A Most Unlikely Star

Michael J. Ybarra's last article for the magazine was a profile of competitive lifeguard Craig Hummer

Bill Maher is angry, his normally smooth face as wrinkled as a Shar-Pei's. He seems consumed by moral outrage. Sitting in a stiff leather chair on the columned set of "Politically Incorrect With Bill Maher," the comic riffles through news clippings as the cameras roll: In Florida, 76-year-old Ina Brown has triggered a wave of lawsuits against American Family Publishers and other magazine purveyors because she mistakenly believed that she'd won $11 million when she saw the smiling faces of Ed McMahon and Dick Clark in her mailbox. And that makes the often detached, usually unflappable Maher just a little crazy. For God's sake, his own 79-year-old mother back in suburban New Jersey could have been misled.

"Elderly people in Florida are upset because they have basically been falling for these, and I don't blame them," Maher says, his voice quivering. "I don't understand them either. She thought she won."

"Ina went out and bought a Cadillac?" asks Rick James, the funk singer and felon, sitting on Maher's left. "No," Maher says, his comic instinct chasing away that moral outrage in a blink of an eye, "she's white." Laughter gusts off the L.A. audience in gales, followed by the thunder of applause. Maher fights to keep a smile from ruining his poker face--the kind of smile that first crossed his features 25 years ago when the shy senior with the craving for stardom recycled Johnny Carson jokes for the high school talent show.

Is Maher putting on a show now? Is his anger just a costume donned for effect, like the suit and tie he hates but wears daily? Or is it real?

"El-der-ly peo-ple," Maher moans, drawing out the syllables.

His guests--James, actors Jeffrey Tambor and Patrick Duffy and columnist Barbara Howar--don't seem to share his angst. "Just send them a card that says they won their lawsuit and they'll believe that," Duffy jokes.

"You're all being very facetious," Maher chastens. He sounds more like a schoolmarm than a man who has spent most of his adult life trying to make people laugh. Comedian, it turns out, is only one of his guises: He also styles himself a moralist, a libertarian Bob Bennett, lecturing his guests and audience about the defilement of American civic life one moment, then in the next breath dashing off a vicious one-liner. This admixture has made Maher an unlikely star.

Television critics gush over "Politically Incorrect," which throws politicians and show-business types--the famous, the infamous and the in-between--together to discuss events of the day. The resulting chatter is unpredictable, sometimes stuttering into incoherence, sometimes soaring into edification. The formula proved to be so entertaining that ABC snagged the show from the Comedy Central cable channel, and put it on at midnight following its powerhouse current-affairs program "Nightline."

"Politically Incorrect" did what no show has done in 15 years: It made a dent in the ratings duopoly of Jay Leno and David Letterman, inching up to the former in many markets and often trouncing the latter (although in most of the country "P.I." goes up against the second half of both shows). Time magazine credits Maher (along with comic Dennis Miller, who once died a living death in a late-night time slot) with bringing back political satire. Vanity Fair proclaimed "Politically Incorrect" one of the few spots on TV "where there are true spontaneous combusts." A Playboy critic enthused: "One of the few you actually wish went on longer than its allotted time."

Maher, however, rubs many others the wrong way. "He referees a food fight of the second-string famous versus the b ush-league powerful," snarled Tom Carson in the Village Voice. "If he were hosting a show that had people competing to send their pets on dates, his attitude, and even some of his jokes, would be exactly the same."

On this night, Maher doesn't even mess up the table, his wicked wit evaporating as soon as he starts talking about Ina Brown. "Some of these people flew to Florida because they wanted to beat the [contest] deadline," he says. "They took their life savings and flew to Florida."

His plea for sympathy fails. "They didn't get to be old by living in a closet," Duffy counters. "You need to accept some responsibility for yourself." Tambor joins in: "It's become a victim's sort of society." Maher's small eyes light up. "I'm so against people who say they're victims, and I certainly hate stupid people--but I feel bad for Ina Brown," he says, a smirk at last trembling across his face. "I'm as stupid as she is."

Who's talking: Bill Maher the moralist or Bill Maher the jokester? Is he genuinely offended or is this the sham sincerity of a late-night talk-show host just trying to pay the rent? Will the real Bill Maher please stand up?

*

William Maher Jr. was born in 1956 and grew up in River Vale, N.J. His late father was a gregarious Irish-Catholic news editor who worked for NBC and fed the family jokes to keep them laughing. His mother was a nurse, Jewish, quiet and serious like her son. Maher was a smart, shy kid who stood in the shadows of the porch of the family's rental house on the Jersey shore rather than act on his father's prompting to play with other boys. "I just couldn't go out in the street and say, 'Hi, I'm Bill Maher. Can I play with you?' " he says. "That has not changed. I still think that's why people want to be famous."

Maher wanted to be Johnny Carson. He crept down to the basement rec room after his bedtime to watch "The Tonight Show" on the family's black-and-white television. At 10, he had found his calling. Later he got a TV in his room and held a tape recorder up to the screen to pirate Carson's comedy skits. He told no one. Toward the end of his senior year, a teacher suggested that Maher serve as master of ceremonies at the high school talent show. He did, recycling Carson's jokes. "To this day," he says, "I don't think I've ever been so thrilled coming off a stage."

Maher kept quiet about his career plans while majoring in English at Cornell University, pouring his ideas for comedy bits into his journal. Then one August day during the break between his junior and senior years, Maher took the bus into New York, stood in line at "Catch a Rising Star" and signed up for the club's amateur show later that night. He told jokes about a scandal in the Yankees' management and won an invitation to return. He finally told his parents what he wanted to do with his life. "I was petrified," he admits. But they were understanding.

Maher graduated from college in 1978 and returned to New York the following year. He spent 18 months hanging out at the club, where Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser already had a toehold. "There's a certain type of guy who goes into comedy, and well-read and articulate usually doesn't make the list," says Jim Vallely, a comic who started with Maher and now writes for television. "Mostly it's guys who made fun of and beat up guys like that in high school. Bill was one of three guys [in comedy] who read the New York Times and expected his audience to read it as well."

Vallely and Maher had a lot of time to chat at the club's bar, waiting weeks for the nod to go onstage, which earned the lucky comic a hamburger and cab fare and a chance to humiliate himself. "For a $5 cover and a two-drink minimum, citizens could come to The Club and enjoy the spinout of other people's heartfelt dreams," Maher wrote in "True Story," a 1994 fictionalized account of a year in the life of a group of struggling comedians in New York.

Eventually, Maher landed the emcee gig at the club, earning $150 a week in cash for three nights' work, as much stage time as he wanted and the right to choose which other comics would perform. Three years after Maher graduated from college, a talent scout for "The Tonight Show" asked him to call. Maher flew to Los Angeles and did a bit about being half Jewish and half Irish: "I brought a lawyer into confession," he said. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I believe you know Mr. Cohen." Johnny loved it.

*

Two women walk into a bar. Feminist scholar Margot Hunt and her bimbo undergraduate sidekick, Bunny, are looking for a mercenary to lead them into California's uncharted avocado jungle--the setting for the 1988 movie "Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death." A ninja, a Vietnam vet and a pro wrestler volunteer for the task--until they find out it involves the Piranha Women, Y-chromosome-loving cannibals. The three toughs slink away.

"The threat of a strong woman," sniffs Hunt.

"Not so fast," comes a voice. From the shadows of the bar walks a medium-sized man with reddish hair, dressed in a safari outfit, gold chains gleaming in his chest hair. "There are still some real men left in this world, men who have not been castrated by the years of feminist propaganda that corrupted the public school system, infected prime-time television, men who believe that nature designed women to cook, nurture children, pose for Penthouse magazine. Real men. See, our role in this world is to love, protect and--yes, I'm not afraid to say it--dominate women." Then the politically incorrect jungle guide with the canteen of pina colada takes a pratfall.

The real politically incorrect guy, who can still recite lines from that movie, was also stumbling. In fact, "Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death" was one of his better roles. It wasn't supposed to be that way. In 1983, after his third "Tonight Show" appearance, Maher moved to Los Angeles. He landed a gig in a film called "D.C. Cab" and soon was working steadily in movies, getting sitcom spots, doing comedy at night.

In 1985 "Family Ties" creator Gary David Goldberg cast him in an NBC sitcom called "Sara." Geena Davis played the title character; Maher played a sleazy lawyer who picked on a gay lawyer. "Everyone was so sure it was going to be a huge hit," Maher says, but the show never made it onto the fall schedule. Next came an offer to host a syndicated late-night talk show called "Night Shift." But Maher was fired before it was broadcast.

Over the next half-dozen years, two more sitcoms came and went, as did a year spent working with Fox for his own show, "Bill Gets a Life." To vent some frustration, Maher finished "True Story." It was published to mixed reviews ("misogynist, juvenile fiction," panned Publishers Weekly; "a vicious, bittersweet, desperate, hilarious tale," countered the Boston Globe). The book is now being developed for HBO.

In 1992 he purchased a house in Bel-Air. He was making a nice living and "Tonight Show" talent scouts were advising other comics to be more like Bill Maher, but his own career seemed stuck in a bog. "It was the next step that was the killer," Maher says. "You really have to get your own show, your own vehicle. That was the most scary thing and becomes the most depressing when, as I was, you've reached your mid-30s and you still haven't made it. When you're 35, 36 and you're still not famous, you're starting to fall behind the pace boat. My friends were starting to make it, become famous, the guys I'd started out with. But I hadn't, I hadn't found my vehicle."

*

Proudly displayed in Maher's rather bland office, deep in the bowels of CBS Television City, is a framed 1967 copy of Time magazine with his idol, Johnny Carson, on the cover. Although Maher still reveres Carson, he chafed under the constrictions of late-night television. "They don't want any surprises," Maher says. "They go over your set line by line, joke by joke, almost word by word. I pushed the envelope as much as I could, and I often went off script and just did a joke because I was rolling and the audience was with me. I was yelled at a few times."

He despised the "Tonight Show" producers who asked him during the Reagan years not to joke about the president and who interviewed him to make sure that his banter with Carson would flow. "I hate that scripted, planned, unspontaneous conversation," Maher says. "It would be really frightening and radical to everyone involved to do it a different way, to not know what the guest was going to say. I think the talk shows are too prepackaged for my tastes, but if you didn't do it that way, maybe it would be a real train wreck. A lot of people really can't have good conversation."

After taping an election special in 1992 for the fledgling Comedy Central cable channel in New York, Maher pitched his idea for a different sort of talk show, a freewheeling round table modeled on a cocktail party--or, if you listen to Maher's friend Vallely, a bunch of comics flinging quips over breakfast after closing a club.

"Politically Incorrect" was born the next year, and it was soon a hit. For the first couple of years, "P.I." was taped in New York, a town Maher can't stand ("At least in L.A. we're honest about being phony"). By 1996, Maher had become a star and started to act like one, moving the show to Los Angeles. Now work is a quick drive in his black Mercedes down Sunset Boulevard from his house to his prime parking spot in the studio's VIP lot.

The night I visit Maher at home after taping the show, he flicks on the pool lights and a soft blue glow fills the backyard as we settle down in the dark living room. He has a decent-sized shelf of books arranged by topic but admits he's been too busy to crack a binding in years. He's got plenty of nice art (delicate Indian paintings, a large Renaissance oil) but doesn't seem to know much about any of it. He's got a home gym, a walk-in bar, lots of CDs. "Do you like my home?" he asks, but the answer doesn't interest him. He seems to like his place but broods that it's too close to the street, unprotected, vulnerable. He seems to crave a wall, or at least more distance.

Since Maher's five-year relationship with a Los Angeles financial analyst ended in 1993 (the second time he came close to marriage) he has only shared his plush but unostentatious house with the two mutts--Blackie and Odie--that he saved from the pound. Maher dotes on them, his cool demeanor dissolving as he plays with the happy animals, lovingly taking off their collars. "Now I've stopped having children," he says. "Two's enough. Three is a pack and they'll gang up on you."

Maher loves animals. People are another matter.

"Around town Bill has a sordid reputation," acknowledges his longtime manager Marc Gurvitz. "People always say he's tough. But he's just about the work. He just wants to tell the truth. He's not a guy who makes small talk. He's not a guy who walks into an office and says hi to everyone. If you know Bill, that's just the way he is."

Longtime friends say that Maher hasn't changed a bit over the years, that he still calls them at midnight just to say he's thinking of them. But one old comic buddy, Larry Miller, was surprised at how serious Maher became when Miller joked about ending a raccoon problem at his house with bullets. "He said very quickly, 'Larry, don't say that,' " Miller recalls. "I actually looked at the phone and said, 'What did you do with my friend?' [Maher] said, 'I can't stand people but I love animals.' "

Back at Maher's house, we're sitting on a cushy sofa. Odie puts his paw on my thigh. Maher removes it. Odie puts it back. I remove it. The other paw pops up in its place. "It's like living with a comedy team," Maher laughs. "I know some pretty funny people--in fact, I probably know the funniest people in the world--and there's not one person in the world who has given me close to the amount of laughs as this comedy team."

This is not the Maher that viewers enjoy watching but don't particularly like, the alternately detached or prickly persona, the Maher with the icy reserve and considerable ego who alienates even some of his own guests by not meeting them before the show. Like the suit and tie he tugs off as soon as he gets offstage, this is Maher finally unwrapped.

"It's just amazing," he says, beaming as he lavishes strokes on his dogs. "It's the same old tricks." This time there's no doubt about the smile.

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