NEW YORK — Just moments into taping “Politically Incorrect,” one of the cameras conks out. “We got the monologue — that’s the best part of the show,” quips Bill Maher, the notably un-PC host of this serious-issues-with-laughs discussion show, as technicians scurry to fix the problem.
“Can I help?” Mr. Maher asks. “Did you push ‘power’?”
Then he shares with the audience a mock suspicious look. “This is a little suspicious, isn’t it?”
Hmmmm. He’s just begun the first of five shows probing organized crime, which is famous, of course, for its retaliatory gestures. And rather than the usual studio setting back in comfy Los Angeles, Mr. Maher is presiding from an open-air stage on Brooklyn’s rotting waterfront.
But despite the requisite sinister tone, no bodies are observed floating in the inky East River, and the technical glitch is quickly straightened out.
“When was it we started rooting for the bad guys?” Mr. Maher asks his four guests once the tape is rolling again.
For this edition, airing tonight, Mr. Maher has convened Steven R. Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri on “The Sopranos”), Ganglandnews.com’s Jerry Capeci, Cindy DiBernardo (whose mobster dad was whacked by Sammy “the Bull” Gravano) and mob lawyer Murray Richman. (“Politically Incorrect” is seen on ABC weeknights at 12:05 a.m.)
Soon the talk turns to gender issues and Mr. Maher complains that mobsters have to do all the killing while their women stay at home.
But Miss DiBernardo begs to differ.
“We kill youse, but you just don’t realize it,” she says. “Every day, we chip away at youse.”
At mention of “The Sopranos,” Mr. Richman declares that “what ruined the mob was emulating things that didn’t exist. It’s life copying art.”
Then someone voices a counterargument: No, drugs are what ruined the mob.
“I don’t think the Mafia should be selling Ecstasy,” Mr. Maher chimes in. “I don’t want to hear a techno version of ‘That’s Amore.’”
A few minutes later, taping wraps. Though a hot, steamy evening, the weather has spared the gathering from expected rain.
The audience in the temporary grandstand will soon be bused back to Manhattan. The star repairs to his trailer.
Asked how the “Mob Week” idea came about, Mr. Maher (pronounced marr) says he isn’t sure, even as he marvels at the fascination with organized crime the public continues to display.
Himself included. “I see the Mafia now like the Westerns of the late 19th century: outlaws in an era that has passed them by with this vulnerability, even though they’re outlaws.”
Other Maher positions aren’t so widely held. But that is the essence of being politically incorrect, a posture that has served him well as a puckish provocateur for nearly five years on ABC and, before that, on Comedy Central.
“It’s all about saying things which no one has the guts to say, and which does not confirm opinions but instead challenges them,” explains Mr. Maher, self-described as “a legitimate comedian who can also talk with Henry Kissinger” — pause for a self-effacing laugh — “not that he specifically would talk with me .”
Maybe not Mr. Kissinger. But in the company of other prominent guests, he has pooh-poohed the public shock over Dale Earnhardt’s death, which Mr. Maher regards as the sad but hardly unexpected fate of a man whose chosen job was driving very fast.
On medical research using embryonic stem cells, Mr. Maher has argued: “It isn’t life. It could be life. But a log is not a boat.”
And now he tips a reporter to a current lament: The nation’s men have lost the will to take a stand against the opposite sex. “Unless you’re making women nod in America, you’re in big trouble,” he says. “Men just want to stay out of the doghouse.”
“The older I get, the crankier I get,” the 45-year-old Mr. Maher says sweetly.
“People tell me, ‘You were edgier on Comedy Central,’” he continues, eagerly disputing any notion that he might be going soft. “No, I was on cable, a place that seemed like it should be edgier.
“But ‘Politically Incorrect’ on the big ABC network is a lot edgier than ‘The Daily Show’ or ‘Dennis Miller’ (seen on Comedy Central and HBO, respectively).
Those are funny shows, but I never hear them saying anything that people would get upset about or boo.
“If you’re not making the audience boo you sometime,” Mr. Maher sums up, “in my world you’re not doing your job.”
Clearly, his is a job to be done incorrectly.