Comedian rants for a week about negative reaction to racial joke

Saranac Lake resident and nationally famous comedian Owen Benjamin performs in the Harrietstown Town Hall during the First Night Saranac Lake celebration on New Year’s Eve, 2017. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

(Editor’s note: This article contains language some readers might find offensive.)

SARANAC LAKE — A Catholic school won’t accept his donations, his son’s babysitter quit, and the town supervisor is publicly apologizing for letting him perform at the town hall. Nationally famous stand-up comedian Owen Benjamin responded with a week-long series of rants to his 100,000-plus social media followers and says he’s moving out of Saranac Lake.

Benjamin, whose birth name is Owen Smith, recently told a joke that has caused some controversy in this village. During a live performance at the Harrietstown Town Hall on Saturday, Feb. 24, which was recorded for future release, he sang a song that some found unpleasant.

The title of the song is “That Nigga Stole my Bike.”

Since the show, Benjamin has posted multiple YouTube videos, a handful of Instagram photos and more than a hundred tweets in self-defense. One video titled “The root of power, a very dangerous thought, and my brother is still my hero” clocks in at just over 4 hours and 46 minutes. Many posts relate to his views on censorship, liberal Hollywood, communism and free speech.

Marilyn Bigelow, an audience member at the show, said she was offended by the joke and didn’t find it very funny; however, she couldn’t remember its exact context or set-up.

The Enterprise staff did not attend the show, so Benjamin explained the context of the joke via Twitter.

“I’m missing my bike and I see a white guy on a horse and I yell, ‘that’s my bike,'” he wrote. “Then I see a black guy on what I know is my bike, but I don’t want to be racist. I tell myself not to accuse him cuz he’s been through enough. Then I burst out w[ith] the most racist thing I can say.”

Benjamin then begins to play a song that is basically two minutes of him singing, “That nigga stole my bike” set to him playing on piano the music from the 1980s Nintendo video game “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!” The refrain is a reference to a popular meme from the early 2000s.

Benjamin called it “one of the most harmless jokes imaginable.”

A good amount of Benjamin’s routine revolves around making fun of political correctness and 21st-century liberalism. He goes after vegans, transgender people and young white “leftists” who use the words “privileged” and “guilt” when referring to males and other Caucasians.

Some of the original songs Benjamin plays on piano include “The 12 Triggers of Christmas, “Soy Boy Anthem” and “The Racism Song,” a track that seeks to separate race from culture and actions from skin color.

After some backlash from the recent show, Benjamin took to YouTube in a 1-hour, 45-minute video he titled “Shots Fired: The most powerful N word.” Among other complaints, he said a church would not accept his donation of part of the show’s proceeds. It was actually St. Bernard’s Catholic elementary school that turned down the money, which Benjamin said totaled about $500.

St. Bernard’s Principal Ray Dora said that is true but didn’t want to comment any further.

Benjamin says he and his wife feel ostracized and will leave Saranac Lake soon.

“We’re getting run out of town,” he says.

Benjamin’s wife is pregnant, and in the video he claimed that his insurance only covers medical care at hospitals in Saranac Lake and Albany. If his family moves and their baby is born elsewhere, it would cost about $20,000, according to Benjamin. In a profanity-filled quote, he said people offended by his joke were putting him in a “desperate” situation.

In an ad in today’s Enterprise, town of Harrietstown Supervisor Michael Kilroy apologized for the town hall hosting Benjamin’s show.

“We do not (and maybe we should) look at any presentation before approving the rental of the auditorium” he says. “Hindsight is always 20/20, and again I am sorry to have put our residents through such a disappointing performance.”

In a phone interview, Kilroy said screening future performers could be an option, but he also doesn’t want to violate any free speech laws. He said he did not see the performance.

Benjamin said he initially thought the show was a success with the audience.

“The very people that are now telling me that they don’t want my donation, or, you know, that I did something wrong,” he said in the “Shots Fired” video, “were hugging me that night, telling me how great it was that I brought the community together.”

He was especially mad at one woman, whom he wouldn’t name, who was offended and asked to talk to him about it. He said he refused on principle. He said he will not stifle himself because he offended someone.

“Battle lines are now being drawn because I don’t want to apologize or censor myself, OK, over the quote-unquote n-word,” he said in the video. “Appeasement only means that you’re gonna be the last one eaten by the alligator.”

Also in that video, Benjamin showed examples of other comedians using the racial slur in their routines. He played a segment of black comedian Chris Rock’s 1996 HBO special “Bring the Pain,” in which he talks about the difference between black people and “niggas” who drag them down.

Benjamin also talked about a joke Rock told in his latest Netflix special “Tamborine,” in which Rock says police should shoot more white kids to even the playing field for black kids. Benjamin said he finds Rock’s joke more risque than his own.

“He has the right to his joke, and I have the right to do mine,” Benjamin told the Enterprise via Twitter.

In the video, Benjamin also showed a clip from white comic Louis C.K. saying the phrase “the n-word” is even more offensive.

“Whenever a white lady on CNN says ‘the n-word,'” C.K. said, “that’s just white people getting away with saying ‘nigger.'”

So far, local people who were offended by Benjamin’s routine have been relatively private about it while his online following has been vocal in defending him. Fellow comedian Eric Nimmer, who is black, has a video on Benjamin’s Instagram defending the joke.

“All you white townspeople need to chill out,” Nimmer said, “because you look crazy right now. There are people that are actually racist in the world. Owen says some crazy s___, don’t get me wrong. There are times where Owen says s___, but are you serious? This is the one?”