When it comes to knowing about news and current events, comedian Bill Maher has his work cut out for him. Not only does he need to know the discographies of musicians he might be interviewing, he also has to familiarize himself with things like foreign policy just in case a politician stops by the set of his HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher.”

“When I get ready for ‘Real Time’ I have to really be up on the news, on everything that happened that week,” Maher, 50, told me during a phone call to promote his first-ever visit to San Antonio on Sept. 23. “This week I’m talking to the Israeli Prime Minister. Trust me, you have to do a little more studying to talk to the Israeli Prime Minister than you do to talk to a singer.”

He is not worried, however. He’s put in the time to research what he needs to know on topics that might come up during said interview. Take for instance last week when I interviewed Maher the day after crocodile hunter Steve Irwin died while snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef.

After a number of questions about his show and tour, I posed a question about Maher’s work as an animal activist by asking him about the types of pets he has at home.

“Well, I have a stingray,” Maher said nonchalantly as he referenced the animal that killed Irwin. “And I’m very, very worried about it.”

It’s humor like this that has people either loving or loathing the ex-host of “Politically Incorrect.” Where exactly should the line be drawn when making jokes about politics, current events or even death?

It’s all up to the individual, Maher says. But for him, nothing is sacred enough to stay away from. For his millions of fans, that’s exactly what they are looking for. They want someone that can speak off the cuff. They want someone who doesn’t mind hurting someone’s feelings by telling the truth – even if it’s all for the sake of entertainment.

“[Irwin] was an environmentalist,” Maher continued about the passing of the crocodile hunter. “He did care about preserving the species but I just don’t understand why we have to taunt animals to get them good publicity.”

No matter what the topic of conversation is, however, Maher is able to find his way back to the political home base and take aim at the current presidential administration and the war in Iraq.

“I love politics as a subject to talk about,” he says. “But I don’t think anybody really likes politics, but it’s your duty when you live in a democracy to follow it. We all have to participate.”

For him, participating means giving audiences his own take on the government today and providing a mixture of serious conversation and, hopefully, a lot of laughs.”

Still, if you want to see him in his natural environment, it’s during his stand-up comedy act that Maher is at the top of his game.

“There is a dimension to what I do that cannot be captured by television,” he said. “I think people who have not seen me do stand-up live are surprised. Their reaction is, ‘Wow. He really brings it.’”

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