In a world where snarky political pundits like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and John Oliver command some of the highest TV ratings, Bill Maher enters his 12th season of "Real Time" on HBO as nonplussed by the competition and his own controversies as ever.
"Controversy comes from being able to say what you think and not caring about offending the audience if that's not what they think," he said. "And that's what other shows do not want to do. They only tell their audience what they already believe."
Telling an audience only what they want to hear is the antithesis of the Maher comedy philosophy. The brash 58-year-old has been on record calling Sarah Palin a particularly strong word for the female anatomy. He has been booted from ABC over the use of the word "coward" to describe the 9/11 terrorists. He also smokes a lot of weed and thinks you should, too.
In some ways, Mr. Maher has been preparing for this role as crass, outrageous liberal loudspeaker his entire life.
"My family did talk about politics. It was always around in the house. My father was a very witty guy. You see your father make his friends laugh as a kid and you want to emulate that."
But, it wasn't until after college, after receiving an English degree from Cornell University, that he even attempted to get up on stage.
"I was such a shy kid. ... Kids today have so much confidence. I have kids come up to me like, 'Hey, I'm going to be on your show!' I never had that kind of confidence at 19," Maher said.
Despite the characteristic shyness of his early days, Mr. Maher always knew that comedy was his one calling in life.
"I always wanted to be a comedian. Even when I was little, that was my goal. I wanted to be a combination of Johnny Carson and Robert Klein."
With his role models set and his confidence slowly growing, his parents were passively supportive of their son's ambitions, as long as they didn't have to support him financially. Thankfully, while he strengthened his comedy chops, he made ends meet being a bit of a local herbalist.
"Thank God for selling pot," Maher said. "Otherwise, I never would've been able to sustain myself."
After years of slinging bags of hash, Mr. Maher made his pipe dream come true. He appeared on the "Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" 30 times. His movie "Religulous" is still relevant and memorable. His long-running HBO show "Real Time" regularly sparks intelligent conversation and lively debate on the most controversial of issues.
" 'Politically Incorrect' was a much sillier show. 'Real Time' being only on once a week, you can just put out a better product. You can work on it all week. 'Politically Incorrect' was a deliberately designed train wreck, like the 1990s themselves."
The success of "Real Time" and the intelligence of its guests is a point of pride for Mr. Maher. And his stand-up show, of course, never fails to bring down the house.
So no, Mr. Maher does not play nice with guests like Jon Stewart and he doesn't have the affable, slightly bewildered British charm of John Oliver. He does not remove himself with an alter ego like Stephen Colbert. He is not a charming goofball like late-night hosts Jimmy Fallon or Conan O'Brien, and yet he's not as raging as Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck. He couches his politics in the sharpest of one-liners, takes politics seriously but comedy even more seriously and, most importantly, is always honest.
"I'm not interested in trivia. Never have been. I'm interested in national affairs," Maher said. "I'm interested in news. I'm interested in politics. Religion. Real stuff."
Alexis Wilkinson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1581, on Twitter at @OhGodItsAlexis.