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Bill Maher is the issue of the day on this week's 'Real Time'

 (Janet Van Ham / HBO)
(Janet Van Ham / HBO)

Going back as far as his days on "Politically Incorrect," Bill Maher has been a provocation-embracing ringmaster of sorts, leading conversations on hot-button issues while ensuring that he had the last word.

Friday, in the wake of a controversy that sprung out of his use of a racial slur to describe himself in a joke gone wrong during a segment with Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse the week before, a somewhat more subdued Maher found himself at the center of this conversation. For much of the episode, he and his guests picked further at a moment that had many calling for his job at HBO, where his series "Real Time" is enjoying a successful year under President Trump.

"Thank you for letting a sinner in your midst," Maher said after a warm reception from his studio audience and before launching into his usual opening monologue on the week in politics. Not long after, writer and frequent "Real Time" guest Michael Eric Dyson (filling in for Sen. Al Franken, who canceled his scheduled appearance this week) took him to task in a segment that at times looked as if he were conducting the interview with the late-night host.

"For black folks, that word -- I don't care who you are -- has caused pain. And I'm not here to do that," a contrite Maher said after Dyson asked him about his apology last week, something Maher has said was too common in American political discourse. "It doesn't matter that it wasn't said in malice," he went on after attributing the wording to a comic mind gone awry. "That's why I apologize freely and I reiterate it tonight."

Dyson talked about the form of privilege that arises among white people who believe they have earned a pass with the N-word. "Do you truly understand the need to name and to challenge that unconscious white privilege that exists and how it hurts black people, even unintentionally?"

Maher for his part took what often felt like a long-form act of contrition well, though he defended his slip as an aberration. "This happened once. A guy said a weird thing, I made a bad joke," Maher said, referencing Sen. Sasse's accidental set-up on last week's show that triggered his response. "But it's not like I made a career of this. It's not like I went out there last Friday and said, 'Ooh, I'm going to break some new ground tonight.'"

Maher went on to explain his transgression as the knee-jerk result of the anything-for-a-laugh comic mind. He mentioned the recent controversy surrounding Kathy Griffin -- "who, by the way, owes me a fruit basket for getting her off the front page," Maher joked -- as a product of that as well. He went on to say that what she did was wrong, but he understood, and he assured Griffin that her career was not over. "Kathy Griffin should not go away," he said.

The show returned to its more familiar form in a panel with David Gregory, Symone Sanders and David Jolly talking about James Comey and President Trump, but the addition of Ice Cube returned Maher to the center for what occasionally felt like an admonishment. "Sometimes you sound like a redneck trucker," he told Maher of his occasional black joke, which echoed a line Ice Cube told The Times in an interview earlier this week. It was a point Maher contested.

"What made you think that it was cool to say that?" asked the hip-hop star, who has pointedly used a colloquial form of the word in his lyrics as a solo artist and with the landmark group N.W.A. "It's a word that's been used against us, it's like a knife. ... It's been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we're not going to let that happen again."

Cube went on and addressed the audience as much as Maher, taking a similar tack as Dyson, "I know you heard, it's in the lexicon, everybody's talking," he said. "But that's our word now. And you can't have it back."

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