Comedians typically don’t like to publicly condemn other comedians. But that principle was challenged over the past week after Bill Maher casually dropped the “n-word” on his HBO show Real Time.
Asked about the backlash last week on The View, Kevin Hart said he doesn’t believe Maher is a “racist,” but should have known the “consequences” of using the word. “It was stupid,” he added. Maher discovered those consequences as people began calling for him to be fired and on Friday night both Michael Eric Dyson and Ice Cube took him “to the woodshed,” so to speak, for his transgression.
It took about 10 seconds for the topic to come up once again on Monday’s episode of The View, when The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah joined the hosts. “It seems like it’s a dangerous time to be a comedian right now,” Joy Behar said, citing not only Maher, but also Kathy Griffin, who was let go by CNN for her anti-Donald Trump stunt, and Stephen Colbert, who faced his own backlash for joking about the president.
“You know what, to be honest with you, I think it’s good,” Noah said. “I genuinely think it’s good. I won’t lie, as a comedian, I look back and I go, there are things I said that I shouldn’t have been saying. We’re progressing, we’re moving forward. There’s things that we said about women that we shouldn’t have been saying.”
“That’s one way to look at it,” Behar said, in clear disagreement with Noah’s point of view.
Noah was speaking from experience. When he was hired to replace Jon Stewart in 2015, he found his Twitter history subjected to an unprecedented level of scrutiny with reporters digging up and highlighting any joke from his past that could be construed as sexist, anti-Semitic or just generally offensive.
“If you look at what you’re trying to do as a comedian, essentially what I’m trying to do, is I’m trying to move forward, I’m trying to think progressively, I’m trying to push the boundaries,” Noah added on The View. “I remember a time when I loved making fat jokes, because I thought, oh, look at this, this is edgy. But it wasn’t.”
Noah made a distinction between “censorship” and “backlash,” asking, “Shouldn’t there be consequences for free speech?”
“There should not be consequences for free speech,” Whoopi Goldberg countered. “People don’t have to like what you say, but there should not be consequences.”
In America, Noah said he finds that people “conflate free speech as consequence free,” but coming from South Africa, a country where “the government could come after you” for something you say, he sees a clear difference. “You are free to say what you like, somebody may still punch you, though. That’s a consequence.”
Losing your job can also be a “consequence,” one that Kathy Griffin, and subsequently Reza Aslan, suffered at the hands of CNN. But not, so far at least, one that Bill Maher has been dealt by HBO.