American comedian’s racist remarks spark walkout at Winnipeg comedy show

An Ojibway woman says she was among at least 30 people who walked out of Rumor’s Comedy Club in Winnipeg on Friday due to a number of racist and homophobic comments they heard from the stage.

Kelsey Lenaghan says she was almost immediately turned off by comedian Rich Vos’s set, which included what she called targeted harassment toward a table of Indigenous women.

“One of the things he said was, ‘Listen, lady, I’m not your sponsor. You need to go to your next AA meeting.’ … He was making a joke about a talent show and saying that, you know, these ladies would likely come up and make dreamcatchers,” she said.

The American comedian also made a joke about hoping the women would get ticketed for driving under the influence on the way home, she recalled, which perpetuated offensive stereotypes.

Lenaghan, who is from Pinaymootang First Nation, says the table of women left in the middle of his tirade, and she left the club to follow them to make sure they were OK. When she reached them, she said they were upset.

“Why can’t we be able to come out for a fun night out without our Indigeneity being brought up — without that being the centre of his jokes and attacks?” Lenaghan said. “To see my sisters and my relatives to be treated in this way, you get this sense of protection.”

Why can’t we be able to come out for a fun night out without our Indigeneity being brought up — without that being the centre of his jokes and attacks?– Kelsey Lenaghan

Although she was outside the auditorium for part of his set, Lenaghan says she could hear Vos continue his comments about the women.

“It completely ruined the evening and … is hanging over our heads for the weekend. It’s disgusting,” she said.

Shelly Lavallee, one of the women who was directly insulted by Vos, said in a statement to CBC News that she left the show feeling spiritually wounded.

“It should not be up to us to be prepared to toughen up our hearts and be equipped to laugh at the traumatic events,” the Métis woman said in the statement. “Rumor’s night club has an ethical responsibility to ensure that all people are safe from insensitive racial ambushes.”

Rich Vos gave four shows at Rumor’s Comedy Club in Winnipeg, including one where at least 30 people walked out. (Rumor’s Comedy Club/Facebook)

Mark Turner, who was sitting at a table with Lenaghan, says he felt uncomfortable throughout Vos’s set, including when the comedian used the word “gay” in a derogatory sense, but didn’t want to make a scene because he was at a birthday party.

However he said everyone in his party eventually reached a breaking point.

“The one that he said that caused our table to go, ‘Right, that’s it. We’ve had enough’ and stand up and walk out in unison was he said, ‘They should all go back to their f—— wigwam,'” Turner said, adding that particular comment was made toward the group of Indigenous women after they had walked out.

“It was very clearly racist and nobody was really laughing. It just felt like full on racial attacks, especially against the Indigenous community.”

Tyler Schultz, the club’s general manager and booker, says he was there for Vos’s set that evening and confirmed he heard some of the racist comments toward the Indigenous women.

Schultz said he saw Vos becoming frustrated with them, as Schultz says the women were being loud and disrupting the show.

It was very clearly racist and nobody was really laughing. It just felt like full on racial attacks, especially against the Indigenous community.– Mark Turner

Prior to his performance, Schultz says, Vos had been clear to the security guard that he wanted to speak directly to hecklers or people who were talking during his set, and didn’t want the guard to intervene.

Afterwards, Schultz says, he tried to educate Vos about how his jokes were perceived by the audience, and says the comedian seemed to have no idea how offensive they were.

“In a culture that’s so quick to try to cancel people and jump on their megaphones on social media to try to cancel people, we believe in educating people,” Schultz said.

“We don’t want to censor our comics, but if that type of stuff happens, we definitely don’t condone racist remarks like that.”

Schultz says the rest of Vos’s shows on the weekend went smoothly, and nobody walked out. Even so, he said he won’t be booking Vos again.

Code of conduct

Both Lenaghan and Turner want to see Rumor’s establish a code of conduct similar to one the Winnipeg Comedy Festival established that works to ensure all participants attend shows free of harassment, hostility and abuse.

“If we have comedians come here, these are certain things that you can’t touch base on. These are areas that shouldn’t be talked about. I think that code of conduct would be a good place to start,” Lenaghan said.

“If you’re going to come to Canada, learn about the people that are from this land, be willing to treat people with respect so we can go to a comedy show and we can have a lot of laughs together.”

Lenaghan is also holding Rumor’s staff responsible, including Schultz, for blaming the Indigenous women instead of cancelling the rest of Vos’s shows that weekend.

Schultz says he advises comedians against jokes that could be very offensive, including sexually explicit or targeted material, before their performances because it doesn’t normally “do well” with the Rumor’s audiences, but he doesn’t explicitly prohibit it. 

Turner says what he witnessed at Friday’s show was wrong.

“I think when minority groups or groups that are particularly being targeted in comedy, if they don’t find it funny and if they find it hurtful or damaging, then I think that’s a very clear indicator that it’s not comedy,” he said.

CBC News hasn’t been able to reach Vos for comment.

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