Maher has paid his dues

Dec. 30, 2014 | 32 Comments In the Star-Advertiser Friday Print Edition
(Kelli Bullock / Special to the Star-Advertiser)

(Kelli Bullock / Special to the Star-Advertiser)


The list of comics who have remained successful stand-ups 35 years into their careers is a fairly short one. The best tend to take lengthy detours into movies (Eddie Murphy) or sitcoms (Roseanne Barr). Others die (Greg Giraldo), lose popularity (Andrew Dice Clay) or burn out (Dave Chappelle, but watch for the comeback).


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Bill Maher is on the survivors list. While known best for his topical talk shows (“Real Time” on HBO for the past 12 years and “Politically Incorrect” for a decade before that), he has remained active — and successful — as a stand-up comic, performing 50 shows a year even with “Real Time” in production.

The dedication to the art that gave him his start brings him to Hawaii for the fourth year in a row, with shows on Oahu and Maui.

Even without a presidential election and with seemingly little effort on his part, Maher arrives in Hawaii at the tail end of one of his more eventful years, having made more headlines than usual.

The highlights?

>> His “flip the district” campaign targeted a Republican Minnesota congressman, John Kline, who won re-election last month.

>> He mixed it up with Ben Affleck on an October episode of “Real Time,” taking liberals to task for going easy on Islam …


When the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby gained steam last month, most of America was forced to rethink its image of the legendary comedian-actor-pitchman.
Bill Maher said he had no such dilemma, having heard firsthand a woman’s story of dealing with Cosby on set.

“I knew an actress who worked on a movie with him in the ’80s,” Maher said in a recent phone interview. “She did not say that he tried to drug her, but she did say that for the first two weeks, he tried every day to (bed) her, and when it became clear that she wouldn’t (have sex with him), he made it a nightmare for her being on that set. So I’ve never liked that guy, and I’ve never thought he was funny.”

Maher concedes that allegations have to be handled carefully in a country where “anyone can say anything.”

“However, when it’s 24 women, that’s a lot of smoke. You have to look at motivation. What motivation could Beverly Johnson have? She has fame, she has money. There’s no glamour in saying an old creep forced himself on you.

“This is not like Woody Allen or Michael Jackson. Woody Allen had one accuser with a clear reason to hate him. This is 24 accusers over three or four decades.”

>> … which led to University of California at Berkeley students petitioning to have him removed as speaker at this month’s commencement.

That petition was ultimately unsuccessful — Maher spoke at the ceremony Saturday — and he remains unfazed as he returns to Hawaii, ready once again to focus on making people laugh as he has for the past 35 years, dating back to his start in New York in 1979.

SOME OF Maher’s comedic influences, such as Johnny Carson and George Carlin, are obvious. Others, less so: “Dean Martin, whom my mother loved” is the example for Maher’s goal to be “the same on screen and off.”

Like so many men, however, his biggest inspiration has been his father, who was funny in the living room but a serious newsman at work. That led to Maher’s interest in current events.

He incorporated that interest into his comedy early in his career, though it didn’t take right away. (“What sort of audience wants to hear about politics and religion from a 23-year-old?” Maher notes.)

But his parents’ biggest contribution to his success may have been not standing in his way.

Maher remembers wanting to do stand-up since he was a shy 10-year-old, though he never told his parents until he was trying to make it in New York. Once they found out, he had their blessing.

“They let me be what I want because I stayed out of trouble … as far as they knew,” Maher said.

Maher graduated from Cornell and moved to New York in 1979 to take his shot. He’d work the big three comedy clubs at night — Catch a Rising Star, The Improv and The Comic Strip — and toil days as a bodyguard of sorts for a South African ambassador’s kids in exchange for a place to stay. “I have closets three times the size of the room I had then,” he said. “It was terrible but I was warm.”

He didn’t know it, but he had landed right in the middle of the golden age of stand-up. New York’s comedy scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s produced iconic comedians who have reached all levels of Hollywood’s hierarchy — from TV stars such as Paul Reiser and Richard Belzer to classic “that guy from” characters such as Larry Miller and Gilbert Gottfried.

The comedians who “passed” Maher at two of the big three clubs — meaning he could book regular slots instead of just hanging out all night hoping to pick up late-night/early-morning scraps — were Jerry Seinfeld and his “Seinfeld” co-creator, Larry David.

These comics saw peers such as Freddie Prinze (“Chico and the Man”) and Robin Williams (“Mork & Mindy”) land sitcoms, and dreamed of getting the same chance.

Unfortunately, these breakthrough acts also flooded the clubs with amateurs seeking fame.

“I’m at Catch,” Maher said, “and there were guys with day jobs doing comedy. One guy was a dentist. He may have been a funny dentist, but he was a dentist.”

Maher likens the competition of this time to a marathon.

“For the first 5 or 10 miles, you’re bumping up against everybody until you figure out who’s a contender and who’s throwing up by the side of the road.”

The booming popularity was reflected on TV as well.

“Growing up (in the ’60s and ’70s) you might see on TV one new comic a year,” Maher said. “David Brenner was the last comic who was famous just for being a comic, making the rounds on Carson and Merv Griffin and whatever talk shows were on then. Suddenly there’s a new (comic) every month.”

Told that Elayne Boosler, another of his peers on the New York comedy scene, once compared stand-up of that era to disco, with so many people doing it that a lot of it was bad, Maher agreed and also noted the faddish nature of the comedy boom: “There were disco balls in a lot of those comedy clubs,” he observed. “And a lot of them probably became strip clubs after.”

Maher emerged from the pack in 1982 with three appearances on “The Tonight Show.” That prompted his move to Los Angeles the next year, aiming to land a sitcom.

“We all wanted to do a sitcom,” Maher said. “We saw Seinfeld get (a recurring role on) ‘Benson,’ and Robin Williams. That was the goal.”

His turn came in 1984, when he won a role in the Geena Davis vehicle “Sara.”

“It was supposed to be a hit,” he recalled. “We had (creator) Gary David Goldberg, who had ‘Family Ties,’ and a great cast: Geena Davis, Bronson Pinchot (coming off his breakthrough in ‘Beverly Hills Cop’) and Alfre Woodard, who is still a friend.”

Maher calls the experience “awesome,” but it lasted only 13 episodes.

“I got paid like $7,500 a week or something to be a funny guy on TV,” Maher said, “but we got canceled, which in some ways was a blessing in disguise. I could have gone on for years playing the office creep.”

LUCKILY, MAHER had stand-up to “fall back on.”

Though he dabbled in movies (“Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death,” anyone?) and TV (two guest spots on “Murder She Wrote”), he kept at stand-up and grew into his voice as a political comedian.

He described himself at the time as a Libertarian, though he finds it harder to call himself one now, even as his ideals have stayed the same.

“I didn’t change. Politics changed,” he said. “Libertarians always were in favor of letting people do what they want as long as it didn’t hurt anyone. It’s only when the Ayn Rand wing of the Libertarian party took over, the kind of people that don’t want meat inspectors, because if someone dies eating meat it’s up to people to change their behavior …”

By the early ’90s Maher had established himself as one of stand-up comedy’s leading political voices, which led to “Politically Incorrect” and then “Real Time.” His persistence paid off.

Maher attributes his enduring success to two things, one predictable and another less so.

“Someone once told me, ‘Sanity is your edge.’ Lots of comics have talent but they also have demons,” Maher said, noting how many great stand-ups — including the shrill Gottfried, “a comedy genius” — have fallen to self-sabotage.

The less secret secret to Maher’s success is hard work.

“Being a comedian is like being a violinist,” he said. You have to practice every day, keep working, work all the time. If you want to live on sheer inspiration, you’d better be the greatest comic ever.

“You’ve got to work on the material, listen to the audience, see what works. It’s all about moving one word in a sentence, moving one sentence in a routine, putting the routine together.”

  • Lora leigh

    Just keep doing what you’re doing Bill. Happy New Year!

  • Wan Lee

    ‘Murder She Wrote’ ?! I guess we all have our dark days. No worries Bill, I still love you… and I promise to never ever watch any episode of MSW.

    • Mannock

      Oh come on! Murder She Wrote was a place where you were guaranteed to see baddest dames of film noir as they aged…and gracefully. Audrey Totter, Marie Windsor, Ann Blyth, Vivian Blaine, Virginia May, Marsha Hunt…they were all there, as was Angela Lansbury, a noir babe of the highest order.

  • James V. Weldon

    he’s the MAN – who stands up to THE Man, in the best voice possible – puncturing absurdity with truth.

  • Robert Stevens

    Bill Maher is the logical successor to Thomas Paine. Just WHERE would we be without Franklin, Eleanor, Jerry and BILL !

  • Gary Zakes

    Happy New Year Bill…Keep on being REAL…..

  • robert bush

    Doesn’t anybody proofread this stuff? What’s with all the /0x2008/ everywhere inside and outside the quotation marks? Really, I mean come on, you didn’t notice that?

  • Charles Lange

    Love it….Bill gives hope in this world full of BULLSHIT…….NOTHING makes sense any more………Bill nails it !!!


    Equal opportunity satire, fierce and funny, Bill Maher represents everything good about the United States of America.

  • simoneti

    Ix2008….what’s that? Do I need to decode? LOL

  • Penni Hayes

    Let’s not forget Bill’s stand-out smarminess in “House II: The Second Story”!

  • Ancientone

    My question is why did 24 women suddenly appear after decades? Now that he is old and rarely heard from they want to finish him off? If it had happened to me all hell would have broke loose on the spot!

    • SusanK6461

      Perhaps because they all felt isolated, intimidated by being disbelieved. Of course a lot of these allegations are during the time he was the well-loved Cliff Huxtable. With his fame and fortune, who would have believed one single woman, with no evidence to corroborate? Perhaps the first brave soul broke the ground each one of the others needed to finally empower them to publicly admit something no doubt embarrassing on many levels. And with each woman who mustered the courage to do so, it became easier for all who followed.

    • js

      You don’t remember 1994, when he went to court over sexual assault charges, but settled out of court, therefor not being pronounced Guilty, but not being declared Innocent? These accusations aren’t new. They have been made over a long time, now, he doesn’t have the influence he once did. Now, the accusers have a better chance of being heard and not silenced.

    • Kimberly Benne

      These allegations aren’t new and women need to stop buying into the patriarchy that allows the kind of behavior that Cosby is accused of to slide. Trust me, women don’t make these kinds of allegations for attention. You’re put through hell by people near and far and you end up wishing you’d just kept your mouth shut so please, do your homework when you make this kind of comment lest you come across as obtuse.

    • Kilmo Doome

      People in the industry have been witnessing and hearing these behind the scenes stories for decades. When you’re just another cog in the production wheels you say nothing officially or you’re out of work permanently. Just sayin……

  • Wendy Darling

    “I’m at Catch,” Maher said, “and there were guys with day jobs doing comedy. One guy was a dentist. He may have been a funny dentist, but he was a dentist.”

    Hey, everybody’s gotta make a living. Bob Newhart was an accountant, but he did okay.

  • Fausto Montoya

    Was back then , Or better jet , Is he alone on trying to “seduce” “drug ” ” bed” young starlets in the industry ? Fame can be very expensive for woman . Here and in China . In the 70 in Mexico there was this very powerful fella that didn’t very many get away ! Or they won’t be on T.V. and “famous ” ! Is there any more of those out there ? Yes . Lots of them ! here and in china ! It make them feel powerful ! Pure evil runs in their hearts ! making people believe otherwise completes the job ! and most likely they end up believing it themselves !after all they are supposed to be doing someone a big favor ! A disappointment for all !

  • Emilio Lizardo

    Being unpleasant to a woman isn’t a crime. yet.

    • tsering dolker

      He never said it was. You are making up your own arguments on things he never said. What is it called again? Red Herring?

    • OldMaidWhovian

      But lacking the courage and character to behave like an grown man, and a gentleman, really should be something any male with an ounce of pride SHOULD be ashamed of.

      Not being in control of yourself, isn’t empowerment, it’s a WEAKNESS. Cosby is not only NOT a man, he NEVER was a gentleman and he’s a weakminded coward.

      I can’t make you lot support the man, but I can try to shame you into growing up, growing a pair and showing a little respect for women.

  • toncuz

    We call baby-sitters “bodyguards” now?

    • Sjarif Goldstein

      I didn’t go into detail in the article, but he walked them back and forth to school. Didn’t really do any traditional baby-sitting (watching over them at home, for example). I thought “bodyguard of sorts” was as good a description as any.

  • OldMaidWhovian

    Wow, ticket prices…yikes. So…he never plays to people on fixed incomes, I take it?

    I like Maher, really I do, but…come on? “Hard working?” 50 shows a year & a TV show? OK, my last $9 an hour job in rural upstate New York, I HAD to work 6 to 7 days a week: no vacations, no healthcare, no overtime, no sick days (& if I was sick, no pay), and the all of SEVEN days a year I got a day off for a national holiday–i had to work EXTRA HOURS, to make up for the lost day’s pay.

    I’ve also worked 7 days a week at a Travelodge doing laundry, and worked as the sole office cleaner at a large casion /horse racing complex, and in my 30, was a stable hand, mucking 23 stalls a day, plus lots of other heavy lifting, dirty work.

    “Hardworking,” my arse. Get some perspective, you over-spoiled twits.

    • MzWrites

      Looking at these ticket prices his run fairly moderate compared to a rock-and-roll show. I wouldn’t hesitate to pay that to see him – he’s intelligent, and knows his facts. Plus – he’s in the business to make money, plain and simple, just as anyone else who works for a living. That he enjoys himself while doing it is an added bonus that I’m just a little jealous of. If I had to fly somewhere across the country nearly every week of the year while producing a weekly show on a very competitive cable channel I would absolutely call it hardworking. It doesn’t mean that you weren’t “hardworking” in your chosen line of work. I’ve HAD to work at jobs I don’t like for little pay, but I certainly don’t begrudge those who work hard at something they love. Seems like sour grapes to me.

    • Mike D

      There’s a difference between working your body hard, and working hard to stay competitive in a field that requires knowledge. I guess research analysts, programmers, investors etc. don’t work hard to you because they aren’t shoveling horsesh*t.

    • tehuti

      That’s a really uninformed view. If you think what Bill Maher does is easy you are wrong. Do you think successful TV people just roll out of bed and show up at show time? No, that requires hours and hours of preparation that we never see. Don’t hate him for his success. I guarantee you he probably works harder than you do.

    • Jacqueline r-r

      My kids took me to see him in Philadelphia in June for my B’day this year. I loved the show. Hey! How much did it cost?

  • thomas

    Bill Maher tells it like it is. He’ll never burn out. People either love him, or hate him. He is the Mohammed Allie of comedy, and people of both persuasions would flock to his fights. Mohammed was probably the smartest fighter that ever put on boxing gloves. He was a born entrepreneur, and George Foreman was smart enough to” get it ” later in his career. Guess Foreman turned out to be the all time greatest, and Bill Maher knows what it takes to never burn out with the public. These guys have moxie in spades. Too bad Mohammed just didn’t have the WILL to quit the ring while he was still ahead.

    • George Johnson

      I don’t love Bill or hate Bill. I think he is often funny which is a plus and sometimes wrong on issues which he makes a big part of his bit, you know, the “I’m always right about stuff” thing. Yeah Bill you are not always right. Obama 2012 pops into my mind like when we look at “the knockout game” and weekly “race riots” at malls around America yeah Obama gets credit for all of that and for manipulation of the media to force them to fail to cover it.

      How anyone can not admit race relations in America have been set back 20 to 40 years is beyond me but Bill will stand by his man Obama till the end of days watch. It’s life in the OTHER bubble. Until he figures out where those blinders of his are Bill will continue to lose interest and popularity just like Dennis Miller did with the whole “George W Bush is awesome” thing… Dennis who?

  • Kojo

    I’d pay that $$ to see Bill any day. He is a REAL American hero.

  • blank

    He’s extremely handsome