The waitress at Dominick’s in West Hollywood commits the cardinal sin of presenting Bill Maher with the dessert menu.
“Dessert?” the comedian says, nodding in my direction. “We’re not on a date, you know. We’re just friends.”
“You don’t have to be on a date to eat dessert,” the waitress tells him.
The broad forehead wrinkles ominously toward a receding silver hairline. The wide mouth stretches into something that can’t decide whether it’s a frown or a smile. “Yes, you do,” he says. “Two men don’t eat dessert together. I mean, Jesus Christ! Cigars—that’s what we want—cigars and strippers, if you can get some of them over here.”
There’s a bit of the Friars Club in Maher’s persona, but there’s also a rapier edge that cuts through all sanctimony. Six days after the 9/11 attacks, Maher went on his show, Politically Incorrect, and picked an argument with the elected officials and pundits who’d called the hijackers cowards. “We have been the cowards lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” he told his audience. “That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”
Sears and FedEx pulled their ads; 17 ABC stations, including the Washington, D.C., affiliate, yanked the show from their lineups. Asked about the flap, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer cautioned Americans to “watch what they say.” The comedian issued more of a clarification than an apology, and ABC canceled Politically Incorrect eight months later. Maher says it occurred to him that maybe he was about to become the Dalton Trumbo of a new McCarthy era, but the notion soon dissipated. “Actually,” he says, “in a weird sort of way, I found greater support after that, not from people who have been marginal about me—probably there haven’t been a lot of people who are marginal about me—but people who were my fans really came out of the woodwork, and among them were HBO.”
When Real Time with Bill Maher premiered on HBO in 2003, the comedian was more relaxed, more blithely profane. Maher betrayed a certain exuberance about being rid of commercial sponsors and old-line network executives. The show, which has just started its fall season, airs live on Friday nights instead of every weeknight as Politically Incorrect did, so Maher draws on richer reserves of caustic material. (Real Time and Maher’s HBO stand-up show, I’m Swiss, were both nominated for Emmys this year.)
In this spring’s final Real Time episode, Maher ridiculed Bush for telling a German publication that for him, the best moment of his presidency was when he caught a seven-and-a-half-pound perch on his ranch. “The biggest perch on record,” Maher said in his opening monologue, “is 4.3 pounds. Bush lied and a fish died.” He then conducted an interview with former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who alluded to Bush’s declaration that God made him president. “If God chose George Bush, of all people in the world, to be president,” Maher asked, “I mean, how good is God, really?” After presiding over a raucous roundtable that included former national security adviser Richard Clarke, Princeton professor Cornell West, and singer John Legend, Maher ended the show with a case for impeachment. “Of course,” he said, “there is a laundry list of valid reasons for impeaching this president. But George Bush and his nest of vipers don’t deserve to be impeached with dignity for transgressions involving lofty affairs of state. They deserve the far worse fate that Clinton got—being impeached for absolutely nothing at all. And that’s why I want to impeach Bush—over the fact that he lied about that fish.”
During Real Time’s summer hiatus, Maher also brought his comedy to the Internet. Hosting Amazon Fishbowl with Bill Maher, he spoke with writers Stephen King and Dean Koontz and introduced in-studio performances by Rob Thomas and the Dixie Chicks. “The guest list is always going to be impressive,” he says, “because everyone wants to sell their shit on Amazon.” Maher, who didn’t have an e-mail address until last year, acknowledges the strangeness of starring in what is the world’s first Web-exclusive talk show. “I’ve never been on Amazon” he says, “but I hear it’s great. I think my assistant has gotten me books there. That’s the problem with having an assistant. It retards your need to become tech savvy.”
On the television screen, and even on the postcard-size box that pops up on the Amazon site, Maher’s head dominates. That furrowed brow, the nose, which is wide and flat, the rubbery frown, the sudden smile, the mischievous or exasperated eyes—all thrust themselves out at you, like a child’s face pressed against the front of a candy counter. Seasoned politicians have much to learn from Maher’s hand gestures. There’s a lot of the same pointing, pinching, and tomahawk chopping that you’d see during a stump speech, but there’s also something fluid about the movements, something impeccable about the coordination between punch line and flick of the wrist. In person, he’s much less imposing. Slightly built, wearing a starched white shirt with rolled sleeves, Maher’s a genial presence who, if so inclined, might pick up a tray and easily melt into Dominick’s waitstaff.
Over coffee he talks about a documentary he’s shooting about religion. His Irish Catholic father used to take him to church when he was growing up in River Vale, New Jersey. “One time I was slumping in the pew,” he says, “and the nun said, ‘The boy who is slumping in his seat is going to hell,’ which I think is a little harsh for slumping. That’s sort of bringing out the big guns. What is she going to do when she finds out I’ve been masturbating?” Maher narrowly escaped confirmation. “At the last minute,” he says, “my father got fed up with the pope. God love my father. He loved Pope John, the liberal pope, and I don’t know what Pope Paul did to piss him off, but he saved my ass.”
Maher, who turned 50 this year, regards himself as a late bloomer. It wasn’t until 13 years ago that he wangled Politically Incorrect onto the air. Before then, his career brought more sorrow than balm. He graduated from Cornell University with an English degree, only to take a ramshackle apartment in Manhattan and begin honing his stand-up, mostly by bombing in front of a couple of drunks at 2 a.m. “I lived one block from Studio 54 in its heyday” he says, “and the idea that I could go up to the doorman at Studio 54 when I was 23 with my crappy hand-me-down jeans and hobnob with Halston and Liza Minnelli—I could have gotten to the moon easier.” Even as his act got better—so much better that Johnny Carson would invite him on his show several nights a year—show business could reduce him to tears. “I remember crying when I lost the lead in the pilot for Mr. Mom, the TV show,” he says. “I was the choice of the producers, and they fought for me for months, but the network at the last minute said, ‘No, Barry Van Dyke.’”
When Politically Incorrect relocated from Manhattan to Los Angeles in 1996, Maher wasn’t destined to become one of those transplanted New Yorkers who pine for the motherland. “They once ran a headline in The Daily News: ‘Host to City: Drop Dead,’” Maher says. “They always had it out for me because I wasn’t a New York City ass kisser, because it’s been part of being a celebrity for so long that you have to bow down to ‘the greatest city in the world.’ I’m sorry. I have the fight to say I prefer living in L.A. It’s so anachronistic, this idea that we are all beach bums here. Come on, it’s where Steven Spielberg lives. It’s not exactly a town of morons.”
Los Angeles has proved more supportive of Maher’s two major hobbies—healthy eating and serial dating. Certainly there are more bookstores that cater to his extracurricular reading, which is devoted mainly to vitamins and herbs. In L.A. he has also enjoyed the company of more models and centerfolds. “I think New York is a girl’s town, and L.A. is a boy’s town,” Mailer says. “Whenever there’s a woman in Los Angeles who’s unhappy I always say ‘Move to New York. You’ll like it.’ I just think they rule there. All I know is that whenever I’m going around in the back of the cab in New York, sometimes I’ll pass a neighborhood or a restaurant, and I’ll say ‘Oh yeah, I remember that I went there with that girl. Aw, that wasn’t good.’ It’s never a good memory. In L.A., if I’m driving around, it’s always like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember the girl who lived in that building. We had a great time.’”