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Maher getting back to roots with Pittsburgh stop

| Wednesday, July 6, 2016, 12:33 p.m.
Bill Maher hosts HBO's  'Real Time with Bill Maher' in Los Angeles. (AP)
Bill Maher hosts HBO's 'Real Time with Bill Maher' in Los Angeles. (AP)

Ranging from sneakily snarky to unmitigated nasty, Bill Maher is one of the most successful — and gleefully polarizing — comedians in the country. On Friday nights, 4 million tune in to watch the button-pushing “Real Time With Bill Maher,” HBO's mix of comedy and social-political debate that stirs up Maher haters as well as fans.

Some conservatives call him a knee-jerk liberal — or, just a jerk.

In mid-June, days after the Orlando nightclub mass murder, Maher told his viewers, “This tragedy was brought to you by guns and religion. … The answer is not to ban Muslims, the answer is to ask more of Muslims.”

Which quickly brought on this YouTube comment: “Bill Maher's anti-Muslim crap is getting unbearable.”

Maher has made a comfortable living entertaining and offending, bashing religion — most notably, with “Religulous,” his anti-religion documentary — and charging at hot-button topics. The comic's previous TV show, “Politically Incorrect,” was tossed off the air by ABC after Maher stated the 9/11 terrorists were not cowards.

“We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” he said, on air. “That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.”

In a recent phone interview from his Los Angeles office, Maher was asked if he had it to do over, would he change that wording?

“Nope,” he answers, without a beat. “I might change the timing. That (comment) was six days after 9/11.” Just the same, he added: “I was being real. That's what I do.”

This week, Maher will bring his unfiltered comedy back to Pittsburgh, scene of a pivotal moment in his career. Now a solid A-lister, he will draw a big crowd to Heinz Hall on July 8.

Thirty-six years ago, a brash young comic from New York was thrilled to be coming here to headline the Funny Bone.

“I've got one special memory of Pittsburgh,” Maher says. “It's the first great comedy club I ever worked. I started stand-up back in 1979. I was in New York at the same time as Paul Reiser, Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Larry David, Richard Lewis — we were all based in New York.

“The Pittsburgh comedy club was known to be the best club. Can I get good enough to get there?”

Shortly after landing well in Pittsburgh, Maher decided to move from New York to Los Angeles.

“This was 1979,” he recalls, “when Robin Williams had ‘Mork & Mindy' on TV, Freddie Prinze had done ‘Chico and the Man.' The idea among all us young comics was get an act together, then when you have an hour of clean material, move out to California, get seen on ‘The Tonight Show' and get a sitcom.”

And that's how it worked for Maher, at first. A shot on Johnny Carson's show led him to a series of TV comedies, including “Sara” (with Geena Davis and Bronson Pinchot), “Hard Knocks” and “Charlie Hoover” (with Sam Kinison and Tim Matheson). All were flops.

“It was never really what I was meant to do,” Maher says of acting on TV shows. Indeed, it's hard to picture the foul-mouthed, skewed comic pandering to the masses.

He found his calling in 1993, when “Politically Incorrect” hit Comedy Central. ABC later aired the show.

Maher insists he has no regrets about being booted by ABC. The firing led him to his current HBO show, now in its 14th year.

Even with the grind of putting out a weekly, topical show, Maher says he loves gettting back to his roots of stand-up comedy.

“I love it. It's fun,” he says. “When you start out, it's painful, very difficult. You're at a bar, you have to convince the audience to pay attention to you. No one knows who you are. You don't even know who you are.”

Now, everyone seems to know Maher, whether they love or hate him. Surely his most famous hater is Donald Trump. A few years ago, Maher mocked Trump's demand for Obama's birth certificate by offering to pay $5 million if Trump produced a birth certificate proving his father was not an orangutan.

Trump promptly released the birth certificate, and demanded Maher write a check. When the comedian laughed him off, Trump sued Maher.

Although Trump later dropped the lawsuit, what will happen if the subject of Maher's comic attacks becomes president?

“I have visions,” Maher says, with his trademark cackle, “of being in an orange jumpsuit in Guantanamo.”

Tom Scanlon is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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