Bill Maher is a brilliant comedian and an astute political observer. I will always defend his right to say exactly what he wants, and agree wholeheartedly that comedians should always be pushing the boundaries of what society believes is acceptable. And that Maher does, week in, week out on his show ‘Real Time’ on HBO.
Maher has pilloried pretty much everyone – whites, Blacks, Jews, Muslims, Christians and anyone in between – and he’s almost always hilarious. Maher also pokes fun at stereotypes, subtly challenging his audience to question their own prejudice. It sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing, but then that’s what good comedy should do.
Maher often cracks jokes about African Americans, a cultural taboo that most white comedians are not brave enough to go anywhere near. In 2010, Maher joked that with the election of Obama, he was expecting a “real black president”– you know, the kind that “lifts up his shirt so they can see the gun in his pants.” For those without a sense of humor, Maher was joking that a stereotypical black man would be useful in dealing with Republicans. It’s a joke that everyone can (or at least should) be able to laugh at if we’re honest about our own prejudice and perception of stereotype.
Maher isn’t affected by the annoying guilt complex that many white people get when talking about black people, and to a large degree, it’s refreshing.
But Maher’s singling out of fellow comedian Wayne Brady for not being “black” enough crossed a line that he should do his best to walk back. Maher has often referred to Obama as “your Wayne Brady” when joking about the President not playing up to black stereotypes, and Brady quite rightly took offensive to the insinuation. On the Huff Post Live, Brady eviscerated Maher for thinking he had the right to question his blackness:
“So yeah Bill, you think you have a pass,” said Brady. “But the fact of the matter is, if it came down to it….the black dude in his mind is the stereotypical “Yeah what?” – that guy exists, but that’s not the range of the black experience ….so then when I meet you, when I talk to you again, I’ll give you that black dude, and I will beat your ass in public.”
Brady’s anger is understandable – being held up as an example of a non-black, black man because he speaks well, isn’t aggressive and doesn’t conform to cultural stereotypes of an African American is pretty damn offensive, even if Maher is joking.
Brady is a funny dude – he’s incredibly self aware and intelligent and refuses to play into stereotypes others might have of him. In a culture where crass generalizations are a marketable commodity (just look at 90% of commercial rappers), Brady is a rare breed and should forcefully defend his right to be articulate and educated and not have his ‘blackness’ questioned.
While Maher’s jokes about African Americans are usually pretty funny, his offhand characterization of Wayne Brady isn’t, and it says more about his secret desire to be ‘down with the brothers’ than anything else. Maher probably thinks that African Americans will find it funny when he undermines another African American’s ‘blackness’, as Brady fits the stereotype Maher has in his mind. But he’s off by a very wide margin.
“Bill Maher has never walked in my shoes,” said Brady. “Just because you’ve been with a black woman or two, and I’ve seen some of them, and it’s questionable whether they were women just because you’ve done that….now you’ve lived the black experience? Now you’re ‘down’?”
Maher, like anyone else, has an ability to empathize with others and get a feeling for the experiences they have lived through. But that doesn’t mean he truly understands what it means to be black.
He hasn’t been stopped by the police over and over again for walking down the street in his own neighborhood. He hasn’t had anyone assume that he must be a musician, an athlete or a drug dealer because he drives a nice car. He hasn’t been accused of shoplifting because he hung around a particular area of a store for a too long. He hasn’t had anyone do a double take when he’s spoken about art and culture. He hasn’t had people cross the street at nighttime for fear of him mugging them. He hasn’t had anyone assume he’s from a single parent family and he hasn’t had anyone accuse him of selling out because he reads books.
So when it comes to Wayne Brady’s blackness, he should probably keep his mouth shut.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.