Erica Kornberg
August 12, 1994 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Watch Bill Maher host his comedy talk show, Politically Incorrect, on Comedy Central, and you notice two things. One, Maher may be 38, but his reddish hair and impish grin make him look like a 14-year-old in his father’s suit. The other thing you notice is that this is one smart comic. Maher knows about things — history, politics. He’s a comic who thinks beyond the joke, a comic with perspective, a comic who is…a novelist.

Not that he had a choice. True Story, Maher’s new novel, is the tale of five struggling young New York stand-ups making their way on the burgeoning comedy circuit of the late 1970s. Maher insists he didn’t write the novel to , achieve literary fame, although ”it would be neat to see my book next to James Michener.” He also didn’t write it to impress his fellow comics, although ”they’ve all told me how funny they think it is.” A Cornell English major, Maher didn’t even write it because he always aspired to be a writer: ”I used to go to poetry readings in college and try to do stand-up. It didn’t work.” No, Maher, who has been writing the novel since 1984, did it out of obligation. ”There has never been an accurate depiction of what it’s like to be a stand-up comedian. Somebody had to write about it. It might as well have been me. I just tried to make it read like a real novel.”

So, are the main characters — among them a womanizer; a comic whose act is over his audience’s head; a fat comic whose size is fodder for his routine; and our protagonist, a guy who walks all over anyone who stands between him and fame — based on entertainers we know? Says Maher: ”In those days, we were all in New York — Richard Belzer, Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Reiser, Roseanne, and I. Yeah, they’re all in there. Of course, I’m not going to say where.”

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