His father, Bill Maher Sr., was a news editor at NBC, and his angry tirades against Nixon, fueled by an Irish-Catholic temper, became a blueprint for Maher’s own obsession with current affairs. He grew up in River Vale, New Jersey, a commuter suburb that his father traveled from every day to the city to work with Don Imus in the seventies. There was showbiz in the family, too: Maher’s cousin was Stubby Kaye, who played Nicely-Nicely Johnson in the 1955 MGM musical Guys and Dolls. Kaye once visited the home of Maher’s aunt in a limo.
In high school, however, Maher’s star power was not yet in evidence. “I was kind of a loser, certainly socially,” he says. “I’ve never felt anything as bad as high school. That was crushing.”
He studied literature at Cornell University, and his first attempt at telling jokes in public was at a poetry reading. Girls shunned him. “And of course, I spent the next 30 years making up for it,” he says.
When he graduated, he moved home with plans to make it in comedy in New York. A boyhood acquaintance he used to shoot hoops with, New Yorker editor David Remnick, told him to look for “rent-free situations” in the back pages of The Village Voice. The first ad he responded to didn’t work out. “I was so dumb and naïve, I didn’t realize it was an old queen,” he recalls. “About an hour into it, I finally got it. ‘Oh, okay, I’m on a date here.’ ”
Maher found a place in the East Fifties, where he lived in the cramped maid’s quarters of a South African diplomat’s home, and he was tasked with picking up his three kids from private school and speaking French to them in the afternoons. It was 1979, the dawn of the stand-up-comedy boom of the eighties, and Maher went out at night to be a hanger-on at Catch a Rising Star on First Avenue. He became the junior striver to the more advanced pros working the stage: Richard Belzer, Larry David, and Jerry Seinfeld. “I was the little mascot,” he says.
Larry David was the master of ceremonies at the time, deciding who was fit to get onstage at night, and he gave Maher his first break. “Larry David was the one who said, ‘Yeah, I see some potential there,’ ” says Maher.
Maher worked hard, but his material wasn’t particularly innovative. “I memorized a hundred euphemisms for ‘penis,’ which I still could probably do,” recounts Maher, going into the bit: “prick, dick, cock, schlong, schmuck, peter, pecker … ”
It goes on and on.
“That’s the level where you are,” he says. “Anything to get in.”
Jim Vallely, a fellow comic and friend since the late seventies, remembers Maher dreamed of doing a talk show that was like the sophisticated cocktail parties they saw on TV in the sixties, particularly in Playboy After Dark. Hosted by Hugh Hefner, the 1969 show featured celebrities and intellectuals tinkling glasses with barely clad bunnies. “Bill Cosby would come on, and he’d be wearing a turtleneck and an ascot,” Vallely says. “ ‘Hey, there’s free hippie tail out there. All we gotta do is put on some beads, man.’ ’’
Maher eventually became the emcee, which helped hone the stage authority he would later use as a TV host.
Maher remembers exact dates of his landmark moments. June 20, 1979: the first time he made audiences laugh for a full fifteen minutes. August 31, 1982: his first appearance on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. Maher would appear on The Tonight Show 30 times. Carson requested the same joke again and again. “I’m half-Jewish and half-Catholic, and the joke was I used to bring a lawyer into confession,” says Maher.
At the time, Maher was living in a dump in Spanish Harlem. He sometimes survived by cashing in the first-class plane tickets NBC gave him to appear on Carson, flying coach, and collecting the difference.
Carson was Maher’s hero and a model for what he wanted to become. The opening of Real Time is a virtual homage. “First of all, I got a monologue style that I’m still using,” says Maher. “But I don’t feel bad about it because he used to always say his was from Jack Benny.
“He was my comedy god more than any of them,” he continues. “Also, he’s just a cool guy. When you’re that age, it’s the same reason you like James Bond. He has control. Girls like him. Everything I wasn’t. You gotta aspire.”
Maher developed a close relationship with another old-school mentor, Steve Allen, the legendary host on NBC in the fifties and sixties. Allen hired Maher to be the master of ceremonies in a comedy revue he launched in L.A., and they worked together on and off for several years.