Critic's Notebook: Bill Maher, Kathy Griffin and When Anti-Trump Comics Cross the Line

The current political climate has, understandably, whipped comedians into a frenzy, but Maher, Griffin and Stephen Colbert have all recently gone too far.

Heard any good jokes lately?

It’s the best of times and the worst of times for comedians these days: As Trump giveth, so, too, does he taketh. Just ask Bill Maher, Kathy Griffin and Stephen Colbert.

All three have hit some speed bumps recently even as their careers have been energized by the fractious political environment. Colbert is the most potent example. Prior to the election, his ratings had been lagging to the point that there were whispers that James Corden would be taking over his time slot. But Colbert, who seemed to have an on-air depressive meltdown during his live broadcast election night, has since taken on a whole new energy. Night after night, he skewers Trump and his administration with a manic glee that has revitalized his show both creatively and commercially.

But even Colbert admits that he went a little too far when — after becoming outraged by Trump’s dismissive put-downs of colleague John Dickerson during an interview — he delivered a lengthy, profanity-filled rant that described the president as, among other things, Vladimir Putin’s “c—holster.” Although no one possibly believes that Colbert is homophobic, he was promptly taken to task for the admittedly over-the-top vulgarity, and he addressed the situation on-air shortly thereafter. “I just want to say, for the record, life is short. And anyone who expresses their love for another person in their own way, is, to me, an American hero,” Colbert said. Although the FCC received thousands of complaints from disgruntled viewers, the agency declined to take action. Since then, Colbert has continued his full-bore comic attacks, but it’s safe to say that he’ll be watching his language more carefully from now on.

Last week, Griffin managed the difficult feat of making Trump sympathetic even to such figures as Chelsea Clinton, when she made an “artistic statement” in the form of a photo depicting her holding up a blood-soaked, fake decapitated head resembling Trump's. Shot by photographer Tyler Shields, a provocateur who frequently uses images of violence in his work, the picture succeeded in its goal of being disturbing. It was far less successful in being funny.

The backlash was instant and predictable. Griffin was instantly condemned from people across the political spectrum. She apologized in a tearful video, saying, “I’m a comic. I crossed the line.… I went way too far. The image is too disturbing. I understand how it offends people. It wasn’t funny, I get it. I beg for your forgiveness.” But the damage was done. CNN, clearly sensitive about being a “fake news” organization, cut her loose, and Anderson Cooper, with whom she had palled around on-air for many a New Year’s Eve, called the image “disgusting.” And naturally Trump tweeted: “Kathy Griffin should be ashamed of herself,” he wrote. “My children, especially my 11 year old [sic] son, Barron, are having a hard time with this. Sick!” Sure, it was the pot calling the kettle black, but in this case, the pot was right.

Whenever anyone dares to offend our dear leader, death threats ensue. And such was the case with Griffin, who also heard from the Secret Service. A few days later, in a self-pitying press conference, Griffin lamented, “I don’t think I will have a career after this.… He broke me.” She also played the female card: “Cut the crap.… This wouldn’t be happening to a guy. This is a woman thing.” (That may be true, but Joan Rivers, bless her soul, would probably have told everyone to go f— themselves.)

Not long after, Maher found himself in what is, for him, a familiar position. The comedian/political commentator — who lost his previous TV show because of incendiary comments he made about the terrorists after 9/11 — stepped into deep doo-doo again during an interview with Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse, who was there to plug his new book The Vanishing American Adult. During the conversation, Maher asked if adults in his state dressed up for Halloween like they do in Los Angeles. When Sasse responded in the negative, Maher said, “I’ve got to get to Nebraska more.”

“You’re welcome,” Sasse told him. “We’d love to have you work in the fields with us.”

It was a bizarre invitation, and it prompted a bizarre response. “Work in the fields?” Maher asked with mock consternation. “Senator, I’m a house n—er.”

Sasse merely smiled uncomfortably (he later tweeted his regret for letting the remark slide). The ensuing mixture of groans and uncomfortable laughs prompted Maher to tell the audience in an aggrieved tone, “It’s a joke!” But it didn’t take long for the Twittersphere to light up, with such figures as Al Sharpton (a frequent guest on the show) condemning Maher’s language.

Under fire from HBO as well, Maher delivered an uncharacteristic apology the next day. “Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I’m reflecting on the things I should or shouldn’t have said on my live show,” he said in a statement. “Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”

It isn’t hard to imagine that Maher, who’s based his entire career on lambasting political correctness, only issued the apology under pressure. But while he should well know that using the “n-word” is the third rail of discourse, the outrage seems a little over-the-top. First of all, he was making a contextual joke, since the well-known, horrific term refers to slaves who worked in their owners’ homes rather than in the fields. That said, while the offensive word is freely used by rappers and in such movies and television shows as, for instance, HBO’s own The Wire, it’s also commonly accepted that white people have far less (as in no) leeway when it comes to using it.

There’s nothing new about all this, of course. Comics in the modern era have always gotten into trouble for crossing the line in one form or another. Just ask Lenny Bruce, who destroyed his career and practically martyred himself for the cause of free speech. Thankfully, comedians can no longer be arrested for using obscenities or mocking the Catholic Church. But as recent events have demonstrated, they can be still pilloried. 

Is it overreaching to suggest that Trump’s presidency has inflamed passions to such a degree that even someone like Colbert, whose humor has always been cutting but dignified, was reduced to spewing vulgarisms (bleeped, but still) on his broadcast network show? To such a degree that Griffin, whose humor is not exactly cutting-edge, suddenly tried to out-shock Robert Mapplethorpe? Maher wasn’t talking about Trump when he made his faux pas, but he was just coming off a monologue that, like virtually every one since the election, featured as much blazing anger as humor. 

It was just days into Trump’s presidency that people began to complain that they were exhausted merely trying to keep up with the news. Is it any wonder that comics have drunk so much of the Trump-mockery Kool-Aid that they’re in danger of losing control of their comedy bladders? During Griffin’s press conference, her lawyer explained that the offending pic was “a parody of Trump’s own sexist remarks taken to an extreme, absurdist visual.” Sorry, but two wrongs don’t make a right. 

To borrow from another president who inspired comics, “mistakes were made” by all three comedians. And yes, they were unfortunate and regrettable, especially for these humorists. At the same time, and to their credit, they each followed up with an apology of one sort or another. What we need to remember, as we judge or consider what they’ve done, is that we’re living in an era in which outrage is too easily mustered, fueled by the Internet and social media that allow every objecting voice to be heard immediately and unfiltered. It might just be a good time for everyone to take a chill pill.