Bill Maher has long been the Susan Lucci of the Emmys’ variety series category: His ABC platform “Politically Incorrect” landed eight straight nominations in the 1990s, while HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher” has enjoyed a 10-year streak. But he’s never won.
Meanwhile, the variety landscape has become even more cluttered, so much so that the TV Academy split it into two fields: talk and sketch. The talk category is as bustling as ever, so the last thing anyone looking to land a nomination needs is a faux pas like the one Maher unleashed on last week’s episode of “Real Time.”
Speaking with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, Maher quipped, “I’m a house n—,” in response to Sasse playfully suggesting the host come work in his state’s fields. In the wake of Kathy Griffin’s controversial photo stunt last week, reaction to Maher’s remark was swift. HBO released a statement calling the host’s use of the racial slur “completely inexcusable and tasteless,” and Maher himself later apologized as well. Meanwhile, at least one prominent frequent guest, Al Franken, has backed out of an upcoming appearance.
Maher has supporters in the controversy, including other frequent guests like rapper Killer Mike and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson. Many, however, are calling for his dismissal from the cable network. And Hollywood will have a chance to respond as well, as Emmy ballots are set to go out to TV Academy voters next week.
Awards may not seem to matter here, but in the bigger systemic picture, which affords someone like Maher the kind of privilege that allows him to think he could have gotten away with what he said to begin with, they do have an impact. The #OscarsSoWhite movement was about representation, for example. You cannot underestimate what “Moonlight’s” best picture victory, sullied as it was in the moment, meant for under-served voices. Choices made by these organizations are being scrutinized more than ever, so with Emmy season in full swing, the timing could not be worse.
Of course, the 61-year-old Maher has been in hot water before. “Politically Incorrect” was canceled in 2002 largely due to controversial remarks he made on the show within a week of 9/11. “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” Maher said at the time. “That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it — not cowardly.” Major brands pulled advertising from the show and soon enough, Sinclair Broadcast Group dropped “Politically Incorrect” from its ABC-affiliated stations.
But “Real Time” has been a haven from that kind of disruption. HBO has provided a much less restrictive platform for Maher, so it’s not entirely surprising that he would eventually stick his foot in his mouth to this degree. He and his show’s format have obviously done a lot of good in the socio-political discourse, but many have picked up that ball and run with it, whether Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” (which trumped “Real Time” at the Emmys for most of its run) or TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” or HBO’s own “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the reigning champ in the category.
So Emmy voters, already facing a wealth of choices, will simply have to ask themselves whether Friday’s gaffe was a disqualifying moment. Should “Real Time” be excluded as a statement about what is and is not acceptable, or should its ongoing legacy and content otherwise be the driving force of consideration?