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High King of Controversy, Bill Maher, Stands Up to Boise

The Maheraja talks politics and the tragic events of 9/17

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In a closing monologue for his show Real Time on HBO, comedian Bill Maher slammed Boise as one of the only places that will soon remain acceptable to the right, alongside "Branson, Missouri, and a nursing home in Florida with the six remaining Cubans who still give a shit about Castro."

But even after firing a cheap shot like that, Maher admitted he's excited to perform at The Morrison Center Saturday, Aug. 18.

"I have been bugging my agent to play your town for a long time," he told Boise Weekly "Because I have never been there and Jerry [Seinfeld] told me it was good."

It may seem odd that Maher--a self-described pot smoking atheist, a semi-frequent dater of porn stars, the man that Fox christened "Pig Maher" for his seeming romance with vulgarity, and a $1 million contributor to President Barack Obama's re-election campaign--is excited about a gig in a Boise, but he said the red state shows are actually better.

"There's a small bit of enthusiasm above normal when I go to places that you wouldn't think I would be well received," said Maher. "I don't know for sure, but my analysis is that they're glad I didn't write them off."

Maher said a strong reception also helps make up for his lackluster early days in comedy. But his red state gigs aren't just about ego stroking.

"When you get 3,000 screaming atheists in Huntsville, Ala., you know something about America," Maher said. "That marbled in with the rednecks, there's a lot of people that don't think that way, even in the reddest places."

It's a strangely optimistic view from someone vilified as caustic and negative. But the truth is that Maher's willingness to mingle with those he maligns and to hear them out publicly, even if it means going 10 rounds with them in front of a live TV audience, has largely set him apart from other comedians and pundits over the course of his career.

Not only does Maher's show frequently feature staunch conservatives like Ann Coulter and Grover Norquist, but he also performs regularly in the red flyover states and defends them to the so-called liberal elite as having all the same stuff and the same sorts of people as the coastal blues. But it was a long, uphill battle to get there. When Maher started in comedy in the late '70s, offering up opinions, especially in political matters, was verboten.

"I remember vividly when we started Politically Incorrect in '93 and everyone said, 'You can't do this. You can't be a talk show host who tells the audience so blatantly what your opinion is on all these issues because you'll alienate half of them,'" Maher said.

But Politically Incorrect had a lengthy run on Comedy Central from 1993-1997 and then on ABC from 1997-2002. Maher said the show proved that viewers didn't have to agree with the host to watch the show, something that he feels laid the groundwork for comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

But that doesn't mean Maher thinks he's shilling for the left. He may have donated the GDP of a small nation to the Obama campaign and called Sarah Palin a cunt, but he sees it as calling bullshit wherever and however he sees it.

"I see image ads on CNN for people like Campbell Brown, you know, 'She doesn't pull any punches,'" Maher said. "Everyone wants to take that mantle on themselves as we tell it straight, but I think the proof is in the pudding."

And that stance has cost him.

The most notable place was Politically Incorrect, which was not renewed after Maher said he didn't believe the 9/11 hijackers were cowards, something his staff refers to as "the tragic events of 9/17."

And then there's the Emmys. Maher has been nominated 29 times but never won, something he chalks up to ruffling a few too many feathers on the voting committee.

"Twenty-nine times, you'd think, just by clerical error, I'd have won it at least a couple of times by now," Maher said.

And that says nothing of the firestorm lobbed against him by conservative pundits, who call him a misogynist and a hate monger.

"Fox News is obsessed," said Maher. "I can't even guess what they're going to be pissed off about after a show on Friday, but sure enough, on their website Saturday, you'll see Pig Maher--which is their name for me--and then something I said and how awful it is for America, blah blah blah."

Clearly, Maher doesn't take that sort of thing seriously, but that doesn't mean he lacks self-reflection.

"I have a hard time sleeping every Friday night, because a few hours after the show, I'll start turning the show over in my mind and there's always something I regret," he said.

And even though Maher has a packed schedule, he's never stopped doing stand-up.

"I call it my hobby," Maher said. "But I just mean that it's not my day job. But it is what I love to work on, and I work on it constantly and meticulously."

It shows. Maher is ranked at No. 38 on Comedy Central's list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All-Time (just ahead of Billy Crystal) and has shot 10, one-hour stand-up specials.

But Maher doesn't have time to sneak into comedy clubs to work out new routines. After 30 years, he just knows what works.

"I know people do it--Chris Rock does it, Jerry Seinfeld does it. I don't know. I'm not saying I'm better than them, I'm just saying I don't need to do it," Maher said. "After so many years, I just hear it in my head; it just works out."

Though another Boise slam probably isn't on Maher's list of things that will work at The Morrison Center, you never know. Maher has made a career out of breaking the rules.

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