In a brief interview with ABC's Jake Tapper, Bill Maher explains why calling Sarah Palin a "cunt" or a "twat," as he has, is in no way equivalent to calling Sandra Fluke a "slut" or a "prostitute," as Rush Limbaugh did:
I'm a comedian – not just a guy who says he is, like Rush, but someone who – well, you saw me do stand-up last year in D.C. There's a big difference between just saying you're a comedian and going out and getting thousands of people to laugh hard for 90 minutes….
I let the audience be the guide. The bit I did about Palin using the word c—, one of the biggest laughs in my act, I did it all over the country, not one person ever registered disapproval, and believe me, audiences are not afraid to let you know. Because it was a routine where that word came in at just the right moment….
[Limbaugh] went after a civilian about very specific behavior, that was a lie, speaking for a party that has systematically gone after women's rights all year, on the public airwaves. I used a rude word about a public figure who gives as good as she gets, who's called people "terrorist" and "unAmerican."
In other words:
1. I'm funny; Limbaugh isn't.
2. My audience likes it when I call Palin a cunt.
3. She can take it, but Fluke can't.
As someone who finds neither Maher nor Limbaugh particularly amusing, I would like to suggest that people are much more likely to laugh at political humor when they are sympathetic to the comedian's views. Furthermore, I suspect that people who go to Bill Maher's shows tend to agree with him, while people who listen to Rush Limbaugh's show tend to agree with him. (I am reminded of a reader who rebuked me for describing what Limbaugh said as a "stupid joke." After all, how could it be a joke if it wasn't funny?) As for the third point, Fluke made herself a public figure by campaigning for "reproductive justice" at Georgetown and testifying about the Obama administration's contraceptive mandate before members of Congress. That does not mean it's OK to call her a slut, but neither does Palin's status as a public figure mean it's OK to call her a cunt.
Maher also suggests that what Limbaugh said about Fluke amounted to slander, saying, "libel laws were written to protect law students speaking out on political issues from getting called whores by Oxycontin addicts." Still, he defends Limbaugh's general right to say offensive things:
Through it all, I have defended Rush's right to stay on the air! Not what he said, that was disgusting – but the right to not disappear because people who don't even listen to you don't like what you said. That really bothers me. I never hear Rush Limbaugh unless a guy in the next truck at a stop light has it on; it would be arrogant for me to say "he has to disappear" and deprive the people who do listen to him of what they like. We all have different tastes and different opinions, that's America.
Maher seems sincerely oblivious to the fact that "different tastes and different opinions" tend to color people's views about when sexist epithets are acceptable and when they are so "disgusting" that they are beyond the pale.