Comedians and other entertainers frequently feel that there are too many red lines today—that free expression is getting completely squashed in an effort to not offend anyone. That's a legitimate debate, but in his Real Time broadcast on HBO Friday, Bill Maher crossed the red line no white, male, middle-aged comedian should cross any more.
While interviewing Senator Ben Sasse (R-Nebraska), Maher and the Senator had what began as an innocent exchange about some differences between Nebraska and California. Maher mentioned how adults on the west coast will wear costumes at Halloween, and Sasse said that didn't happen in Nebraska.
"I've got to get to Nebraska more," said Maher.
Sasse said he was welcome and that they'd love to have him come "work in the fields" in the Cornhusker State.
Maher said, "Work in the fields? Senator, I'm a house n*gger." He quickly followed with "No, it's a joke."
Sasse didn't know how to react, as he tweeted later, but he also said via Twitter that he wished he'd responded with "...The history of the n-word is an attack on universal human dignity. It’s therefore an attack on the American Creed. Don't use it.”
The Real Time audience reacted with groans but that was nothing compared to the response online.
Maher lost at least one future guest as well.
Maher tends to court attention like this, but his immediate disclaimer he was joking hinted that he knew what he was saying would bring some kind of heavy response.
HBO gave a statement to Philly.com, and the network was obviously unhappy with Maher. "Bill Maher’s comment last night was completely inexcusable and tasteless," the statement read, "We are removing his deeply offensive comment from any subsequent airings of the show."
The movie channel has given the comedian plenty of latitude in the past, so it's a pretty good indicator of just how far he went across the line that they issued the statement at all.
Bill Maher's public persona is such that it'd be shocking if he issued any kind of disclaimer or apology—he seems more likely to double down somehow.