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NIGHT MOVES

BILL MAHER’S AUDACIOUS CREATION POLITICALLY INCORRECT MIGHT HAVE RULED AT COMEDY CENTRAL, BUT AT ABC IT’S UP AGAINST LATE NIGHT’S BIGGEST GUNS. CAN AMERICA’S SMARTEST TALK SHOW–AND ITS PRICKLY STAR–SURVIVE LENO AND LETTERMAN?

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They sit face-to-face, the two badly behaving men of the moment. Politically Incorrect host Bill Maher and his guest, porn king Larry Flynt. ”I’ve seen your antics,” warns Maher, referring to the judge-baiting tactics depicted in The People vs. Larry Flynt. ”Don’t pull any of that Supreme Court s — – with me. Don’t throw any oranges.”

No fruit is launched. But when the cameras roll on this one-on-one chat (airing Jan. 22), the Hustler publisher does toss out enough naughty sound bites to faze the normally shockproof talk-show host. ”I miss not being able to do it doggy-style,” drawls Flynt from his gold-plated wheelchair. Maher gazes into the camera, his mind on the inevitable battles with ABC censors. ”Gee,” he deadpans, ”I wish we were still on cable.”

Too bad, Bill. For, as endless promos have heralded, Politically Incorrect has moved on up from the suburbs of Comedy Central to the dee-luxe heights of ABC, where it debuted, following Nightline, on Jan. 6. Critically, picking up Politically Incorrect was a no-brainer for ABC. The three-year-old show — which throws together an unlikely mix of celebs and pundits to form bizarre four-person panels (Sen. Arlen Specter and cult film director John Waters trading thoughts on teen crime, for example) — has earned oceans of praise. In terms of programming, however, this could be the riskiest late-night move since Jay Leno invited Bobcat Goldthwait and his lighter onto The Tonight Show.

”Politically Incorrect may not be mainstream America’s cup of tea,” concedes Maher, 40, whose sensitivity-trampling program will now go head-to-head with established titans The Tonight Show and Late Show With David Letterman. ”But with the kind of base we’ve built, I don’t think we’ll go away. I mean, there are a lot of f — -ing channels out there.”

A veteran comic with an acerbic, envelope-pushing stand-up act (he made Magic Johnson jokes, for Pete’s sake), Maher finally hit his stride with the show he brought to Comedy Central in 1993. ”I think what held Maher back early in his career was the sense that he was too mean,” says The WB’s head of programming, Garth Ancier, who helped launch Fox’s The Late Show. But with PI, says Ancier, Maher’s vinegar is watered down by four guests. ”This is the perfect format for him.”

With topics designed to outrage (”Politicians Should Steal a Little”), Maher’s unapologetically cranky hosting (he can make Don Rickles look sensitive: ”So many adopted kids search for their parents. Hey, take a hint!”), and brazenly over-the-top guests (Sandra Bernhard once spit on a right-winger), PI quickly attracted a loyal fan base and in 1996 tied for the cable channel’s highest-rated original program. So when word leaked that Maher was being wooed by ABC in September 1995, Comedy Central was, naturally, bummed. ”There was a lot of drinking the day that Bill left,” says the channel’s senior VP of programming, Eileen Katz. She’s joking, although her network did smartly refuse to let the host out of his contract in time for the November presidential elections, as ABC had wanted: Maher’s critically lauded campaign coverage — arguably the best on any network — ended up increasing PI’s ratings by 67 percent over the previous year’s.