There may not be a more eclectic guest list on all of television.
On any given week of HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher,” those ready to engage with the host in an often-heated debate come from a wide swath of professions and perspectives. They range from actors (Samuel L. Jackson), TV entrepreneurs (Seth MacFarlane), heads of state (Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell), bloggers (Andrew Sullivan) and congressional leaders (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi).
Some ribald items could cause a normally staid personality to squirm, giggle nervously and die laughing inside. Yet they settle in and contribute to a rousing debate, which begs the question: How does Maher manage to bring together so many different types of people and escort them to the same comfort level?
“I think the audience does it for me,” Maher explains. “I think what’s mostly jarring for those people is that they’re not used to doing a show with a live, laughing audience. I think that can be something very strange to them.
“But if they somehow find a way to get a laugh, it can be a tonic and rather addictive elixir. They like it. So I just think the whole situation … it could go either way. It could make them clam up and be nervous or it can make them realize that what they do for a living, which has always been rather dry, can actually be kind of fun.”
“Real Time” began airing 10 years ago on HBO, but Maher had already built a loyal following with his previous show “Politically Incorrect” on Comedy Central and ABC, and via his stand-up act and comedy specials.
Through the steady development of a format over the years that mixes irreverent humor with lively political discourse and a cavalcade of thought-provoking guests from various fields, he has managed to do what Congress is often criticized for failing to do: Exchange ideas in a productive and positive environment.
“I think our show has gotten more civil than the show I did for 10 years on Comedy Central and ABC,” Maher says. ” ‘Politically Incorrect’ was much more of a shouting match and was much more deliberately designed that way. The whole point of that show was to make sure you booked a snake with a mongoose so that people would have something to argue about and that people were from different walks of life.
“This show on HBO I’ve done for all these years now, that was never the object of that,” he adds. “We wanted to change it up and do a different kind of show. I was older, it was a more mature show. There are many weeks where we don’t really have an argument on the panel, we have a discussion. I think a lot of the time the audience likes that. I don’t think the audience really wants the yelling anymore out of me and what I do. Occasionally people do get heated if it’s legitimate and organic, but I think what they want mostly, what I’ve heard them say over the years, is a smart discussion.”
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, now a professor at UC Berkeley and the subject of a new documentary, “Inequality for All,” has been a frequent guest on Maher’s shows over the years, and a regular guest elsewhere in the political talking heads universe. He says Maher’s shows stand out.
“The tone, it’s more irreverent than any show I’ve been on,” Reich says. “His comedy is very pointed. His partisanship is part of his schtick. It’s also very edgy. He’s not afraid to walk up to the edge and sometimes go over it. All of that is quite different from anything else I’ve participated in.”
Michael Steele, former head of the Republican National Committee, has been a regular guest on “Politically Incorrect” and “Real Time” and says, even though he may feel outnumbered on Maher’s panels, he always feels comfortable.
“Bill has said, ‘You’re one of the few guests who comes on and tries to challenge my audience,’ ” Steele says. “I’m quite surprised at the number of Republicans and conservatives who come up to me and sort of whisper, ‘Yeah, I watch the show’ or ‘I saw you on Bill Maher.’ You would think not a lot of Republicans or conservatives would watch the show, but that hasn’t been my experience. I find that a lot do watch it.”
A measure of Maher’s staying power can be found in two of his most ardent cheerleaders.
Nancy Geller, senior VP at HBO Entertainment, has been laughing at Maher’s jokes and has been in business with him for more than 20 years.
“Besides the fact that he knows how to instigate and make it provocative is that he’s very true to who he is, whether it’s popular or not,” Geller says. “I’ve found more people are really believing in what he says. His stand-up tour is enormous. He does red states. It’s not just joke, joke, joke.”
Paramount chairman and “Real Time” exec producer Brad Grey estimates he has known Maher for more than 30 years.
“He’s a great stand-up comedian,” Grey says. “That’s his life’s work. But doing this show he truly believes is what he was meant to do. If you can find that in life — certainly in show business — and have the wherewithal to continue to do that … in a certain sense he feels blessed by that, and he should.”
Eclectic guest list often put guard down | Red states in on the joke, says Maher | Maher’s recalls his favorite moments