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.”
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.”
“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.
Smug? As he said about Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s claim that President Obama was condescending during a White House meeting about immigration: “It’s hard not to be condescending when you’re explaining something to an idiot.”
Maher has a penchant for taking it too far—like when he called Sarah Palin a “twat” last month, drawing him into a debate over sexism and misogyny after Rush Limbaugh called the Georgetown student who testified to Congress about contraception a “slut”—but it’s part of his brand now, certainly after his career-defining moment in 2001, when he was booted off ABC for arguing that the 9/11 terrorists weren’t necessarily “cowards.” To hear him tell it, Maher simply enjoys that moment of being Wile E. Coyote when the ground disappears beneath him.
“Because I feel like I’m on the edge,” he says. “You have to go over it to know where it is. I also like the idea that there’s some place I can go with people so that the next time they see me, maybe they’re a little more on my side.”
Since he started as host of Politically Incorrect on Comedy Central in 1993, he’s occupied a weird zone of libertarian-left politics, more or less a fusion of Ron Paul and Al Franken. Pro–death penalty and pro-pot, anti–flu vaccines and antiwar. The postmodernists on Comedy Central, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, have inspired a devoted following by eviscerating our political culture from the left, and rightly so, but they’re never going to disturb their own audience’s sensibilities like Maher does.
It helps that Maher’s comedy is caged inside a format as familiar and comforting as an old Zenith. For all his rebellion, Bill Maher is an ecumenical late-night host, a devotee of Steve Allen and Johnny Carson, whose shows were creature comforts built on Borscht Belt rhythms dating back to Milton Berle and the dawn of television. No reality-bending fake super-PACs here, no fictional personae who in reality are Catholics living in suburban New Jersey. Maher has always played himself, a belligerent atheist and dope-smoking womanizer, putting on a version of the same show for twenty years: an old-school monologue, a lively political debate that’s half–cable news, half–Dick Cavett, with a “Weekend Update”–style op-ed, “New Rules,” as a closer. He has the same producer and head writer he had in the nineties. He inspires loyalty in his crew: Most of his staff moved to Los Angeles with him when Politically Incorrect left New York in 1997.
Perhaps most impressive, Maher has sustained his sense of outrage. He’s still pissed off about corn subsidies and people’s blind faith in their “imaginary friend” in heaven. Maher isn’t aware of becoming angrier, he says, only that the things that make him angry have met him more than halfway: “I will say this: The Republicans are, for sure, worse than ever. If I am more angry, they deserve it. They’re worse than ever, obviously.”
That scathing certainty is why he can’t get conservative politicians to come on the show (a problem Stewart and Colbert don’t have, by the way). But it’s also why Maher is on HBO. Real Time serves as HBO’s unofficial VIP lounge, offering a little Hollywood sparkle to the pundit class, who in exchange lend a halo of political relevance to HBO.
What makes Maher “real” is also what makes him a perennial outlier to his East Coast guests: his louche lifestyle as a Hollywood lounge lizard who is as much at ease with hip-hop playas as with Barney Frank. He told me he originally wanted his HBO show to be called True Dat, which the network rejected. But even the title Real Time was meant to signal he was “getting real” in the Jay-Z sense. Among his closest compadres is Christopher Reid, “Kid” from the nineties hip-hop duo Kid ’n Play, who wrote the sample-and-beat-driven theme song for the show and who has played Virgil to Maher’s Dante in a years-long tour of L.A. nightclubs, where Maher got acquainted with black women. Reid says they maintained a list of the hottest clubs called “The Royal Scroll.”
“What people of color like about Bill is his honesty,” says Reid. “Black people can smell fear in white people. They’re like bloodhounds. When Bill and I hang out, and there are people of color around, they gravitate to him.”
Maher calls Reid, “in the best sense of the word, ‘hip.’ ”And Maher still believes in hip, though his idea of it probably hews closer to Dean Martin. Which brings us to pot, his version of the highball: Maher has become perhaps the most prominent user and advocate in America. Ten years ago, he gave a speech for the pro-pot organization NORML and outed Ted Turner and Harrison Ford as pot smokers. Zach Galifianakis famously sparked up a joint on Maher’s show last year (though Maher later revealed it wasn’t real). For Maher, it’s not just a comedian’s vice (though it’s that, too) but a litmus for his idea of liberty, a measure of America’s moral hypocrisy. Maher says he couldn’t even joke about pot when he was on ABC eleven years ago.
“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.”
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.
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.
“They’re gonna get rid of you anyway in television, just when you start looking bad,” he says. “Johnny Carson was pretty much one of the biggest stars ever, and he was 66 and they kicked him out to pasture. If they can do it to an icon like that … I just think the network thinks that they get tired of you and what you do and generations change. And they may be right.”
Ten years ago, Maher discovered holistic medicine and became a big believer in juicing and home colonics. (“Anything that’s bothering you from here up,” he says, gesturing above his neck, “I find, once you empty from here down, it just goes.”) But even as he embraced organic food, becoming a self-described amateur herbologist, he only became more notorious for his drunken roving through strip clubs and the Playboy Mansion.
“Back then, I wasn’t very good at leaving pussy on the table,” he says with that shameless straight face of his. “If something was very attractive and very available, it was very hard to say no.”
In his late forties, he started forming longer-term relationships, but it was a tough learning curve: In 2004, he was sued by a model and stewardess named Coco Johnsen, who claimed Maher promised to marry and support her but then broke it off, allegedly causing $9 million worth of financial damage to her career. It was thrown out of court, but you had to wonder: Didn’t Bill Maher, who is a very smart man, see that coming?
“I do not have good –dar of any kind,” he says. “Gaydar, anything.”
Next came Karrine Steffans, a hip-hop starlet known as the “Video Vixen” who wrote a tell-all book about her string of lovers, which, in addition to Usher and P. Diddy, included Maher. Her nickname in hip-hop circles was “Superhead.” When they broke up, Steffans told Vibe: “Bill wants someone he can put down in an argument, tell you how ghetto you are, how big your butt is, and that you’re an idiot. That’s why you never see him with a white girl or an intellectual.” (Maher says she was just “acting out,” and they now have “a very nice friendship” via e-mail.)
“I had a thing for hot chicks who are fun,” says Maher, “and for some reason, for a while, a lot of them I met were black.” His last girlfriend was a black stripper named Flo who had a successful business performing at company events using a mobile pole. But Maher came to realize that drinking too much while on an endless quest to get laid was taking its toll, and most important, was less funny as he entered his fifties. The joke about twin teenagers in a hot tub? “That’s a joke I would never do now,” he says. “Never. First of all, it doesn’t really describe my life now. And also, it’s icky.”
In the past, he says, he’d been afraid of commitment because he feared it would destroy his work. But that was then. Maher is in a serious relationship now with a woman named Jasmine, who is, maybe strangely, not a stripper, though she is more than twenty years younger than Maher and is said by friends to be highly attractive. When I ask if she’s blonde, after seeing some hairs in the guest bathroom, Maher looks temporarily stricken, afraid he’ll be accused of infidelity. “That’s probably the maid,” he says. “My girlfriend does not have blonde hair, and I do not cheat.”
Friends say Maher is in love. “If you look at any Sinatra movie from 1965, he always gets trapped at the end,” says Vallely.
Maher has never quite shaken the reputation he’s a misogynist. Even right-wing pundit Ann Coulter, a friend, told him on his show that the proof was in “every single thing you say about women.”
“I’ll take the rap for some of that reputation I have,” he says now. “Some of it was just me being insensitive or trying to get a laugh.”
But cleanish living, a steady girlfriend, and a Sinatra-esque refrain of “regrets, I’ve had a few” are probably as far as this revolution in maturity is going. Maher doesn’t want kids. In his mind, he already has them—every Friday night.
“The audience has always been my kids,” he says. “That’s where my energy went. That’s where my caring, as you put it, went. That was the relationship that I’ve maintained and really worked the hardest on. Harder than real relationships.”
Back in the CBS parking lot, Maher and his posse pile in a car together and head out to Swingers, a diner around the corner. They meet up with another mainstay of Maher’s gang, Kato Kaelin, the infamous houseguest of O. J. Simpson, who was also on the Hawaii adventure. After they eat, the five men go cruising around West Hollywood, from Fairfax Avenue to La Cienega and back again, over and over, for two hours, singing songs by the Eagles and Frank Sinatra from behind the tinted windows of Maher’s black Audi.
As the evening winds down, Maher gets the showstopper, belting out a rendition of “New York, New York.”
Top of the list,
King of the hill,
A-number ooooone …
“He’s no Sinatra,” says Vallely later. “But you know what? Sinatra was no Bill Maher.”