Simon & Schuster, 304 pp., $23
True Story turns out to be a qualified success -- light on character development but surprisingly clever, offensive, and insightful despite its faults. Set during the late Seventies, when storefronts and coffeehouse basements nationwide were being converted into comedy clubs, True Story tracks the fortunes and failures of five aspiring stand-up comics of varying ages and talent levels.
"What a rush to actually be making your living from comedy," comedian Bill Maher writes. Fame, sex, and money top the list of desires for his main characters: Dick, Shit, Fat, Chink, and Buck (so named for their comedy-routine specialties). Using the fivesome as his vehicle, Maher vividly re-creates what it was like to be a barnstorming comic when seemingly any comedy desperado, short on decent material but long on attitude, could still become a club-circuit headliner.
Although Maher's anecdotes and stand-up dialogue often "kill" -- he's clearly writing what he knows -- his characters more often bomb. Intended to reflect the rivalries and insecurities of the breed, the five stand-ups really aren't more than cardboard embodiments of jealousy, immaturity, or misogyny. The author acknowledges this in the foreword he contributes to this hardcover re-release. Maher wrote this story when he was arguably at the hungriest moment of his career -- before Comedy Central's (and later, ABC's) Politically Incorrect recast him as a nationally recognized talk-host hybrid of John McLaughlin and Dennis Miller. Well into his 30s at the time, Maher had given up acting and says his phone had stopped ringing. He wrote True Story at "a moment when some sort of commercial splash was needed."
Thus, this document of Maher's career becomes even more intriguing viewed against the rise, and the present fading glory, of his TV creation. Since its relocation to ABC, the sanitized network version of Politically Incorrect has never quite equaled the edginess of its earlier days on cable. But make no mistake: The talented Maher still displays flashes of his Comedy Central brilliance on PI -- and it's precisely those moments of sheer comic quickness that make True Story enjoyable, too.
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