By Brian Steinberg
LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - When Bill Maher takes the stage at the start of his weekly "Real Time" program on HBO, he feels like he was just shot from a cannon.
By the time he opens the program with a monolog, he has spent every waking hour since getting up on Thursday preparing for the show, he said in an interview. He has little choice. Unlike most other talk shows, Maher's program is live and he must pivot from standup comedy to serious encounters with authors and politicians, and then wrap everything up with the delivery of one of TV's most barbed commentaries - all without a break.
"Live on tape means 'not live,' of course. It was live at some point. The difference with our show is it is 'live' live. As I'm saying it, you are seeing it," he said. "It does add an extra, kind of tightrope element to it, because you can't take anything back or editorially fudge it. It is what it is."
Maher, a veteran of the latenight arena, has become a sort of Warren Zevon of talk-show hosts, using edgy humor to call attention to topics that get little air on mainstream counterparts. His stuff can be polarizing, and the live nature of the show accentuates the danger. In recent weeks, Maher has contended with being insulted by guest Fareed Zakaria and with panelists whose unsolicited comments threatened to derail a comedic bit in the middle of the program. Some of this stuff may get a broader audience, now that HBO is allowing Maher and his staff to post clips from the program and its online-only "Overtime" segment on YouTube.
His staff is taking steps to burnish the you-are-there elements of "Real Time" as audiences begin to embrace more shows like it that use satire to analyze current events. Maher, who hosted "Politically Incorrect," a show with similar themes on Comedy Central and ABC, pioneered a genre that has now attracted everyone from John Oliver to Larry Wilmore, not to mention a cadre of garrulous Jim Henson creatures holding forth on news of the day over at small cable outlet Fusion, part of a show called "No, You Shut Up."All of these other programs, however, are taped.
Maher has not considered joining the pack. In recent weeks, he has urged staff to select a live audience that is less ruffled by some of the decidedly "politically incorrect" material he delivers. Nearly every week, it seems, the "Real Time" audience expresses outrage or dismay at some of Maher's pointed comments about liberals or conservatives - precious seconds that can detract from the show. Maher has on at least one occasion actually left his stage and gone out into the audience to help remove people who heckled the show and interrupted the discussion. He recalled the episode as "an out-of-body experience."
"I think you should be shocking your audience," said Maher, who has recommended the crowds for "Real Time" be more like the people who pay to see him do standup around the country. Paying fans "are much less politically correct. I want to keep going with that," he said. "I'm not politically correct and the audience should know that. I've only been on TV for 22 years! I come pre-advertised. I think the brand is plain."
He does not seem eager to get rid of the live broadcast, no matter the potential for hiccups. "If you tape something, and then the next day something happens to undo what you were talking about, you look like an idiot," he explained.
Instead, Maher wants to push the envelope. Last year, he did a broadcast of "Real Time" from Washington, D.C., and then immediately followed it with a live hour of standup at the city's Warner Theater, also covered by HBO. He enlisted the help of Keith Olbermann and Michael Moore, who did live play by play as he made his way from where "Real Time" had been broadcast a few blocks away.
He likes the element of risk and thinks it gives"Real Time" more distinction. "What lends our show the element of danger is that we cover ideas the other shows would never go near," he said. "Other shows pretty much pander to their audience, and never say anything that upsets their audience or changes their way of thinking."
And while Maher scoffs at traditional evening newscasts - "All of the network newscasts blow," he remarked. "They are absolutely committing journalistic treason" - he realizes "Real Time" functions as a sort of news outlet. In each broadcast, he said: "I want to touch what I consider to be every important story that happened that week. I don't mean it's every story the media thought was important." But he also wonders if people who rely on just his program for the news are on the right information diet: "It's like saying I get all my nutrients from the Cheesecake Factory," he cracked.
The pace of "Real Time" takes its toll on the host. Maher estimated he spends about 12 hours a week honing the four-minute monolog that develops out of the show's "New Rules" segment. And he admits to being on edge as the program starts each week. "It's a show with so many different elements, and I have no time during it to react. I'm very nervous about that before I go out. " With commercials or taping, he might be able to stop after doing standup and gear up for the show's serious interviews or pause before debating his panel. "I don't do that," he said. "A bit of my gray hair is largely because of that element."
It's a fair bet Maher will return for more, and keeping the show live means offering viewers something they can't get anywhere else. "If you are doing something somebody else is doing, then the audience has a choice," Maher said. ""I want the audience to have no choice. If they want something like I'm doing, they have to come here."