Humorist Bill Maher has been engaging and infuriating audiences for nearly a decade with his stand-up routines, DVDs, bestselling books and talk shows. In 2002, ABC executives axed Maher's Politically Incorrect from the network after he said the 9/11 attackers were not "cowards.''

He landed on cable a year later,

hosting Real Time with Bill Maher, which airs Friday nights on HBO at 11 pm. This Saturday, Maher hits Portland for a show that will be filmed for an upcoming DVD.

WW: How would you say Portland rates as a comedy town?

Bill Maher: On the very first rung, or else I would honestly not be taping this special there. That's not something you want to fool around with. I wanted to go to a place where I remember [the audience] being rabidly enthusiastic.

Do you get a different response from crowds in red states than you do in a liberal town like Portland?

Not anymore. The truth is, if you blindfolded me I wouldn't know if I was in Houston, Portland, Carnegie Hall or Canada because, at this point, the people who are going to come and see you and pay for a ticket are the people that like you. I love going to red states.

Are there still limits for what you can and can't say on HBO?

The rules and limits are self-imposed. You know, you don't want to say "motherfucker" in front of Janet Reno too many times. I think it's a bit of a misconception that I was somehow stifled on ABC. I always said exactly what I wanted. The difference is I got fired for it.

You're no fan of the president, but would you say the future is bright for Mr. Bush?

Like he cares. He's a willful, spoiled child. That's why I have so much contempt for him. He's shown when he wants to make something an issue he gets his way, as willful, spoiled children do. He wanted to invade Iraq when no one else wanted it. He made it happen. He wanted to make Social Security an issue. He made it happen. He wanted to cut taxes for rich people when even rich people weren't asking for it. No one in 2000 was saying, "Goddammit, we got all this prosperity and we're floating in money, we need a tax break." When he wants something, he gets it. I'm no fan of George Bush, but I will give him credit for seeing a Middle East that the rest of us didn't. That situation is looking better and better. Democracy is a good thing, no matter who spreads it. I know that's a bitter pill for my liberal friends to swallow. I think like them, but I have to say Bush was right in a way that the rest of us were not. You've got to give it up when the evidence is in the newspaper every day.

Do you think there's a concentrated effort by this administration to suppress criticism?

There always has been. That's part of the Bush family's code of honor and integrity. That is very, very deep within that family, that idea of loyalty. "It doesn't matter what the people are told. We have our own truth. We know what's best." Like Iraq. If George Bush had been honest about it and sold the war on what the war has now become, I would have been much more sympathetic to it. As opposed to having a meeting, as I'm sure they did, where they said, "OK, here's what we want to do in the Middle East. We want to transform it, we want to see if we can sprout democracy, but that's never gonna fly with the public, so we're going to have to scare them. Let's tell them that Saddam has a death ray."

As you've pointed out on Real Time, you tend to attract a liberal audience because it tapes in Los Angeles. On a recent show you tried to get an all-conservative audience.

We couldn't get all [conservative], but at least half. We live in a pretty blue city in a pretty blue state, and it's hard to get them. I sympathize with [their] plight. I've been in that position on a few occasions, where I was speaking to a conservative group. You can feel the tension and the groaning. And when someone from the other point of view says anything at all, the crowd erupts into applause. That's not fair. I wish we could have a half-and-half audience every time.

You had University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill on the show a few weeks ago. Do you agree with what he said about the 9/11 attacks?

I don't agree with him on that point [likening workers in the World Trade Center to Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann], but it's a shame that his essay was reduced to that one soundbite. If you read the entire essay, he makes a lot of good points.

Looking ahead, who do you want to see run in 2008? Do you want Kerry back? Would you like to see Hillary run?

No, I don't want any of those. John Kerry will always have my respect as a war hero, but I think he didn't make a very good candidate because he didn't differentiate himself enough from the president. Hillary Clinton, although I like her very much, she's attempting to be a centrist. I don't want a centrist. I want someone who will stick up for my point of view and, I believe, the point of view of at least as many Americans as the other side has. Someone who says they believe in science and rationality, as least as far as the country goes, much more than they believe in faith.

You've spent a lot of time at the Playboy Mansion over the years. Is it as cool as everyone says it is?

It depends on what your definition of "cool" is. I certainly always enjoy myself there. But I think most people, if they went there, I don't think it could live up to [their] expectations. It's a beautiful setting for a great party, but I don't think there's a lot of mystery to it. There's lots of pretty girls, and it's very easy to get a free drink. Lots of places you go and you're waiting 12 deep at the bar. Hef is smart, he always knew: "You want a good party? Let the people have easy, quick access to the liquor."

Bill Maher

Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, 1037 SW Broadway, 248-4335. 8 pm Saturday, March 26. $40.50-$51+ advance.