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Bill Maher, HBO Face Backlash After Host Uses Racial Slur on ‘Real Time’

Variety logo Variety 6/3/2017 Cynthia Littleton
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Bill Maher apologized and HBO scolded him publicly. But will that be enough to quiet the storm over Maher’s use of a racial slur during Friday’s edition of “Real Time with Bill Maher”?

Public outrage swelled following Friday’s 10 p.m. live airing of “Real Time with Bill Maher.” HBO issued a statement Saturday calling the host’s use of the phrase “I’m a house n—–” during an interview with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse “completely inexcusable and tasteless.” HBO said the remark would be edited out of subsequent airings of the episode. Maher made the comment in jest after Sasse invited Maher to spend a day working in the fields of Nebraska’s farms.

Maher acknowledged that the N-word was “offensive” and said he regretted using it. “Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I’m up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn’t have said on my live show. Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment,” he said in a statement issued Saturday.

By multiple accounts, HBO has no plans to take any action against Maher, who has been a mainstay at the network since 2003. A source noted that Maher has rarely offered any kind of mea culpa for provocative comments. Most recently, he stood firm in the face of harsh criticism for his decision to have the controversial blogger Milo Yiannopoulos, known for his racially charged online postings, as a guest on his show. The formal apology for using the N-word indicates that he recognizes that a line was crossed, something that was important to HBO.

But the fury voiced on social media after Friday’s airing stirred up examples of past statements from Maher about Muslims and the LGBTQ community that were widely deemed offensive. ThinkProgress, the editorial arm of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund, posted an article declaring “Bill Maher has been a public racist for a long time” with links to past clips from “Real Time.”

The anger is an echo of the groundswell that led to the ouster in April of Bill O’Reilly, after the New York Times published an expose on sexual harassment allegations leveled at the Fox News host. It also has a parallel in Maher’s past. Maher’s ABC late-night show “Politically Incorrect” was axed after five years in June 2002 following Maher’s observation that the U.S.’s post-9/11 bombing campaigns against terrorist targets were cowardly acts. The comment sparked advertiser defections from the show — a pressure point that can’t be used in the commercial-free environment of HBO.

But at a moment of great political and cultural strife in the country, inflammatory statements and actions have been the undoing of numerous public figures. Just this past week, Kathy Griffin was forced to apologize amid a tidal wave of criticism from both the right and the left when she posed for a photo with a prop depicting President Trump’s bloodied, severed head. Despite her apology, that stunt quickly cost Griffin her gig co-hosting CNN’s New Year’s Eve coverage with Anderson Cooper.

For Maher, another damaging video clip making the rounds on Saturday is an interview with comedian Wayne Brady from HuffPost Live in 2012, after Brady and Maher tangled over the latter’s assertion that Brady was a “non-threatening black man.” Brady said the comment indicates that Maher has a stereotypical view of black men as menacing.

“When I talk to you again, I’ll give you that black dude and I will beat your ass in public,” Brady said of Maher in 2012.

Maher and “Real Time” have long been highly regarded in industry circles for the host’s willingness to confront thorny issues. The show earned consecutive Emmy noms for best talk-variety show from 2005 through 2014, and was nommed again in 2016.

Reaction from viewers and industry insiders via social media to Maher’s comment was, not surprisingly, fast and furious, and overwhelmingly negative. But Maher does have prominent supporters, such as author and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson.

Dyson condemned Maher’s use of the N-word but defended his record of offering a platform to an array of African-American perspectives on politics and culture. “Given the Bill Maher I know, he will use this opportunity to strengthen his role as an ally to black people,” Dyson wrote.

Spike Lee, meanwhile, had mixed feelings about the comedian.

“Oh, him using the n-word? I think it’s problematic. I’ll leave it at that,” he told Variety at a Brooklyn event on Saturday. “I like Bill Maher, but I don’t know if he should have used the n-word.”

Here’s a sampling of more reactions:

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