It’s been a week since Bill Maher pulled widespread condemnation down on his head during a live taping of his HBO show Real Time, using a racial slur in the middle of a conversation with Republican senator Ben Sasse. Maher apologized for the comment last week, amid calls for his firing, and his own network called it “deeply offensive” and “inexcusable.” Now he’s devoted much of tonight’s episode of Real Time to addressing the controversy, apologizing again at the top of the episode, and bringing on his friend, black author Michael Eric Dyson, to question him on his grasp of why his comments elicited so much anger.
“I did a bad thing,” Maher started, with Dyson’s response—”Well, that’s a great place to begin, Bill”—eliciting laughter from the crowd. When asked why a man who’s mocked so many public apologies from embattled public figures over the years was now offering up one of his own, Maher responded with apparent sincerity: “For black folks, that word, I don’t care who you are, it’s caused pain. It doesn’t matter that it was not said in malice, it caused pain, and that’s why I apologized.” (Responding to the crowd, he added, “I’m not that big of an asshole.”)
Maher seemed slightly less comfortable when Dyson brought up the fact that his willingness to use the phrase was an example of white privilege. “By the way, this happened once,” Maher emphasized, while acknowledging that “we’re all evolving.” “It was wrong, and I’ve owned up to that, but it’s not like I’ve made a career out of this.” However, a number of Maher’s critics—notably, The Root—have pointed out that Maher’s views on the subject do seem to have evolved since, for example, 2001, when he spent a segment of his old show Politically Incorrect talking over black actor Anne-Marie Johnson, and arguing that “culture” had changed the meanings of slurs and made them more appropriate for people like, say, white comedians to say.
Dyson wasn’t Maher’s only guest tonight; he also talked to David Gregory, David Jolly, Symone Sanders, and Ice Cube, the latter of whom also grilled the host. “Sometimes you sound like a redneck trucker,” he noted, adding that he nevertheless liked Maher’s show, and accepted his apology. But the rapper also made it clear that, for him at least, there are still lines men like Maher aren’t allowed to cross: “It’s like a knife, man. 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. That’s our word now. And you can’t have it back.”
[Note: The Root, like The A.V. Club, is owned by Univision Communications.]