Bill Maher Recovers From N-Word Debacle But What Has He Learned? (Column)

Yes and no. On one hand, he’s learned he shouldn’t say a thing. On the other hand, he still doesn’t know why

Bill Maher
HBO/Janet Van Ham

On Friday’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” the host stood in front of a cheering audience and tried to craft a mea culpa. On last week’s show, Maher dropped the phrase “house n—–” as a joke during an interview with Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, and since then, he’s been trying to make amends.

HBO issued a strongly worded statement about Maher’s use of the phrase, and Maher himself apologized. It’s not like Maher to regret insensitivity — he prides himself on political incorrectness and often mocks the apology tours of other public figures. But Maher’s use of the racial slur merited a serious response.

At least as far as airtime goes, “Real Time” went a long way towards addressing Maher’s use of the slur. The opening segment of the live show was a one-on-one conversation with Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, author of “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,” a book dealing explicitly with white privilege. Maher didn’t ask Dyson questions — it was the other way around. Dyson interviewed Maher. And then later in the show, Symone Sanders (press secretary for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign) and Ice Cube joined Maher for a panel discussion, in which both had some time to air their thoughts on the host’s choice of words last week.

The problem, as it was last week, was Maher. To his credit, the comedian was neither smug nor grandstanding; he was noticeably subdued. While some in the audience shouted their support (“We love you, Bill!”) he didn’t try to milk sympathy from the crowd. Contrition looked good on Maher. Defensiveness didn’t — and unfortunately, as the live broadcast went on, the latter outpaced the former. Perhaps under the studio lights, Maher finds it hard to change his ways — or perhaps facing the camera and sitting one-on-one with a friend is easier than facing criticism from a panel. But “Real Time” needed to acknowledge last week’s mistake and find a way to move forward. Maher seemed less and less on board with that mission as the episode went on.

The turning point was when Cube came onstage to discuss his upcoming album reissue, “Death Certificate,” about halfway through the episode. Up until then, Maher was at his most receptive. In the monologue, he referred to himself as a “sinner,” and although he tried to explain his point of view to Dyson, he was also at his most receptive — letting Dyson fully express his perspective and continuing to apologize. (His opener: “I want you to school me — I did a bad thing.”) Dyson positioned his critique from the perspective that ultimately flattered Maher: His primary point was that if “even” Maher, a liberal who calls out racism in other people, “can at some level capitulate to a level of unconscious privilege, then the rest of us are in a serious spot.”

When Maher tried to counter by arguing that as a comedian, he is a “special kind of monkey” used to cranking out jokes from his subconscious, Dyson countered that Larry David — creator and star of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” — was so conscious of the fact that he couldn’t use the slur that he centered more than one comedic bit on his show around his own privilege. It was worthwhile to see the two duke it out while maintaining respect for the other’s position — if only because Maher’s audience, which is enamored of his particular brand of humor, seems to sympathize strongly with his explanations for using the word.

But while Dyson laid out the case for not using the slur — and for backtracking and apologizing — he didn’t exactly hammer him with questions, either. It would have been interesting to hear Maher explain when he’s heard the word before, or if he’s used it before — but that would have required more soul-searching than Maher seemed prepared to do.

What Maher seemed to not be prepared for was the stunning, concise brilliance of Ice Cube.

Cube’s appearance on the show was a turning point for the conversation. Up until then, Maher was receptive and patient. But Cube (whose appearance was scheduled before last week’s incident) came out with a game face, looking not at all enthusiastic. Maher knew Cube had some words for him, and so opened up the floor to him. The rapper looked Maher up and down and said with amusement, “I knew you was going to f— up sooner or later.”

Frankly, the fact that “Real Time” offered its audience the chance to watch Ice Cube and Bill Maher sit shoulder-to-shoulder and disagree on something is itself fantastic. Maher immediately apologized again — and again, that’s not nothing. But Cube explained more clearly and publicly than anyone else has why an apology does not cover what went wrong.

“It’s a word that has been used against us — it’s like a knife. It can be used as a weapon, or it can be used as a tool. And it’s been used as a weapon against us by white people,” Cube said. “That’s our word now, and you can’t have it back,” he added.

Sanders spoke up to observe that Maher’s use of the particular phrase “whitewashed” the population of largely black women who would have been raped and tortured by slave owners — slave owners, she pointed out, who were white like Maher. Both she and Cube were open and willing to make it into a teachable moment. But Maher, unfortunately, couldn’t quite accept their words. His demeanor shifted. With about 15 minutes left to spare in the hour, Maher pushed Cube and Sanders off the topic. It would have been better if he hadn’t. Admittedly, Cube was there to promote his album, and the fact that Maher sat through Cube and Sanders and Dyson dressing him down is a high-minded and brave thing to attempt. But Maher couldn’t quite carry it off. He interrupted Cube towards the end, with a style more in line with his defensive, offend-everyone comedy that got him into trouble in the first place. Ultimately, although he clearly regrets his words, Maher doesn’t seem to quite accept or understand that he can never use the slur. He’s coming from a distinct perspective that his audience applauds him for, meaning that it must be even harder for him to change his worldview.

But he needs to. Maher’s defense to Dyson and to the audience — and the HBO line, in general — is that while Maher said something cruel and stupid, he did not direct it towards any one person as a slur, but instead stumbled into a “bad joke” (Maher’s words). But what that glosses over is that this instance is just one of many in which Maher has advanced cruel and discriminatory rhetoric. He prides himself on irreverence — but reverence, for what it’s worth, has its place, too. It is not helping anyone or anything for Maher to argue repeatedly that Islam is a religion of evil; it is not even remotely funny for Maher to deliver gag after transphobic gag about Caitlyn Jenner. Maybe this is the only time Maher has used this slur — but these things rarely happen in isolation, without an atmosphere or mindset to back them up.

For now, tonight’s efforts may be enough for Maher. He’s made a far more concerted effort towards understanding his critics’ perspective than most others in his position, which is laudable, and the swift, unequivocal way that HBO handled it has dampened the outcry. But if Maher doesn’t really get to a place where he understands what he’s doing when he relies on such a word — if he can’t interrogate his subconscious enough to internalize that — he runs the risk of stumbling into another bad joke in the heat of a moment. And next time around, it might not be so easy for him to apologize his way out of a serious spot.