Last week, Bill Maher did a very bad thing. During an exchange with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska) on his show Real Time, the political satirist casually dropped the n-word.
Responding to a silly dig by Sasse (“We’d love to have you work in the fields with us,” he joked), Maher quipped, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house nigger.”
The backlash was appropriately swift, with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson and MC/activist Chance the Rapper calling for Maher to be kicked off the air, and the Rev. Al Sharpton digging up a vintage clip of Maher cavalierly tossing around the n-word and defending his use of it by citing the way African-American rappers regularly use it in their songs. The comic, for his part, issued a rare apology: “Friday nights are always my worst nights of sleep because I’m up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn't have said on my live show,” he wrote. “Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive and I regret saying it and I'm very sorry.”
Well, on Friday night’s edition of his HBO program Real Time, the host first welcomed close pal Michael Eric Dyson on the show for his mea culpa. But that exchange, a black friend of Maher’s serving as his character witness and shield of sorts, was transparently disingenuous.
The real exchange occurred later in the program when the iconic rapper turned actor Ice Cube joined the program. Cube, who served as frontman for the hip-hop group N.W.A. (which stood for “Niggas with Attitude”), gave Maher a piece of his mind.
“I knew you was gonna fuck up sooner or later,” Cube told Maher. “I did. I did. I love your show, you’ve got a great show, but you’ve been buckin’ up against that line a little bit. You know, you’ve got a lot of black jokes. You know what I’m sayin’, you do.”
“Well, against racists. Yes,” Maher responded, stunned by Cube’s criticism.
“Eh. Sometimes you sound like a redneck trucker,” added Cube.
“No, I don’t. That I gotta push back on,” replied Maher, clearly on the defensive.
“It’s my opinion,” offered Cube. “My thing is this, and you know, I’m cool with you. I like your show, to be honest. I just wanna know two questions. What made you think it was cool to say that? That’s one question.”
An annoyed Maher interrupted Cube—which he did repeatedly throughout the exchange: “You know, I just explained there was no thought put into it. Obviously I was telling Dr. Dyson, comedians, they react. And it was wrong. And I apologize. And you know, more than that I can’t do.”
Then Ice Cube enlightened Maher on why his use of the n-word was so damn problematic—in far more nuanced and poignant fashion than the host’s friend Dyson.
“I accept your apology. But I still think we need to get to the root of the psyche,” Cube explained. “Because I think there’s a lot of guys out there who cross the line because they a little too familiar—or they think they too familiar—or its guys that, you know, might have a black girlfriend or two who made them some Kool-Aid every now and then, and they think they can cross the line. And they can’t. It’s a word that has been used against us; it’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not gonna let that happen again by nobody, because it’s not cool. Now, I know you heard [it], it’s in the lexicon and everybody’s talkin’, but that’s our word now. That’s our word now. And you can’t have it back. I know they’re tryin’ to get it back.”
The hip-hop maestro was referencing Maher’s history of dating black women, and how he may have gotten “too familiar” and felt that it entitled him to cross certain lines of propriety. One of Maher’s exes Karine Steffans, who is black, once said of him, “Bill wants someone he can put down in an argument, tell you how ghetto you are, how big your butt is and that you’re an idiot. That’s why you never see him with a white girl or an intellectual.”
With that being said, Cube wasn’t done. “And I’m not talkin’ about you, Bill. But I’m talkin’ about guys who cross the line every day because they got some black homies, they got some friends, they think it’s cool. And it’s not cool because when I hear my homies say it, it don’t feel like venom. When I hear a white person say it, it feels like that knife stabbin’ me, even if they don’t mean it,” he said.
“So, I like your show—and it’s a great show—I just don’t know sometimes, is it a political show, or is it a show about jokes?” he continued. “This, to me, is a political show. And I think you just have to not step on some of the political messages that you sayin’ with a joke, because some things just ain’t funny, you know what I mean? This is real right here that we’re going through. And I’m not tryin’ to get on your case, Bill. I’m tellin’ you: I like your show and I like you. But I think this is a teachable moment, not just to you but to the people who are watching right now.”
Maher, visibly aggravated by Cube’s words, quipped, “I think the people who are watching right now are saying: that point has been made.”
“Not by me,” fired back Cube.
The outspoken funnyman was, for once, at a loss for words.