As a veteran comic, Bill Maher has faced his share of hostile audiences over the years. But tonight, in his first public appearance since sparking a national outcry over his improvised use of the N-word, Maher will play his toughest room yet: a TV audience waiting to see how he’ll handle the fallout from his ill-advised joke. So far, HBO has stuck by Maher, condemning his words but accepting his quick apology. What happens on tonight’s edition of Real Time, however, could be crucial to determining his longer-term fate at the network.
By and large, the initial PR crisis around Maher’s failed attempt at humor seems to have passed. Within hours of his gaffe, the comedian issued an unqualified apology for using a racial slur. This, along with HBO’s own statement condemning Maher’s action and its decision to bleep the N-word from future broadcasts of the Real Time episode, made it clear neither Maher nor HBO were going to try to defend what happened. Maher, whose first big TV show was titled Politically Incorrect, is not known for expressing regret or apology for jokes or political statements. Quite the contrary: The comic has often dug in when he’s been criticized for “going too far.” This time was different, however. He admitted he messed up. “The word was offensive and I regret saying it and am very sorry,” his apology concluded. The statement didn’t mollify all of Maher’s critics, of course, and some continued to call for him to be fired. Folks who previously weren’t fans of Maher were no doubt even less enamored of him after last week’s show. But post-apology, Maher has also gotten support from those who, while denouncing his language, have argued termination isn’t necessary.
HBO’s response since its initial statement has been to stay silent and let the controversy cycle work itself out. It’s probably a smart strategy for the network. The national obsession with President Trump’s White House crisis — this week’s episode: “The One With the Comey” — has deprived the scandal of media oxygen following last weekend’s tsunami of coverage. And while Maher’s remarks prompted plenty of impassioned denunciations online, there doesn’t appear to be any organized effort to pressure HBO to permanently stifle Maher. In fact, a search of online petition website Change.org finds more support for Maher than opposition. The four different petitions calling for Maher’s dismissal had collected under 500 digital signatures as of Friday morning. The one call to “Save Bill Maher” was closing in on 5,000 supporters. None of these petitions are scientific, of course, nor do they in any way justify what Maher said. But if there’s a grassroots movement to get Maher fired, it has yet to make itself evident.
A network spokesman declined to comment on Maher’s remarks beyond Saturday’s statement. But Hollywood insiders familiar with HBO’s thinking say network execs believes Maher’s transgression, while serious, was “a split-second lapse” that doesn’t reflect any intent to engage in hate speech. “There is a sin of malice where someone intentionally, and often in a hostile manner, attacks someone with a racial slur or action,” the source said. That’s not what happened Friday, HBO execs believe, according to the Hollywood insider. Instead, they think Maher “suffered from a sin of stupidity.” Maher’s decision to quickly apologize and not rationalize — or, at least, justify — his comments made things much easier for the network, too. In the case of Bill O’Reilly and Fox News, for example, the network was dealing with an employee who wouldn’t even admit he’d done anything wrong, despite years of court settlements related to charges of sexual harassment. (It’s also worth noting that, unlike O’Reilly, Maher’s troubles are about speech and not action, and they don’t involve anything illegal.)
Still, even as things have quieted down on the Maher front, tonight’s Real Time will be a major test for the comic. While neither Maher nor HBO have directly stated he’ll address the controversy tonight, of course he will. Maher’s first guest Friday is Georgetown University professor and author Michael Eric Dyson, whose latest book is Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America. (Dyson replaces Senator Al Franken, who canceled his planned visit after Maher’s remarks.) Two other African-Americans, Ice Cube and former Bernie Sanders staffer Symone Sanders, are also set to appear tonight (having been booked weeks ago). The topic of Maher’s “joke” will surely come up, and in addition to what could be a record TV audience, HBO execs will surely be watching to see how Maher handles things. Regular viewers of Real Time (and Ben Affleck) know he can be snarky and defensive when too harshly criticized for a point of view. He frequently castigates his own audience for groaning or gasping at jokes they don’t find funny (or funny enough, in Maher’s opinion). The challenge for Maher tonight will be to come off as sincere and genuinely apologetic, and not give in to his no doubt very strong urge to attack some of his most fierce and unsympathetic critics. Remember: Last week’s quip wasn’t planned or rehearsed. It came from Maher’s decades of training as a stand-up comic, where being able to quickly come up with a joke — particularly when an audience heckler pops up — is a survival skill. Ironically, Maher’s survival now may depend on his ability to repress that natural gag reflex.