I’ve been a fan of podcasts and podcasting ever since I heard about their invention, going back to around the mid-2000s. I liked the medium so much I even created and produced a podcast.
This digital audio format is a wonderful way to listen to content of your choice at your convenience. Also, they are easily accessible with those ubiquitous smartphones. If you’re unfamiliar with what a podcast is, a shorthand way to think of it is as a digital video recorder (or VCR if you’re technologically stuck in the 1980s) for audio, although the format is much more than that, with a lot of still-untapped potential.
For instance, let’s say there was an interesting panel discussion at JANM or a JACL event that you wanted to attend but could not. That event could, however, be recorded digitally and made available as a podcast, and be accessed at a more convenient time, possibly years from now, as long as there is an Internet connection. Even Sunday church sermons could be made available as podcasts for the infirm. There are even ways to monetize such offerings, if one was so inclined.
I listen to a bunch of different podcasts, some of them repurposed radio programming from NPR, some of them stand-alone shows designed as podcasts. Either way, for me the format is wonderful because I can’t always catch shows like “Fresh Air” or “The Treatment” when they air. Others, like “WTF” or “DigiGods,” are original content made for the podcast format. And, if you’re wearing headphones, you’re not going to offend sensitive ears if the language is a bit off-color – which brings up comedian Bill Maher and his HBO show, “Real Time With Bill Maher.”
(FYI, the following will include some off-color, offensive words, so be forewarned and stop reading if you’re easily offended.)
“Real Time” is the premium cable version of Maher’s defunct basic-cable-turned-broadcast-TV show “Politically Incorrect,” which started on Comedy Central in the late 1990s before migrating to ABC. It was canceled in 2002, then reincarnated a few years later on HBO with its new name, cablecast once a week instead of nightly, but expanded to an hour from 30 minutes, with about 15 minutes of “overtime” and “Bonus Bill” material available via YouTube and as free podcasts.
I’ve been a regular listener to the podcast version of “Real Time” for many years; it’s one of those shows that mostly doesn’t need the visuals, since it’s a bunch of people discussing – OK, arguing about – the week’s events, with the quick-witted and usually well-informed Maher serving as the ringmaster. It’s entertaining, although I do not agree with everything he says and believes. That’s true of anyone, actually.
“RTWBM” is undoubtedly irreverent and usually funny, but I’ve had reservations about Maher, who I must acknowledge is extremely good at what he does – few of his comedic peers could do the same gig as well.
That said, I’ve observed Maher’s bullying streak and while he no doubt touts himself as an equal-opportunity offender, he makes a lot of borderline and outright racist comments about Asians (he really doesn’t make any distinction between Asian Americans and Asians from Asia; it’s all the same to him) that he probably would deny – and probably wouldn’t dare say about other racial groups.
Furthermore, while he has a pretty good track record of having on women, black folks, the occasional Latino, plus token conservatives (the show leans hard left), the show has had only a few Asian Americans on the panel of guests in recent years (then-Assemblyman Ted Lieu and “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” author Amy Chua come immediately to mind), meaning it stands out all the more when there is an Asian American guest. (I wonder whether he has any Asian Americans among his cadre of real-life friends.)
But Maher seems to get a pass on this and his targeting of Asians, maybe since he’s a comedian and he’s perceived as a liberal.
Some folks might disagree with me on my perception of Maher, but I think that what happened Friday, June 2, reinforced my Spidey sense that there is something a bit off, if not ugly, dwelling inside his psyche. From the outside, he’s a successful, famous and well-to-do comedian – but I don’t get the impression that he’s a happy, much less likable, person.
Nevertheless, two weeks ago when I tried to listen to the newest “RTWBM” podcast via iTunes, it wasn’t there. The “Overtime” portion of episode No. 427 was, however, so I just thought that it was just a technical glitch of some sort until over the weekend I read about what had transpired.
It turned out that one of Maher’s guests, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) was on the show to tout his book “The Vanishing American Adult,” the thesis of which is that young Americans aren’t being brought up learning the value of hard work and the satisfaction one can derive from physical labor and completing a job well done.
That’s why Sasse jokingly invited Maher to visit Nebraska to work in the fields, to which Maher replied, with mock indignation, that he was a “house nigga.”
As could be expected, the you-know-what hit the you-know-what. Maher’s “joke” became a hot item for discussion on the news and social media. For me, at least I knew why the podcast of Episode No. 427 didn’t get distributed like usual. I still haven’t heard or watched that entire episode, but I did view a replay of the incident on YouTube. HBO, meantime, has reportedly said it will bleep the N-word in the show’s reruns.
To Maher’s credit, he issued an immediate apology, even though I’m not sure whether he really understood at the time why using the word in that context elicited such a strong reaction. Evidently, the lesson from many years ago when he had comedian Sarah Silverman on “Politically Incorrect” to defend her use of “chink” as an acceptable punchline on NBC’s now defunct “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” didn’t stick.
Silverman didn’t get it, and maybe she still doesn’t. Maher, likewise, didn’t get it, that using racial slurs as punchlines, even if well-intentioned, is like trotting through a minefield with snowshoes, especially when you’re not a member of that group. I’d even go a bit further and say that even when you are a member of that group, you’d better be careful, like when comedian Larry Wilmore served as the M.C. of the White House Correspondents Dinner in May 2016 and closed by saying to President Obama, “Yo, Barry – you did it, my nigga.” I thought that was highly inappropriate.
Back to the present, I was interested in how Maher would address his remark on the subsequent episode of “RTWBM.” Interestingly, he had three African American guests, two of whom were Symone Sanders, who served as Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (D-Vt.) press secretary during his presidential run and now works for CNN, and author-academic Michael Eric Dyson, who was a fill-in after Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who is making the talk show rounds to tout his new book, “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” opted out after Maher’s N-bomb. Variety reported the following: “Senator Franken believes that what Bill Maher said was inappropriate and offensive, which is why he made the decision not to appear on the next episode of ‘Real Time.’ ”
Interesting, since Franken himself used “Japs” years before he became a “giant of the Senate” (but decades after the “Al Franken Decade”) in his 2003 book “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.” (Playwright Perry Miyake pointed that out to me back then and it was the subject of my Jan. 17, 2004 column.)
The third black guest was rapper-actor-producer Ice Cube, who gained fame in the late 1980s as a member of N.W.A. I’ll leave it up to you to Google what the acronym stands for if you don’t already know.
Dyson and Maher had a rather dry discussion about the latter’s ill-advised use of the word, but the conversation was conciliatory, with Maher admitting: “It was wrong and I own up to that, but it’s not like I made a career of this.” Dyson lectured him on “white privilege” and why Maher’s use of the word was especially disappointing, since Maher has, in Dyson’s opinion, has been on the forefront of attacking racism. Maher tried to defend himself, saying it was more of a “comedian thing” than a “race thing.” Snore.
Thank goodness Ice Cube had been booked well in advance to promote a reissue of his 1991 album “Death Certificate.”
Upfront, I must admit that I’m not what anyone would call an Ice Cube fan, whether it’s his own liberal use of the N-word or incendiary lyrics like the ones found in “Black Korea” (from the aforementioned album) that read:
So don’t follow me up and down your market
Or your little chop suey ass will be a target
Of a nationwide boycott.
Juice with the people, that’s what the boy got.
So pay respect to the black fist
Or we’ll burn your store right down to a crisp.
And then we’ll see ya…
’Cause you can’t turn the ghetto into black Korea.
Speaking of burning, I have to say that Cube held Maher’s feet to the fire when Maher tried to portray himself as a well-intentioned guy who messed up. Cube said that while he liked Maher’s show, he noted that Maher does a lot of black jokes, which I agree with, just like he does a lot of jokes that target Asians. Maher replied that those jokes are against racists, Cube disagreed and said Maher sounded like “a redneck trucker.” Maher dismissed that, but Cube didn’t budge.
That exchange was a draw but Cube pressed on, saying that the N-word is like a knife when it’s used by white folks, regardless of intent, and that things like a white man having a black woman as a girlfriend doesn’t grant permission, adding that “some things just ain’t funny.”
Sanders also jumped in and added to Cube’s sentiments. Maher pretty much kept his mouth shut and, for once, had to listen.
Ice Cube did, incidentally, accept Maher’s apology. On that point, I don’t believe Maher should be fired as some have called for, just like I didn’t think Terry Frei from The Denver Post should have been fired for his tweet about feeling uncomfortable about a Japanese driver winning the Indianapolis 500 on Memorial Day weekend.
Nearly everyone deserves a second chance – sometimes a third or fourth chance, Bill Maher and Ice Cube included.
As for me, I’ll keep listening to the “RTWBH” podcast. It’ll be interesting to see whether I observe any changes in Maher’s approach after this incident. Just as it seems the election of President Flim Flam has given license to haters to be open with their hate, it also seems to have affected the well-intentioned people who should know better, whether it’s Maher or comedian Kathy Griffin posing with a severed mannequin head of the POTUS.
Wednesday’s shooting that included House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) as one of the victims is another sign things are getting out of hand. In these times, we all need to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves.
Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.
George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.