In 2001, Bill Maher lost his ABC show “Politically Incorrect” after he said that the 9/11 terrorists “were not cowards.” Advertisers pulled their spots, and the time slot was filled with “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” which has been on the air ever since. In the wake of his cancellation, Maher hit the stand-up circuit full-time, and two years later, he found himself on HBO hosting “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
Maher’s HBO show follows a unique format; he performs a monologue then interviews a prominent figure. Past guests have included leaders in the business, entertainment and political realm (in November 2016, only two days before the election, he hosted then-President Barack Obama). Maher then moves into a panel, and he is known for bringing on guests who don’t quite see eye-to-eye. In February, a blockbuster episode featured alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who, at one point, accused the other panelists of having low IQs.
The comic is known for being abrasive and even offensive at times. When he interviewed Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Maher jokingly referred to her as Pocahontas, which is the moniker that Trump uses for the Democratic leader.
But on June 2, Maher’s powerful train was derailed when he dropped a racial slur while interviewing Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska. Neither Maher or Sasse immediately addressed the comment, but there was a tension in the air for the moments following. The condemnations fell hard on the celebrity; Kevin Hart called the comment “tacky,” and Al Sharpton blasted Maher over the moment of impropriety.
In a rare admission of guilt, Maher apologized, saying in a statement:
Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I’m up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn’t have said on my live show. 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 am very sorry.
HBO released a statement calling the comment “completely inexcusable and tasteless,” but the network has announced that “Real Time” will be returning to the air this Friday. Maher’s scheduled guest, Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, has backed out and in a statement cited Maher’s comment as the reason for cancelling his appearance.
More likely than not, Maher won’t lose his show over this latest controversy. HBO operates on a different spectrum than ABC — even the FCC rules governing HBO are different. According to the FCC website, “The same rules for indecency and profanity do not apply to cable, satellite TV and satellite radio because they are subscription services.” There are no commercials during “Real Time with Bill Maher,” so the advertisers who brought down Bill O’Reilly (and previously Maher himself) have no power over him after his latest slip-up.
For HBO, Maher is a top earner who brings in millions of viewers. Over 1.8 million people tuned into last week’s episode that featured Maher’s racial slur, and that was down from previous weeks. While there are some who might skip “Real Time” in protest, fleeing guests could be the most compelling reason not to watch. But it’s unlikely that will happen; if he were a Sean Hannity, Samantha Bee or even the seemingly-invincible Stephen Colbert, he would have a tough time rising from the ashes, but it’s unlikely that this latest incident will do much damage. Top-notch guests will continue to appear because of the high-profile status of the show, and with top-notch guests come top-notch ratings. The only question is: “Is that okay?”