Some comics parlay their routines into sitcoms and movies; Bill Maher chose unconventionally and became a political gadfly. After building his reputation for biting, unsparing humor in an '80s standup act, Maher entered the late-night television arena as host of Politically Incorrect, a raucous celebrity forum that originated on Comedy Central in 1993 and later ran on ABC until 2002.
On the show, which presented an unlikely foursome of celebrities and pundits debating national issues, Maher was the "moderator" -- though the self-defined Libertarian rarely refrained from excoriating guests he disagreed with before cutting to commercial. Maher's Libertarian status has been challenged (Salon did an entire piece informing Maher that he was "more or less a liberal"), but his ability to incite discussion has never been in question. The success of the show led to a 1996 book tie-in, Does Anybody Have a Problem with That?, which offered highlights from Maher's unfettered commentary targeting everything from AIDS ribbons to Howard Stern to "convenient feminism." Here's his response to secondhand smoking complaints: "It only seems fair that if I can put out my cigarette, you can tell your kid to shut up. Because if you don't tell your kid to shut up, the next time, when you're not looking, I'm gonna give him a cigarette." Maher's fans like his willingness to sacrifice tact and decorum for the sake of sheer honesty; like P. J. O'Rourke, he has an ability to make even his ideological opponents laugh.
The Politically Incorrect book wasn't Maher's first; he wrote a novelization of his standup experience, True Story, in 1994. The blunt, sex-spiked account of comedy club life is not for the squeamish, but it does deliver a realistic portrait. Of the five comedians who inhabit Maher's novel, the New York Times wrote, "They are not deep or refined characters, and the wit is not subtle or dry, but they all have charm, even if it comes from a rueful acknowledgment of their fecklessness and their failings."
Ironically, the same equal-opportunity-offender approach that made Maher such a hit may have been what finally did in his show. True to form, Maher managed to anger many even in America's all-for-one climate following the September 11 attacks. The week following the tragedy, Maher said during an argument on his show: "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." The resulting tempest in a teapot was enough to make advertisers Sears and FedEx pull out of the show, and it was cancelled shortly thereafter.
With When You Ride Alone, You Ride With bin Laden, Maher did not abandon his comedic tenor -- his promotional tour included stand-up engagements -- or his contrarian views. But he tempered the sarcasm with sincerity. "I can't deny it, I do hope you check out this book," he wrote in a note to readers on his web site. "I feel like it's the first attempt to indicate to people stuff they can actually DO to help fight the big terrorism war, so we can, you know -- win." Maher also said he donated part of the proceeds from his book to the USO and Operation USA.
Maher told US Weekly in 2000 that True Story was "the book I have in me. I'm very proud of it, but I could never write another one." This turned out to be not quite true, though it seems unlikely he'll try another novel. After his show ended, Maher told the Los Angeles Press Club (which gave him its 2002 President's Award) that though he wouldn't seek another show like Politically Incorrect, "I'm definitely still going to be talking about issues. I'm still going to be a comedian. I'm sure I'll still be controversial, but it won't be exactly me and four people every night." When You Ride Alone fulfills Maher's prophecy, and confirms his continuing ability to start conversations -- or arguments.
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Maher writes a monthly column for Details magazine.
The title of Maher's 2002 book When You Ride Alone, You Ride With bin Laden comes from a World War II poster he saw that read, "When you ride alone, you ride with Hitler -- Join a car-sharing club today." The book contained 33 spoofs on the wartime propaganda posters that are being offered for sale, including one that reads, "Put a flag on your car...it's literally the least you can do."
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