After N-Word Joke Flop, Should We Accept Bill Maher's Apology?

Posted: Jun 06, 2017 10:25 AM
After N-Word Joke Flop, Should We Accept Bill Maher's Apology?

In case you missed it over the weekend, comedian Bill Maher landed in some hot water when he dropped the 'N-word' on his live HBO program Friday night. During an exchange with conservative Senator Ben Sasse, the Nebraskan invited the host to visit the heartland to "work in the fields with us."  In response, Maher scoffed, "Senator, I'm a house n****," as Sasse smile-cringed and members of the audience hooted and applauded. "It's a joke," Maher quickly added, perhaps intuitively sensing that he'd crossed a line. Here's the relevant clip:

The network ripped Maher's remark as "completely inexcusable and tasteless," with a bevy of Maher's fellow leftists branding him as a racist and calling for him to be fired. Some conservatives piled on, with others decrying the double standards that seem to exist when such racial flare-ups occur.  For his part, the typically-unapologetic provocateur apologized:

“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.”

Incredibly, some on the Left used the occasion of Maher's unprompted racial slur to attack Sasse, complaining that he'd allowed the expression of racism to slide by with merely an awkward facial expression and nervous laugh. One New York Times column even suggested that Sasse was the one who opened the door to Maher's comedy overreach by referring to working in the fields (a task that the writer instantly associated with slavery, but which the Senator has argued more Americans should do, including his own children).  An exasperated Mary Katharine Ham blasted such criticisms:

Sasse is not responsible for what Maher blurted out on his own volition, and harping on how he reacted to an unexpected, bad joke in a tough setting feels like partisan outrage searching for a more comfortable target.  That said, the Senator did issue a series of tweets expressing regret that he hadn't summoned the composure and awareness to call out his interviewer's use of the N-word in real time. Here's what he wrote after first stipulating that he's a free speech absolutist who affords comedians an especially wide berth on offensive material, then acknowledging that his uncomfortable reaction still wasn't sufficient in retrospect:

In my view, Sasse owes no apology for responding imperfectly to a failed, out-of-nowhere joke on live television -- especially in the weird gray zone of Maher's show, where standards of discourse are deliberately more permissive than in other venues. Maher's apology, however, was appropriate and needed. Regular readers are well aware that I'm not a great fan of the language police, but some rare words should be policed; the N-word, given its ugly history, is one of them.  Nevertheless, it seems fairly clear to me that Maher was attempting a ham-fisted, self-depricating joke highlighting his effete coastal elitism when facing the prospect of performing manual labor.  In doing so, though, he employed an off-limits epithet, ruining the moment. He immediately clarified that he wasn't being serious, then followed-up with the statement of contrition above. I agree with Sasse that comedians in particular should largely be exempted from America's escalating outrage wars, a point we made explicitly in End of Discussion. But sometimes pushing the envelope entails pushing too far -- and resulting heartfelt apologies generally ought to be accepted, including this one.

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For what it's worth, I'm more cynical about Kathy Griffin's dramatic apology theater in the wake of her severed-head stunt because (a) that move was obviously premeditated, unlike Maher's off-the-cuff quip, (b) it wasn't "comedy" in any meaningful sense, (c) she didn't apologize to the president or his family, and (d) she capitalized on the controversy with a pathetic round of "look at me" self-pitying false victimhood. Which is not to say that Griffin should be blackballed forever, or run out of her industry; just as I disdain the language police, I usually tend to reject the boycott brigade's methods, too.  But as far as evaluating mea culpas is concerned, Maher's response seems more genuine.  The nature and context of Griffin's apology deprives her of the benefit of the doubt, whereas Maher's ought to be accepted -- and Sasse's ought not have been demanded in the first place.  I'll leave you with The View's Joy Behar reaching the right conclusion (they're comedians and they said sorry, so let's get over it) for the wrong reasons (they're anti-Trump "good guys"):