Photo by Sam Jones

Like a lot of television personalities (Ted Koppel is the most prominent example), Bill Maher has narrow shoulders and an unusually large head. On his new talk show, Real Time With Bill Maher (HBO, Fridays, 11:30 p.m.), his guests have included the political columnist Arianna Huffington, who has unusually large hair, Fox News reporter Monica Crowley, who has unusually fake hair, and humorist Larry Miller, who has an all-too-usual lack of hair, not to mention a medium-size head and a reluctance to use four-letter words in front of a camera. (On HBO, this makes him a freak.) There have also been appearances by right-leaning comedian Dennis Miller, who crams so many pop-culture references into his jokes he's panting for breath by the time he gets to the punch line, and left-wing cartoonist Ted Rall, who looks and sounds rather like the president of a small communist nation. His favorite word in the English language, I'm guessing, is “Nyet.”

Predictably, the invasion of Iraq has given Maher's guests plenty to argue about. Maher himself had been open about his opposition to the war, but once it was under way he invited some veterans on the show and made nice. No doubt HBO was relieved: A few days after 9/11, when he was still hosting his old show on ABC, Politically Incorrect, he brought a political firestorm down on his head by disputing the notion that the al Qaeda terrorists were “cowards.” (“We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” he said. “That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.”) During the ensuing controversy, advertisers pulled out of the show, and before long Politically Incorrect was dead in the water.

The whole affair was absurd — Maher had every right to say what he said — but in the end it may have done him some good, since Politically Incorrect was getting stale anyway. His new show, while an improvement, is a mishmash. At times, when weighty matters are being discussed, it's like Charlie Rose with cursing, name calling and jokes. But there's also an opening monologue, along with weekly set pieces and guest slots for comedians and musical acts that tilt it in the direction of the traditional late-night talk show. As a result, the program has a slightly schizoid feel: It wants to be serious, but not so serious that it will drive away viewers. Maher looks as if he's slightly dissatisfied with the arrangement, but then, being dissatisfied is part of his shtick.

Maher has never been a particularly likable comedian or host, in part because he feels quite real for a guy who spends so much time on television. There's something strangely naked about his long, pale face, and both the suspicion in his eyes and the anger in his sneer feel authentic. You look at him and think: He'd be the same off camera as on. Perhaps that's why he always seems so apologetic when he's going through his monologue. It's as if he's saying, I'm not really a comedian, I just play one on TV.

But even if he isn't the world's most lovable guy, Maher's a lot less annoying than some of the people he surrounds himself with. (Which is clever of him.) When he sits down with die-hard ideologues like actress Janeane Garofalo and conservative talk-show host Michael Graham, he soon assumes the proportions of pure, sweet reason, simply because he's flexible enough to talk to both of them while they're far too deeply attached to their respective positions to do anything but yell at each other. Half the country's red, the other half is blue, and at moments like these, Bill Maher, ambassador to late-night America, is purple.

The real problem with the new show, in other words, isn't Maher himself, it's his guests. “You have to have a penis to enjoy watching this war,” sneered Arianna Huffington on a recent episode — a strange thing to say given the number of women fighting in it. “Saddam Hussein didn't steal my vote,” grumbled cartoonist Aaron McGruder, comparing the Iraqi leader with George W. Bush. “One was not democratically elected, and the other was not democratically elected.” When Maher took issue with this statement — “One is evil incarnate who has personally killed thousands of people . . .” he began saying — McGruder finished his sentence for him. “. . . And the other is Saddam Hussein.”

Well, it was a deft response, and it got a lot of cheers from the audience. But surely, in all of Los Angeles, Maher can find more interesting guests than this. After all, it's not like he's dumb. In fact, during a segment in which he interviewed Joe Scarborough of MSNBC Reports about politics, it was clear that Maher was better-informed than Scarborough. In which case, why bother interviewing him in the first place?

Following Maher's program on HBO is Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, or, as I've always thought of it, Def to the West Poetry, now starting up its third season and presumably in a triumphal mood after Simmons' success with his theatrical version of the show, which opened on Broadway to wildly enthusiastic reviews last November. Most of the performers are talented, and on occasion they're funny, but I've always found this to be a depressing program. “Def” poetry too often means aggrieved poetry, in which hyphenated bards of assorted skin tones take turns presenting their alliterative, rap-inflected and calculatedly ethnocentric world-views with varying degrees of hostility and anger. In some cases, ethnicity can be shaped to suit the politics of the performer. According to The New York Times, Suheir Hammad, one of the stars of the Broadway show and of this episode, “describes herself as a black woman who has become a Palestinian.” But, as far as I can tell, she was never black at all. She's a Palestinian-American who's beautiful, well-educated, and a frequent recipient of awards, grants and residencies. Naturally, she's angry as hell about it. Being angry pays the bills.

One thing you have to give the Def poets credit for, and that is that they write poems with a discernible subject matter. Whereas the average New Yorker poem is as wispy as a smoke ring, these guys definitely come in with a topic. A poet called Black Ice recited an intricately rhymed poem about bringing up a child in the midst of a strained marriage (“For my kids, there ain't nuthin' I won't go through,” it ended); Helena D. Lewis wrote about bad breath (I fast-forwarded through that one); and Daniel Beatty recited a dialogue between his inner “nigger” and his well-spoken, college-educated “nerd” exterior. Predictably, the “nigger” KO'd the nerd: You're not going to get very far on Def Poetry Jam singing the praises of Harvard.

As it happened, my favorite poem of the evening wasn't on Def Poetry at all. It was on Real Time With Bill Maher, during a comedy routine by Jeffrey Ross. “This is a poem I wrote during a very stressful time in my life,” Ross told the audience, sounding like a suitably earnest child of the therapy culture, “but I think the sentiment behind it still holds true today. I hope you like it. This poem is called 'Where the Fuck Are My Keys?'”

Then, accompanied by some tinkling cocktail-lounge piano music, Ross began to read:

Where the fuck are my keys?
Seriously, where the fuck are my keys?
Shit. Fuck. Fuck. Shit.
I'm not playing, okay? Where the fuck are those motherfucking . . .
Never mind, I got 'em, they're right here.

Like most standup poetry, it doesn't work on the page, but at least it was (a) funny, and (b) self-deprecating. That's something.

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