Does Bill Maher's Racial Humor Get a Pass?

Illustration for article titled Does Bill Maher's Racial Humor Get a Pass?

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.


This is a dangerous line to toe. It's true that attempting to moralize art is a minefield not easily navigated, and to condemn Maher based on his jokes starts to set a precedent that could snowball into the censoring of art in all forms. However, if we are completely honest, Maher is not just a comedian anymore — he is also recognized as a political pundit. And even if he were only a comedian, there is still the unaddressed issue of white privilege.

Maher sees no big deal in his racially insensitive remarks because his whiteness protects him from ever having to feel the sting of what those remarks signify. He reminds me of the character portrayed by actor Michael Rapaport in the Spike Lee film Bamboozled: a white executive who believes that because he has a few posters of black men hanging in his office and is married to a black woman, he is entitled to use the n-word. Maher once publicly dated noted "video vixen" and author Karrine Steffans; is that enough to allow him to say whatever he wants without reprimand?


Of course it isn't, and we wouldn't stand for it if these same comments were uttered by the likes of Sarah Palin or Rush Limbaugh. But because Maher occasionally does things like tweet about how there were no black people nominated for Oscars this year, we're willing to give him a pass. We have to recognize that while out of one side of his mouth he's bemoaning black exclusion, out of the other he's deriding the Middle East for its sexism and excusing America for its own.

Maher is necessary — if not the man himself, then the space that he occupies in the political discourse. With the thunderous rise of, and mainstream fascination with, figures like O'Reilly, Palin, Limbaugh, Beck and Sean Hannity — as well as a litany of others who represent perverse, anti-intellectual, regressive and outright oppressive political views — it has become more important for Maher, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Rachel Maddow and others of that ilk to be just as loud and to counter the misinformation that otherwise dominates cable news.


However, just as earlier this year Keith Olbermann (along with documentary filmmaker Michael Moore) was lambasted as a rape apologist in the case of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, it is necessary to take these journalists, talking heads and comedians-turned-pundits to task and hold them accountable when their ideas and comments are off the mark.

Maher, black friends or not, is no exception.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a writer, social commentator and mental health advocate. Follow him on Twitter.