(AP/Rebecca Cabage)

Bill Maher's N-word bomb: Don't expect HBO to do much in response

Friday night Bill Maher let the offensive racial slur roll right out of his mouth like he'd had plenty of practice

D. Watkins
June 5, 2017 5:22PM (UTC)

Bill Maher dropped the N-bomb on Friday’s episode of "Real Time" while interviewing Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Two were discussing Sasse's new book, "The Vanishing American Adult," when Maher said, “I've got to get to Nebraska more.”

Sass replied saying that he’d love to have Maher working the fields. "Work in the fields?" questioned Maher, "Senator, I'm a house n***er."


[salon_video id="14775667"]

Black, white and liberal Twitter tore the comedian apart with the hashtag #FireBillMaher. The firestorm caused enough of an uproar to make a usually unapologetic guy like Maher apologize.

"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," Maher wrote 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."

I’m not going to pretend to be offended by Bill Maher’s use of the N-word, just like I’m not going to pretend to accept or acknowledge his fake apology. Maher is very intelligent — intelligent enough to poke fun at less-informed people on his show every week. He isn't suffering from affluenza; he is well aware of the damage that word does. Maher has had deep conversations on his show about oppression, white supremacy and racism with a variety of informed guests, from prominent scholars like Cornel West to new leaders like Killer Mike. He should know better.

As a black person, I’d never blatantly disrespect Asian, Jewish, Irish, Italian people or those of any other culture. Whether they care or not, I just wouldn’t. But Maher is rich and famous, and I guess that trumps morals and respect in this country. The real question for me is why did he look so comfortable using the word? It rolled right out of his mouth, which means that his collection of black friends and many of the people he has invited on his show have probably allowed him to use it so much in private that it didn’t feel wrong to him in the moment. And that’s the primary problem with black representation: The so-called spokespeople for “the Negros” gain fame by appearing on shows like “Real Time,” experience success and then become so disconnected from the culture that created them they become neutralized. They forget about what matters to the disenfranchised and find themselves laughing and joking while people like Maher address them as n***ers.

Ben Sasse chimed in after the show aired, trying to remove himself from the controversy in series of tweets: "I'm a 1st Amendment absolutist. Comedians get latitude to cross hard lines. But free speech comes with a responsibility to speak up when folks use that word. Me just cringing last night wasn't good enough. Here's what I wish I'd been quick enough to say in the moment: 'Hold up, why would you think it's OK to use that word? . . . The history of the n-word is an attack on universal human dignity. It's therefore an attack on the American Creed. Don't use it.' "


To Sasse, I’d say what my dad used to say to me: “And If my aunt had testicles, she’d be my uncle!” Too little too late from Sasse, which makes him part of the problem, too.

I don’t expect wealthy show hosts and politicians to care, though. I’m sure Maher won’t be fired. He’s been on HBO for almost 20 years and makes the network a ton of money, which — as we’ve seen many times before in the entertainment industry — is way more important than respecting black culture.


D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

MORE FROM D. WatkinsFOLLOW @dwatkinsworld

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Ben Sasse Bill Maher Hbo N Word Partner Video Race Racism Real Time With Bill Maher Tv

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •