On the program, Maher used the slur to refer to himself as a house slave during a discussion with Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Sasse suggested that Maher should come to his district to work in the fields, which is when Maher responded with the term. “It’s a joke,” Maher said as the audience groaned.
As social media erupted with criticism of Maher, HBO released a statement on Saturday calling the remark "completely inexcusable and tasteless," and indicated that the segment would not be re-aired.
A short time later, Maher apologized in a statement: "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. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”
The subsequent backlash bears some resemblance to the firestorm that surrounded Maher’s fellow comic Kathy Griffin earlier this week in the wake of her posing for provocative photos with a bloodied, fake severed head of President Trump. The resulting condemnation led to Griffin losing her job with CNN, where the comic had appeared on the network’s New Year’s Eve broadcasts.
Maher to this point continues to be employed by HBO, but the voices calling for his ouster have crossed political lines.
After the show, Sasse also took to Twitter to voice his own regrets for not speaking up about the epithet in the moment.
However, such a near-consensus of condemnation seemed to provoke some confusion as the indoor sport of inflating individual actions into broader political narratives continued through Saturday. Black Lives Matter activist “Deray [McKesson] is calling for Bill Maher to be fired,” tweeted an editor at the right-wing conspiracy site Infowars. “That’s how I know I’m right to defend him.”
Others came to Maher’s defense as well:
Though Maher is frequently characterized as a hero for the progressive left — a byproduct of his vocal criticism of religion, as seen in his 2008 documentary “Religulous” — his actions have at times proven otherwise in a career that has been built upon courting controversy. Maher was criticized earlier this year for providing a platform for right-wing, often bigoted blogger/provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos on “Real Time,” which resulted in journalist Jeremy Scahill canceling his appearance. Though the show mostly found Maher an accommodating host, when Yiannopoulos was ostracized a few weeks later because of offensive comments, Maher took a measure of credit. “You’re welcome,” he crowed.
In 2014, he engaged in an on-air debate involving Ben Affleck and author Sam Harris on “Real Time” that went viral after the actor called into question Maher’s history of Islamophobic remarks about the Muslim faith. “They bring that desert stuff to our world,” Maher said in a 2011 interview with Anderson Cooper. “We don’t threaten each other, we sue each other. That’s the sign of civilized people.”
While it remains to be seen where the outrage surrounding his latest controversy will lead, it is not without precedent for Maher’s penchant for going too far to lead him off the air. Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, he invoked an outcry on his show “Politically Incorrect” when he said the perpetrators of the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center were not cowardly, as characterized by President George W. Bush. “Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly,” Maher said.
“Politically Incorrect” quickly lost advertisers as a result and was canceled by ABC in 2002. The following year, Maher began hosting “Real Time” on HBO.
In a 2016 interview with The Times, the comic sounded defiant about his experience running afoul of cultural norms and sensitivities. "Everyone says, 'I'm offended.' Where did they get this idea that that means something?" Maher said. "I'm offended by … all the time. I don't make a federal case of it."
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