I have a rule of thumb for jokewriting: If you bring up something horrific in the setup—genocide, racism, rape, etc.—the punchline has to be funny enough to merit it. You can’t just invoke the spectre of death and evil, potentially bumming everyone out, for some weak-ass quip. There has to be a damn good reason to direct the audience’s attention to the darkest parts of existence; you’ve gotta have a solid payoff for the psychic toll you’re levying. It’s only fair to the audience, who came there to laugh.
You see a lot of new comics lead with a bummer, grasping at low-hanging fruit. When you’re new you just want to get a reaction—any kind is better than bombing in silence—and young comics often have little life experience from which to draw, so they go for hot-button topics guaranteed to garner a response. Abortion, AIDS and Holocaust jokes are perennial staples of the open mic, along with every possible formulation of racial stereotypes.
Eventually you grow up as a comic—you “find your voice”—and the immediate threat of bombing starts to feel a little more distant. You can stretch out and talk about things that genuinely interest or concern you. The impulse to shock—to get that immediate, visceral reaction—subsides. But some comics never stop pushing at the hot-buttons; it’s hard-wired into the art.
“Fuck a bunch of Indians. That shit was 120 years ago, fuckin’ get over it. Nobody 150 years ago is making you drink now. Cut that fuckin’ hair! Bon Jovi cut his, you should cut yours. Fuck the Indians…I’m sorry they as a group never made it to the Bronze Age, I’m sorry they never invented the motherfuckin’ wheel. Boo fuckin’ hoo. Maybe if they had done some of that shit we wouldn’t have taken their country with three small pox blankets and a bag of beads.”
It’s legitimately shocking, almost a caricature of what social justice people cite as the type of dehumanizing speech pervading standup comedy. The clip rocketed around social media and among the Native community. May’s upcoming show in Bemidji, an area with a large Native population, was cancelled due to the uproar, as well as shows in North and South Dakota.
Of course, the clip wasn’t the whole story. May defended the bit by pointing out that whoever posted it—as it turns out, a Native comic named Adrianne Chalepah who heard it as a sample on an album by Native hip-hop group Savage Family—had cropped out the punchline. May said they edited out the whole point of the joke, in which he explains that all this anger toward Indians was spurred by the fact that Goodfellas lost the Academy Award for Best Picture to Dances with Wolves in 1992.
It’s a perfect example of a punchline that’s too weak to justify its brutalizing setup. I see what he’s trying to do there: contrast his over-the-top invective with something as silly and mundane as disappointment over an Oscar snub. In May’s mind, he was pointing out the absurdity of race-based hatred by framing it in such a way that its application could only be deemed totally ludicrous.
But that’s just not good enough. In the clip you hear how many laughs he gets slagging Natives, piling on insults about their rates of alcoholism, their long hair, their historic subjugation. Whether or not May’s intention was bigoted, he courted those laughs. He used Natives as a prop to make a not-very-clever joke, and the props weren’t having it.
I asked Danny Littlejohn, a local Native comic [pictured right], what he thought about the controversy. “Ralphie's set-up was weak—we Natives have heard everything he said before for hundreds of years,” Littlejohn said. “He claims ignorance and I believe him to an extent, but he went for a cheap laugh at the expense of Indians. He didn't do his research and doesn't realize that the majority of Native Americans despise Dances with Wolves. Natives don't choose who wins Oscars and didn't produce the movie.”
After the controversy blew up, May took to Twitter and dug in deeper. He tweeted, dramatically, “Afraid, I will not be. Shamed, I will not be. Apologize, I will not. I am a man that stands on his own.” He attempted the Native equivalent of “What about black-on-black crime?” He invited the Native comic who initially posted the clip (since removed from her account on a copyright claim) to come and open for him. I disparaged your people and everything you stand for—wanna come do a guest spot to validate my white supremacist bullshit?
Later he posted an apology video in which he looks genuinely upset—as a white guy and a comic I felt real sympathy for his predicament—but he still wildly misses the point: “I am a racially-charged, but not racist comedian…Anyone who has ever seen my comedy knows that I exploit all stereotypes. I point them out for all races and show how stupid hate really is. I don’t have a hateful bone in my body.”
Viewed from the opposite angle, this is the story of a comedian who was silenced and his livelihood threatened by an angry Internet mob, another sad example of “political correctness” run amok. The problem, as with almost all of these scenarios, is that the particular joke in question is not the best free speech test case. It’s lazy and abusive, and it doesn’t help the case when he says, “I don’t have a hateful bone in my body,” a catchphrase popularized by the same people who also say “I’m not racist, but…”
Because comedy requires an audience to exist, it’s judged more on effect than intention. It’s not enough to not feel racist in your heart (or your bones); you also must live in the same reality as the people targeted by—and listening to—your jokes. I'm reminded of an unforgettable tweet (whose author I sadly can’t recall): “Whenever someone tells a rape joke I wonder if my rapist would laugh at it.”
I’m not saying that May should lose work over a lame joke he did a decade ago; as a white guy who’s tried some thoughtless shit onstage I wouldn’t want to be judged eternally by every word I’ve uttered into a microphone when I thought no one was paying attention. I’m just saying that whether he’ll admit it or not, his joke was hurtful to the people most affected by its content.
Ralphie May could take their word for it and wind up learning about Native Americans from this backlash. It could inform his comedy, make it deeper and truer and more humane. Or he could throw up his hands and move on, as is every white person’s option when facing the big ugly systemic forces that don’t directly impact us. This outcry could cause career repercussions, but that seems dubious in a world where Jeff Dunham still makes millions every year performing with an Arab-accented puppet named Achmed the Dead Terrorist. Ralphie’s probably gonna be alright. But to the people outraged by this—thinking, feeling people who never signed up to be a walking punchline for a lazy setup—it’s just another emblematic moment in a centuries-long continuum of trauma. Comedy was supposed to make them laugh, but this time it just bummed them out.