and Albuquerque, N.M., where he frequently packs 5,000-seat theaters. He's also sold about 500,000 books, including a series based on the "new rules" segment on Real Time, in the process garnering national attention for his various wars of words with politicians and conservative media types. These include Limbaugh, whose "sluts" attack on Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke prompted Maher's opening joke on the March 2 show. "I thought this election was all going to be about the economy," said Maher, "but the economy started doing better, so the Republicans went to plan B: calling women whores."

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In person, Maher exudes a vibe very similar to his TV persona. He's sharp and caustic, with a no-nonsense conversation style dialed back only slightly from the combative presence that often dominates debates on Real Time. He laughs a lot, and he's quick with a smart justification for everything he says and does. For instance, the never-married Maher says that despite his image as "that pot-smoking atheist who goes to the Playboy Mansion," he's toned down the lifestyle on which his conservative foes tend to dwell. He rarely rises before noon, but that's as a result of an internal clock that often has him up refining his Real Time monologue until four in the morning. He's still smoking weed about twice a week, but he's no longer "militantly single," as he has been for much of his adult life. In fact, he's had a steady girlfriend, a Harvard graduate student, for about eight months. The pair has no plans to wed, though, as Maher is still as vehemently against the institution as he is organized religion, though he favors same-sex marriage rights. "My answer to marriage was always, 'Why do I want to invite the state and federal government into my love life, so that it becomes a legal matter if something goes wrong and it's about lawyers? It's the opposite of what love and romance should be," he scoffs. 

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And yes, he's frequently photographed at the Playboy Mansion, but insists he attends only the four big parties of the year, including Hugh Hefner's birthday and the Mid-Summer Night's Dream bash. Instead, the exercise nut spends his afternoons working out and hosting regular basketball games at his Beverly Hills home with such friends as Hamm, Sarah Silverman, Woody Harrelson and Garry Shandling ("Garry has a very good jump shot," says Maher).

When he's not touring, he spends a lot of time with his comic friends. "We don't need a lot -- a joint and a couch, and you could pretty much kill three hours," says Maher. Has he ever done any of his shows high? "Are you crazy?" he responds, his eyes bulging with disbelief. "Oh no, that would be a disaster. Marijuana is not the kind of drug that you want to do when you have to focus."

Maher still can be spotted on the Hollywood party scene, often with his close friend and "de facto date" Seth MacFarlane, nearly two decades his junior. "It's usually a night of wine and war stories, followed by 2 a.m. victuals at Jerry's Deli," says the Family Guy creator and occasional Real Time guest. "Everything a couple of college guys would do."

But friends and colleagues say that beneath the veneer of a gruff-comic-in-a-state-of-arrested development is a man both highly intelligent and deeply loyal. Real Time executive producer Scott Carter and head writer Billy Martin have been with Maher for close to two decades. Griffiths, another EP, began as Maher's assistant 18 years ago. "To move forward after every big event in my life, I have to check in with Bill," says Arianna Huffington, a longtime friend and former correspondent for Maher's previous show Politically Incorrect. "Some people have therapy, I have Bill. He's much funnier, and there's no co-pay."

The host quietly gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to veterans (both of his parents were vets), environmental causes (he drives a $100,000-plus green Tesla) and such animal charities as the Humane Society and PETA (he has a greyhound/Chihuahua mix named Chico). Many confidants note his lack of bitterness and his willingness to laugh at other people's jokes, rare qualities in a comedian. Longtime manager Marc Gurvitz -- who first hooked up with Maher at Los Angeles' Improv comedy club during the early 1980s -- says Maher has called him at home only once in their nearly-30-year relationship, and he apologized profusely.

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Perhaps surprisingly, he deems plenty of topics off-limits. Jokes about children of political candidates, cruelty to animals and homosexuals who aren't out publicly are verboten among Real Time's tight-knit nine-person writing team, most of whom have been with Maher for years. "The writers room is like the most hilarious think tank in Washington," says Carter. "We tend to be very liberal, but we also put a great deal of stock in monitoring legitimate conservative arguments against knee-jerk liberals."

For his part, Maher consumes news voraciously -- the entryway of his Television City bungalow features The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today. He doesn't check out other late-night comedy shows, but he watches MSNBC's Hardball and what he calls the "Ron Burgundy" evening newscasts (Maher's writers watch Fox News). He says he won't tell a joke or offer an opinion unless he believes the premise to be absolutely true. More than a decade after his infamous 9/11 statement -- "We have been the cowards" -- he won't back down. "I said I was sorry that I offended people at a sensitive time," he notes, "but I never said I was wrong because I wasn't wrong."

 

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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