Bill Maher's use of a racial slur on his HBO show Real Time back in June isn't the only controversy he has stared down as a longtime political comedian, but it was definitely the biggest scandal he has dealt with during the Real Time era. His use of the n-word called into question his broader history on race, and forced even his friends and fans to reevaluate his views.
One of his strongest critics was Ice Cube, who appeared on Real Time following the controversy and offered some poignant criticism on Maher's act. While he was forceful in denouncing Maher's use of the slur, he also called into question Maher's general tactics, claiming the comedian often liked to skirt the line of good taste.
Maher appeared to reject a portion of the criticism then, and he continues to do so now. During a new interview with the New York Times, he insisted that while he was sincerely apologetic about the noted incident and happy to own up to that, he rejects the notion he should have to make up for anything else.
"We don’t have to grovel, and we don’t have to admit things that aren’t true," said Maher. "When Ice Cube said something about my telling black jokes, I wasn’t going to be: 'Oh, well, I made one mistake; I might as well admit mistakes I haven’t made.' I’ve never made black jokes. I’ve made jokes about racists. But my fan base knows that, so it never went anywhere."
Looking through his history, Maher should probably heed what Cube is saying. Maher previously relied on a racist stereotype to denigrate Barack Obama's blackness, has routinely engaged in Islamaphobia, and generally gets away with things a less popular comedian would get discarded for, for one reason or another.
It definitely appears as though he needs a few more teachable moments because even in hindsight, Maher says he didn't really realize he was in jeopardy until long after the incident. He told New York Times he didn't think he was in big trouble following the incident, and claimed his mistake was not one stemming from racism.
"I think most people understood that it was a comedian’s mistake, not a racist mistake," said Maher.
Viewing it that way is sort of the problem. Even if you believe Maher had no ill intentions, at best he was insensitive to an issue that still cuts deep in the hearts and minds of millions of people in America. You don't have to be a white-hood-wearing racist or actively crusade against people from other backgrounds to be blind to their problems. Maher doesn't get a pass because he gives prominent black Americans a voice on his show, nor is his mistake okay because he thinks his commentary on race isn't problematic.
He is willing to listen, however, as he showed on the episode featuring Ice Cube, Michael Eric Dyson, and others. If he wants to avoid this sort of blow back moving forward, he should probably try to do a little more listening.