Credit: Liz Clayman for New York Magazine.

Lower East Side vaudeville venue the Slipper Room is at the center of a controversy over offensive speech which began Wednesday, July 5, when host and owner James Habacker, while performing as his character Mel Frye, used a racial slur onstage as well as referred to mentally disabled people with language often considered offensive.

According to a Facebook post (quoted in a recent addition to the Slipper Room’s Wikipedia page) by someone who attended the show in question, Habacker made a joke using the term “retarded,” which he justified by arguing he was changing the word’s context to be more positive, and then, adding further fuel to the fire, claimed it was akin to black Americans’ reclamation of the “N-word,” which he used several times to the discomfort of the sole black audience member.

The incident — and Habacker’s subsequent apologies, which struck some as insufficient — have sharply polarized members of the New York burlesque community, who have been hotly debating the affair in industry groups on Facebook and other social media platforms.

Credit: Liz Clayman for New York Magazine.

Habacker, who founded the Slipper Room in 1999, is a well-known figure in the “neo-burlesque” scene and has been instrumental in the revival of cabaret-style underground arts culture in New York. In an email to Bedford + Bowery, Habacker described the incident as occurring while he was in character as Mel Frye, a “buffoon” and a “send-up of comedians from the early days of television.” Frye, described in Slipper Room promotional materials as “a Borscht Belt Comedy Legend,” is one of Habacker’s signature characters.

“Mel told one of his favorite groaners,” described Habacker, “and while dissecting the joke said the word ‘retarded,’ which is a word that he used lovingly. An audience member called out, ‘You can’t say that word,’ and this led to a discussion about the power of words, and how [they have] a power that we can either give them, or not. […] One of the examples Mel used was how hip hop artists in the 1980s adopted the N word for their own, and thereby took much of the power of that word out of the hands of racists. As this was a discussion about word usage, Mel used the word instead of skirting around it with coded language. The use of the N word further upset the audience member. Mel apologized to her from the stage and I again apologized to her after the show ended.”

Habacker emphasized that, contrary to what some have assumed, he was not telling a racist joke when he used the word. Nonetheless, “I knew in my heart that I had crossed a line,” he added.

Two days after the initial incident Habacker, who is white, posted a public statement on his Facebook page apologizing to “an audience member who was very offended by language I used on stage”:

Habacker’s first statement published on Facebook.

That post sparked a mixed reaction. Some commenters argued that the apology shifted blame onto the audience member in question rather than acknowledging that Habacker’s words were innately offensive. “Take responsibility for your actions and do better. Don’t just apologize because someone called you out,” wrote one person. Another added, “I would feel significantly better about this apology if you acknowledged that using the n-word is flat-out not okay, period, and especially not from a white man on a stage, and apologized for that.”

Some people defended Habacker, arguing that he was the subject of a political correctness backlash by people who did not understand the ironic context of his remarks. One commenter wrote, “CONTEXT MATTERS. I have seen Mel, one of your artistic creations, dozens of times. Mel is meant to offend. Mel is not politically correct. Mel is Satirical. […] The importance of satire in free society is unmeasurable [sic]. It will inspire some, and it’ll offend some. Such is life.”

Credit: Liz Clayman for New York Magazine.

Habacker made a similar argument in a follow-up statement a day later in which he characterized elements of the debate over his actions as “misleading”:

The second Facebook statement.

A day later Habacker posted a third statement, saying, in part, “I still stand by my previous comment that I was not using those words with intent to cause division or hurt — and I deeply regret the hurt I have caused. I have listened to you all these last few days and have taken your comments to heart. As a performer and producer I will continue to educate myself and hold fast to the Slipper Room’s values of inclusivity and openness.”

The third Facebook statement.

Not all were pleased with the content of the third statement. Gigi La Femme, the longtime downtown performer who moved to Nashville in 2011, wrote that “posts like this come off as defensive and as if you’re making excuses, not apologetic and remorseful,” and said in a separate post that she would no longer perform at the club.

On the other hand, Lower East Side performance artist Penny Arcade wrote that “silencing, being reduced to not being able to use words according to your color, race and ethnicity is BULLSHIT,” and in a separate post complained about “a lot of posturing.”

According to a tipster who wished to remain anonymous a protest outside the Slipper Room is apparently planned for tonight (Wednesday) at 8:45 pm.

This is not the Slipper Room’s first controversy of this type. In 2014 performer Rush Aaron Hicks decided, apparently spontaneously and without the advance knowledge of the Slipper Room, to perform in blackface. Habacker issued a public statement on behalf of the Slipper Room and canceled Hicks’ future bookings. Hicks, for his part, refused to apologize, instead making a rambling defense of his actions on social media in which he argued that he was not racist because, among other things, he has slept with black women.