Maher the Merrier

updated 07/24/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/24/1995 01:00AM

BILL MAHER FIXES HIS VISITOR with a wobbly smile. He has just come from the dentist with two new fillings and a mouth numbed by novocaine—a troublesome state for him, since Maher depends on the quickness of his tongue as the acerbic host of Politically Incorrect, the off-the-wall cable talk show he likens to "The McLaughlin Group on acid." Five nights a week, on Comedy Central, Maher (pronounced "mar") leads an eclectic array of guests—everyone from Oliver Stone to Donna Mills to Robert Kennedy Jr.—as they shout, pout and squabble about Michigan militias, gays in Hollywood, South African elections and anything else that strikes Maher's fancy. "If a woman can rent herself out for nine months as a surrogate mother," he quipped recently, "why can't she rent herself out for 10 minutes as a prostitute?"

Good question. But right now, Maher, 39, his puffy mouth askew as he sits by the pool of his Los Angeles home, would rather talk about flossing. "I cannot get into it," he confesses. "The hygienist said I had stuff under my gums from the Carter Administration."

Tooth—er, truth—is, the breezily irreverent Maher drew a few boos in Clinton-era Washington last March, when he emceed the annual dinner for broadcast correspondents and tweaked some VIP guests. D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who had served a six-month term for cocaine possession, had "a plan to get drugs off the street—one gram at a time," said Maher. Then, referring to Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, whose spouse is Korean-American, Maher jibed, "He's so tough on immigration, he's going to have his wife deported." To critics who called his humor tasteless, Maher responds, "There was nothing I said that was in any way inappropriate. I think I came just a little too close to how politicians make their living, which is fooling people."

In fact, Maher, who won a CableAce Award last January as best cable talk show host, has far more boosters than detractors these days. "Bill is a first-rate social satirist," says consumer activist Ralph Nader, who has been on the show twice.

"He's a great ringleader," adds Roseanne, another recurring guest. "He knows when to stir things up, when to agree and not agree. I like fighting with him. He calls me his feminist nemesis."

To Maher, the real fun is in creating deliberately dissonant pairings of guests. Author Gay Talese had a fab time with MTV host Fab 5 Freddy. Sci-fi novelist Harlan Ellison ruminated with rocker Meat Loaf. And, says Maher, 20/20 host Hugh Downs "turned out to be very funny, very loose," when teamed with prop-comic Carrot Top.

Maher himself keeps some pretty odd company. Though his own politics run to middle-of-the-road (he's for gun control and the death penalty), he is friendly with conservative socialite author Arianna Huffington, a frequent guest. ("We argue over most subjects," he says, "but she's so charming and so classy.") And Maher pals around with Kato Kaelin, whom he met last March when O.J. Simpson's former houseguest visited Incorrect. "Bill," observes Kaelin, "is an intellectual who doesn't let it be known." Maher demurs. A "slow reader" who scans the network news for his ideas, he'd "rather be known as a wiseacre," he says.

But Maher's roots suggest Kato may be on to something. The son of Bill Maher, an NBC news editor (who died of cancer in 1992), and his wife, Julie, 76, a retired nurse, the Manhattan-born Maher grew up in suburban River Vale, N.J., where his mother and sister Kathy, 43, an English teacher, still live. He was, he recalls, "an intense, serious, adult-like kid who always made lists and never watched cartoons. I was snobby at 5."

By 11, though, he had begun to watch Johnny Carson. "Johnny was so cool, in control and naughty," he says. "But I was too scared to let anyone know I wanted to be a comedian." Even after "the pure adrenaline high" of emceeing the talent show at Pascack Hills High School in his senior year, Maher kept his ambition a secret. At Cornell he majored in English. But soon after graduating in 1978 he joined New York City's comedy-club circuit, where he befriended fellow up-and-comers Jerry Seinfeld and Paul Reiser. Four years later, in the first of dozens of Tonight Show appearances, Maher finally got to meet his boyhood idol. "I told the first AIDS joke," he recalls. "The punch line was, 'I just want to meet an old-fashioned girl with gonorrhea.' It released a collective tension. Johnny said, 'That was one of the longest laughs I've ever heard.' "

Maher headlined his own HBO comedy special in 1992, and a year later he launched Politically Incorrect. "The whole point of the show is that there's something funny about everything," Maher says, "and not letting all the sadness of life overtake you."

As it did for Maher. His five-year romance with an L.A. financial analyst (whom he identifies only as Stacie) ended in 1993. "It's still tough for me," he says of their parting. "That's the girl I thought I was going to marry."

Although he dates regularly, Maher's only real commitment these days is to his career. He has an August HBO special and still tours as a stand-up comic. Would he ever run for office? That, says Maher, would be politically incorrect. "I don't think I'd ever be welcome. Nor," he adds, as if peering at a needle full of novocaine, "would I want to be."

GREGORY CERIO
JOHN GRIFFITHS in Los Angeles

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