Does Bill Maher's Racial Humor Get a Pass?

Bill Maher has liberal views, lots of black friends and a politically incorrect sense of humor. Does all that make his off-color Obama jokes OK?

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Not unlike many young people with access to HBO and an interest in progressive politics, I used to watch Real Time With Bill Maher religiously. It was one of the few places I could turn to that reflected the views I wasn't getting from the 24-hour news channels. The direct and confrontational debate format left little room for the shilling of political talking points, and outright lies would not be tolerated.

It was a place where the truth would be unearthed, and Bill Maher served as the ultimate soothsayer. Hyperbole aside, Maher's freedom from the constraints of the 24-hour news cycle and traditional journalism introduced me to a world of progressive politics that at the time I didn't know existed.

But it's important to remember that Maher is a comedian by trade, and his first goal is to make people laugh. It's also important to note that his style of comedy is often ribald and can border on offensive, since Maher does not shy away from using racial and sexual stereotypes that are typically used to demean.

Lately he has come to depend on this style of joke to bring home laughs in a way that distracts from the insightful sociopolitical commentary he has to offer. Moreover, he has forgotten the first rule of comedy: Be funny. It simply wasn't funny when Maher suggested that he wanted President Obama to act like a "real black president" in his handling of the BP oil spill last summer by flashing a gun in the face of its CEO and asking, "We got a motherf---ing problem here?!"

It's a comment not too far off from when Bill O'Reilly was surprised that black people in a Harlem, N.Y., restaurant weren't screaming, "M-fer, I want more iced tea!" Both comments reflect inaccurate and damaging ideas about the way "real" black people behave, but more outrage was reserved for O'Reilly because Maher was "just joking." And maybe because these sorts of comments are a major part of his shtick.

He's a white male comedian not afraid to say things that are politically incorrect (which was the whole idea behind his previous show, Politically Incorrect, which ran from 1993-2002 on Comedy Central and ABC). It's supposed to be funny that a man who holds such liberal views can still laugh and have fun with stereotypes and racially insensitive material, because after all, he really knows better.

This type of comedy can be done and done well, as the late George Carlin proved, but Maher isn't clever, witty, charismatic, smart or funny enough to execute it. His jokes are clunky, as when he was attempting to expose right-wing racism on the Drudge Report website and produced a mock article featuring a photo of first lady Michelle Obama gardening, accompanied by the headline "Hoein' the Garden." The intent was satirical, but all of that was lost in the racist and sexist execution. His Real Time audience is sometimes audibly unnerved when Maher "goes there," but he pays it no mind.

More recently, Maher invited media personality Tavis Smiley to the show and suggested that Smiley talk to President Obama "brother to brother," once again playing on a stereotype -- in this case the one that implies all black people know one another -- to produce laughs. There is no large media backlash, however, the way there would be had, say, Glenn Beck made this remark, since Maher does it under the guise of comedy.

He has also capitalized on the fact that high-profile black celebrities, intellectuals and celebrity intellectuals such as Cornel West, Aaron McGruder and Chris Rock have all sung his praises. This seems to have given him the ability to dance around the edges of racism because he himself is not a racist: He gets it; he's just having fun with it -- so the logic goes.

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