LOS ANGELES - It's an unlikely suspicion, but a kinder, gentler Bill Maher seems to be emerging on television.
On a recent episode of HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher," he made sure conservatives were as well-represented in the audience as on the panel.
These days, Maher also prides himself on hosting a talk show as opposed to a shouting show, a dominant TV genre that he admits included his old ABC program "Politically Incorrect."
Asked if he's softening even as so many others in a polarized America become more brittle and intractable, Maher offers a quick reply: No.
Fairness and good television, he said, are why he seeks a political balance in the audience when his panel includes such guests as Republican politicians Christie Whitman and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
"For a guest to come out and have to expect that everything he says is automatically going to be dismissed before he even gets to the end of a sentence, that's not fair.
"It's a way to reach out to guests, be a good host and, I think, it makes for a better show," said Maher, whose program (11 p.m. EDT Friday) wraps up its current season this week.
As for the series' relatively civil tone, Maher said that reflects his evolution as a host. On "Politically Incorrect," "we would purposely try to pit a snake against a mongoose" by letting people of different ideologies go at it.
"But not this show.... I want it to be like three people who may not agree on everything but are sitting down as if you were at dinner or a cocktail party.
"Even people who disagree rarely start screaming at each other - they only do that when they're on camera," Maher told The Associated Press.
He's definitely not retreating from acidic commentary. In offering an example, he illustrates how easily he can irritate both left and right.
"There are a lot of liberals mad at me because I've been saying (President) Bush is more right about Iraq than we thought," Maher said. He continues, adding different fuel to the fire: "It doesn't absolve him from lying to get us there, doesn't absolve him from conducting the war in a very incompetent way.
"But as far as the big idea that you could start the brushfire of democracy in the Middle East, well, it looks like that might be happening."
Whatever the topic, Maher doesn't forget his viewers expect a laugh. In asking a guest why Middle America is so concerned about gay marriage, Maher joked: "The last gay thing that happened in Kansas was the Wizard of Oz."
Maher, whose ABC show was axed after his unvarnished comments about the bravery of the U.S. military vs. the Sept. 11 terrorists, said the experience "inoculated" him against career concerns.
"Networks come and go. I've been on 12 years, pretty much uninterrupted even with that.... Obviously, there is a market for what we do over here."
So what does he worry about? A veritable laundry list: a dirty bomb entering California through a vulnerable port; a stock market crash fueled by what he calls the Bush administration's "reckless" fiscal policies; an environmental meltdown.
"Am I going to see a poster that says, 'Surf Kansas?'" Maher said.
"Real Time" will take its regular midyear break after the May 13 show, returning Aug. 19. In September, Maher's latest book, "New Rules: Polite Musings from a Timid Observer," will be published.
He occasionally has to reassure fans who are unaware of the "Real Time" scheduling pattern.
"'Did you get canceled again?' people ask," said Maher. "No, just on a nice long break."
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