Comedian Bill Maher has made a career of saying things that could come back to haunt him, both on his former ABC show "Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher" and on his current HBO show "Real Time with Bill Maher." Though Maher prides himself on being politically incorrect, there have been plenty of times he's said offensive things that got him into hot water. Here's a look at some of them.
Maher frequently dipped his toe in controversy on his ABC late-night show, "Politically Incorrect," but comparing dogs to "retarded children" went far beyond what was acceptable. ''They're sweet. They're loving. They're kind. But they don't mentally advance at all," he said in a discussion about parenting. When one of his guests on the panel, NBC's "Later" host Cynthia Garrett said, "My 9-year-old nephew is retarded, I've never thought of him like a little dog,'' Maher responded, ''Well, maybe you should.''
Six days after the 9/11 terrorists attack and then-President Bush's statement calling them cowards, Maher set off a wave of outrage by disputing that, instead telling conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza that it was America that was the coward. "We have been the cowards. Lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building. Say what you want about it. Not cowardly." After that, ABC decided not to renew Maher's contract.
Maher proved he was still politically incorrect when Republican Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse jokingly invited him to his home state to “work in the fields.” Maher threw his hands up and said, “Work in the fields? Senator, I’m a house n—a.” The audience groaned and then there was an uncomfortable spattering of laughter. Many on social media weren’t laughing, nor was the home to "Real Time With Bill Maher," HBO. “Bill Maher’s comment last night was completely inexcusable and tasteless. We are removing his deeply offensive comment from any subsequent airings of the show,” a spokesperson said.
Maher caught heat after reenacting the now-infamous photo of former senator Al Franken seeming to grope Leeann Tweeden’s breasts, which helped to usher Franken’s exit from the U.S. Senate. The reenactment was made even more bizarre by the target of Maher’s mitts — comedian Bob Saget, who appeared to be dozing in an airplane seat as Maher made his move. “Jokes about sexual misconduct are: easy, not funny, offensive,” one viewer replied on Twitter. "Are you mocking Sen. Franken and the victim?" another asked. “Not cool.”
After former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said Congresswoman Maxine Waters’ hair looked like a “James Brown wig,” Maher came to his defense on “Real Time," not understanding why women of color were offended. Neera Tanden shot back, "Racism and sexism – that's what she spoke out about Bill." "Why is that racist?" he asked. "Because she’s compared to black people?” Maher insisted that liberals "can’t take a joke."
Maher stepped into the center of the controversy about the COVID-19 pandemic being referred to as "the Chinese virus," saying, "Scientists, who are generally pretty liberal, have been naming diseases after the places they came from for a very long time," he said in a New Rules segment in April 2020. "Zika is from the Zika Forest, Ebola from the Ebola River, hantavirus the Hantan River. There’s the West Nile virus and Guinea worm and Rocky Mountain spotted fever and, of course, the Spanish flu. MERS stands for Middle East respiratory syndrome. It’s plastered all over airports, and no one blogs about it. So why should China get a pass?” he said.
There is no wrath like the wrath of comic book fans, which Maher quickly found out after questioning the legitimacy of the medium and disrespecting the legendary comic book writer and editor Stan Lee after his passing. “America is in mourning. Deep, deep mourning for a man who inspired millions to, I don’t know, watch a movie, I guess,” Maher wrote in a blog post. Although the comedian said he had nothing “against comic books,” he added that when he was growing up “comics were for kids, and when you grew up you moved on to big-boy books without the pictures.” He concluded: “I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to suggest that Donald Trump could only get elected in a country that thinks comic books are important.”
The lapsed Catholic and proud atheist, who laid out his beliefs in his 2008 documentary "Religulous," argued that it shouldn’t be surprising that most of the senators who objected to certifying the electoral college votes for Joe Biden were also fundamentalist Christians. And many of Trump’s supporters, he said, follow the former president with a God-like reverence that is often very tied up in their religious beliefs. "When you are a QAnon fanatic, you’re also a fundamentalist Christian. They just go together like macaroni and cheese or chardonnay and Valium,” Maher said. “It’s fun to laugh at QAnon with the baby-eating lizard people and the pedophile pizza parlors, but have you ever read the Book of Revelations? That’s the Bible, that’s your holy book, Christians, and they’ve got … stuff you only see after the guy in the park sells you bad mushrooms."
Maher came to the defense of former MSNBC “Hardball” host Chris Matthews, excusing him for making “kind of creepy” remarks to women over the years and mocking a journalist who accused him of “inappropriately flirting.” “He said some things that are kind of creepy to women. Ya know, guys are married for a million years, they want to flirt for two seconds,” Maher said. “Yes, it is creepy, but she said, ‘I was afraid to name him at the time for fear of retaliation. I’m not afraid anymore,'” Maher said, adding sarcastically, “Thank you, Rosa Parks.”
In a September 2019 episode of "Real Time," Maher, noted that it was "controversial" to say "being fat is a bad thing" and commented on the idea of "fat acceptance": "We shouldn't taunt people about it ... but there's no 'smoking acceptance' or 'drunk acceptance.'" James Corden addressed Maher directly over the segment, saying, "Any time I've met Bill Maher in person, he's been nothing but pleasant and kind and nice, which is why I found it so surprising that he or anybody thinks that fat-shaming needs to make a comeback because fat-shaming never went anywhere. Ask literally any fat person. We are reminded of it all the time." Corden concluded: "While you're encouraging people to think about what goes into their mouths, just think a little harder about what comes out of yours."
After alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech at Berkeley University was canceled because of protests, Maher brought him on "Real Time" for an interview. Though Yiannopoulos’ anti-feminism, anti-transgender and anti-Muslim positions are well known -- as is his role in the harassment-focused online movement known as GamerGate -- Maher offered almost no pushback against Milo.
In 2009, news broke that social media personality Tila Tequila claimed she’d been assaulted by then-boyfriend and San Diego Charger Shawne Merriman. Maher responded with a joke many found sexist: “New rule: Stop acting surprised someone choked Tila Tequila! The surprise is that someone hasn’t choked this bitch sooner.”
Maher has a long history of being highly critical of religion and, in recent years, of Islam in particular. The "Real Time" host and actor Ben Affleck got into a heated debate that quickly turned into a shouting match over the nature of Islam. “It’s the only religion that acts like the mafia — that will f---ing kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book,” Maher said. Affleck shot back, "Hold on — are you the person who officially understands the codified doctrine of Islam?” Affleck asked. “[Your characterization] is gross and racist. It’s like saying, ‘Oh, you shifty Jew!'”
While the country still mourned the devastation of the Boston Marathon bombing, Maher compared one of the assailants to One Direction’s Zayn Malik. People were angered when Maher asked, “Where were you during the Boston Marathon?” placing an image of Malik beside one of bombers, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, insinuating that they looked alike. Many saw the joke as one mocking both Malik’s appearance and his Muslim faith.
Maher's abhorrence of Trump became shockingly clear in September 2016 when he made a joke about an assassination attempt on the then-presidential candidate, referencing Ronald Reagan attempted assassin, John Hinckley Jr.’s release from a mental institution. "I’m nervous with this election,” Maher said on Sunday while speaking at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. “And I saw the headline today: ‘Race tightening, Trump ahead in Ohio and Florida’. If this race is even the week before the election, somebody is going to have to go out there … Why do you think they let Hinckley out?”
And that certainly was not all Maher has said about Trump over the four years that followed. Years later, he said he was willing to go to just about any lengths to prevent Trump from re-election — including economic collapse. “I feel like the bottom has to fall out at some point. And by the way, I’m hoping for it,” he said. “Because I think one way you get rid of Trump is a crashing economy. So please, bring on the recession. Sorry if that hurts people, but it’s either root for a recession or you lose your democracy.”
Maher once again crossed a line when he defended sex between adults and minors all in the name of love. The incident happened on "Politically Incorrect" when the panel discussed Mary Kay Letourneau, a teacher convicted of having sex with a 12-year-old male student, whom she later married. "She is in jail because she is in love. That’s how I view it,” Maher said. “Basically, they’re having a family and they’re keeping the mother in jail because she won’t conform to what society feels should be the perfect American family.”