Maher wasn’t so comfortable with apologizing, but he gave his guests the floor to treat his mistake as a teaching moment.
Bill Maher opened Friday night’s episode of Real Time by obliquely referencing the controversy surrounding his casual use of the “n-word” from last week. “Thank you for letting a sinner in your midst,” he quipped to his audience, who gave him a standing ovation as chants of “We love you Bill!” emanated from the crowd. Otherwise, Maher decided it best not to address the sensitive issue at all, declining to directly apologize to viewers after a full week of uproar and calls for him to be fired.
The topic was then discussed in-depth, however, when Maher turned to a one-on-one with Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, a regular Real Time guest who condemned Maher’s remarks while also initially coming to his defense. As the Real Time host teased, Dyson was booked on the show to take him “to the woodshed.” And indeed he did, carefully detailing the dangerous context and timing of Maher’s comment, to which Maher made sure to “reiterate” his “sincere” apology. As Dyson continued to push him — “Do you understand why people are skeptical?” he asked at one point — Maher offered up some semi-excuses, arguing he hasn’t “made a career of this” (debatable) and that “this [wasn’t] more of a race thing than a comedian thing” (also debatable). Dyson and Maher continued a respectful, spirited, even somewhat playful back-and-forth until the end of their conversation, keeping things amiable and relatively light.
It was once Ice Cube arrived mid-show to promote the 25th anniversary of Death Certificate — with David Gregory, David Jolly, and Symone Sanders already on the panel — that the debate finally heated up and Maher was really put on the defensive. “I knew you was going to fuck up sooner or later,” he said of Maher right off the bat. Maher scowled after Ice Cube told him he sometimes “sounds like a redneck trucker,” but to his credit, the Real Time host then gave the N.W.A. member the floor to lay out his thoughts. What followed was a powerful monologue that expertly conveyed the severity of Maher’s use of the n-word, and left the comedian visibly uncomfortable by the time it was finished:
I think there’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line because they’re a little too familiar, or they think they’re too familiar. Or it’s guys that, you know, might have a black girlfriend or two that makes them some Kool-Aid every now and then, and they think they can cross the line. And they can’t. It’s a word that has been used against us. It’s like a knife, man. And you could use it as a weapon or you could use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not going to let that happen again — by nobody. Because it’s not cool. Now I know you heard, it’s in the lexicon, everybody’s talking. But that’s our word now. That’s our word now, and you can’t have it back.
This post has been updated to include the comments of Michael Eric Dyson and Ice Cube.