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Bill Maher: Still aiming to displease

With an HBO stand-up special airing Saturday, the caustic comic sounds off on election-year politics, George Bush, and — his ”fave” — religion. Hide your deacons!

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”This is my eighth HBO special,” says comedian Bill Maher of The Decider, the all-new, live stand-up show he’s performing this Saturday on HBO at 10 p.m. EST. ”And two of them got Emmy nominations! So I’m hoping that I can lose another Emmy with this one.”

We got the Real Time With Bill Maher star on the phone to talk about this weekend’s live show at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston, George Bush, his regular gig (Real Time returns to HBO on Aug. 24), who he likes for president, and the already buzzed-about documentary on religion he’s shot with Borat director Larry Charles.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Real Time‘s been off the air since May. You been fine-tuning your stand-up set since then?
BILL MAHER: Yeah. I’ve been on the road trying to get it just right. I think it’s as tight as a gnat’s…rectum. [Laughs] Or whatever word we can use.

With a title like The Decider, it sounds like you’re going to take on President Bush in a big way.
Well, this is really my last shot at him. He’ll be out of office if I do another special, because it would be down the road, in 2009. And you know, when I was first critical of him, people were against me. He was a popular guy, even as far back as when he was running the first time. But I was not a fan, and I used to say so. I don’t think they liked that at ABC [which canceled Maher’s Politically Incorrect after he came under fire for remarks he made after 9/11]. And it’s sort of a little bit of a sweet payback that the country has turned around on that. I feel great that they’re all with me on the subject now. [Laughs]

Since you went on hiatus, he’s been in trouble again, on Iraq at least.
But ”Will he change?” is the question. And I promise you he won’t. And the reason I know that is because the other day during his press conference — did you see him talking about being loved? That’s the sign of death. Because when a president says, [imitates a Bush drawl] ”Sure, everybody’d like to be loved,” that means he’s already written off the present. See, he’s convinced himself that the decisions he’s making now — even though they’re getting him hated by everyone, including his own party — are going to be seen as brave decisions in, you know, like, 5 million years. Way down the road. That’s what a genius he is, you see. Not recognized in his own lifetime. He’s like the Van Gogh of presidents — never sold one in his lifetime, but wait!

What else is on your mind lately?
Everything! I don’t want people to think [the special] is just on Bush. I cover Iraq, prescription drugs, health, food, men, women, sex. What else? The environment. Immigration this year, big issue. And of course religion. My fave!

Which do you like doing better at this point, stand-up or Real Time?
You’re asking which one of my children I like better. You know, I guess the show is more like a day job. Which makes the stand-up more fun, because then it’s like my hobby, my mistress.

NEXT PAGE: ”We went everyplace from the Vatican to a truck-stop church in a trailer in South Carolina.”

When I watch Real Time, I wonder how often you are listening to someone on the panel talk and you’re thinking to yourself, Shut up, shut up, shut up, you’re droning on!
It does happen. Sometimes I interrupt them, but in general, I find it even more annoying that on other discussion shows, you can never get a sentence out. I do a lot of shows, as a guest, and often I can’t get a sentence in. If I had to choose, I’d rather be the one place on television that lets someone express a thought that takes more than 10 seconds [to voice]. Because trying to do that with Bill O’Reilly or even Chris Matthews, who I think is a great host — it’s very hard to finish a sentence on any of these people’s shows.

Who do you like for president?
I never endorse a candidate, but as an analyst, I’d say if the Democrats want to make sure they get one in the ”W” column, I think a John Edwards/Barack Obama ticket is a winner. Because it’s been proven over the last half century that only Southern Democrats are able to gain the White House. Edwards is a good candidate — he’s run before, he’s got the right ideas, I think he’s acceptable to the left wing, and he can still get votes in middle America. And Obama — look, he’s 45 years old. He’s only been a senator for a couple of years. That’s kind of a big leap to president. He’s creating excitement like the Democrats haven’t seen in a long time, but he can wait. To me, those two are a winning combination.

You think Al Gore will run?
I think Al Gore will only run if everyone else flames out. If there’s a desperate need because things go wrong with the primaries, or the party, or if he needs to be a white knight, I think that’s the only situation where he would get in.

What about the documentary about religion you’ve shot with Larry Charles? People are already talking about it.
It’s funny that everybody wants to know about this and there isn’t even a movie made yet. [Larry’s] cutting it right now. The 10-minute reel that we showed at Cannes caused such a stir there, [the movie] immediately sold to 20 different countries. And Lionsgate bought it just on the strength of [the reel]. And I must say, we came back from [shooting it on] the road, and it was a long, grueling trip for me. I’m not used to going overseas, and getting up at the crack of dawn to do a movie , but it was worth it. Although when I got back to America in February, to go back to my day job, I kind of forgot about it. And we shot hundreds and hundreds of hours. I didn’t know what the heck to expect when, finally around May, Larry showed me this 10-minute reel. But it was hysterical.

How many countries did you visit?
It seems like we went everywhere there was religion: Jerusalem, Vatican City, Salt Lake City. We went everyplace from the Vatican to a truck-stop church in a trailer in South Carolina. We really covered the gamut.

Because Larry Charles filmed it, I picture you playing Borat — only you’re not playing anyone at all.
Yeah. I mean, it’s hard not to, I know. But no, I was just my congenial, charming self. [Laughs]

Are people going to be offended?
I certainly hope so.

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