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“It Won’t Hurt You. It’s Vapor.”

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“I remember they were paranoid about any idea of saying that this drug is fun,” he says. “You’d think it was heroin and people were dying all over. They were so up the wazoo about drugs back then.”

With pot more or less legal in California now, Maher is clearly enjoying the fruits of his social justice. Not that he gets high on the job or anything, mind you. No, no, no.

Bill Maher has to perform an hour of stand-up in Pasadena in … let’s see … five minutes. He prepared in the usual way. His driver and bodyguard, Mark, an old friend from New Jersey, drove us up the 110 to the Ice House, a venerable comedy club where the Smothers Brothers got their start in the early sixties. I forgot to turn on my tape recorder in the car and quickly jotted down the highlights of our conversation afterward:

• It’s a myth that Bill Maher is exclusively into black girls.

• He didn’t like the title Real Time. “I still don’t like it,” he said.

• Through the years, he preserved the “flame of survival” that got him through his dark days as a depressed loser in high school.

• A few years ago, he dramatically reduced his drinking.

Backstage, Maher wolfs down some cheese and crackers and washes it down with a glass of tequila. Before he goes onstage in front of a packed house of 150 people, somebody asks Mark what time Maher’s set will finish. “Depends on how high he is,” he says with a mild smirk.

I figure Maher will be slower on the draw than usual, but while I’m clinging to my chair in the back row, wondering why the guy to my left keeps staring at me, Maher walks out, grins mischievously, and casually proceeds to level the room.

“This is the kind of raging narcissist Newt Gingrich is,” he says, pacing in an old T-shirt and black jeans. “Looks at himself in the mirror and goes, ‘What woman isn’t gonna want a piece of this? I gotta share this.’  ”

“There will never be a Mitt Romney sex scandal. Mitt Romney doesn’t even know what a blow job is. He thinks a blow job is something auto mechanics do to your fuel injector. ‘Which one of you gentlemen will be giving me the blow job today? Can I pay by check for this blow job?’ ”

On the tea party’s obsession with big government: For them, it’s “like Snooki’s vagina. It’s too big, it services too many people, and nothing good will ever come out of it.”

Roars of laughter.

Maher has told these jokes dozens of times in recent months, developing a set for an hour-long stand-up special that would be streamed by Yahoo in February. Even so, he uses a notebook on a music stand to guide him through the material. His memory isn’t what it used to be. “Timothy Leary, I used to go out with him for a while near the end of his life,” Maher tells me. “He once said, ‘People say pot destroys your short-term memory. I’d say, so what? Bring a pen.’ ”

Afterward, the director of the Yahoo special tells Maher he clocked in at 68 minutes. Maher figures club laughs go on longer than TV laughs (when audiences aren’t drunk), so he came in about on the mark. All in a night’s work. Maher closed with a riff that will likely define his comedic take on Barack Obama in the 2012 election: “Stop worrying about looking like the angry black man that they think you’re gonna be that you never are,” he says. “Be that guy. Flip the script! Make them nervous! Grow your hair out! There’s no wrong in the president having an Afro.”

(When the special airs, Maher adds a joke about Rick Santorum’s suggestion that gay marriage is the slippery slope to bestiality: “I don’t fuck my dog—and the reason is not the law!”)

A lot of these jokes were written by his Real Time staff at HBO. But Maher says he’s the only one with the chops to deliver them. “No matter how great those guys write, they’re not stand-ups,” he says. “It’s a slightly different thing. It’s in the blood from playing those Robert Klein records over and over, and [George] Carlin, and Alan King or whoever—stand-ups that I just adored and watched when I was a kid.”

Maher told his first joke when he was 6 years old, a riff he copied from a Smothers Brothers routine. He used a Wollensak tape recorder he got for Christmas when he was 12 to record stand-up routines on late-night TV. He would transcribe entire albums by Robert Klein on a typewriter so he could diagram how the bits were arranged. Creating a routine, he says, is “just building a ship in a bottle … I’ll go home and I’ll go, ‘Okay, if I just moved this one here, it would work better because—’ Just little intricate work.”


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