Bill Maher addressed the elephant in the room Friday on Real Time, apologizing for uttering the N-word on air last week and discussing the controversy he ignited with author and sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson.
Entering to considerable applause, Maher said, “Thank you for letting a sinner in your midst. Michael Eric Dyson will be here shortly to take me to the woodshed.”
Maher sat down with Dyson, a longtime friend, a few minutes later and said, “I want you to school me. I did a bad thing.”
Dyson agreed and asked why Maher — who has been critical of what he sees as an overly apologetic culture in the past — wanted to issue a mea culpa.
“There is a lot of bulls— apologizing in America, and I am against that,” Maher said. But apologizing for his use of the racial slur was “appropriate because, I’ll tell you why: For black folks, that word — I don’t care who you are — has caused pain. I’m not here to do that.”
He added, “It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t said in malice — it wasn’t — if it brought back pain to people. And that’s why I apologize freely, and I reiterate it tonight. That’s sincere. I’m not that big of an a—hole.”
Dyson went on to discuss the “interesting and tricky” nature of white privilege, even for someone like Maher. “People don’t think, ‘Oh, Bill Maher is a racist,'” he said. “What they thought was, if even Bill Maher can at some level capitulate to a level of unconscious privilege, then the rest of us are in a serious spot.”
Maher acknowledged the point but defended himself as a comedian. “I just don’t want to pretend this is more of a race thing than a comedian thing,” he said. “Comedians are a special kind of monkey.”
“So to speak,” Dyson said.
Realizing his awkward word choice, Maher shook his head and said, “Don’t f— with me.” Gathering himself, he continued, “We are a trained thing that tries to get a laugh. That’s what we do. … And sometimes we transgress a sensitivity point.”
Maher also stuck up for fellow comedian Kathy Griffin, who recently came under fire (and subsequently apologized) for posing in a photograph depicting President Trump’s severed head. “Everyone makes mistakes,” Maher said. “Kathy Griffin should not go away.”
Later in the episode, Maher was challenged by another one of his guests, the rapper Ice Cube.
“I love your show, you’ve got a great show,” he said. “But you be bucking up against that line a little bit. You know, you’ve got a lot of black jokes.”
When Maher protested that such jokes are aimed at racists, Cube shot back, “Sometimes you sound like a redneck trucker.”
And although Cube accepted Maher’s apology for using the slur, he added, “I think we need to get to the root of the psyche, because 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.”
The N-word, Cube said, is “a word that has been used against us. It’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon or you can 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, and you can’t have it back.”