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October 26, 2014

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Decades ago, Las Vegas was a Circus (Maximus) for Bill Maher

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David Becker/WireImage

Bill Maher at Pearl at the Palms on Saturday, March 23, 2013.

The hold music for Bill Maher’s office phone is the theme song from “The Price Is Right.” The application of that familiar tune does make sense, as his office is at CBS’ Television City, and he hosts his weekly “Real Time With Bill Maher” talk show at the same studio in which the game show is recorded.

I ask about the music and receive that explanation. But Maher finds a way to expand on the site of his talk show.

“This was Bob Barker’s home for a long time, and I have a bone to pick with him, so to speak,” Maher says. “He backed (Republican) David Jolly in that congressional race in Florida (won by Jolly over Democrat Alex Sink). He really helped him win. That’s no good. But, yeah, Bob Barker and I shared a dressing room for years.”

Having played a veritable cavalcade of Las Vegas venues on and off the Strip for more than 30 years, the 58-year-old Maher returns to his most recent Las Vegas home at Pearl at the Palms tonight and Sunday. (Tickets are $50; click to the Palms website to drill for more info.)

A recurring subject in this column, Maher and I chatted this week. Some of the highlights:

He first played Las Vegas in the “dead-ball era”: “I was opening for Diana Ross at Caesars Palace (Circus Maximus showroom) in 1982, I think it was. I had a bad feeling about Las Vegas for a long time, throughout the '80s,” he says. “My memory of Vegas in the 1980s was there were no young people, this was pre-reinvention of Las Vegas, when it was still Old Vegas but getting really old. It was the dead-ball era for the city, like the days in baseball when Ty Cobb led the league with nine home runs. Then, in the 1990s, they juiced the ball. It’s a power-hitting city now.”

He boasts a list of eclectic entertainers for whom he has opened: "I opened for Frankie Valli for a long time," he says. "That was an ongoing thing. Now Vegas has the 'Jersey Boys' musical, which is sort of ironic. Melissa Manchester, too. Diana Ross. I was an opener for years in Vegas before I headlined."

He’s encouraged by the high volume of top comedians working in Las Vegas today: “The last time I was in Las Vegas, in December, there were I think seven other top headliners on billboards around town,” he says. “This really is like the old days, when you had stars playing the casinos. Las Vegas is doing ‘people’ really well again.”

He sees himself as “the alternative” to most resident comedians in Las Vegas: “I absolutely am that. All I can do is be myself. I’m the alternative to George Wallace, the alternative to Carrot Top and even the alternative to somebody like Jerry Seinfeld, who is very successful but also appeals to the masses. I am not the comedian who appeals to the masses.”

He knew the late David Brenner for decades: “David was a guest on ‘Politically Incorrect’ (Maher’s talk show before he started “Real Time”), and he was in Vegas back when I started, but he barely knew who I was,” he said. “He would give me advice. I used to approach him as if he were the established comedian, and he’d say, ‘They consider me the young comedian here. He made that point very funny. But today, Las Vegas is way edgier.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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