Bill Maher's late night talk show, done in by political correctness, corporate politics and advertiser and affiliate nervousness, will bow out Friday night without much on-air controversy.
Far from using the occasion to give the finger to his seemingly many enemies, Maher is going out accompanined by some of his "best friends" and favorite guests: camera-ready political commentators Arianna Huffington and Ann Coulter (the "right wing telebimbo" also known as Katie Couric's nemesis), comedian and rapper Christopher "Kid" Reid and Mamas and Papas singer-turned-actress Michelle Phillips.
In a statement announcing the lineup, ABC refers to the quartet as "steadfast friends of the show."
Instead of attacking the hot topic of the moment, Bill and chums will be taking a reflective look over the lifetime of the show that began airing on ABC in 1997 after establishing its credentials for a few years on Comedy Central.
"There are no topics-- it's very unusual, very different, he doesn't even introduce the guests in the usual way," says one insider about the finale, which was taped Thursday.
In an interview today in the Hollywood Reporter, Maher said he hoped it would be "a very intimate, personal, sentimental journey."
However, Maher's not zipping his lip or playing kissy-kissy off-air. He told the Reporter that his controversial post-September 11 comment, which prompted major advertisers FedEx and Sears to pull out, was "100 percent" the reason his show was canceled by ABC, which is owned by the family-friendly, controversy-averse Disney.
On September 17, Maher said: "We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away," he said. "That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly."
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer immediately suggested Maher was among those who needed to "watch what they say."
The politically independent Maher, who claims he was "pro-military" on the air "way before it was cool," called Fleischer's comment "one of the creepiest things that has ever come from a White House in a democracy."
ABC denied there was any political pressure behind the demise of the show--in which Maher and four guests engaged in unscripted, contentious and humorous debate. P.I. has run more than 1,200 episodes and featured the opinons of more than 4,000 guests.
While Maher's fate was apparently all but sealed in September, his show wasn't officially axed until May, when ABC announced a new show with comedian Jimmy Kimmel would replace Politically Incorrect.
"We are enormously grateful for all the great work Bill, his producers and staff have given us over the past five years. Bill has been tireless in his efforts to support P.I. and ABC, and we all take pride in his accomplishments," said Lloyd Braun, chairman of the network's entertainment group.
Maher said he has no beef with Braun, but with other ABC and Disney execs, who failed to get the show. In his Reporter interview, he also said he didn't receive any support from Ted Koppel. (Koppel's Nightline, which airs before P.I., almost was nixed along with the Maher show when ABC made an ill-fated play for David Letterman.)
"Ted Koppel was obviously never much of a friend to our show. When we were brought aboard by ABC, there was a big corporate synergy hullabaloo that was going on: 'Oooh, this is gonna be a great seamless move, right from the real hard news of Nightline to the comedy news of Politically Incorrect.' It was a good idea, but Ted never really played ball with that," Maher told the Reporter, noting that Koppel's show often ran over, cutting into P.I.'s air time.
What air space Maher will next occupy is unclear, though there are rumors he may return to cable. He insists he's "not bitter" about ABC's decision to give him the boot, although he believes the network never really understood was he meant by political incorrectness.
Apparently network suits never thumbed through his 1996 book Does Anybody Have a Problem with That? Politically Incorrect's Greatest Hits, in which he writes, "To me, the notion of politically incorrect is neither liberal nor conservative, but an attitude of disgust toward unthinking, dogmatic politics of every stripe."
Reruns of Politically Incorrect will air next week. After which, the slot will be temporarily filled by a half-hour news show produced by the Nightline staff.
Kimmel's show hits ABC with a special premiere following the January 26 telecast of the Super Bowl before moving into its regular slot. Says ABC of the as-yet-untitled show (and seemingly taking one last parting shot at Maher), "It will be a totally distinctive late-night comedy for us."