Has Bill Maher Become Too Toxic for His Guests?

Bill Maher and Barack Obama

Politicians and stars may keep their distance from HBO's 'Real Time' in the wake of the N-word scandal as crisis PR experts assess the fallout.

Good luck booking Barack Obama now, Bill.

“This president has done virtually every other show in the known universe,” Bill Maher bemoaned of Obama on an episode of Real Time in early 2016. That plea led to a sit-down with the then-president that aired just four days before the November election. Now, in the wake of the N-word scandal engulfing the HBO talk show — a controversy that has led to calls for Maher’s ouster by high-profile figures like Chance the Rapper and Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson — Obama’s reluctance to appear on the show makes sense for any politician wishing to keep a safe distance from potential controversy.

Real Time already was a challenge for the bookers tasked with filling its five guest chairs a week — a one-on-one segment (usually a politician or political theorist), a three-person panel (typically wonks and journalists) and a final face, often from the entertainment world. But publicity experts polled by The Hollywood Reporter say Maher’s show now will be an especially tough sell to potential guests from both the worlds of politics and Hollywood. On June 5, Senator Al Franken (who sits at the center of the Venn diagram of both communities), said he is pulling out of a scheduled appearance on Real Time’s June 9 episode — the first since Maher said he was “a house n—” in response to Senator Ben Sasse’s invitation to come “work in the fields with us” in Nebraska. “Senator Franken believes what Bill Maher said was inappropriate and offensive,” Franken’s communications rep said in a statement. “He was glad to see Bill, who the Senator considers to be a good friend, apologize and express sincere regret for his comment.”

For policymakers looking to up their Q-ratings — and get a sprinkling of Hollywood cool — the Dulles-to-LAX red-eye has for 15 years been a journey worth taking. But that may be changing. It remains to be seen if the chill extends to other high-profile politicians like Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Darrell Issa, both of whom appeared on the show this season. (Neither would comment.) Some industry insiders expect the booking woes to get worse before they get better. “Commentators will still be interested in the platform,” says one prominent crisis handler who asked not to be identified. “But elected officials will be less interested. They have more at stake — they’re associated with the language used on the program.” Indeed, Sasse was forced to apologize on Twitter for not jumping in to challenge Maher’s offensive comment during the live show.

In Hollywood, skittish publicists already tend to steer their clients away from Real Time to avoid the kind of heated showdown that occurred in October 2014 between Maher — whose outspoken views on topics like Muslims and vaccines fall well outside of the accepted liberal talking points — and Ben Affleck. “That’s gross,” Affleck snapped at Maher after the host argued that Islam is fundamentally at odds with Western values. “It is racist. It’s like saying ‘you’re a shifty Jew.’” At a time when most late night shows, especially The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon and Late Late Show With James Corden, are seen as safe spaces to plug a project and maybe play beer pong or sing karaoke, Maher’s format requires guests to get political.

That same expert feels both HBO and Maher have handled the crisis soundly — having issued a strongly worded condemnation and a sincere apology, respectively, and leaving it at that. “You give a statement, shut up, don’t feed it and then see what happens as time goes by,” the publicist says. “Presumably he’ll address it in a meaningful way on Friday. Once that happens, it takes the air out of [any firing campaign.]”

With just four episodes left in Real Time’s 15th season on HBO, the controversy comes at an arguably opportune one for Maher — long enough to address it, then recede from public view during hiatus. Another prominent Hollywood crisis guru, Howard Bragman, expects the firestorm to die down as more faces return to the Real Time hot seat. “It’s more of a speed bump than a sinkhole,” Bragman says. “Bill has a unique voice, it’s a unique platform, it’s a very viral show and it’s still a prized booking.”   

On Tuesday, HBO unveiled the lineup for Real Time's Friday episode, with Ice Cube, African-American academic and author Michael Eric Dyson and journalist David Gregory as guests.