Whether or not Bill Maher, the host of HBO's once-a-week late-night talk show Real Time, ends up keeping his job after using the N-word on his show Friday night, he may have just blown an Emmy nomination.
This is the the second time Maher has said the racial slur on TV, having also used it on a 2010 episode of Larry King Live, and singer Chance the Rapper and #BlackLivesMatter leader DeRay McKesson are among those now calling for him to be fired. But setting aside a discussion of his use of the word, his timing couldn't have been worse: Emmy nomination voting begins June 12. Maher has been nominated many times in the past in the best variety talk series category (which has gone by different names over the years); he was snubbed two years ago and then nominated again last year. This year, the category has never been more competitive.
Even before Friday's incident, a Maher nom was far from assured, with several slots seemingly sewn up by shows against which Real Time competed last year, and others having made major strides over the time since. Two-time defending winner Last Week Tonight, hosted by John Oliver, is a lock to be back. Jimmy Kimmel Live! has as strong a shot as ever, hot on the heels of Jimmy Kimmel hosting the Oscars and speaking emotionally about health care. The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon took heat for "normalizing" Donald Trump shortly before the election by playfully mussing his hair, but he still has a huge constituency, as does The Late Late Show's James Corden and Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee's Jerry Seinfeld.
And then there's the sixth and final slot, for which Maher faces stiff competition. Stephen Colbert has gotten political, of late, and The Late Show's ratings have surged, so it would be surprising if it didn't bounce back from a snub last year. Full Frontal, hosted by Samantha Bee, and Late Night, with Seth Meyers, have never been more a part of the conversation. And The Daily Show, which dominated this category for years under the stewardship of Jon Stewart, has surged back to life in the second year of Trevor Noah's tenure, achieving Noah-best ratings in May.
That leaves a pretty small margin for error, and Maher unquestionably has erred.
The 61-year-old, who long has prided himself on his "political incorrectness," has much more leeway than most of his competitors when it comes to language because he works at a pay cable network not subject to FCC regulation. But his poor choice of words has gotten him into trouble before, most famously when ABC, the broadcast network for which he began hosting the talk show Politically Incorrect in 1993, canceled his show in June 2002, ostensibly in response to comments he made on the air the week after 9/11: 'We [Americans] have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly.''
Despite the ensuing controversy, the show still received its final Emmy nomination for best variety talk series — or, as it was called at the time, best variety, music or comedy series — one month after its cancelation.
A year ago, Maher said on The Hollywood Reporter's "Awards Chatter" podcast, "Nuance was not what they were in the mood for on 9/17," emphasizing that he stood by his comments, but acknowledging, "It's not a great feeling to think the whole country hates you." He added, "I didn't know what was going to come next. Luckily, HBO was there with the net."
This time Maher has apologized for what he said, but it may be too little too late — if not for his job, then for his Emmy prospects. As he frequently notes on his show and said on THR's podcast — and as his fellow comedian Kathy Griffin, who also was forced to issue an apology last week, would do well to remember — people who do or say politically incorrect things these days often have to "go away," at least for a little while. My hunch is that, rightly or wrongly, TV Academy members will reach the same conclusion with regard to Maher when they fill out their ballots over the coming month.