In concert he is, paradoxically, more relaxed and intense. Freed from the five-minute monologue and the host's chair, he moves with a flexible prowl. He plays with and off his fans, without pandering to them. He fearlessly reacts to whatever is happening in the moment.
Three years after he filled the Lyric, Maher brings his stage act to the Hippodrome at 8 p.m. tonight. No doubt he'll be alert and on his toes. Standup is his true love. His one tenet of faith is keeping it real.
In "But I'm Not Wrong," a concert that HBO broadcast live in February, then released on DVD this fall, Maher noted that a Raleigh, North Carolina audience would have to drive 300 miles to find a theater playing Maher's 2008 movie "Religulous" — or to locate an abortion doctor. Maher is the comedian as truth-teller. He turns his disbelief at superstition, prejudice and propaganda into a killer-tickler style. He mines his anger and emerges with nuggets of sardonic wit or knock-your-Birkenstocks-off outrage.
"I feel everything springs from standup," Maher said from his "Real Time" office in Los Angeles a month ago. "I've been doing this for 30 years. It's probably the only relationship I've maintained my entire adult life."
Maher confessed, "At the start it was very difficult. It's like building gondolas: you don't really get good at it until you've been doing it for 20 years." He favors concert stages because for 90 minutes they belong to him alone. "It's pure. There's no guest, no clock, nothing between you and the audience." For Maher, standup is an art form, "and that art form is making people laugh, over and over again, for an hour or two, until they can take no more. And I love that challenge."
Maher is at ease on live comedy's high wire.
"I think in a lot of different disciplines people succeed when they make it look easy," he said. "It's like an outfielder sort of drifting under a fly ball. Even though he's racing to get it, it still looks like he has it all the way. You want to take all the tension off the people who paid to see the show and be entertained. You don't want them to be worrying about what you're doing."
He feels his live audience is unrestrained and unpredictable compared to his studio audience. "There is something about television that makes the people in the studio a lot more politically correct. They still ooh and aah about stuff that I don't think is all that controversial or daring."
He never repeats any TV material on stage and he retires every stage act once he shoots it for HBO. Part of what makes each Maher concert new is his spontaneous response to novel settings. He loves to go where he hasn't been before — or where people wouldn't expect to see him.
"Progressives may be a minority in those towns, but they do live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Greenville, North Carolina, or Omaha, Nebraska," he said. He recently tried to identify the stupidest states, but he no longer divides the country into red states and blue states. "There are areas that are more conservative, but that only makes it better when I go there."
Unlike his peers, Maher doesn't hesitate to turn a joke against the audience — he said he doesn't care if he's booed. "There's not a problem in this country that you can't trace back to people being stupid, lazy or greedy," he said. "We were just trying to make the point on the show that everyone is screaming about the deficit and why Obama doesn't do more about jobs. Well, the two things people hate the most are the stimulus package and TARP. But without them, unemployment wouldn't be 9.5 percent; it would probably be 12, 13 or 14 percent. The American people only vote on how they feel. There's not a lot of thinking that goes into it."
During the thick of the mid-term election, Maher made headlines himself. Footage of Christine O'Donnell on "Politically Incorrect" – notoriously, a clip of her admitting that she dabbled in witchcraft – became one of the season's lowdown highlights. Maher followed with the first TV coverage of Ohio congressional candidate Rich Iott's controversial hobby – dressing up as a member of Hitler's Waffen SS for a Panzer Division war-reenactment group.
"I never set out to be someone making the news; I wanted to comment on it," Maher said in October. "But I was the only one who had the Christine O'Donnell tapes. I like Christine but when she says, 'I'm you' – no, she isn't. Actually America is more like me. America is not the tea-baggers. 96 per cent of Americans in a recent poll said they think social security and Medicare are important. Sometimes I feel a little bad that Christine is having such a rough time of it. Then that feeling quickly passes, when I imagine she can be the 41s Republican senator and block a lot of legislation."
As far as Rich Iott goes, Maher said, "I never intended to be the Elie Wiesel of my generation. It's insane. Finding Nazis in Ohio!? Not that he's a Nazi – let's say he dabbled in fascism. It's crazy. I've never seen a cast of characters like we've had in this election. They make Bush look like a moderate."
Maher has focused his ire primarily on the Republican Party, but only in the last dozen years. "When I started doing 'Politically Incorrect,' in 1993, the Republican Party was not what it is now. The Republican Party became Joe Billy Bob's Confederate Gun Club. The left moved to the center and the right became a bunch of religious lunatics, flat-earthers and Civil War re-enactors. I used to give Republicans a lot more credit: That's when we had people like Bob Dole, who championed a health-care bill in 1994 that looks a lot like the one Obama passed. Flash-forward 16 years, and Republicans would consider him a socialist. Compared to Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Jan Brewer, and Carl Paladino, Bush looks like Bertrand Russell!"
Maher once quipped that his greatest fear was "Waking up after a sleepover at John Waters' house and finding my sleeping bag isn't zipped up the same way as when I passed out." With a laugh, he declined to comment further. But he's anxious to get back to Baltimore. He knows the audience here will happily follow him out on a limb. "Baltimore was my first out-of-town gig, in 1980. So it will be my 30th anniversary appearance."
If you go
Bill Maher performs 8 p.m. Friday at the Hippodrome at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St. A limited number of tickets are still available through ticketmaster or the Hippodrome box office. Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.