Dean Obeidallah: Bill Maher's tasteless use of the "N-word" warranted the apology he made
He says political comedy often involves provocation, particularly in the age of Trump, but Maher and Kathy Griffin went way too far
Editor’s Note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM’s radio’s daily program “The Dean Obeidallah Show” and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @deanofcomedy. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Bill Maher is Ann Coulter with shorter hair: They both say outrageous and even hateful things to get press in a desperate effort to remain relevant. Maher gave us yet another example when he dropped the “N-word” on his HBO show “Real Time” Friday night.
Maher used the racial epithet during his interview of US Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) in this exchange:
Maher: Adults dress up for Halloween. They don’t do that in Nebraska?
Sasse: It’s frowned upon. We don’t do that quite as much.
Maher: I gotta get to Nebraska more.
Sasse You’re welcome. We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.
Maher: Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n*****.
While Sasse looked a bit stunned at first, he soon joined others in the audience who laughed. When some onlookers groaned in response to Maher’s use of the word, Maher responded that it was just “a joke” as he literally waved off those who may have been offended.
This was truly white privilege on parade. You have Maher and a white Republican senator yucking it up over a racial epithet and the plight of slaves. And just so it’s clear, despite not working in the fields, “house slaves” were still slaves and were often abused, raped or killed by slave masters.
After a firestorm erupted Friday night on social media, Sasse responded Saturday morning with a statement that first defended free speech. Then Sasse added, “Here’s what I wish I’d been quick enough to say in the moment: “Hold up, why would you think it’s OK to use that word? … The history of the N-word is an attack on universal human dignity. It’s therefore an attack on the American Creed. Don’t use it.”
Maher finally apologized on Saturday afternoon writing, “I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and I’m very sorry.”
But his apology only came after a deluge of criticism. DeRay Mckesson, a prominent activist for the Black Lives Matter movement, tweeted, “But really, @BillMaher has got to go. There are no explanations that make this acceptable.”
And the African-American centric publication The Root tweeted: “Bill Maher is a white habitual line-stepper, and his show needs to be canceled after this latest stunt”
Even Maher’s own TV network slammed him, releasing a statement that read: “Bill Maher’s comment last night was completely inexcusable and tasteless. We are removing his deeply offensive comment from any subsequent airings of the show.”
You have to wonder if it weren’t for this uproar, would Maher have apologized. After all he told us in his 2012 New York Times op-ed titled “Please stop apologizing” that America needs to stop the faux outrage over celebrity remarks. Maher wrote, “Let’s have an amnesty – from the left and the right – on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, playacted hurt, insult, slight and affront.”
On some level Maher is right – we do have too much faux outrage over minor things, but this isn’t one of those cases. A white comedian co-opting the horrific suffering of slaves for a joke and for some media attention is not a “fake” slight.
In the 15 years that Maher has hosted his HBO show, he has made countless indefensible comments – many not even framed as jokes. In the past, I’ve called out his despicable anti-Muslim bigotry, which dates back to 2010 and continues to this day. And Maher’s history of misogyny has been well-documented by others.
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Overall, political comedians must be afforded extra latitude in the time of President Donald Trump. The President famously railed against political correctness as he demonized minorities on his way to the Oval Office. So, in general, no comedian should be bound by political correctness in taking him on. The problem with Kathy Griffin holding up a fake bloody, severed head of Trump this week was that it involved violent imagery. That was wrong.
And Maher’s poor attempt at trying to get a few laughs by invoking the “N-word” was also wrong. It wasn’t a joke that took on a person in power. It was the opposite. Maher’s joke made light of the darkest time in American history while using a word that white supremacists used to dehumanize a race of people.