All Comedians—All the Time

I don’t even like Kathy Griffin much.

Sound familiar? It wasn’t even a week ago when I defended her lapse of judgment for holding up the bloody decapitated head of the president (actually it was a mask) in a posted photo. Trump never got hurt, the blood was not real, and the Secret Service agents investigating Ms. Griffin(!) are probably enjoying one of the easiest assignments of their lives—protecting one entertainer from another.

This weeks persona non grata du jour (can you mix Latin and French that way?) is Bill Maher, whom I do like. But let me define “like” if I might. I like his spontaneity and his quickness, his ability to call BS on people no matter how aristocratic or polished they think they are. I like his rants and his guests. I don’t like his Islamophobia or the fact that I think he’s high for every Real Time broadcast.

Last Friday evening Mr. Maher, going for a laugh, injected the n-word into a conversation; now people want him fired.

The Black Lives Matter movement assailed him, as did the Women’s March. Fair enough, but Maher is neither a racist nor a misogynist. Trump joined in also, though people with no moral high ground cannot ever be taken seriously. Even Chance the Rapper, he who cannot get through many verses of a song without using the word himself, wants Maher fired. I’m sure Mr. Bennett (Chance’s real name) knows that ending the word with an a instead of an er doesn’t change anything.

You may be thinking that Mr. Bennett is black and may use that word if he chooses.

No. He can’t. I never bought that argument and I don’t buy it now. If we want offensive words to lose all credibility and disappear from modern parlance, we cannot sprinkle them around at random, no matter how artistic, poetic, or seemingly noble the motivation. Offensive words are offensive regardless of the source.

Bill Maher is a pretty smart guy, and like anyone conversant with the history of slavery in this country, understands that the house negro led a much different life from the slave in the field. I knew exactly what Maher meant and that he was trying to needle a conservative Republican, one whose platform includes the following:

▶methods to keep blacks from voting,

▶plans to give the police carte blanche in making arrests,

▶an attempt to stiffen penalties for minor drug offenses.

That’s the kind of subtle racism that’s harder to deal with, but if Chance the Rapper wants someone fired, start at the source.

All that doesn’t mean I thought Maher’s choice of words was funny or that he should have said it. It also doesn’t mean that a Black person might respond differently from me, a white man. But most of us—people whose success is not dependent upon being quicker with a retort than the next person—have to cut comedians and singers some slack. They are going to offend us, and sometimes they’ll force us to reexamine our own beliefs and attitudes.

And sometimes an entertainer will bomb. Bill Maher bombed. If he bombs enough, nobody will have to fire him. The same criterion, apparently, does not apply to the president.

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