Maher has paid his dues
BY SJARIF GOLDSTEIN / firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
>> 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.
“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.”