Following Kathy Griffin's Lead, Bill Maher Apologizes For A Comedy Misstep

Bill Maher on "Reel Time" with Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska 

Bill Maher on "Reel Time" with Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska 

In the aftermath of Bill Maher's use of the term "house nigger" -- and no, we are not going to censor words in this article -- while interviewing Senator Ben Sasse on the latest episode of Real Time, Kelly Carlin, daughter of George, asked this question online: "Should only women be able to say the word 'cunt'?" 

In my show, The Joy of Censorship, I long argued that the word "cunt," not "nigger," is the most forbidden word in America today because, like it or not, "nigger" has found its way into common usage in the black community. Many lament this; others think it is fine. My point: you don't hear women calling each other "cunt" in casual conversation or in pop songs. John Lennon was definitely onto something when he sang "woman is the nigger of the world." The black man won the right to vote in America before women. Likewise, we had a black male president before a woman president. Patriarchy still rules.

Last week, in my piece about Kathy Griffin, I noted that offending people is only a problem for comedians when they can't stand by their own material. When Bill Maher was jeered by some members of the audience for referring to himself a "house nigger," his instinctive response was to defend himself. "It's a joke," he said, and moved on with his interview. 

By Saturday, Maher had heard the chorus of boos around the country and issued an apology: "I regret using the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry'. The irony of this is inescapable: Earlier in the year, on a "New Rules" segment, Maher implored Hollywood liberals to stop apologizing for every mistake they make regarding political correctness. 

Something very important needs to be unpacked here: What was offensive about what Bill Maher said was not his use of the term itself, it was the context. The context was a live interview and there was absolutely no reason that Maher needed to use a racial slur. It came out of left field. Upon reflection, Maher himself came to this conclusion, so there was nothing he could do except apologize and hope the outrage does not cost him his job. No comedian wants to be in that embarrassing  position, but Maher has no one to blame but himself. 

Again, the issue here is context, not the word. This is comedy 101, as I learned from the master George Carlin. I am perhaps one of the few white comedians who used the word "nigger" in his act for many years. I did this with the full understanding that to some people any use of that loaded word, especially by a white man, no matter what the context, is objectionable. I respect that viewpoint, however please note: I have used the word in this article, and I stand by my use of it.

A number of years ago, New South Books, an Alabama-based publisher,  released an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the word "nigger" expurgated and replaced it with the word "slave." I thought at the time and continue to think that this is a very bad idea. First of all, the words are not synonymous. Secondly, it sets a terrible precedent. Shall we call Richard Pryor's classic comedy album, That Slave's Crazy? To properly read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the reader must deal with the word "nigger," just as readers of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer must deal with the word "cunt." These words are sometimes used in works of art and that doesn't make those works racist or misogynistic.  

When discussing and joking about this controversial and fascinating subject in my show, I made the decision to use the word "nigger" rather than "n-word" because I thought it was vitally important to the point I wanted to make and to the conversation I wanted to encourage. Some people were offended. At a performance in Mississippi, a few rows of the audience walked out on me. But in the years I did this material I stuck to my guns and offered no apology for my use of language. The overwhelming majority of blacks in my audience seemed to have no problem with this and it was especially gratifying to me when I received appreciative comments from black audience members following a performance.

No word or subject should ever be out of bounds for a comedian. It is worth noting that when comedy clubs started to ban the word "nigger" after the Michael Richards incident at the Laugh Factory in 2006, it was black comedians who pushed back, and hooray for that. Those who control the use of words control the conversation and debate on vitally important issues.  Comedians should not and must not cede this ground to anyone. That said, with great comedy power comes great comedy responsibility. Bill Maher knows this and that's why he is not happy today, because he fell short of his own standards.

As for Kelly Carlin's provocative question, "Should only women be able to say the word 'cunt'?" Of course not, though men will never have the same license.