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On a Friday evening in a studio on the CBS lot just north of the Fairfax Farmers Market, Billy Martin is warming up the audience for a taping of Real Time With Bill Maher, due to air later that night. The crowd is mostly middle-aged white men and women, with a sprinkling of African-Americans and, here and there, hip young men in pairs, very likely the gay men whose freedom the aggressively heterosexual but passionately libertarian Maher defends against the religious right.

“How many of you are liberals?” yells Martin, the show’s head writer and executive producer, the essence of anti-chic in thick glasses and tan chinos yanked high above the waist.

Laughter and thunderous applause erupt from the audience.

“How many are conservative?”

One timid clap is heard, and Martin says, “That’s 50-50, or, as you conservatives call it, a mandate.”

By this time the crowd hardly needs the applause meter discreetly positioned to one side, but Martin puts them through their paces and gets them on their feet, clapping wildly for Maher, who bounds in suave and smiling in a tailored suit and launches into his opening monologue.

If it’s true that a lot of people are getting their news from late-night comedy shows, they get a bracingly blasphemous brew from Maher, who pulls no punches, and not just because HBO is where you get to say “fuck” as much as you want. Getting his respectably rated show Politically Incorrect canceled by ABC for his post-9/11 remark that the terrorists who flew into the World Trade Center were not cowards hasn’t chastened the comedian one bit. If anything, he’s found a niche where he can go after anyone, but especially corporate America and the political right, with characteristic bite and bile. On a recent show, Maher dismissed Sarah Palin as a “category-5 moron” and “a mountain mama who makes George Bush look like a professor.” And with the collapse of Wall Street and passage of the $700 billion bailout this week, there’s no shortage of targets for tonight’s monologue (“the splurge is working!”), or of fodder for his chat with the wonk of the week, New York Times op-ed columnist Paul Krugman, struggling in vain for the spontaneously funny back talk that comes so naturally to Maher.

Unlike most of his fellow late-night talk-show hosts, Maher is unafraid to lay his political cards on the table. But his affiliations are those of a loose cannon. He’s an Obama supporter who has voted for both McCain and Ralph Nader in the past (he regrets both votes now), pals around with both Ann Coulter and Arianna Huffington, calls himself a libertarian who hates any form of government intervention into private life and regularly hosts conservative politicians or pundits on his show. He seats his guests close together for maximal friction, intervening like a faux-avuncular elder when things get so heated that people are shouting one another down.

“I’m tired of this argument from you two,” he says, wagging his finger playfully when Andrew Sullivan — a gay British journalist and regular Real Time guest who’s conservative but hates Palin and plans to vote for Obama — sinks his teeth into the neck of left-wing activist Naomi Klein, author of the frighteningly timely anti-Bush-administration book The Shock Doctrine. Maher hauls Sullivan off with a “Why so hostile?” but he agrees that it’s not just the government that’s responsible for our current woes. Americans are “just too fuckin’ dumb to do the right thing or make the right choice,” he says, which, as always, gets a big cheer from the audience.

“I love this guy,” a woman in her 60s next to me whispers loudly — and goes on to declare her love for every speaker on the panel. Which makes me wonder whether Maher really is preaching to the liberal choir, or whether some people will respond to anyone who puts on a good enough show.

Maher pounces on a gap in the conversation to display a USA Today headline announcing that most Americans claim they’ve been touched by a guardian angel. Religiosity is Maher’s pet peeve and a frequent target for his blistering attacks, but tonight, he’s plugging Religulous, a documentary journey around the world in search of spiritual folly. Sullivan, a convert to Catholicism, bristles at Maher lumping all forms of Christianity together under the rubric of irrational, then comes right out and calls him a bigot.

“The problem,” Sullivan insists, “is not religion but dumb religion.”

Untroubled by such fine distinctions, will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas serenely admits to believing in angels and demons and says his faith got him where he is today. This is too much for Maher, who, never one to shy away from telling others they’re wrong, chides him, “It’s talent that got you where you are.” Then he grins the broad grin that his fans find endearing and his detractors call smug, and seizes the last word with, “Anyway, my movie is very funny.”

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Backstage after the taping, Maher changes into black jeans and a black-and-white-striped shirt and emerges for a brief chat before going upstairs to mingle with his guests and writers over cocktails. When I ask if he needs a minute to decompress, he shrugs a negative and says, “I’m the same off as I am on.”

It’s true: The following Monday, casual in jeans and a white shirt in his bungalow on the CBS lot, he’s the same man, minus expletives, that he is on television — affable, smart, relaxed, quick with the one-liners, easy to engage in debate about anything under the sun, and opinionated as hell. It’s the day after the Emmys, and for the 21st time, Maher has come away empty-handed for both comedy series and special. An Internet wag has crowned him the Susan Lucci of the primetime Emmys because he loses so often to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Today, he’s gallant in defeat, but his loss clearly rankles.

“Some of those I didn’t win because there were other good shows,” he says. “But all of them? I think it has to do with Americans not being ready for what I have to say, especially about religion.”

 
Maher has been hammering away forever at institutionalized faith, but Religulous, which Lionsgate quixotically plans to position as an Oscar contender in the documentary category, raises the bar to a whole new dimension of attack, as you might expect from a movie with Borat director Larry Charles at the helm. The two men had separately been toying with the idea for a movie about religion for a long time, and on paper they make a perfect partnership of iconoclastic irreverence. Religulous follows Maher around rural America and carefully selected foreign parts in search of follies committed in the name of the world’s three great religions.

In Israel, he meets a Jewish inventor of gadgets that slink around the rules for Sabbath observance. In London, he locks horns with a Muslim rapper preaching violence against the West, and goes undercover at Speakers’ Corner as a raving Scientologist in a ratty hat with earflaps.

Back home, he visits an evangelical truck-stop ministry in North Carolina; a Latino reverend who insists he’s Jesus reincarnated; a Holy Land theme park where the crucifixion in all its gory glory is acted out daily. And just to show he’s not only looking for stupids, Maher interviews the devoutly Christian head of the Human Genome Project, a Catholic astronomer and a senior priest at the Vatican. (Charles, on the phone from Italy, where he’s shooting a new film, says the Vatican is “like a Bowery flophouse, but all the people are religious.”) Which would be fine, if any of them were allowed to get a word in edgewise.

Abetted by Charles’ quick-cut editing, Maher sets booby traps for his easy marks, serves up gotcha questions and barely waits for the answers, interrupts his subjects, pummels them with the idiocy of the Old and New testaments, all the while reducing the story of creation to a fairy tale about talking snakes in a lovely garden.

Depending on where you stand on spiritual matters, Religulous is either a timely rational assault on the mad illogic of religious belief and practice in all their forms, or a malicious and juvenile mockumentary that lumps fundamentalism in with more thoughtful religious expression, holds religion responsible for evil without acknowledging the good done in the name of belief or its role as a frame for community, and ends up as reductive as the fundamentalist doctrines it lampoons. That the movie will drive a lot of the faithful up the wall is to be expected. Some protesters showed up at a Toronto International Film Festival screening in September to damn the movie, sight unseen. Maher swears that one or two also asked for his autograph, and he was surprised by a couple of positive reviews in Jewish and Christian magazines. But initial reaction from critics, a decidedly secular bunch on the whole, has been more mixed than it was for Borat even though the movie follows the same format.

“My thesis was,” Charles tells me, “can you create a Saturday-night date movie about religion to compete with Tropic Thunder?”

But where Sacha Baron Cohen played court jester in Borat, as much of a holy fool as his victims, Maher appoints himself their judge and jury — a mantle he willingly assumes.

“You can disagree with someone and also think they’re intelligent,” Maher says. “But there are beliefs that people cling to that I think are incompatible with intelligence. Andrew Sullivan called me a bigot the other night, and that’s not true. Bigotry means you’re prejudiced. I’m not prejudging — I’m judging. I am saying that I believe that if you’re religious, you’ve walled off part of your mind. It happens to you when you’re a child; they force it into you before you’re able to defend yourself. Richard Dawkins [author of the atheist credo The God Delusion] calls it child abuse.”

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I’m probably closer to being an atheist than Maher, but though I’ve seen the movie twice and laughed out loud both times, the more I laughed, the uneasier I grew. It’s true that Religulous blows a timely wind through a country where, depending on which statistics you buy, up to 90 percent of the population believes in God (including, if a recent Pew study is to be trusted, an astonishing number of professed atheists and agnostics) and two-thirds believe in the existence of angels and devils. Maher is also right to point out the bizarre contradictions of capitalism in a religious society.

“We’re not even a service economy anymore,” he says. “We’re a small-print economy based on charging interest — which is expressly forbidden by the Bible.”

And in an election season in which every politician, Obama included, rushes to declare himself holier than thou, while the Republican Party fields an evangelical vice-presidential candidate who thinks creationism should be taught in schools and justifies the Iraq war as “a task from God,” it is frankly gratifying to watch Maher tie up in knots the fundamentalist (and semiliterate) Democratic Senator Mark Pryor, or a couple of well-dressed two-bit Elmer Gantry types who bilk the poor for their shyster ministries. But it’s hard to argue with those who feel he comes off smug and hectoring in the movie.

In person, Maher is anything but smug or strident, and he’s a more polite listener than most people who make a living out of grandstanding — or indeed than he is on his show. Like Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great) and many another atheist, Maher goes after religion with what I can only describe as messianic zeal. He bridles when I suggest that in Religulous, he’s thrown out a whole lot of baby with the bath water of gutter spiritualism.

“That’s the argument that drives me crazy,” he says. “There are a couple of extremists in the movie, because they’re funny and we’re making a comedy, but most of them are not crazy. Senator Pryor is completely mainstream. My critics would like to have this rational person who could give me the ‘good’ argument about religion, but they’re all easy pickings. The majority of people in America believe that people are not born gay, that there’s only sinning. I have people come up to me and say, ‘Bill, I hear you, I’m not one of these religious crazies. I believe in Jesus, I just don’t believe in the Bible.’ There is no religion without the Bible. If you don’t believe in the Bible, what’s the point of being religious?”

Charles also denies that the movie focuses on marginal figures. And given that McCain is fielding a running mate chosen precisely for her ability to mobilize the religious right, Charles may be on the mark. But he comes much closer than Maher to admitting that Religulous is a provocation whose focus is not Christianity per se but its evangelical wing. “The fundamentalists are the problem,” he says. “They have no motivation to change the world, and their literal interpretation of the Bible allows them to do violence to others. They deserve to be illuminated, and they need to be mocked.”

Charles, who shows up in the movie as a spectral éminence grise, and who looks like a cross between Osama bin Laden and a Lubavitcher rabbi, grew up in a Jewish family, went to Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed — he even considered a career as a rabbi. “But my parents said, ‘Get the bar mitzvah, get the money, and get out.”

Maher, by contrast, places himself on the side of doubt, but you suspect that his dismissal of religion gelled a long time ago and won’t change for anyone. “Do I think that there’s something out there that I don’t understand? Of course. I don’t know if it’s what you would call a god. I don’t know and I don’t really care. But I’m pretty sure that if there is something, it’s not in the form of a personal god who had a son who flew down from heaven after his father impregnated a Palestinian woman, who gave birth to Jesus, who was really his own father. That’s just as ridiculous as the talking snake.” He goes on, “I know many wonderful religious people. I say in the movie, it’s amazing how religion can include so many people with such goodness in their hearts, and then it becomes about having sex with children and burning people at the stake. If you don’t believe in rational argumentation and your mind goes to magical thinking, you are an extremist.”

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For a champion of science and logic, Maher doesn’t lack for a few magical thoughts of his own. At home in Bel Air, his refrigerator is stocked with flaxseed oil, hemp-seed and almond-seed butter (“Seeds are the kernel of life,” he says gravely); he believes herbs can cure all bodily ills, and he eats a raw organic egg every day. Given this sort of talk, it’s a little suspicious that Buddhism and Hinduism get off scot-free in Religulous. And my eyebrows go up when he references the heavens in describing his own character.

“I don’t necessarily believe in astrology,” he says, “but it is a useful shorthand to describe certain personality traits. I’ve had many people who are conversant with astrology tell me that a Capricorn trait is that you are adultlike as a child, and as you get older, you get sillier. And that has been true in my life. I have a lot more fun as an adult than I ever had as a child.”

 
William Maher Jr. grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey, the son of a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. His mother, Julie, a nurse, was Jewish but not observant, and despite the fact that he saw more of the Jewish side of the family because they lived close by, he claims not to have known he was half-Jewish until he was a teenager.

“I never thought about it, and we never talked about it with our friends,” says Maher. “Religion was private then.”

Maher was raised Catholic but insists he has no particular ax to grind against Catholicism. “I did not enjoy my Catholic upbringing, I make no bones about it, but as I’ve said many times, I was not sexually abused and I’m a little insulted. ’Cause I was a cute kid.”

The frequently leveled charge that he goes after Catholics more than any other religion incenses him, and he counts off numerous attacks he’s mounted on Muslims and Jews, Mormons and other Christian denominations. Evidently, he wasn’t the only skeptic in the family: Before she died around this time last year (she’s almost the only person Maher allows to finish a sentence in Religulous, which is dedicated to her), Julie Maher insisted on being cremated, a practice forbidden in Judaism.

“She could not wait to get in the oven,” Maher says fondly. “She told me that many times. I said, ‘Ma, you’re preaching to the converted.’ I guess she had a real phobia about worms eating her or something. We had a funeral for her, but,” he hastens to add, “that’s because people need catharsis. It has nothing to do with religion. You just need to cry, and I would have felt terribly empty if we had just let the moment pass and sent the body over to the crematorium.”

For all his current bravado, it’s not hard to imagine Maher as a runty outsider child — there surely had to have been something heartfelt about his absurd statement during the Michael Jackson Neverland scandal that schoolyard bullying is worse than servicing young boys. Maher has said he was never really a child.

“I did not have the same interests and pursuits as other children. I never watched cartoons, which is weird. I certainly liked other childish things, like The Three Stooges, and I was devoted to Superman. But I was snobby even then about arts and entertainment.”

By the age of 10, he knew that he wanted to be a comedian. Maher’s father, William Sr., who died of cancer in 1992, had been interested in going into the arts, but family obligations compelled him to become a radio newscaster. Maher grew up with a lot of newsy table talk, and watched his gregarious father cut up at home.

“He was a living-room comedian,” says Maher. “A lot of comedians will tell you they had a funny parent.”

He also watched a lot of standup comedy on television. But it wasn’t the borscht-belt comedians like Henny Youngman or Milton Berle who influenced young Maher so much as Johnny Carson — whose shows he would tape in the basement, like some latter-day Rupert Pupkin, to study his technique — and other comedians making the transition into observational comedy, like Robert Klein and, in particular, George Carlin.

“This was the one guy I heard say religion is silly and dangerous, and the ultimate scam,” Maher says. “A lot of guys did jokes about religion, but they didn’t attack it as their central focus.”

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Maher, who will go to Washington, D.C., in November to help present the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor posthumously to Carlin, came to know the comedian late in his life, and this year, both were up for an Emmy for variety, music or comedy special.

“I thought, there is one inviolate rule in show business,” he says, “and that is a dead guy always gets the award, and I was happy. He didn’t win, which tells you something about America. There is one exception when the dead guy doesn’t get the award, and that is a real truth teller like George Carlin. Sorry, George.”

Mostly, what Maher remembers about his childhood is being obsessive. “As a control freak, it’s difficult to be a child because you’re not in control. That really bugged me.”

Which may be why Maher’s career as an actor (in such classics as D.C. Cab and Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death) was short and inglorious. His favorite forum remains standup, “where I’m totally in control. There’s just me and the audience. There are no guests, no commercials. It’s utter autonomy.”

Making Religulous was difficult for him. Charles, who has become a close friend, says that the experience was “like working with a very rich 5-year-old. Bill is very set in his ways, and he gets cranky.”

Maher found the work pleasurable, “but the travel, the being away from home for months at a time, eating the food that’s not my food, all that was difficult, and I don’t like having makeup on my face all day. If I were 20 years younger, I’d have accepted it more, but I’m not at the backpacking stage anymore. I’m at the comfort stage.”

 
Let’s hope not. Over the course of his career, as he made his way up through the comedy clubs with the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser, into the outfield areas of television from Comedy Central, via ABC to HBO, and as a gadfly guest on other people’s talk shows, Maher has done his best work on the unpackaged margins (it helps that he’s not a telegenic looker, like Jon Stewart), where he can be both outrageous and, in his own unpredictably wild-card way, committed. Like many comics, Maher is a natural naysayer who destroys sacred cows by the dozen.

“Must everything be for and about the children?” he quipped gleefully in his standup show, Be More Cynical. “Our most precious resource is petroleum.”

He’s willing to goose everyone (sometimes to a fault, as with his comparison of public breastfeeding to masturbation), himself included. Defiantly single and frequently photographed with bosomy black women on his arm — the former model and fashion designer Coco Johnsen unsuccessfully sued him in 2005 for breach of palimony, and he has dated video vixen Karrine Steffans — Maher often makes fun of his love life on his show. Not without reason, he’s been called a misogynist, and he rarely misses an opportunity to twit feminists.

“Men are only as loyal as their options,” he crows in Be More Cynical. “Like in the late ’60s, when all the wrong women were burning their bras.”

But it’s also true that Maher invites more smart women of all political stripes on his show (among them, Camille Paglia and Roseanne Barr) than does any other talk-show host. And he’s the only one who admits up front to having given money to the Obama campaign — with a note on the check exhorting the candidate to “get medieval.”

“I’m often told, ‘I’m a conservative, I voted for Bush, but I watch your show,’” Maher says. “I think this gives the lie to the old adage that you have to play it down the middle on television. People are totally okay with liking someone they don’t agree with. The Johnny Carson playbook, which most television hosts go by, is that you never reveal your politics, and he never did. I’m very close friends with Jay Leno and I can’t get it out of him. I have a suspicion that Jay is a sneaky liberal, but he plays it right down the middle for the audience. And, of course, he’s heroic to Middle America.”

Somewhere between left and libertarian, Maher may be carving out a fluid new cultural-political mindset that sidesteps the traditional left-right divide, though it’s unclear yet what shape it will take. Religulous notwithstanding, Maher is more provocateur than cynic, though sometimes he can sound like one in the give-and-take of banter on his show. In the current context of economic collapse and vacuous political bombast, he sounds like a sober realist.

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“We are the Roman Empire in its declining years,” he says, “and bread and circuses are what we live on.”

In between Maher’s astute, outrageous observations of the mad illogic of American ways of life and death is a spirit of moral inquiry (“I get it from my parents,” he says, “not from religion”) and an ornery love of country.

“People think that when you criticize America, you’re being unpatriotic,” he says. “Which is ridiculous. Obviously, I talk more about America because it’s my country. This is the country I’m trying to fix and improve. I have no intention, like some other liberal celebrities, of leaving this country if the elections go the wrong way. I’m too Irish that way. I’m going to stay here and make this into the country I want, to my last breath.”