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Comedy show canceled: Ralphie May’s ‘Unruly’ tour stop in Bemidji called off after backlash

BEMIDJI -- A comedy show at the Sanford Center's ballroom on Saturday was canceled Thursday afternoon at the direction of Bemidji's City Manager Nate Mathews.

The show, which would have featured comedian Ralphie May, was canceled after a 44-second audio clip from one of his routines was posted to YouTube on Tuesday, where he used harsh language in describing Native Americans.

In the clip, which May said was illegally recorded and edited, the comedian referred to Native Americans as "a bunch of alcoholics" who have "never made it to the Bronze Age."

By Wednesday, the clip had generated concern across social media platforms, with multiple people reaching out to have May's show canceled.

In a press release Thursday, Sanford Center officials said the show was canceled "due to concerns about the appropriateness of what the material could contain."

As part of the process, the release also stated current ticket purchases for the show will be refunded at the point of purchase, while the tickets purchased online at will be refunded automatically.

For more information on getting tickets refunded, the release directed those who had purchased to contact the Bob Lowth Ford Pickup Windows at the Sanford Center at (218) 441-4032.

The cancellation announcement came after May released a video response Thursday morning on YouTube addressing the issue. In his response, May said the clip took his comedy out of context.

"When I was talking about Native Americans, it was over edited, illegally used and recorded, and they left out the punch line," May said in the video. "In their editing, they used my voice to inflict pain on innocent people and for that I'm sorry. You didn't deserve this, not from me, not from this face, not from this point of view."

May added in the response that there were 100 tickets left, and he invited those who raised concerns to come to the show.

"I would like to invite you, the people that are upset, if you're in the area, to come, sit, watch me as a whole, pass judgment at the end," May said. "But I'm going to take all of the revenue from that evening that I generate and donate it to charity. Because I did hurt people's feelings and people did take this out of context.

"We're all victims in this," May added. "My art was stolen for a political statement ... And then the people that heard this were hurt and offended and some felt betrayed by me. I want everyone, whether you love me or hate me, go find comedy, enjoy your life. I love you and you can't do anything about it."

Despite May's response video, Mathews said he still came to the conclusion that canceling the show was the right move.

"It didn't really change much for us in the sense that we're really trying hard to build our relationships with our Native community," Mathews said. "I just don't want to go backward. This topic touched a nerve in our community, and I think he (May) realizes that."

Maintaining relationships

Responding to the cancelled event Thursday, Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht said, "sometimes we make mistakes. I think this was a mistake and I'm sorry for that.

"I think the Bemidji City Council and staff have been working shoulder to shoulder with the community to improve race relations, and this is one of the bumps in the road that we came to, but sometimes we need to have bumps in the road to have a greater understanding and acceptance of one another," Albrecht said.

The mayor added the developments of the past week can be used as an experience to "further our shared understanding of how we can live together in a good way."

Anton Treuer, a professor of language and ethics studies as well as Indian studies at BSU, said the response by the city's staff made him proud.

"We have come so far over the past few decades -- from the late 1960s, when the three area tribes actually boycotted Bemidji, to where we're at now," Treuer said. "I view the decision to book Ralphie May at the Sanford Center largely as an oversight. I don't think anyone was trying to upset anyone or be callous. I think this was probably really uncomfortable for the Sanford Center staff who are trying to build a business, too.

"They had to deal with the situation as it came up, though, and I thought it was a pretty thoughtful response," Treuer added. "They made the right decision and it was the only one they could make. Losing (the money) that they had contracted with to pay for the performance is a smaller cost than potentially invoking a major incident, or having Native people say they don't want to go to the Sanford Center."

Treuer also said he comprehends May's position on the matter.

"I understand the comedian who says ‘I'm an equal opportunity comedian who makes fun of everybody’ and I certainly support the comedian's freedom of speech," Treuer said. "But he's built his career on being crude, crass, vulgar and saying racist things and that sells very well in many places, but it's not going to sell well in Bemidji."

The next stop for May's "Unruly" tour is a performance at a casino Friday night in Northwood, Iowa. He is scheduled to perform Tuesday in Fargo, N.D., and Wednesday in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Matthew Liedke

Matthew Liedke is the city, county and state government reporter for the Bemidji Pioneer. He also covers business, politics and financial news.

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