Critic's Notebook: Bill Maher Gets Taken to the Woodshed on His Own Show

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Bill Maher

Confronted by guests Michael Eric Dyson and Ice Cube, Maher was able to thoroughly unpack his unfortunate recent use of the n-word.

Bill Maher put his foot in his mouth big-time on his HBO show last week when he made a joke referring to himself as a “house n—er.” He spent a good part of Friday’s show trying to get it back out. He was largely successful, although he definitely took his lumps in the process.

Maher briefly addressed the controversy in the opening moments when, after acknowledging the vociferous cheers from his supportive audience, he joked, “Thank you for letting a sinner in your midst.”

“Michael Eric Dyson will be out shortly to take me to the woodshed,” he told the crowd before launching into his monologue, which mainly focused on the James Comey testimony.

Dyson, an author and university professor, had been quickly recruited by Maher to fill in for Sen. Al Franken, who not surprisingly canceled his appearance after the furor broke out. A frequent guest on the show, Dyson had to walk a delicate balancing act, admitting to Maher that he had taken heat from his friends for agreeing to appear. He was also there to plug his book, Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America, which under the circumstances proved aptly titled.

“I want you to school me … I did a bad thing,” Maher began. Dyson immediately turned the tables on his host by asking the first question, namely why was Maher apologizing for this transgression after refusing to do so for ones in the past?

“When it’s appropriate,” Maher replied, sounding genuinely contrite. “This [apology] is appropriate. For black folks that word has caused pain … it’s all on me.” But he also made an effort to explain himself.

“The senator [Ben Sasse] said a weird thing,” Maher told Dyson of his guest last week. “The comic mind goes to a weird place sometimes. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t said in malice. And that’s why I apologized freely and I reiterate that tonight. And that’s sincere.”

Dyson continued his interrogation. “Do you understand why people are skeptical?” he asked Maher, pointing out that house slaves suffered as much as any others.

“All that was not going on in my mind,” Maher told him, turning to the audience and getting a laugh by saying, “I feel like I got [Special Counsel] Robert Mueller here.” Dyson then suggested that Maher had felt free to make his offensive joke because of “unconscious white privilege.”

“We’re all evolving,” Maher replied. “This happened once … I made a bad joke.”

Pointing out that the word is “omnipresent in our culture,” Maher argued, “I don’t want to pretend that this is more of a race thing than a comedian thing. Comedians are a special kind of monkey.”

Unable to resist the opening, Dyson replied, “So to speak.” It brought Maher up short. “Don’t f— with me,” the comedian joked.

Maher also referenced Kathy Griffin, who he said “owes me a fruit basket for getting her off the front pages.”

“As much as I hate [Donald] Trump, that’s wrong,” Maher said about the photo of her holding up a fake severed head resembling the president. But he added, “You make a mistake, you don’t have to go away.”

The exchange, which included Dyson effusively praising Maher for being “on the front line standing up for people,” ended with the two men in a heartfelt embrace. Maher wouldn’t have it quite as easy with another guest, Ice Cube.

“I knew you were going to f— up sooner or later,” the rapper-actor told Maher. After telling his host, “I love your show,” Cube went on the offensive. And despite his many appearances in carefree comedies in recent years, Ice Cube can still be a formidably intimidating presence.

“You got a lot of black jokes,” Cube pointed out, to which Maher protested, “Against racists!”

Cube shook his head and said, “Sometimes you sound like a redneck trucker.” By now looking visibly aggrieved, Maher started to push back, but Cube didn’t back down.

“That word is like a knife,” he argued. “You can use it as a weapon or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon by white people, and we’re not gonna let it happen again.”

“That’s our word now,” Cube went on. “And you can’t have it back.”

Democratic strategist Symone Sanders, one of the guests on the panel, chimed in. “That was like a slap in the face to black America,” she chided Maher. “Particularly black women.”

By now clearly uncomfortable, Maher reached for a life jacket. “Can we plug your record before we run out of time?” he pleaded with Cube.

By the time the show was over, Maher had succeeded in his goal. The incident had been brought up, discussed extensively, and he had apologized for it again. His defense, although obviously self-justifying, felt reasonable. His offensive comment, after all, wasn’t scripted. It was a deeply unfortunate comedic reflex to Sasse’s unconscious setup. But it clearly crossed a line, and, although they had very different ways of making their points, both Dyson and Cube did an excellent job of explaining why what Maher did was wrong. Ironically, it was one of Maher’s white guests, former Republican congressman David Jolly, who had the last word on the subject.

“You apologized, and at some point, America has to accept apologies,” he told Maher, adding, “Let’s start focusing on the people who speak irreverent words and refuse to apologize.”

He didn’t say to whom he was referring, but everyone knew — it was the orange-haired elephant in the room.

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