How Does Real Time with Bill Maher Choose Its Guests?

By Roxy FavrettoLast Updated October 8, 2020
Photo Courtesy: Chris Polk/FilmMagic/Getty Images

First hitting the air in 2003, Real Time with Bill Maher is a politically focused talk show characterized by the sarcastic, biting humor of former comedian Bill Maher. The format of the show consists of animated discussions between three guests who typically offer three different political points of view as well as other appearances by topic experts. Maher opens the show with a monologue that pokes fun at recent news headlines and current events.

Guest selection for the show is influenced primarily by the show's format and the hot political topics for the week. Guests either appear on the show as a source for specific information or as part of a panel that engages with the show’s host, Bill Maher. The lineup on the weekly show usually includes political figures, journalists, activists, professors or popular celebrities.

The Show's Format Influences Guest Selection

Just like most talk shows, Real Time with Bill Maher begins with the host performing a monologue. The comedy bit focuses on Maher's satirical take on current political issues, especially particularly touchy subjects for the week, and generally makes his political opinions as a self-described libertarian very clear. The monologue usually lasts about 10 minutes.

Photo Courtesy: Janet Van Ham/HBO/Warner Media Group

In the next segment, Maher interviews an expert who is well versed on the political subject for that particular week. That interview usually runs about 10 to 15 minutes. Guests for this main segment may appear via satellite instead of live in the studio.

It All Goes Down in the Group Panel

Following the main interview, Maher moves to a table panel discussion with three guests, usually two experts representing opposite sides on the subject matter and one who is a celebrity or an actor who is known to have a strong opinion on the particular issue being discussed that week. At times, however, the third panel participant may be a moderate or someone who doesn’t have a strong opinion on the issue. During this initial panel discussion, Maher may break up the discussion to segue into a comedy skit.

Photo Courtesy: Janet Van Ham/HBO/Warner Media Group

About halfway through the panel discussion, which usually progresses into a lively debate, Maher introduces and interviews a fourth guest. This guest is often an authority on the issue being discussed and is sometimes an even bigger name than the guests on the panel. Maher interviews this guest for a few minutes before reopening the discussion with the panel.

The panel discussion ends when he introduces the next segment called "New Rules." In this part of the show, Maher once again delivers comical jabs related to current political issues, possibly highlighting his comments with photos, illustrations or other graphics. Maher then segues to his closing monologue, which takes a more serious tone to deliver the show's final statement on the issue for the week.

To support the show's format, Real Time with Bill Maher tries to include guests and commentators who represent both conservative and liberal sides of a political issue as well as a third guest who takes a more moderate point of view or has no clear political leanings. Some episodes are more successful at meeting this goal than others.

Real Time with Bill Maher: Lockdown Format

Like most other talk shows in 2020, Real Time with Bill Maher had to make production and format adjustments due to coronavirus pandemic restrictions. The show stopped production for almost a month but started airing again on April 3, 2020, with some major changes in the show's production and format. Instead of taping in a studio, the show moved production to the backyard bar at Bill Maher's own Los Angeles home. In the absence of a live audience, Maher improvised with a laugh track to support his comedy bits.

Photo Courtesy: Janet Van Ham/HBO/Warner Media Group

Coronavirus travel and quarantine restrictions also made it impossible for the show to have live guests. Like most other talk shows, Bill Maher interviewed his guests via video conferencing apps for several months. The number of guests was trimmed down to one or two, and Maher was forced to temporarily do away with the panel discussion.

Still Going Strong After All These Years

Real Time with Bill Maher has been airing on HBO since 2003. Interestingly, it follows a similar format as Maher's previous talk show, Politically Incorrect, which initially aired on Comedy Central from 1993 to 1997 and then on ABC from 1997 to 2002.

Photo Courtesy: Janet Van Ham/HBO/Warner Media Group

As the show's name implies, Real Time with Bill Maher originally aired live or in "real time" before production moved to the host's residence, where it was pre-taped throughout the pandemic months. The panel format returned with taping in the studio with a limited audience in September 2020. The show began its 18th season on January 19, 2020.