<EM>Real Time with Bill Maher</EM> Real Time with Bill Maher

As HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher debates the issues for one last time (Friday at 11 pm/ET) before going on hiatus  fret not, the series is expected to return in late summer  we asked host Bill Maher about his show and the state of the union.

TV Guide: You're so informed. How do you prepare for a show?
Bill Maher:
Well, I spend all week preparing. People are always surprised to hear that I work a lot harder on this show than when I had an everyday show [Politically Incorrect]. When you do an everyday show, you can only make it so good. [Laughs] I think Dave and Jay would say the same thing. You can't work on the news before it happens. That's the charm of those shows.

TV Guide: You often assemble quite a surreal panel pairing Ben Affleck with Salman Rushdie springs to mind. What's your criteria?
What the audience constantly tells us is that they want a smart panel. They don't care as much about celebrity. The Ben Afflecks in show business celebrities who can sit there with a Salman Rushdie and a Joe Biden and not look like they're a kid at the adults' table are few and far between. Ben is really good. He really knows his s---. He obviously has ambitions in [politics].

TV Guide: You think so?
I do. I'm not the first one to say that.

TV Guide: What other celeb panelists have impressed you?
Affleck is certainly in the top 10. Jason Alexander and Martin Short are awfully good at it.... D.L. Hughley is terrific.

TV Guide: When politicians appear on your show, do you think they're apt to speak more freely than on, say, Meet the Press?
Yes, they definitely are, because they understand what they're getting into. They wouldn't show up if they didn't. I mean, most politicians don't show up here. [Laughs] It's a free-flowing exchange of ideas. That's what scares politicians, that they might actually be confronted or challenged. They're always good when they're recently out of office. It's while they're holding a job in Washington that their sphincter starts to tighten.

TV Guide: You started out seeming much more conservative, but now you appear to have drifted toward the left, or at least left of center.
I don't think that's necessarily so. I don't look at issues as being liberal or conservative. I don't see global warming as a liberal/conservative issue; I see it as a survival issue. I like to paraphrase Barry Goldwater: Extremism in the defense of survival is no vice. If that makes me liberal, then fine. I'm liberal on living.

TV Guide: If you could ask President Bush one question, what would it be?
It would be about the environment. I would say to him, "Don't you just feel awful about selling your fellow countrymen down the river to please your buddies in the energy industries? I mean, the air is noticeably worse in this country since you became president. You've literally made your fellow citizens sicker. Don't you feel any remorse?"

TV Guide: Do you think energy is the biggest issue facing us right now?
It wouldn't have to be if we were still the country that could get something big done. Brazil made a commitment to become energy independent, and they did. They yanked their country away from the oil teat. Prove to me that America can do something big, the right thing, like we used to. Like when Kennedy said, "We're going to go to the moon." I really feel like we don't have the chops anymore.

TV Guide: Every empire eventually falls. Have we started our descent?
I hate to say it, but I think we have. And it's OK. We don't have to be No. 1. That's a bunch of macho nonsense. But we have to be able to survive. And we do face problems now that threaten our very existence.

TV Guide: Do you have a place in mind to flee when the ice caps melt?
I'm 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and I'm hoping it only gets to Brentwood.