The star-studded Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel is about as Hollywood as it gets, which makes the restaurant an odd spot for a conversation about San Francisco. But maybe that’s the point. Bill Maher, smirky comic and politically wisecracking host of HBO’s Real Time, is wellensconced in Tinseltown, but he considers San Francisco to be his satellite city of choice. “It’s like New York without the attitude,” says Maher, dressed in jeans and a sport shirt, his gray hair swept back. “It has a cosmopolitan vibe, only 800,000 people, and it’s close enough to L.A. that you can literally go there on the spur of the moment.”
Forty-eight-year-old Maher actually grew up on the East Coast, earning an English degree from Cornell University and honing his comedic skills as a stand-up on the New York club scene, then shifted to the West Coast 11 years ago when he debuted Politically Incorrect on the then-fledgling Comedy Central cable channel. Ratings were impressive enough for the nightly program — on which well-known guests conversed about issues of the day — to get picked up by ABC, where it enjoyed a four-year run. Last year Maher, who received a 2003 Tony Award nomination for his one-man Broadway show Victory Begins at Home, began hosting Real Time. “The biggest difference is that HBO has no commercials,” says Maher, contrasting his new poli-talk show against his old one. “That changes the rhythm. But now that I’m used to it, it seems completely barbaric to tell Gore Vidal that he has to shut up because Bounty paper towels has something they’d like to say.”
Since you got your start as a stand-up comic, we’re curious how you think San Francisco ranks as a comedy town.
San Francisco is a great comedy town. It’s sophisticated, very smart, media savvy, and talented comics have come out of there. Robin Williams, for starters, still lives near there and still performs in clubs there. People in San Francisco get the jokes.
Where would you send someone who wanted a night of laughs?
Cobb’s Comedy Club. It’s been there 20 years. The guy who runs it — believe it or not, his name is Tom Sawyer — knows where all the bodies are buried, comedy wise. He’s been doing this longer than anyone in town. He loves comedy and is very funny himself. The place is cool and loose and intimate. It holds 400 people. So if somebody in the third row says something, everybody hears it and the comedian responds. It’s equivalent to when baseball players used to talk to people on the subway and work as bartenders in the off-season.
I take it that you used to play at Cobb’s?
Yeah. And Tom is a friend of mine. When I’m in town performing, we usually go out for food after the show. He takes me to whatever is the good place.
One time I went with then-mayor Willie Brown to the Black Cat, a real hip, throw-back-to-the-day kind of club where you expect to see Dobie Gillis playing bongos and reading poetry. San Francisco is that kind of town. The mayor can go into a nightclub and nobody thinks twice. I used to say to him, “Willie, you know you couldn’t get away with half [the stuff] you do in any other city in the country.” He laughed and knew exactly what I was talking about. San Francisco is a hip town. Another place that I like is Harry Denton’s Starlight Room, a lounge that’s way up top in the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. It’s sophisticated and always jammed.
San Francisco’s such a great food city. Where do you like to eat?
I am not a real gourmand. I can picture restaurants but don’t remember their names. I go wherever Tom takes me.
What are your favorite neighborhoods?
I always wander around Haight-Ashbury. I was a little young for the ’60s there, but it’s fun to go into the poster stores, the places selling tie-dyed stuff. Japan Town is also great. It’s small and incredibly lovely. I remember a time in the ’80s when a comedy club put us up there in a wonderful hotel with Japanese gardens. I remember sitting in a bathtub in that hotel and crying. I had been up for the lead in the TV series of Mr. Mom. I was the guy the producers wanted and they were fighting on my behalf for months. But the network kept asking, “Who is this kid?” I got back to my room after the show and found out that I didn’t get it. I can still picture that little Japanese tub.
Where do you stay now?
I always stay at the Ritz-Carlton. It’s my favorite hotel, bar none. The Ritz-Carlton is a good place for food, and they are always great to me. They have the personal touch. Last time I got there, I hadn’t checked in since my new show, Real Time, started. They had a big chocolate clock in my room. That was nicer than a fruit basket.
Does being funny ever help you get better service on the road?
I don’t know if it’s because I’m funny. But when people are your fans, they tend to go out of their way for you. I never understand guys who, after seeing three or four strangers coming up and saying positive things to me, will comment, “Man, I don’t know how you can stand that.” I say, “Stand what? People telling me that they like me and giving me stuff?” It’s not a horrible thing to endure.
You obviously travel first-class these days, but what was it like when you started out?
I never flew first-class until I was 35. Not ever. Even when I was given a first-class ticket, which is often the case when you’re flown somewhere for a television appearance, because there are union rules. When I was a young comedian, The Tonight Show would send me a first-class ticket, and I would immediately trade it in to make $1,400. It was three times what The Tonight Show was paying me in salary. I remember going to London in 1984 to do a TV show. They gave me two first-class round-trip tickets. I made 10 grand on those. I wouldn’t trade them in today, but the airline ticket money was a good thing back then.
Give me a dream panel of San Franciscans for Real Time.
Definitely Willie Brown. He is truly politically incorrect. Rob Schneider is another one. He lives in San Francisco, has already appeared on my new show, and I love him. Francis Ford Coppola is good, and he was a fan of Politically Incorrect. Then I’d add Robin Williams. That would make for a great show.
How do you get around town when you’re there to perform? Does the promoter give you a car and driver?
I don’t know that they give it. But I know that I’m too old to be hailing taxis. So I have a limousine. But that wasn’t always the case. I remember the first time I went to San Francisco in 1977. It was the standard summer college trip: My roommate and I lit out across the country in an $800 car. We sought out Lombard Street — the world’s crookedest street — and I got that out of my system.
On your shows, you come off as a snappy, understated dresser. Do you get much into clothes shopping when you’re in town?
I can think of one jacket I bought there. My best friend and I were dating two girls who were best friends. It was very Happy Days: Potsie and Ralph take the girls up to San Francisco for a weekend. We went and saw a movie. I didn’t like it. So I left and went shopping up the street. I bought a sport jacket that was — I’m not going to deny this — red. But it was deep-red-and-black-checked.
How do you stay in shape when you’re on the road so much?
Normally, I’m very good with that. But one of the nice things about being on the road is that it gives you license not to be good. For a weekend, you can let it go with the food and with the working out. I eat things on the road that I would never eat in L.A. If it’s 3 in the morning and I am back in my hotel, and the best thing on the overnight menu is the Kobe burger, I’ll have it. If I eat three hamburgers per year, they’re always eaten at three in the morning in hotel rooms. You’ve been drinking, so your judgment is clouded, and you know that you’re not going to get to sleep unless you get a good meal in you.
The gossip columns are always mentioning you as a regular at Playboy Mansion parties. Let’s say you’re in San Francisco and you want to bring back a gift for Hugh Hefner. What do you get him?
Hef’s a hard guy to shop for. What do you get him? It has to be something sentimental, unique, rare, usually old. I would look in City Lights bookstore and maybe get him a first edition of a book by Lawrence Ferlinghetti [the famed beat poet who owns City Lights]. Hef probably talked to Ferlinghetti in 1958 and tried to get him to write an article for Playboy.
The polar opposite of Hugh Hefner is Ralph Nader. He’s been on both Politically Incorrect and Real Time. What would it be like to spend a night on the town in San Francisco with Nader?
It would make me miss my night on the town with Willie Brown. He is the guy you want to be out with. There would be no night out with Ralph. He owns one suit and has never been in a club unless it was for a fundraiser. Ralph is the most serious man in America and he only cares about the cause.
Anything you long for from San Francisco?
You mean the way Elizabeth Taylor wanted the chili from Chasen’s when she was in Rome?
Something like that.
What San Francisco has is not something you can bring back. It’s an amazing city on a hill where people are beyond tolerant. People of all different races and sexual preferences and countries of origin mix as easily as they are ever going to. San Francisco is one place where people see beyond the superficial things. That’s why I like being there. That feeling is very hopeful. People are just people. Nobody thinks about [racial and sexual differences]. And if you did, you would be the outsider. You’d be the one that everybody else has to be tolerant of.
bill maher may not remember everywhere he likes to go in san francisco, but his pal tom sawyer sure does. so, with a little help from tom, here’s a rundown of bill’s favorite san francisco treats.
for a good laugh
cobb’s comedy club
915 columbus ave.
for drinks after the show
242 columbus ave.,
for a steak dinner
izzy’s steaks and chops
3345 steiner st.,
for reasonably priced chinese food
2031 polk st.,
for a late-night meal
sparky’s 24 hour diner
242 church st.,
for dinner and jazz
enrico’s sidewalk cafe
for a second
round of drinks
la rocca’s corner tavern
957 columbus ave.,
for a good night’s sleep
600 stockton st.,
cocktails, and a
taste of 1950s high life
harry denton’s starlight room
450 powell st.,
for good books
city lights books
261 columbus ave.,
our favorite san francisco treats
for a good night’s sleep
the serrano hotel
405 taylor st.,
part of the cool kimpton chain, this excellently located boutique hotel is housed in a beautifully restored, 17-story spanish revival building. the rooms are swank, with big windows, sumptuous appointments, and ornate spanish and moroccan details. it’s the perfect place to unwind after a day of sightseeing or meetings with clients.
for a cheap night’s sleep
the mosser hotel
54 fourth st., (800) 227-3804
business travelers who crave both savings and style check in to this recently renovated spot close by the moscone convention center. the accommodations are chic but small, and for the smallest expense accounts, there are even 54 rooms that share a hall bath. but with its own recording studio, conventioneers aren’t the only guests here.
for fresh seafood
swan oyster depot
1517 polk st., (415) 673-1101
food writers jane and michael stern are among the many fans of this old-fashioned fish market/oyster bar serving up delicacies from the sea such as dungeness crab, boston-style chowder, clams, and kumamoto oysters.
for organic, artisanal pizza
1512 shattuck ave.,
long before wolfgang puck, the folks at this popular berkeley institution were serving up exotic pies with locally grown toppings like wilted greens, goat cheese, and roasted yellow peppers. get it to go or nab one of the small sidewalk tables.
for cold beer and hot dogs
547 haight, (415) 863-2276
this down-and-dirty pub in lower haight-ashbury boasts one of the best selections of beer in the country, including 60-something ales on tap. the servers can sometimes be surly, but they are nice enough to let you bring in a bratwurst or other tasty meat item from the rosamunde sausage grill next door.
for martinis and manicures
2299 mission st.,
during happy hour at this mission district nightclub with kitschy ’50s beauty-salon decor, you can sip cocktails and get your nails done all at once. djs spin top tunes nightly.
for a good laugh
beach blanket babylon
678 beach blanket babylon blvd. (at green street),
this zany comedy show incorporating topical characters like arnold schwarzenegger and paris hilton is a san francisco staple celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
for good, clean fun
3601 lyon st., (415) 561-0360
experiment with everything from magnets to music to the origins of matter at this hands-on science museum housed in the palace of fine arts.