“Humor,” said the Greek writer Taki, “is a reminder that no matter how high the throne one sits on, one sits on one’s bottom.” Comedian Ralphie May, the star of multiple Comedy Central and Netflix specials, was living proof of this last month. A firestorm erupted across Indian Country in response to a 44-second audio clip of a May performance that surfaced April 5 on YouTube. A joke contained in the outtake came off as a rant against Native Americans, as it relied upon a litany of profanity-laced stereotypes for its set-up.
May describes Native Americans as “a bunch of unemployed alcoholics in need of haircuts” who have “never made it to the Bronze Age,” which is why white settlers took their land with “smallpox blankets and a bag of beads.”
May’s career has been riding high since he won runner-up in 2003 on NBC’s Last Comic Standing. But the response to the YouTube clip, which American Indian Movement (AIM) co-founder Clyde Bellecourt called “The most racist thing I’ve ever heard,” forced May to reflect on some of the material which gave rise to his success.
The comedian started posting defiantly on Twitter shortly after the clip began circulating. One of May’s tweets read: “Afraid, I will not be. Shamed, I will not be. Apologize, I will not. I am a man that stands on his own.” Another read: “I make jokes about whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, Jews, Arabs, gays. None are PC but at the end of it they all show how hatred is stupid.”
May – a white American whose comedy stabs at just about everyone, himself included – said the clip had been edited and stripped of context that would have clarified his intent. In an interview with Indian Country Today last month, the comedian claimed to have Cherokee ancestry.
Meant to quell the controversy, May’s comments only drew more attention to it. One day after the clip was released on YouTube, it had been viewed more than 10,000 times, and the fallout was just beginning.
Public criticism of May focused on the Sanford Center in Bemidji where the 44-year old from Chattanooga, Tenn. was schedule to perform April 9. The event center addressed the matter on Facebook – first by saying they do not necessarily condone the views of their performers, and later by apologizing for booking May to perform. The Sanford Center said it would not cancel the show, citing a legal contract with May. One day after it issued its apology, however, Bemidji city manager Nate Mathews directed the Sanford Center to cancel May’s performance and refund tickets to customers “due to concerns about the appropriateness of what the comedy material could contain.”
The cancellation prompted May to deliver an apology via YouTube, where he somberly explained that the clip had been taken out of context from a much longer comedy routine. The clip, he said, cuts off before he gets to the punchline – that the rant is coming from someone who’s upset because “Dances with Wolves” beat “Goodfellas” for Best Picture at the 1992 Academy Awards. The routine was meant to poke fun at racists, he said.
“We’re all victims in this,” May said. “For that, I’m sorry. You didn’t deserve this. Not from me, not from this face, not from this point of view, not this accent. You didn’t deserve it and I’m sorry.”
May offered, as part of his apology, to donate the profits from his Bemidji performance if the city allowed the show to go on. The City of Bemidji declined May’s offer. The use of stereotypes against Native people hits close to home in a community surrounded by three reservations and a long history of racial strife.
Bemidji City Council Member Reed Olson told the StarTribune that the timing of the show was “especially unfortunate” given that the Bemijigamaag Powwow was planned for April 23 at the Sanford Center. “Bemidji has struggled with major racial tensions, which is why this is so, so important,” Olson said.
May’s troubles in the region were just beginning. His next shows were scheduled for Fargo, North Dakota; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Burnsville Minn., cities that also have troublesome histories regarding their treatment of Native Americans.
In Minneapolis, AIM planned its response to May’s Burnsville performance. Bill Means, an AIM leader and co-founder of the International Indian Treaty Council said, “We demand Ralphie May postpones or cancels the show or we will be outside demonstrating. We want to express, here in the birthplace of the American Indian Movement, that his routine is degrading, demeaning and disrespectful of Indian people.”
At an April 12 press conference, AIM also promised to go after Netflix, the sponsor of May’s current tour. The streaming service has been drawing criticism from Native communities for its support of Adam Sandler’s movie The Ridiculous Six. The comedy western, produced and distributed by Netflix, gained national attention after several Native actors, offended by racial content in the script, walked off the set last year.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings did not return requests for comment.
AIM said it would also protest the Ames Center in Burnsville, a city-owned theater that drew protests in 2011 for its promotion of racial stereotypes in their production of Pocahontas.
A memo from Burnsville mayor Elizabeth B. Kautz, was received by AIM and the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media in which she agreed to sit down with Native community leaders. Mayor Kautz stated that she, “recognizes that Mr. May’s comments were hurtful. They should in no way be a reflection of the thoughts and beliefs of our City, our venue or our City officials.”
David Glass, President of the National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media, responded, “We are looking forward to a community conversation about performances held at the Ames Center, fostering awareness of American Indian issues and advancing positive relations with the City of Burnsville.”
According to a statement released April 13 by May’s publicist, the comedian chose to cancel or postpone his shows in Fargo, Sioux Falls, and Burnsville “out of respect for the Native American community and safety for all parties.”
May tweeted about two occurrences which might have prompted him to take this action. He tweeted, prior to his planned Fargo show, that he had learned there was a “$25,000 bounty on his head.” He also reported, April 9, about a meeting that took place with “Sioux City elders.” He wrote, “I am serious about learning. I am really ignorant. I’m a product of mass media and US public school system. My eyes are open.”
May promised that what he learned from these experiences will appear in his next special. “I hope to be a conduit for things that we are not taught,” he added, promising to establish a mentorship program for Native American kids who want to get into comedy.
Following May’s decision to postpone the shows, and a promise by the City of Burnsville to facilitate a community conversation, Bellecourt said he is satisfied, and looked forward to meeting with the comedian. “We are happy to say that we resolved the issue with Ralphie May,” Bellecourt said.