by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & Real Time with Bill Maher & r & & r & (Fridays, 11pm, HBO) & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n the ever-expanding universe of political punditry, Bill Maher occupies the most far-out orbit -- a place where swearing and off-color jokes are considered fair play. It's a place called HBO, and every Friday night you can catch the stand-up comedian-turned-political commentator holding court with some of the best commentators out there. He routinely books the likes of Fareed Zakaria, Frank Luntz and Andrew Sullivan -- those rare pundits who actually make sense.

But I've got to say the act's getting stale. I used to love Politically Incorrect, Maher's five-nights-a-week show on ABC right after Nightline. It featured four guests in a half-hour, get-down-to-business format. It was tight, entertaining and topical. Then, six days after 9/11, he said the terrorists were brave to die like that, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said people should watch what they say and, several months later, Maher lost his show.

His HBO show is all the things his old show was not -- unfocused, meandering and sometimes unhinged. These days, Maher is less funny and more angry -- perhaps a sane reaction, given these times. But he strikes me more and more as the liberal version of Ann Coulter (one of his go-to guests back in the ABC days) -- shocking the liberal choir oh-so-pleasingly. Some of the things he says about the president, to me, are just way over the line, and his "on the street" routine at the beginning of each show has been super-lame -- the lack of writers up until last week hit him hard.

Maher is becoming more of a Limbaugh-style blowhard than the thoughtful, funny observer that he built his reputation on. He hasn't jumped the shark yet, but he seems to be strapping on the water skis.

And even though he monopolizes the microphone with long-winded questions that are really rants, there are some insights to be had. A couple weeks ago, Bob Costas had some very well-chosen but hard words for our political leaders. D.L. Hughley was very sharp and very funny back in January, when zillionaire Mark Cuban was also fun to hear on everything from Bill O'Reilly to voting machine fraud.

Maher isn't thriving as the "star" of an HBO series. He needs to get back to being a moderator who uses his comic timing to punctuate the proceedings, as he did so well as host of Politically Incorrect.


31 Days of Oscar

All month, the fine folks at Turner Classic Movies have been playing a steady stream of past Oscar nominees and winners. And it's organized cool, too, as winners from the 1920s and '30s play Monday nights, while winners from the '70s are Fridays. (The Website is great, with lots of trivia.) Highlights include: Manhattan (2/22, 11:45 pm); Raging Bull (2/24, 12:15 am); and High Noon (2/27, 10:30 pm). (February, TCM)

Live from the Red Carpet

Does anybody remember who wins Best Sound Editing at the Oscars? Nope. But everybody remembers a good fashion train wreck out on the red carpet, like Bjork's dead swan. And that's why this show, with Ryan Seacrest and Giuliana Rancic, is usually more fun than the actual award show. (Sunday, 2/24, 3 pm, E!)

A Raisin in the Sun

The groundbreaking Broadway play about growing up black in Chicago in the 1950s is getting another fresh treatment. This one's a TV version of the 2004 Broadway revival, starring Sean Combs (aka P. Diddy) and Phylicia Rashad, who amazingly became the first African-American woman to win the Tony for Best Lead Actress in a Play for her role. (Monday, 2/25, 8 pm, ABC)

Love Letters to Earth @ Shadle Library

Fri., Feb. 3, 4-5 p.m.
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