"Politically Incorrect" premiered in 1993. Then, as now, his guest list was stunning: Jay came on. So did George and Jerry.
The show, which moved to ABC in 1997, was doing well, until 2001, when in the week after 9/11 Maher refuted the notion that the terrorists were cowards:
Maher: "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building? Say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
Smith asked: "Do you regret saying it?"
"Absolutely not. It was true then, it was true on September 10th, it was September 12th. And it had nothing to do with criticizing America. But, you know, this was six days after 9/11."
Affiliates dropped the show. Advertisers ran for cover. And in May 2002, ABC pulled the plug.
But by February of '03 he was back, this time on HBO, live on Friday nights.
He rehearses from noon Thursday until airtime Friday night.
"If Russia winds up shooting down one of our planes, it could start World War III which would go nuclear, and then we will never get to the bottom of what's in Hillary's emails!"
Every joke is tested the day before air in front of a live crowd, like this translation of Vladimir Putin's U.N. speech:
"They say Russia is a fake democracy, but it's not like our two candidates are Stalin's wife and Lenin's little brother, Jeb."
After the run-through, Maher is seldom satisfied. "I'm doing a specific show for a specific audience. It expects a certain, I think, level of quality. It's not just a laugh, it's the type of laugh."
The week we were there, the Putin gag made the cut, as did this additional translation:
"You are a nation of fat people in workout clothes; the irony amuses me!"
Smith asked Maher, if he's ever regretted anything he's said.
"Oh, I regret something I say every week. I don't have any major ideological regrets. I can't think of things that I've said that I really want to take back. Mostly what I regret when I drive home Friday night is, 'Oh, you know, I should have let that person talk more on that,' or, 'I shouldn't have cut them off there.'"
"Do you chew on that?"