Real Time host’s conversation with Nebraska senator Ben Sasse, who tweeted regret over not responding, will be edited to omit exchange in future airings
Bill Maher has apologised for using the word “nigger” on his HBO talkshow on Friday night, in an exchange with the Nebraska senator Ben Sasse that prompted calls for the comedian to be fired.
“Friday nights are always my worst night of sleep because I’m up reflecting on the things I should or shouldn’t have said on my live show,” Maher said in a statement.
“Last night was a particularly long night as I regret the word I used in the banter of a live moment. The word was offensive, and I regret saying it and am very sorry.”
HBO earlier said it would be removed from any subsequent airing of the edition of Real Time with Bill Maher in which Sasse discussed his new book.
“Bill Maher’s comment last night was completely inexcusable and tasteless,” read a statement to the Hollywood Reporter. “We are removing his deeply offensive comment from any subsequent airings of the show.”
In conversation with Maher, Sasse said the host would be welcome in Nebraska as “we’d love to have you work in the fields with us”.
“Work in the fields?” Maher replied. “Senator, I’m a house nigger.”
The audience laughed and groaned, with some applause. Sasse kept quiet, before Maher said: “No, it’s a joke.”
DeRay McKesson, a Black Lives Matter activist and former Baltimore mayoral candidate, led instant criticism on social media. “Bill Maher has got to go,” he wrote. “There are no explanations that make this acceptable.”
McKesson added: “And why does the audience think it was OK to laugh? And Ben Sasse doesn’t even flinch. What is happening in the world?
“Trump has undeniably moved the posts re: what is acceptable in political discourse but we can’t sit idly by, as discourse breeds actions.”
Early on Saturday, Sasse gave his view in a series of linked tweets.
“Am walking off a redeye from [Los Angeles International Airport],” he wrote, before offering “three reflections on Bill Maher”.
“I’m a first amendment absolutist. Comedians get latitude to cross hard lines. But free speech comes with a responsibility to speak up when folks use that word. Me just cringing last night wasn’t good enough.
“Here’s what I wish I’d been quick enough to say in the moment: “Hold up, why would you think it’s OK to use that word? The history of the N-word is an attack on universal human dignity. It’s therefore an attack on the American Creed. Don’t use it.”
In New York City, civil rights activist Rev Al Sharpton addressed the issue in his Saturday sermon.
“Bill Maher decided to get on television last night and sanitize and normalize the N-word,” Sharpton said. “Just because Bill Maher is liberal and our friend, you don’t give him a pass … you never get the right to use that term.”
Maher has caused controversy with his views on religion, particularly Islam, trans rights and freedom of speech. On Friday night the author Reza Aslan tweeted: “I can’t believe Bill Maher said something racist, said no Muslim ever.”
The pressure on Maher follows CNN’s firing of the comedian Kathy Griffin, who said at a press conference on Friday that Donald Trump was “trying to ruin my life for ever” after she was pictured holding a mock-up of the US president’s severed head.
Maher has been fired for controversial comments before. In 2002, he lost an ABC show, Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher, after he said of 9/11: “We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building? Say what you like about it, it’s not cowardly.”