Out of Bounds: Has a Contrite Bill Maher Learned His Lesson?

The HBO host's first show back since spouting a racial slur represents a test for him – and for the bounds of comedy.

Bill Maher's developed a habit of calling out his audience for groaning or emitting oohs of shock at some of his more provocative utterances.

He finally learned to listen last week, offering a rare apology after spouting the N-word during an exchange with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska).

With the latest installment of HBO’s "Real Time With Bill Maher" set to air live Friday, Maher appears all but certain to tackle the controversy that spurred calls, in some quarters, for his firing.

The next words that come out of his mouth may be the most crucial of his career: Maher's return represents a test for him – and for the bounds of comedy.

The focus on Maher follows highly charged flaps involving two of his comedy contemporaries – Kathy Griffin and Stephen Colbert, who handled fallout in different ways.

Griffin recently drew scorn – and reportedly Secret Service attention – after a photo depicting her holding President Trump’s severed, bloody head emerged. Last month, CBS “Late Show” host Colbert drew scorn – and FCC attention – with a bawdy (and bleeped) characterization of the relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Griffin apologized, but did herself no favors by painting herself as a victim of Trump Family vengeance. Colbert told his "Late Show" audience he used some words that were “cruder than they needed to be.” He aimed his mea culpa of sorts not at Trump, but at people who found his verbiage homophobic.

Details of the three episodes vary. But they're tied by heightened attention in an age where political correctness is increasingly in the eye of the beholder. That's due at least in part to a Reality TV-star-turned-president who uses the phrase as a rallying cry while targeting enemies – including the media, from legitimate news sources to "Saturday Night Live."

Maher's previous show, “Politically Incorrect,” ran from 1993 to 2002, long before Trump employed the term on the campaign trail. ABC cancelled the program less than a year after Maher sparked a fury by declaring the 9/11 hijackers were “not cowardly” – and that the U.S. firing of cruise missiles was.

Since landing on “Real Time” in 2003, Maher has blurred lines between comedian, pundit and activist, confounding and angering the left and right, though the right more so.

Maher gave $1 million to a super PAC supporting then-President Obama in 2012. As Trump questioned Obama’s citizenship, Maher irreverently questioned the then-“Apprentice” star’s parentage. (Trump sued Maher in 2013, but later withdrew the legal action.) Maher's somewhat Trump-like rants against Islam have infuriated many – including “Real Time” guest Ben Affleck, who called the host’s views “gross” and “racist” in 2014.

In February, Maher invited onto his program Milo Yiannopoulos, a then-Breitbart News editor banned from Twitter for leading a vicious online harassment campaign against “SNL” and “Ghostbusters” star Leslie Jones. Journalist Jeremy Scahill skipped the show rather than appear with Yiannopoulos, who subsequently quit Breitbart after past comments of him appearing to defend pedophilia surfaced.

This week, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota), a former "SNL" writer and player, bowed out of a guest spot on Friday's “Real Time,” citing Maher’s N-word use.

Maher perhaps sees himself as an extension of the first "SNL" host, George Carlin, whose standup approach turned angrier and more pointed with age. Carlin's fascination with the power and manipulation of language also grew, long after a radio broadcast of his "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine led to a 1978 Supreme Court decision that essentially gave the FCC latitude in establishing decency standards. 

The N-word was not among Carlin's seven TV no-nos. Last week, Maher poked an exposed nerve by invoking perhaps the most fraught word in the language – and he did so with an improvised, throwaway line that served only to incite without offering any insight.

There are fierce debates over who gets to use that word and under what circumstances. But it’s clear that few were satisfied by Maher’s initial response amid audience groans and a smattering of applause: “It’s a joke!”

Maher's had a week to mull a response beyond his next-day apology statement. He’ll walk onto the “Real Time” stage Friday facing a challenging balancing act: showing he’s sorry while carrying out the highest duty of a comedian – using provocative humor to make us laugh and think. 

Let's see how carefully Maher thinks this time before addressing the audience in his Los Angeles TV studio and far beyond.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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