A comic in the lion's den Talk show: Bill Maher brings the irreverent "Politically Incorrect" to Washington, his bottomless source of material.

November 06, 1997|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

For a comedian who thrives on skewering politicians from both sides of the ideological spectrum, visiting Washington is either a chance to tap a treasure trove of material or an opportunity for your enemies to rip you to shreds.

For Bill Maher, host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect," it's decidedly the former with just a dash of the latter mixed in.

"I always have a good time there," says Maher, whose show began a four-night stint at Washington's Ford's Theater on Tuesday. "I feel like they're the ones who don't like me. I take that as a badge of honor."

Maher's good time kicked off Tuesday with a panel that included Republican U.S. Rep. Sonny Bono, Health and Human Services cvcretary Donna Shalala, conservative editor William Kristol and rocker Ted Nugent ("Cat Scratch Fever"). As always, the show's guests were encouraged to speak freely, spar with each other and generally say anything that came into their heads -- a format that, when it works, brings out some of television's most thought-provoking and entertaining discussion.

"Politically Incorrect," which began life on cable's Comedy Central, also offers Maher a forum for his own politics -- probably more Republican than Democrat, although he's not above tweaking both sides.

Maher says he picks each show's topics of discussion any time from two days to two minutes beforehand, paying attention not only to current events, but also to the hot buttons his guests may be most likely to press.

Tuesday's taping started off slowly, as no one was able, or willing, to warm to Maher's first topic, a Maine ballot referendum on allowing the mentally handicapped to vote.

As the four guests shifted uncomfortably in their seats, Maher read a newspaper article on the initiative, eliciting laughter from the audience but little reaction from his panel.

Technical problems, however, kept that opening segment off the air (the microphones weren't working properly). What home viewers saw Tuesday night were discussions of:

Whether the Republican party was falling victim to its extreme far-right wing (Nugent blamed the media for blowing things out of proportion, while Shalala praised the GOP for doing such a fine job of wounding itself).

Whether Clinton was co-opting the Republican agenda (everyone, including Maher, said he was -- except for Shalala, who insisted he was simply seeking a middle ground safe from ideological extremes).

Whether a New Jersey town was going too far by banning the name "Halloween" because of its religious connotations (all agreed it was).

When it was over, the verbal combatants all parted friends, wrapping their arms around each other and posing for a group portrait. The show may not have been as contentious as some -- no one seemed willing to say everything that was on his or her mind -- but the audience seemed happy.

Patti Shea, a graduate student at American University, came away particularly impressed with Shalala. Of course, she was a Shalala partisan going in.

"She is probably the biggest asset President Clinton has in his cabinet," said Shea. "I think she fared very well against three Republican men. She held her ground, she stood firm and stayed loyal to the president, as she always has. You go, girl."

David Solomon, visiting from Silver Spring, thought Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, came off best.

"I'm more sympathetic to the liberal side," Solomon said, "but Bill Kristol, I thought, was one of the most sensible people on the panel. He was more conservative than me, probably, but I think I'd agree with him the most."

Bono, who was making his first appearance on the show, seemed pleased with his performance, which included a dig at President Clinton's famous claim to have smoked marijuana without inhaling.

"What they wanted was some substance and some entertainment, a tough combination to do simultaneously," the former entertainer said while enjoying a post-show snack. "I thought for the most part they got what they wanted. I like to be humorous, and I was trying to see if I could slip in some substance in between."

Maher, who'll be bringing his stand-up routine to George Washington University tonight, wasn't nearly as satisfied.

"One of my problems with guests is, sometimes people do not live up to what they write or say," Maher explained. "Bill Kristol is very controversial in print; he really backed off. You've got to walk it like you talk it, speak it like you print it.

"Sometimes, people have to be reminded that this is 'Politically Incorrect,' " Maher said after filming some promotional spots for ABC's Washington affiliate (in Baltimore, the show airs weeknights at 12: 35 a.m. on WMAR, Channel 2). "You're not running for office on this show. Stop being careful and speak your mind. Of course, in Washington they're so programmed to say things that have no meaning, so that they can't be controversial, and that's not what I want."

Bill Maher

What: Comedy concert with Bill Maher, host of "Politically Incorrect"

Where: George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St. N.W.

When: 9: 30 tonight

Tickets: $10-$15

Call: 410-481-SEAT

Pub Date: 11/06/97

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