Bill Maher Apologizes for Using Slur on HBO’s ‘Real Time’: ‘I Did a Bad Thing’

Bill Maher
HBO/Janet Van Ham

Bill Maher on Friday again apologized for his use of the N-word on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” last week, engaging in an extended conversation about race with author and academic Michael Eric Dyson.

“I want you to school me. I did a bad thing,” Maher said at the start of the interview with Dyson, adding that it was a word that has “caused pain” among African-Americans.

It came minutes after Maher opened tonight’s edition of “Real Time,” which airs live, by thanking the audience “for letting a sinner in your midst,” a reference to his use of the N-word on last week’s show. Some audience members yelled, “We love you Bill” as he took the stage.

This was Maher’s first “Real Time” episode since using the racial slur during an interview last week with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). In the interview, the senator invited Maher to come to Nebraska and “work in the fields.” Maher replied, “Work in the fields? I’m a house n—–.”

HBO issued a statement condemning the remark, and Maher issued an apology the next day.HBO said the remark would be edited out of future airings of the episode.

In the conversation with Dyson, Maher noted that there was “a lot of bullshit apology in America. I am against that.” But he said that in this case, the apology for the use of the “N-word” was “appropriate.”

He said that Sasse’s comment about working “in the fields” had struck him as a “weird thing.”

“The comic mind goes to a weird place,” he said. “That is why I apologize freely and I reiterate it tonight. That is sincere.”

Dyson, an African-American, said that he took a lot of heat for agreeing to come on Maher’s show on the notion that it would seem to excuse his remark. But Dyson suggested that his use of the word was an “unconscious reflex” that comes out of a culture of white privilege, even among caucasians who don’t have any history of making racist remarks. “We have to grapple with how deeply rooted that is,” Dyson said.

Maher seemed to agree, but said that “it is not like I have made a career of this. It is not like I went out there last Friday and said, ‘Hey, we are going to break new ground tonight.’ “

Dyson did credit Maher for calling out racism in the past, noting that the comedian had said that “denying racism is the new racism.” He said that Maher was on the “front line” in pointing that out.

He said that “people don’t think Bill Maher is a racist,” but his point was that “if even Bill Maher can capitulate in a level of unconscious privilege, then the rest of us are in a serious spot.”

Maher responded, “I just don’t want to pretend this is more of a race thing than a comedian thing. Comedians are a special kind of monkey. We are a trained thing that just tried to get a laugh.”

He noted that comedian Kathy Griffin, who was under fire last week for posing in a photo with a fake severed head of Trump, “owes me a fruit basket for getting me off the front page.” But he pointed to her case and his as examples of where comedians went too far.

Still, Maher suggested that such mistakes shouldn’t mean the end of a person’s career. He argued with Griffin’s contention that her career was sidelined, telling her, “You made a mistake. You didn’t have to go away.”

Dyson did note, however, that “there are lines that you do not cross.” He recounted a scene from HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” created by and starring Larry David, in which “a black man comes up to [David] and says, ‘Hey, you my n—-r?’ He says, ‘Are you my caucasian?’ “

“What [David] understood was that is a line that he cannot cross and even his comedy cannot cross,” Dyson said.

Maher said that his use of the word “cost me a little bit of political capital.” He noted that he has a history of challenging the orthodoxy on the right and the left.

“Every quarterback throws and interception, I try to squeeze them in more than most,” Maher said, adding, “this was just a dumb interception.”

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In the wake of the furor over Maher’s remark, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) canceled his appearance on the show. In his place, “Real Time” booked Dyson. In the days after Maher made the remark, Dyson came to the host’s defense, tweeting that Maher “has bravely, and relentlessly, pilloried racism, white privilege, and white indifference to the black plight.”

Dyson further credited Maher for having “used his platform to highlight black faces, and amplify black voices, that might otherwise have never been given such a prominent perch to tell their truths.”

Other guests on Friday’s show included rapper and actor Ice Cube, with the roundtable consisting of David Gregory, former Rep. David Jolly (R-Fla.), and activist Symone Sanders.

After he sat down at Maher’s desk, Ice Cube quipped to him, “I knew you were going to f— up sooner or later.”

He then got serious and asked Maher, “What made you think it was cool to say that?”

“There was no thought put into it. Obviously I told Dr. Dyson, comedians they react. It was wrong and I apologized. More than that, I can’t do,” Maher said.

“I accept your apology,” Ice Cube responded. “I still think we need to get to the root of the psyche.” He noted that the word “has been used as a weapon by white people. We are not going to let that happen again.”

Jolly said to Maher, “The GOP handbook says, ‘Don’t agree with Bill Maher. But I want to say something to you. You apologized. At some point, America has to accept apologies. And more importantly, let’s focus on the people who speak irreverent words and refuse to apologize, because that is where the hatred in the heart is.”