Tonight, the latest incident of offensiveness comes courtesy of Real Time with Bill Maher, where in an interview with Senator Ben Sasse, Maher used a phrase containing the n-word in the context of whether or not he’d like to work the cornfields of Nebraska. The phrase, which starts with the word “house,” presumably is a reference to a speech made by Malcolm X, one that — okay, honestly, it doesn’t really matter how it was said, given that his decision to say it was one of the stupidest decisions that Maher could make. It doesn’t matter what letters are at the end of the word, the context, or anything else — it’s an offensive term that didn’t need to be said, and he’s just putting himself in the Kathy Griffin position now of not staying out of his own way. It’s not hard to have the goodwill of most Americans on your side in this present political climate; then, you use an egregiously racism term.
Unfortunately, this is a culture that is becoming all about one-upping for the sake of one-upping, and it’s frustrating since in a field such as comedy, what this does is sap so much of the joy away from it. Instead, it reeks of desperation. Good comedy comes from creativity, and not from shock value and the idea that free speech gives us license to be terrible people and say and do terrible things. Just because you can take a picture with a President’s head doesn’t mean that it’s good for your career; meanwhile, HBO giving you creative license doesn’t mean that you should offend people in your audience. (Maher shouldn’t get a free pass for what he said — if he was in any other TV profession he’d likely be fired on the spot. Humor can be offensive at times, but there are limits to it just as there are anything.)
Great comedy is coming up with inventive metaphors, original riffs, or ideas that cause people to think outside of the box. Using offensive language or shocking visuals, meanwhile, is lazy cop-out humor at its finest. It’s having nothing better to say or think about, so instead you just go for the shock value. You almost see that in the response from Senator Sasse, who smiles after the express in the most uncomfortable way imaginable. Maher’s audience, meanwhile, seems to cheer for a moment before processing what just happened. You’re conditioned in that environment to take Maher’s statements as humorous truths, so when something goes awry, it’s hard to accept it.
This week’s been terrible for comedy, and for people outside the established party trying to show that they are the more-sane of the bunch. Rather than fight shock value with shock value, isn’t it better to fight it with a sharp wit and careful intelligence?
What do you think Maher’s comment indicates about the state of TV comedy? share below. (Please, do keep things respectful and insightful — we’re not trying to go for shock value here, either.)