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'Politically Incorrect' signs off, but its humor carries on

Though he expanded the genre, Bill Maher's knack for bluntness may have hastened the show's end.

Thursday night marks the end of a political TV show that is the antithesis of C-SPAN. For starters, it was funny. The current affairs commentary came from Hollywood celebrities rather than policy wonks. And, although the conservatively dressed host's suits and ties wouldn't have looked out of place at a C-SPAN forum, his flippant remarks often sounded like a Howard Stern radio rant.

The show is "Politically Incorrect," and host Bill Maher's knack for controversial comments, some say, are the reason why this late-night experiment in blending politics and pop culture, which began in 1993 on Comedy Central and continued on ABC after 1997, is going off air.

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"I criticize my country because that's what a patriot does," Mr. Maher said on Wednesday night's show.

Maher created the show to offer a forum for breaking through "spin" at a time when there wasn't an abundance of 24-hour cable news networks and the Internet hadn't yet taken off. The demise of the show would be a bad sign for political humor if the genre weren't thriving elsewhere.

Made acceptable by Johnny Carson, the tradition of laughing at elected officials is carried on today in outlets like "Saturday Night Live"; Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" hosted by Jon Stewart; and in comedian Dennis Miller's self-titled show on HBO.

Like these shows, "Politically Incorrect" has had an effect wider than its ripples of laughter. "[Bill Maher] made politics entertainment, and interested people who wouldn't otherwise be interested," says Julia Gorin, a comedian and writer who has often appeared on the show.

Surveys repeatedly show that the public, particularly those under 30, rely on late-night entertainment programs for political news.

People have grown accustomed to having their politics served with humor, something the politicians themselves are responsible for. Well, one politician in particular: Bill Clinton. His saxophone playing on Arsenio Hall's late-night talk show made newsmakers more a part of America's pre-bedtime entertainment.

Since then, he's kept comedians busy. Jay Leno has delivered more than 3,700 jokes about Clinton in the last decade, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington (CMPA), where college students do the joke counting. Leno has picked on George W. Bush only about 900 times, but he hasn't been in office as long, nor been as controversial.

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But "Politically Incorrect" showed that controversy is often no laughing matter.

Last fall, Maher had to issue an apology after he called the US forces "cowardly" compared to the Sept. 11 terrorists. The fallout: Several sponsors pulled their support, and some affiliate temporarily dropped the show. Previously, Maher had angered Ronald Reagan's son, who thought the comedian had insulted his ailing father. And he once compared mentally disabled children to dogs.

After so long, some wonder if ABC reached a breaking point.

"This is really about the fact that when you have a show called 'Politically Incorrect' there's a line in the sand, and when you cross it one too many times, I guess the writing's going to be on the wall," says Marilyn Wilson, a "P.I." executive producer.

Some wonder if it would have been a good idea if a show like "P.I." had been wildly successful. "If it had done too well, the news would have aimed downward toward that format," argues Matthew Felling, media director at the CMPA.

"P.I.'s" format involved a panel of four guests and Maher considering issues of the day, with a few minutes of standup comedy from the host. His guests ranged from political commentators like Arianna Huffington to the singer from heavy-metal band Twisted Sister, but they all shared one thing in common – they were willing to speak out.

But Mr. Felling says it was Maher's outspokenness that kept the show from reaching it's potential.

"I hope something takes its place," he says, "because bringing politics and social issues, thrusting them in front of people in their own terms ... there's some virtue in that."


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