Comedy imbroglio isn’t funny
No one is running Owen Benjamin out of Saranac Lake. He has a real gift for stand-up comedy, and we’ve seen how, when he is on, he can keep a crowd roaring with laughter from one line to the next.
Naturally, though, there are people who didn’t appreciate that he used a racial slur in his recent show at the Harrietstown Town Hall. There’s a good reason that word has been a bad thing to say for generations: It’s mean, ugly and degrading. Some comedians and other artists get away with it because they know their audience and use the word in a way that doesn’t draw repercussions. Comedy often involves playing with fire. At its best, it illuminates the world and helps people endure it. When it doesn’t work, though, someone gets burned.
In a village this small, you can’t fill a venue as big as the town hall entirely with people who would tolerate a joke like that. A city comedy club crowd is a lot more shock-proof; here you have old people and date-night parents, out to celebrate Saranac Lake’s famous resident comedian. Many of them were probably familiar with Benjamin’s cleaner shows at First Night or the high school, but may not have checked his stuff online. Or if they did, they may have only seen his material about marriage or his goofy detective skits with his brother.
We doubt there has been a time in living memory — not since the days of minstrel shows — when someone could get up on the town hall stage, sing a refrain with that racial slur over and over again for two minutes, and avoid criticism. In this case, the local Catholic elementary school declined to accept Benjamin’s donation from the show’s proceeds, his son’s babysitter quit, and the town supervisor took out an ad in this paper to apologize.
That blowback can’t have been fun for him, but it’s a far cry from an angry mob at his doorstep, running him out on a rail. It’s a far cry from fascism or communism or persecution, as he called it in his exaggerated online rants. It’s just individuals exercising the same right to free speech he touts so vehemently.
Benjamin’s counter-reaction online is harder to stomach than what he said onstage. His Saranac Lake critics were relatively private on social media, but he’s turned his nonstop social media streams into a filibuster of fury that continues as we write this. We’ve waded through a lot of it, and none of what we saw was funny — and some posts were really horrible. Mostly he seems paranoid and abusive of anyone who speaks out against racism, sexism, homophobia or guns. He seems to believe he’s fighting a war against at least half of his fellow Americans.
Taking himself so seriously doesn’t help his comedy, but it does rally followers. It narrows but sharpens his audience, making them more loyal and more right-wing.
He only moved to Saranac Lake last year, and now he says he’s leaving, partly because he feels harassed and also to make life easier for his brother, a well-liked local teacher. That’s his choice, but it didn’t have to be this way.
Saranac Lakers are not as intolerant and whiny as Benjamin says. Most of us have probably told at least one offensive joke, and we put up with neighbors who have done much worse — from slumlords and sex offenders. We shouldn’t condone behavior that hurts others, but once we’ve done our best to try to correct it, we still have to live with the people who behave that way — and they have to live with us. No one is perfect.
The government can’t take away a comedian’s right to use foul language, even racist language. But people also have the right to express their opinion about it. Owen Benjamin needs to find a better way of dealing with that.