Bill Maher’s True Story tries to say something profound about stand-up, but fails spectacularly

Bill Maher’s True Story tries to say something profound about stand-up, but fails spectacularly

I’ve heard scattered references lately to Bill Maher’s 1994 novel, True Story—written just before Maher arrived as a cultural and commercial force as the contrarian host of Politically Incorrect—on several inside-comedy podcasts. This makes sense given the book’s primary themes: the tormented psyche of male stand-up comedians and the byzantine codes and rituals of the stand-up community. In that respect, True Story was way ahead of the curve in imagining that the tragicomedy of professional stand-up could make for compelling entertainment. Maher was canny (or hubristic) enough to imagine that others might find comedians as endlessly fascinating as comedians find themselves. 

Back in 1993, True Story’s subject matter must have felt like a deal-breaker to most literary editors. Who would possibly care about five asshole stand-up comedians being obnoxious to each other while they chase women and that elusive big break with equal passion? Nowadays, Maher probably could have gotten HBO or FX to green-light a TV adaptation before writing a single chapter. (“It’s like Entourage, but with stand-ups! And from the mind of Bill Maher!”) 

But Maher paid the price for being ahead of his time, and for peddling an inferior product. True Story isn’t a fully formed masterpiece like WTF or Louie, nor was it a big seller. Maher would rise to household-name status not as a novelist who dabbled in television and stand-up, but as a professional provocateur and smart guy who once wrote a novel even his own fans didn’t know much about. 

In True Story’s foreword, Maher writes that he followed the old dictum to write what you know, which he points out is “especially good advice for people who are not really novelists but have one good story in them.” Having read Maher’s novel, I can vouch that not only is Maher not a novelist, he doesn’t really have a good story in him, either. Rather, he has a really great milieu for a novel: New York and the surrounding areas in 1979. As the ’70s turned into the ’80s, a weird existential calling performed by a contingent of like-minded brothers exploded into a tacky stand-up boom. That boom climaxed with an explosion of comedy clubs around the country with names like Silly Sir Laughs-A-Lot and Sergeant Chuckle’s Mirth Manor, each bearing a wall full of sad little headshots of up-and-comers, as well as a picture of the club owner with Robin Williams, who invariably stopped in unexpectedly and riveted everyone with a 90-minute improvised ramble sometime in early 1983. 

Yes, Maher has a wonderful setting and time period to explore in True Story, which only intermittently obscures the fact that he doesn’t have much of a story. Rather, he has a rambling, episodic, and shapeless account of hungry young men on the margins trying to nudge one another out of position as they lunge for the show-business ladder’s lowest rungs. 

For a famously smart guy, Maher makes a lot of incredibly stupid mistakes in True Story, beginning with naming his five main characters after the subjects that defined their acts. The novel’s most urbane, politically engaged, and sophisticated character is a renaissance man named Shit, whom Maher deifies as the debonair James Bond of the stand-up world before exposing him as a Reagan-era hypocrite. Then there’s Dick, a sybaritic connoisseur of female flesh whose entire life is one giant search for the next conquest, be it professional or sexual. Dick is joined by Fat (goodness, I feel even sillier than usual writing these names), whose life is one big fat joke where he’s the punchline. This gang of mirth-makers is rounded out by Chink, an esoteric genius whose work is supposed to be far too smart for him to ever achieve mainstream success, and Buck, who is every bit as engaged and passionate as Shit, but far more pragmatic and skilled in using his guile and the stupidity of those around him to get what he wants. 

Five protagonists is a lot for any novel, especially one by a first-timer. In the case of True Story, it’s at least two protagonists too many. Maher can be snide and condescending under the best of circumstances—hell, if Maher ever got married, I’m sure he’d find a way to make his vows snide and condescending—and Fat brings out the worst in Maher as a writer and a comic mind, as does Dick, who never emerges as anything more than a sentient dick joke. Thankfully, Fat disappears for huge swaths of the book. In fact, the character seems to exist solely for the sake of two slapstick setpieces the novel could easily do without, the first involving Fat getting stuck in a bathtub while trying to lose his virginity, and the other involving him stuffing his crotch with a roll of quarters onstage. 

A good indication of Maher’s attitude toward Fat can be found in an early passage where Fat looks on with wide-eyed admiration as Dick runs an elaborate seduction game on a department-store clerk. Maher writes, “To Fat, this made the raid on Entebbe seem like a game of checkers, or would have, if Fat had known what the raid on Entebbe was.” In one fell swoop Maher compliments himself and the reader for getting an obscure (but not too obscure) reference while lazily smacking one of his hapless protagonists for his comic obliviousness. 

A paragraph later, Maher strains even harder, to even more embarrassing effect, when he writes, “Fat looked at Dick’s date and drooled: She looked even better than she had in the store, which is more than you can say for a lot of the stuff at Bloomingdale’s. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Fat vowed, as God was his witness, if he had to lie, cheat or steal, he’d never be horny again!” Later in the book, Maher treads wearily to the same sorry well of lazy, overused pop-culture references when he writes of a coquettish woman holding her competing suitors at a comfortable distance, “In the best tradition of Scarlett O’Hara, she kept each sap guessing which one she preferred, maintaining physical contact with both hands and one foot, and keeping all three heads in play with a dexterity not seen since the plate-spinning guy on the old Sullivan Show.” 

These passages speak to True Story’s fatal flaw: For a book about the world of funny people written by a talented comedian—and I think Maher is at least as smart and talented as he is smug and unbearable, which is saying a lot—it’s just not funny. Oh, it tries to be funny, and suffers tremendously for the effort, as Maher trots out an exhausting avalanche of tired metaphors, groaning comic exaggerations, and pop-culture references even hoarier than the multiple nods to Gone With The Wind mentioned above. 

Maher didn’t understand that less is more, and that cutting obvious jokes from a manuscript is almost invariably the kindest thing you can do for it. True Story has two one-note characters that beg to be cut (Fat and Dick) and three characters (Shit, Chink, and Buck) whose searching intellects and iconoclastic personalities cause them to overlap into smudgy variations on the same comic genius. (This being Maher’s novel, it seems safe to assume that the inspiration for this iconoclastic comic genius would be a young Bill Maher.) 

True Story is hamstrung by off-putting and thinly conceived characters, bad jokes, clumsy prose, and indifferent plotting. It’s as if every 50 pages Maher remembers that novels are supposed to be about more than just boorish young men behaving like boorish young men and throws in a comedy contest or a new love interest or political intrigue to distract himself before returning to his comfort zone of men making jokes and chasing women. 

The only thing True Story has going for it is a deep understanding of the complicated psyche of the male stand-up comedian and the strange and exciting world he inhabits. At its best, True Story captures some of the electricity and romance of being young and in love with comedy, intent on mastering the enigmatic and daunting art form. When Maher stops judging his characters and scoring cheap points at their expense, he lets them experience the genuine joy of connecting with an audience or finding themselves onstage, something that’s much more satisfying. Maher may be a professional cynic, but the best parts of True Story—a book that only really comes alive for a few pages at a time—betray the fact that its author very much loves comedy and the strange community of misfits it fosters. But too often True Story gives itself over to lazy, unjustified, and, worst of all, unfunny misanthropy. 

Maher’s foreword also contains this revealing passage:

“I could never write a book like this again. I am not a novelist by trade, and I have the greatest admiration for those who really do this, because it’s a long haul, it’s lonely, it can be tedious, and the end isn’t always in sight. I know I wouldn’t put myself through it again. Just writing this short foreword was difficult for me, and the writing in it is not nearly as good as the writing in the book. After ’92, I left a piece of me on the field as far as what it takes to get yourself to hunker down and keep polishing a product so that every chapter, every paragraph, every sentence is finally exactly right. But I had enough energy, angst, depression, and frustration in 1991-92 to do it one time.”

Maher is giving himself far too much credit: True Story is an intermittently electric, exciting mess, but it’s anything but polished or perfect. On the contrary, it’s ragingly imperfect, but that’s part of its raucous, ramshackle semi-charm. In that foreword, Maher also pats himself on the back for not writing one of those hacky, “Here’s my act in book form” cash-ins beloved by lazy comedians. Maher deserves credit for not taking the easy way out and instead failing with a real book that tries to convey something important and new about being a comedian. But quickie cash-in books would soon be Maher’s stock in trade, as he turned into the kind of world-famous, super-rich comedian the protagonists of True Story would murder their mothers to become.