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Controversial comedian Bill Maher was known as the driving force behind edgy panel discussion shows "Politically Incorrect" (Comedy Central, 1993-96; ABC 1997-2002) and "Real Time with Bill Maher" (HBO, 2003- ). He eventually developed into one of the top political comedians of the 1990s and beyond, bringing the much-needed format of open political debate and a wide array of viewpoints to the TV airwaves. The comedian's personal approach - broaching taboo subjects or critiquing long-revered institutions - however, was the center of the proceedings, with Maher seemingly offending viewers, networks, policymakers and advertisers at every turn. For all the outcry surrounding his controversial points of view, Maher did instigate valuable debates on such critical topics as the war in Iraq and the Bush administration - and through his show, as well as stand-up specials and humorous books, helped present the issues of the day in a digestible format for the masses.
Bill Maher was born on Jan. 20, 1956, in New York City, NY, but he and his older sister were raised in River Vale, NJ. Their mother was a quiet, serious nurse with a Jewish background, while their father was a boisterous Irish-Catholic newsman who worked as a broadcast announcer and editor at WOR and NBC, among others. News was always an important part of the household, and the family not only listened to Bill Maher Sr. on the radio, but enjoyed discussing current events at the dinner table. Maher Jr. was book-smart and forever trying to make teachers laugh, but he was shy around other kids, eschewing joining sports teams and other group activities. By the time he was 10 years old, he had decided that he wanted to become a comic. He used to sneak down to the basement to watch Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show" (NBC, 1952- ) and began taping each program with a tape recorder to study them. When a teacher suggested Maher audition to host a school talent show, he recycled the jokes, got big laughs, and came off stage all fired up for a career as a comedian.
Maher did not let on to his parents, however, and after graduating from Pascack High School in Montvale, he became an English major at Cornell University. He began to try his hand at stand-up, performing at such starter venues as a Chinese restaurant in Paramus, alongside then-high school student Eddie Murphy. The summer between his Junior and senior year in college, he performed at an amateur night at the renowned comedy club Catch a Rising Star in New York and scored so well with a Yankees scandal joke, that he was asked to return. Graduating from Cornell in 1978, he headed to New York, where he became a fixture at Catch, joining future top names like Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser as they too began working their way up the entertainment ladder. From the start, Maher's routine always included a cutting take on current events. After several years of regular appearances, he was offered a job as the club emcee three nights a week. One night he was scouted by someone from "The Tonight Show" and offered a spot on the show. After nailing a joke about being half Catholic and half Jewish, he won over his idol, Johnny Carson.
At this point, Maher held similar career goals as his fellow stand-ups: make a name for himself on stage, appear regularly on Carson, and land a deal for his own sitcom. So despite the fact that he had never displayed an interest in acting, he accepted an offer to play a cynical working class stiff in the glaringly bad Mr. T feature film, "DC Cab" (1983). After making several more appearances on Carson, he moved to L.A. in 1983, where he began breaking into the city's stand-up scene. He spent the next several years acting in TV pilots that never saw the light of day and films that never should have - i.e. "Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death" (1989) among them.
By 1992, Maher had a string of screen credits and substantial respect among his peers as a stand-up comedian. He even had a house in Bel Air. But he still had not found the best medium for his particular brand of topical, cynical comedy. A late night talk show might have seemed like the obvious solution, but Maher's experiences on "The Tonight Show" - where his material was meticulously reviewed word by word and his banter with the host was scripted - turned him off. It was too pre-packaged for a comedian who thrived on spontaneous debates and, ultimately, like his father, just wanted to tell the truth. "The Tonight Show" would not even let him joke about Ronald Reagan but thankfully there were places like HBO's "One Night Stand" series, for which Maher taped his first stand-up special in 1992.
But the real solution to Maher's career quandary came later that year when he was asked to co-host an election night special with political pundit Al Franken, for the then-fledgling network, Comedy Central. The Comedy brass were impressed with Maher, and when he pitched them his idea for an unscripted political roundtable show, they signed on the dotted line, thereby saving the world from having to endure any more of his acting. "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" debuted on Comedy Central in 1993 and its blend of pop entertainment and political punditry caught on quickly. Maher described it as "'The McLaughlin Group' on acid."
With its toppled Greek columns evoking the ancient art of debate, the show featured Maher as the provocative moderator of a panel of four guests culled from different backgrounds - including musicians, authors, comedians, elected officials, etc. - and different political leanings. The show's fascinating, unpredictable blend of "party guests" and the controversial host's outspoken critique of conservative politicians, corporate welfare, and organized religion - peppered with his loud championing of animal rights and marijuana legalization - made for a riveting show, to say the least.
In 1996, "Politically Incorrect" relocated to Los Angeles where Maher taped his second stand-up special for HBO, "The Golden Goose Special." Later in the year ABC picked up "Politically Incorrect," positioning it after "Nightline" on its late-night schedule. Maher marked the passing of an era by releasing a collection of memorable moments from the show's Comedy Central run, "D s Anybody Have a Problem with That? Politically Incorrect's Greatest Hits" (1997). In its new time slot and network, the show frequently bested Jay Leno and David Letterman in the ratings in certain markets, racking up an impressive 11 nominations to add to the two Cable Ace awards it had earned at Comedy Central.
But even as Maher delivered solid ratings, the network grew uneasy over the host's brazen "incorrectness." Early in 2001, there was an outcry when Maher likened dogs to retarded children. But remarks Maher made after September 11th, regarding terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center - he challenged the common refrain that the terrorists were "cowards" and remained critical of President George W. Bush before it was popular to do so - pushed the network and sponsors too far. They ultimately decided to cancel the show in 2002, amidst cries of foul from the Maher camp and all free-speech lovers everywhere. That same year, Maher released When You Ride Alone, You Ride with Bin Laden, (2002), a bestseller that showcased World War II propaganda-style posters to address the issues surrounding the war in Iraq. The title referred to a famous World War II slogan that inferred that the single car driver, wasteful with fuel, was essentially aiding the enemy - a relevant message for contemporary times.
Maher was not off the air for long - he retreated to long-time supporters HBO who launched "Real Time with Bill Maher," an hour-long, weekly version of the earlier format. This new incarnation relied more on serious, well-informed guests and also included satellite participants, an opening comedy sketch, and the popular recurring feature "New Rules." Freed of network censors, the show also enjoyed greater leeway with language and subject matter, something the host occasionally forgot as a frequent guest on other shows. Now considered a top liberal commentator of the times, Maher could be seen weighing in on "Larry King Live," "The Tonight Show," "The Late Late Show" (NBC, 1995- ), "The O'Reilly Factor" (Fox News, 1995- ), and countless others.
Maher and "Real Time" continued to incite outrage, with a Catholic League Annual Report on Anti-Catholicism naming Maher among the top offenders, and in 2005 Alabama Congressman Bachus calling for Maher's dismissal after a comment about military recruitment was perceived as demeaning. Maher's on-air Halloween costume in 2006, a likeness of recently deceased TV personality Steve Irwin with a stingray puncturing his chest, demonstrated that Maher had no intention of softening his trademarked approach to cultural commentary.
That same year, Maher made a slightly more meaningful advance in media when he began hosting Amazon Fishbowl, a 30-minute talk show accessible on the Amazon retail web site that became the first web-exclusive talk show on a major corporate website. Maher also began production on a full-length documentary about religion, teaming with renowned comic producer Larry Charles to travel the world and examine different religious traditions. The film, "Religulous" (2008), was a frank and pointed examination of the world's major religions through big news stories from recent years, from Muslim riots over Dutch cartoons to posting the Ten Commandments in public courthouses. It also focused on Maher's own transformation from God-fearing Catholic to unabashed agnostic. Shown at numerous festivals across the world, "Religulous" earned a respectful $12 million at the box office. Meanwhile, "Real Time" continued to offer sharp commentary and discussion, while earning several Emmy Award nominations throughout the years.
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Hosted the New York City comedy club Catch a Rising Star
Began appearing on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" (NBC) and "Late Night with David Letterman" (NBC)
Made film debut in "D.C. Cab"
Made TV debut as a series regular on the NBC sitcom "Sara"
Made TV-movie debut in "Club Med" (ABC)
Scored first lead role in the cult classic "Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death"
Hosted the short-lived CBS talk show "The Midnight Hour"
Made first appearance in a comedy special on HBO, as part of the network's "One Night Stand" series
Served as moderator of "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher" (aired on Comedy Central and later ABC), show was not renewed by ABC after he made a controversial on-air remark on Sept. 17, 2001, about the 9/11 terrorists
Premiered his second HBO special, "Bill Maher: Stuff That Struck Me Funny"
Appeared in the HBO special, "Bill Maher: The Golden Goose Special"
Aired the HBO special "Bill Maher: Be More Cynical" just months before the 2000 US presidential election
Wrote the book <i>When you ride ALONE you ride with bin Laden</i>; nominated for a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album
Made his Broadway debut in "Bill Maher: Victory Begins at Home" (sixth stand-up special to air on HBO), received a Tony nomination
Hosted the weekly HBO talk show, "Real Time with Bill Maher"; earned an Emmy (2010) nomination for Outstanding Variety, Music Or Comedy Series
Joined as a contributing blogger at <i>The Huffington Post</i>
Headlined the HBO Comedy Special Event, "Bill Maher: I'm Swiss"
Hosted an internet-exclusive talk show on Amazon.com entitled "Amazon Fishbowl"
Appeared in his eighth HBO stand-up comedy special, "Bill Maher: The Decider"
Produced and starred in the documentary, "Religulous"
Earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Variety, Music Or Comedy Special and Outstanding Writing For A Variety, Music Or Comedy Special (for the HBO comedy special "Bill Maher...But I'm Not Wrong")
Produced and appeared in the TV documentary "Bill Maher: Live from D.C."