Maher liked Allen’s intellectual bearing, and unlike Carson, whose TV persona was so different from the private person that it was once described as “the visible eighth of an iceberg,” Allen was the same man on- and offstage. That was a revelation to Maher. “There was absolutely no difference between Steve Allen on-camera or off,” he says. (Maher read a eulogy at Allen’s funeral in 2000.)
By 1993, Maher was ready to turn a modest career of late-night TV spots and appearances in terrible B-movies and failed TV pilots into something successful starring Bill Maher. He pitched a show to Comedy Central executives that would remake political-debate programs like The McLaughlin Group with comedy and celebrities. He would do a monologue like Carson and feature assorted stars tackling current affairs. The very first guest during the first taping, in a studio on East 23rd Street in New York, was a Republican TV executive at NBC named Roger Ailes.
“Little Bear and Goldilocks are here, too!”
A guy in an old jean jacket and sunburst seventies shades is grinning like a madman in the parking lot of CBS Studios in West Hollywood, a joint smoking between his fingers. It’s Friday night, after the Real Time broadcast has wrapped, and the jean-jacket guy is Jim Vallely, Maher’s old buddy and the co–executive producer of Arrested Development. Maher and I just stepped out of the studio, and Vallely is using the code names they adopted on a recent boys-will-be-boys vacation.
“Picking right up where he left off in Hawaii?” asks Maher, taking the joint for a toke.
During New Year’s, Maher took his pals to Waikiki and Maui to hang out while he performed some stand-up dates. They hooked up with actor Woody Harrelson, who knocked on Maher’s hotel door in the morning with a bag of vaporized weed, ready to party. A few weeks earlier, Maher tweeted photos of the two together—they look like ecstatic, extraterrestrial rodents.
This is a ritual: After the show finishes at 8 p.m. on the West Coast, the end of a weeklong process of meticulous joke-writing, Maher staying up all night faxing fresh gags and editing his writers’ gags, Maher gets loose with his friends in the same lot where Jack Benny used to roam. Tonight it’s “Jimmy and the Doctor,” the Doctor being Maher’s holistic medicine man, a tall guy with a ponytail and wooden beads on his wrists whose website describes him as a “Spiritual Psychologist, Naturopath, Iridologist, and a Yoga Master.”
Also here is C. Brian Smith, a young comedy writer and friend of Vallely’s who used to hang out with George Bush’s daughter Barbara in the White House before he wrote a tell-all in Vanity Fair and was excommunicated from her posse. Now he’s in Bill’s posse.
“So what’s the plan?” Vallely asks as the Doctor hands me the joint.
“What do three men in their fifties do on a Friday night?” says Maher. “Let’s go have a good bowel movement.”
“Or an unbelievably long circle jerk,” says Vallely, casually unctuous, prompting a collective groan of disgust. Maher agrees that it’s gross.
“I’d have to go into the 30-second time machine on that,” says Vallely.
“Or go into the future where we forget it,” says Maher.
Maher recounts his interview that night with Foley, the conservative Florida congressman who resigned in 2006 after getting caught flirting with a male page, thus outing him as gay. Maher is proud he didn’t ask Foley about the scandal because he believes private peccadilloes are irrelevant in politics. At a cocktail mixer for the guests, however, it was clear Foley had come prepared to talk about it.
“He was almost disappointed,” marvels Maher. “He was like, maybe you don’t know my work! I’m the texty guy, hello! Nobody recognizes me? Fucking host didn’t do his homework at all.”
Smith notes that Foley’s hand “was getting a little back-rubby” at the after-party, and Vallely, so high he’s practically levitating now, keeps referring to Martin Bashir as Martin Balsam.
“Martin Balsam?” says Maher. “Martin Balsam was in the original Taking of Pelham One Two Three.”
“I’m an idiot!” yells Vallely, then gestures with the joint to an imaginary dealer. “Give me two pounds of this.”
Maher then drops into an admirable impersonation of Larry King, all Jewish delicatessen-ese: “Let’s go grab a nosh with Larry King.”
Vallely: “I guess I can keep my teeth in for an extra hour.”
Bill Maher is 56. If you look at video of him from twelve years ago, when he made his HBO stand-up special Be More Cynical!, Maher was dramatically younger. His copper-blond hair has gone silver, and his nose is a bit more bulbous. He does stand-up most weekends, flying to places like Appleton, Wisconsin, not only to hone his chops but to maintain the one gig that will be here after TV.