NEW YORK — The news can be hard for viewers to take straight. Too confusing, too depressing, too wacky, too much.
That has made useful a breed of news presenters who soften the blow with wit and pungent insight on such programs as “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” the soon-departing “Colbert Report” and the recently arrived “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.”
Yet another mainstay on the laugh-while-staying-current watch list: HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” which on Friday resumes its 12th season after leaving its viewers in the information lurch for its August break.
Maher will spring back into action with a one-two punch. From his show’s Los Angeles home base, he travels to Washington, D.C., for a special live hour at 9 p.m. EDT from Sidney Harman Hall. His scheduled interview guests will be U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Jerry Seinfeld, and, as his round-table panelists, former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell.
As a bonus, Maher will announce the “winning loser” of his season-long “Flip a District” segment, a sly initiative soliciting viewers to nominate their favorite representatives to be voted out of office in November.
Then, as if all that weren’t enough, he will go straight into the evening’s Act II: Rushing several blocks west, he will show up at another venue, the Warner Theatre, for a live standup special aptly titled, “Bill Maher: Live From D.C.,” at 10 p.m.
On this, his 10th solo special for HBO, Maher is expected to cover such topics as the midterm elections, income inequality, the Republican psyche, why the Pope is an atheist and why tattoos are stupid.
And there likely will be other things, all dependent on the news. For Maher more than most in his business, comedy is a moving target. Saddling a wild world for a comic ride is what he does. It’s a two-fold mission: being funny while making sense of goings-on.
“For me, I think it always has to be both,” he says, “or it’s neither. If I don’t do both, I got nothing.”
Sure, he indulges in the passing irresistible potshots (like a fat joke targeting New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie). But those are random dalliances. His sights typically are set on more substantial matters. “Lindsay Lohan jokes?” he says with a chuckle. “Let everybody ELSE go there.”
Maher, 58, has been a busy standup since the late 1970s, and he scored as a TV host with “Politically Incorrect” (on Comedy Central, then ABC from 1993 to 2002) followed by “Real Time,” which premiered in 2003. That adds up to a lot of news alchemized into punchlines.
His material is highly perishable — both a bad thing and an advantage, he says.
“On the plane, I’m always working on my act,” he says.
On the other hand: “Comedians who do evergreens like ‘Take my wife, please’ or observational comedy — ‘Ooooo, the coffeepot!’ — have a much harder time turning over their material” without disappointing their fans. “I have no such hard time: My material turns itself over.”
Now Maher is facing a marathon run of material and onstage performance, all delivered live and (since this will appear on HBO) unrelieved by commercial breaks.
But he is likely to be champing to get there, back to work.
“I’m not a person who loves vacation time,” he says. “I don’t know what to do with it. And I’m not especially good at it.” Maher’s skills reside instead in getting real with the news.