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Bill Maher's stand-up act is edgier than his TV show, “Real Time With Bill Maher.” - Photo courtesy of Britt Festivals

Bill Maher takes his act to the edge

Like most comedians, Bill Maher likes to hear himself talk. But he also listens and truly engages with guests — Democrats and tea party members alike — on his weekly HBO show "Real Time With Bill Maher." Though clearly on the Democrats' side most of the time, Maher also is genuinely, visibly curious about the other side. The thoughtfulness behind his smirk suggests he can understand an opposing, or even fully wacked-out, viewpoint even if he doesn't agree.

A supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and pot legalization, Maher, 55, is himself an immoderate thinker as well as a born moderator — qualities that make him a perfect ringleader for a political-humor show. He has been that since his former show "Politically Incorrect" started in 1993, when Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were still in short pants.

Reached by phone at his Los Angeles office, Maher discussed his act, impact and disappointment with President Barack Obama. The conversation took place before the credit-rating downgrade — a development sure to provide additional fodder for Maher's show.

Q. Is most of your stand-up act political, or do you cover a range of topics?

A. I would say it is mostly political. I do a nice, long show, at least an hour and a half, so there is room for everything. I want them to say, "No mas!" at the end.

Q. Does the material have to be up to the minute, the way it must be for "Real Time"?

A. It is definitely different from the show. That's the pleasant surprise for most people. An old lady once said to me, "I didn't think you could be any worse than you were on TV, but you are."

Q. Yet, she had paid to see you?

A. Yeah, she meant it as a compliment. However bad you think I am on TV, this is gonna be a lot worse. The people who come to our TV studio, they're fans, but they don't have to pay to get in. And there is something about TV, it makes them — even though it's HBO — I don't want to say uptight, exactly. But the stand-up audience is the freest of all the audiences I play to. They really want me to go to the edge.

Q. There has been commentary over the past few years about satirical talk shows influencing public opinion and voting. Have you seen evidence of that?

A. My personal view is that entertainment forms don't change people's minds a hell of a lot. I think that's overrated. Bruce Springsteen toured for John Kerry, and it didn't happen, and he's a lot more powerful with people than (talk-show hosts) are. Puff Daddy had a slogan on tour in 2004: "Vote or Die." This was coming after he was actually on trial for gunplay, so there was some validity to it, and it still didn't help.

Q. You have been doing political satire for decades now. During the past few years of a bad economy, and especially more recently, when all the national news seems bad, has audience response to political humor changed at all? Are people more receptive, less receptive?

A. It's hard to say because I always try to have a killer act and (make sure) they're always laughing a lot.

But I do think it says something that in difficult economic times, when a lot of things are not selling on the road, I'm selling great. Better than ever. Bigger theaters, more people.

I think when things seem so hopeless, laughter really is the best medicine. I know that's a cliche, but sometimes people do need to laugh if off when it seems like there is no solution coming.

I think people who voted for Obama — I am one of them, and the vast majority of my audience are people who voted for Obama, and probably will again because what's the alternative? But the love is gone, I think. ... It feels like it is just a succession of cave-ins — you know, (House Speaker) John Boehner bragging that he got 98 percent of what he wanted (in the debt-ceiling agreement). How does that make us feel? Where's our champion who was going to stand up to this nonsense?

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