Bill Maher’s N Word Problem Is Not Going Away

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Bill Maher (Photo: HBO)

Bill Maher’s use of the N word in making a feeble joke on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher is having multiple repercussions. Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, out on a book tour, has canceled an upcoming appearance on Real Time, saying that while he considers Maher “a good friend,” what Maher said was “inappropriate and offensive.” If you haven’t heard, Maher was talking to Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse on his show last Friday. Maher said he’d like to visit Nebraska more often, to which the senator responded, “You are welcome. We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.” Mr. Maher said, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n*****. No, it’s a joke.”

In the days following the blunder, Maher has benefited from the whiteness of late-night television hosts. Guys like Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, and Jimmy Kimmel aren’t going to start ridiculing Maher, passing judgment, or opining at length about racially charged language — they doubtless feel that this is a topic on which they have little authority to either get serious or to joke.

Leave it, therefore, to late-night’s sharp observers Desus and Mero to offer a cutting yet funny take on Maher’s race problem. On Monday’s Desus & Mero, the Viceland hosts, ridiculed Maher’s it’s-a-joke! protestation, playing the Real Time tape and observing that theN word rolled awfully easily off Maher’s tongue. Desus said Maher has “a long history of being publicly racist, specifically against Muslims,” and played a clip in which Maher said he was upset at the number of British newborns being named Muhammad. The hosts’ comments about Maher’s dating life — which they observe is “very choco-laticious” — are particularly choice.

Maher is scheduled to do a new show on Friday. Aside from the now-absent Franken, his scheduled guests are former Florida Congressman David Jolly and TV journalist David Gregory. Maher would be idiotic not to scrap that lineup and make sure that every one of his guests that night is black, and to conduct whatever passes as discussion on Real Time from a posture with which Maher is usually unfamiliar: humility.

UPDATE: Well, Maher’s lineup has been announced, and he’s splitting the difference: Jolly and Gregory will appear (though heaven knows why), and Michael Eric Dyson, Ice Cube, and Symone Sanders have been newly added. Sanders is an activist who was press secretary for Bernie Sanders’s presidential run; Dyson is a well-known academic and author. Ice Cube is Ice Cube. Whatever Sanders, Dyson, and Cube have to say will be well worth heeding by both Maher and his audience.

Desus & Mero airs weeknights at 11 p.m. on Viceland. Real Time with Bill Maher airs Friday nights at 10 p.m. on HBO.

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