'My day job'
Bill Maher: Proud to be 'Politically Incorrect'
(CNN) -- "A lot of people hate me. It takes a toll on the nervous system. And that's not something I enjoy."
But it's the price Bill Maher says he pays for his career success as creator and host of ABC's "Politically Incorrect."
"Anyone who doesn't hold back is always going to be hated," he says. "This is an overly sensitive society. One way I've often defined 'politically incorrect' is as the elevation of sensitivity over truth."
Here's another way Maher says he defines the term that titles his show: "Just honest. To me, being 'politically incorrect' means the opposite of being political -- which means to spin everything. That's all it's ever meant to me. It's never meant liberal or conservative. It means honest."
Honestly, Maher (pronounced "Mar") has done pretty well by it. His "Politically Incorrect" -- seen at 12:05 a.m. EST after "Nightline" -- has won four Cable ACE Awards (best entertainment host and best talk show) and has been nominated for nine Emmys.
Maher says the demographics of his most appreciative audience members "skew older. Because they sort of get that view that the world is nuts and everybody is narcissistic. People in their 20s aren't bothered by this because it's the only world they've ever known -- where everybody is politically correct."
On each installment of the show he developed at Comedy Central, Maher holds court as host-provocateur. He establishes the topic for the evening and brings together high-profile conversationalists -- some political careerists, others from entertainment or sports or law. He then states an issue in a way inflammatory enough to set off a debate. It's a knack, Maher says.
"I don't know how I do that," he says. "But every European who lives in this country watches 'Politically Incorrect.' I'm not kidding. Europe, of course, is a cafe society and my show is a cafe show. Europeans are brought up in homes where people sit at the dinner table with the family and talk about things. They love to argue and they love to talk about things of substance."
Clearly, so does he. But one reason Maher's career flourishes may be that his sincerity shows in his arguments.
"I do a lot of work for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and I'm on their board. And the other night I did Jay's show" -- that's Jay Leno, "The Tonight Show."
"Just by the luck of the draw, they had an animal act first," Maher says. "And I had to come out and pretty much tank my whole set because I had to say, 'I'm doing this show in protest.'
"Animals are not in show business. I was listening to the tigers in their cages backstage -- they didn't like it, they don't want to be in show business. The more we perpetuate the idea that it's good for them to be trotted out like this, the more things aren't going to get better.
"I totally alienated the crowd. The crowd loves animal acts. But as an officer of PETA, I couldn't avoid saying something."
'In your own skin'
As a kid, Maher says, he wasn't so outspoken, at least about comedy, which was "all I wanted to do."
"I worshipped Johnny Carson, Alan King, George Carlin. But never told anybody, not even my parents -- I was afraid of being mocked.
"After college, I lived in New York in a 'rent-free' situation, lived in the maid's room of these rich people's apartment, took their kids to school.
"But at least I could see the clubs every night. The worst part of a comedian's career is that first year or two, trying to get on stage."
Maher says the seeds were planted then for his "be more cynical" line of comedy (the title of his fifth HBO special last year), but "I don't think you know who you are for many years." The standup comedy and acting he once pursued as his primary work now have become hobbies for him, Maher says; the show is his main event.
"It's sort of what it means when they say life begins at 40. You don't really get it and feel comfortable in your own skin until you're around that age. Now, I can't imagine anything I'd rather do as my day job."
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