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“It Won’t Hurt You. It’s Vapor.”

How a cynical stoner Johnny Carson disciple with a habit of going too far managed to occupy an important place in the national conversation.

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Chico is humping me again.

“Chico, you fool!”

The host of the political talk show Real Time With Bill Maher is yelling at his dog while we attempt to have a conversation in his living room. An hour ago, Chico was attacking me in the driveway, sending Maher into increasingly frantic shouts of “Chico! Chico! Chico!” But now this cross between a Chihuahua and a greyhound (consider that pairing for a moment) is feeling amorous.

“Come here!” snaps Maher, pulling him off me. “You’re stupid.”

Chico isn’t the only distraction here in Maher’s Indian-art-themed bachelor pad tucked into the dappled bosom of Beverly Hills. There are these stone panels of the Kama Sutra over the mantel, featuring a guy you can’t help but imagine as Maher having sex in more than a dozen positions. “You know how the Indians are,” Maher quips.

And then there’s the giant balloon of vaporized pot we just inhaled. “It won’t hurt you. It’s vapor,” promises Maher, choking and coughing as he hands it to me.

But let us step back a moment. Earlier, Maher and I had faced off in a one-on-one basketball game on his outdoor court, situated at the end of a leafy stone path, past the pool and the party house and the bungalow where his bodyguard lives. Chico was on Maher’s team, leaping at me every time I got the ball. But Maher was focused and competitive, using the same offense again and again: He cut left, set up, shot, and scored. Swish. “I could do this all night,” he said. “I never get tired of it, just putting the ball in the hole, over and over again.”

Given what we know of Maher’s string of girlfriends over the years, a lot of them strippers and models, it seemed like a Bill Maher joke. “No,” says Maher, laughing wistfully. “I got tired of that.”

Emblazoned on his basketball court is a Celtics logo that actor Ben Affleck, the property’s previous owner, put there. A lifelong Knicks fan, Maher despises the Celtics. “It motivates me,” he says, when I ask why he keeps it. Then he darts by me and scores.

In Maher’s world, business comes before pleasure, and his business is jokes—putting the ball in the hole, over and over. Last night I’d watched the taping of the third episode of Real Time, now in its tenth season, which featured the former congressman Mark Foley (he of the gay-instant-messaging-with-congressional-page scandal) as well as Martin Bashir of MSNBC and super-chef ­Mario Batali.

“Tom DeLay—remember Tom DeLay?” asked Maher. “He said Newt Gingrich is the most despicable human being … he has seen since shaving this morning.”

Swish.

Referencing a photo that surfaced on the web of Miley Cyrus licking the balls-end of a penis-shaped birthday cake: “Teenagers on the Internet have to stop complaining that Miley Cyrus is licking the wrong end of her penis cake. Trust me, kids, when you get a little older, you’ll realize she’s actually licking the right side.”

Swish.

“This week liberals got a home-run State of the Union from the president of the United States—and conservatives got Heidi Klum back from Seal, so … ”

Well, he didn’t hit every basket either.

Before we go out to a club in Pasadena for the night, Maher fires up his pot-­vaporizing machine again and fills another watermelon- size balloon for the road. He stuffs it into an oversize shopping bag and heads for the garage, where his driver awaits us in a dapper suit and tie. Doors closed, Audi purring, Maher settles into the plush leather seats with the bulging shopping bag in his lap. Then he turns to me, eyes two slits, and reconsiders: “You’ve had enough, right?”

We leave the weed in the garage. It’s probably a good idea: Bill Maher has to be onstage in an hour.

Success has a way of making comedians less funny after a while. Jay Leno. Eddie Murphy. Jerry Seinfeld. What ever happened to Garry Shandling? Bill Maher’s shtick has never been revolutionary, but he’s been a consistent comedy machine for twenty years, cranking out sulfurous insults week after week, year after year, his facial expression of acid disapproval punctuating another fresh offense or oily one-liner as he pickles the day’s news in his own bitter brine. “Newt Gingrich doesn’t like condoms ’cause they’re hard for a fat guy to put on in a car.”

But in one of the most absurd and ­comedy-rich elections in recent memory, Bill Maher finds himself, by luck and design, near the center of the action. If Jon Stewart was the go-to comedic filter of 2008, this may be Maher’s election. In a bit of high political theater and marketing chutzpah, he gave $1 million to the super-PAC supporting Barack Obama in February. But more important, his comedy has met its moment. Even as he courts the chattering class on HBO every week, he remains a prickly outsider, a kind of self-styled comedy asshole who will never truly be beloved but whose caustic wit slices through the cynicism and ignorance with a tidy precision that is both old-school and ready-made for the Internet.


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