By Ray Sawhill
Bill Maher’s “True Story” (Simon & Schuster) is a true curiosity, a book by a popular hotshot (in this case the host and producer of TV’s “Politically Incorrect”) that isn’t an autobiography or a transcribed routine. Instead, it’s an episodic novel about a group of standup comics back in 1979 and 1980. New York City might be a fast-decaying relic, but the standup scene is prospering. Headquarters is The Club, an Upper East Side dive where the fellows go to “work out,” impress women, booze, agonize about their careers, and indulge in obscene-joke shootouts. Every now and then one of these hotshot-wannabes takes a gig in the sticks and shows the rubes a thing or two. Every now and then the rubes show the city boy a thing or two of their own.
At first, the book seems an underdramatized blur. It’s all observations, more a description of a novel than the novel itself. And while the writing has the top-this rhythms of standup, its tone is morose, in a guy-taking-stock-of-his-life way — perhaps because Maher wrote the book in the early ‘90s, between his years as a standup and when he developed “Politically Incorrect.” But Maher has a gift for guys-are-like-this / gals-are-like-that riffs, and the more he complicates the lives of his main characters with love and sex, the more his overgrown boys become distinctive.
And, in the book’s second half, he comes through with a handful of well-conceived scenes. One of them — a comedian-has-an-epiphany chapter, not an easy thing to carry off — delivers an impressively maudlin-yet-bitter wallop; it should be used as a shillelagh with which to tease oversensitive creative-writing students. The creepy competitiveness, the behind-the-scenes lore and the raunchiness all start to work, supplying a texture that’s rank and seductive.
At its best, the book suggests a half-baked cross between “Diner” and “Sweet Smell of Success.” Maher fans should enjoy it. So should anybody who’s fascinated by the standup life, as well as readers who like to fantasize about the movies good screenwriter / director teams might shape out of raw but rich material. Robert Getchell and Martin Scorsese, who worked together on “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” are you listening?
- Buy a copy of the book.
- Here’s Bill Maher’s website.
- Here’s an Onion A.V. Club interview with Maher.
©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The New York Times Book Review Section.