When my editor asked me to talk to some fellow comics about the court case of Mike Ward I hesitated. Ward, a successful Montreal comic popular with both anglos and francophones (but mostly the latter), specializes in edgy comedy and was recently ordered by a Quebec human rights tribunal to pay $42,000 to the victim of one of his jokes and the boy's mother. Jeremy Gabriel is a teenager who suffers from physical disabilities due to Treacher Collins who gained some fame in Quebec after singing in front of the Pope in 2006. Judge Scott Hughes ruled that Ward's jokes about Gabriel—"He's unkillable! I saw him at the waterpark, and I tried to drown him, but I couldn't. Then I went on the Internet to figure out what was wrong with him, and you know what it was? He's ugly, goddammit!"-- discriminated against him by causing him harm (he argued the jokes led to increased bullying) based upon a condition he was born into and that the jokes did not qualify for free speech protection as they don't raise questions of public interest.
The tribunal's decision and resulting fine has become a cause celebre for many Canadian comics. Many are outraged and worried about the precedent this sets; will our jokes be safe from the clutches of humorless government bureaucrats and meddling judges? I, in contrast to many of my friends, didn't really care that much. I have been too horrified by the world's inexorable and hurried march toward spray-tanned neo-fascism in a year that is once again the hottest on record to divert much mental energy toward what I assumed was a case mired in the particular contexts of Quebec culture and legalities. I am also highly dubious of how quickly we comedians are to wrap ourselves in the banner of free-speech. We see ourselves as the canaries in the coal mine of censorship, the first line in the defense against creeping totalitarianism. Frankly, I have seen too many jokes about Tinder and jerking off and not enough critiques of consumerism and capitalism to buy into this myth that we are an army of George Carlins keeping the government on their toes. Maybe if FBI agents started going undercover at open mic nights like they do with environmental and social-justice groups I would be worried but until then, I think the neurotic musings I call jokes are safe from Big Brother.
So I hesitated on writing this but then I remembered that I need and like money and so quickly reached out to some comics that have been outspoken about the issue, have a similar style or are from Montreal. I wanted to see if I was wrong, maybe this is a big scary deal, one of the last gasps of freedom and even more, maybe this issue does connect to the seething political instability of our world gone mad.
The worst part about this verdict is that it leaves every comedian with a very uneasy feeling. What is the point where what we say could get us in trouble? I've heard incredibly racist, sexist, and offensive jokes before that left me appalled. I've also heard brilliant jokes that walk those same fine lines. When is it wrong, and when is it right? It would be almost better if every comic got a pamphlet that just told us exactly what we can say.
Comedy is simply a humorous expression of an idea, or emotion. It is communication. It's also a relationship. A relationship between the comedian and the audience. That's it. That's the contract. Just the comedian, and the audience. Not a judge. Not an angry parent who isn't even at the show. Jeremy has had a tough time, but to lay the blame for all of that [on Ward] would be disingenuous. I have a pretty strong feeling that that boy faced bullying and insults long before Mike's joke.
Hurt feelings suck. It takes the wind out of you. Avoiding hurt feelings, is arguably the largest reason why so many of us become comedians. I fundamentally do not believe that people have the right to go through life without having their feelings hurt. It sucks when it happens, but it is just part of life, much like occasionally biting your lip.
You have to defend jokes, even if you don't agree with them, because that's how it works. It's easy to defend the safe jokes. Yes, comedy can cross the line, a that line is so insanely blurry that I am sometimes skeptical that it is even there, but we need comedy to cross the line to have a gut check and ask ourselves what we find funny. Often the edgier the joke the better, because laughter is a release. It helps light a candle in the darkness. Anyone who has been to a wake, or funeral, knows that they are often the backdrop to some cathartic laughter.
I'm not going to defend the quality of Mike's joke, or pretend he was fighting the establishment, but regardless of the content he told a successful joke. YOU might not find it funny, but that doesn't matter. The audience did.
Look I may be a sociopath but I think you have to take emotion out of cases like these and look to what the law says. I don't think a case of discrimination was made out and even if it was, discriminatory speech is not one of the recognized constitution's limitations on free expression in Canada.
That said there was an objectively proven (emotional) harm caused in part by Mike Ward's joke, in part because this case involves a disabled teenager and teenagers at school can be super shitty. A lot of people have claimed Mike bullied Jeremy with his joke. In that case this should have been pursued as a case of bullying. In a proper court with all the protections normally afforded to defendants.
I think this speaks more to Quebec being its own universe inside Canada. The fact that Mike Ward had a bit that was so apparently ubiquitous this kid couldn't escape it is a credit to the linguistic isolation that makes Quebecois media thrive. That would just never happen in English-speaking Canada… no one would see it! Another distinctly Quebecois thing that struck me is the hilariously pious wording of "moral damages"… I really think priests would rule over courts instead of judges if they had it their way.
I've read the bit outside of its apparently broader context, and while I don't find it particularly hilarious or "worth it," I absolutely side with Mike. The kid is a deliberately public figure. He wouldn't be singing for divinity (in my case, I'm referring to Celine Dion waaay before the Pope or whatever) based on any actual musical merit. *I* might have stopped short of calling him ugly, but I think the point him being a "make-a-wish" scenario who's lingered past his grace period is fair game. What I'd like to know is, who is the broadcaster that put this out there and why are they not culpable for these "moral" and punitive damages? Was no one vetting this and thinking it could be an issue?
I remember watching a comic doing an extended, blatantly homophobic bit once, and another comic I was on the bill with remarked to me, "he wouldn't do it if they didn't laugh." So I think ultimately, it's up to the audience to provide the "ruling" about things like this… either that, or I should have filed a grievance with the Human Rights Tribunal every time I've seen a shitty straight comic end a bit with some variation of "… and I sucked a dick and isn't that laughable!"
Full disclosure, Mike is a friend of mine and I respect what he does as a comedian. That said, I don't really care for that joke in particular because it is an example of "punching down." Just not my type of joke. Whatever success the kid has found in life, whatever kind of celebrity he is, he's also a kid with a facial disfigurement. I'd tend to leave that alone. Mike wouldn't. That's the type of comedy he does.
But as a comedian, I'll fight for his right to tell that joke. I've been staying with my brother-in-law for a week in Montreal—he's a lawyer and we have been going back and forth on this subject. It really feels like the Tribunal has overstepped what is supposed to be its jurisdiction by taking on this case. I'm definitely hoping that the appeal overturns the original ruling on the basis that this is not viewed as discrimination against a handicapped person.
The bigger discussion going forward wIll be something that was addressed in a piece in the Globe and Mail. That journalist says that "comedians seem to think they shouldn't be subject to the same laws as everyone else", and that they could stand to learn some humility. I'm excited and nervous for that one to start.
And don't misquote me you bastard!!!
Please add the part above where I say "don't misquote me you bastard."
We have a history of rare physical conditions in our family. I have vitiligo and my brother has gigantism in his left side. When kids would harass us about the way we looked and try to make our lives shit, we stuck up for each other, along with our friends and family. We were taught by our parents that the world can be volatile and taught how to handle it with love, wit, strength and self esteem. My brother turned out to be a strong, capable man who has meaningful relationships with wonderful people; he sticks up for himself more than anyone I know, and defends the underdog with the same passion. We need people like my brother - we don't need "feelings court."
What really cracks me up is the way this bit has been distorted by the Anglophone media. A lot of what's being written paints the bit out as this ruthless, continued attack on Le Petit Jérémy—but Mike only takes like 14 seconds at the end of a 2.5-minute bit to say he tried to drown the kid without success and that he's ugly. I know that sounds callous, but it was the comedic equivalent of tearing off a band-aid after a long rant. Sometimes a lot of the value of a joke is just in the audacity it takes to say it. The wit might not be there, but some comedians are satisfied with gasps as much as laughs. That's the risk you take in playing that card—you alienate people. But comedy isn't about walking on steady ground all the time. It's about stepping on the cracks and digging your toes in the earth and seeing what kinda bugs, tubers, shit and gold are in there. It's fine if that's not your brand, but there's all sorts of comedy for everybody out there. You know? Some people play a harp and some people bang on a bucket with a filthy doll's head.
Some of the critics of Mike's bit call it "bullying," but to me the bullies are the parents of Le Petit Jérémy. It's such a transparent cash grab on his parents' part. On top of the fine to Mike, ten thousand dollars for "moral" damages? You know how rich I'd be if I sued everybody who damaged my morals? I'd be living on some crazy-ass party plane that never lands and gets perpetually refilled mid-air. "Moral Damage?" The Miami Dolphins damage my morals every year. I still wear the jersey.
Some comics might not be on Mike's side here, but I know that if they were somehow to get caught in a mess like this over some bullshit they were just trying to get a laugh with, Mike would be the first to rush to their defense. Maybe a few more of these cases need to swing this way so we can get some traction on restructuring the language of these laws, which clearly needs to happen. 'Cause Personally, I'd never make fun of some kid with goblin-face disease, but I think I should be allowed to.
Jordan Foisy (That's me!)
I still don't share my colleagues' fear that the Tribunal's decision is an existential threat to comedy. It seems more like a unique flare up that can occur when a country that is concerned with human dignity and freedom of speech attempts to balance those two concerns. I am not worried that my jokes put me in any particular legal spotlight. I do however appreciate the angst of my friends. We are passionate about our craft, we believe in it's importance and I love that. What worries me is where this anger is being directed. This idea that political correctness is making audiences soft and is a harbinger of tyranny is misplaced and ultimately dangerous. We are not in a time where people are more or less offended by jokes but we are in a time where more offended people have the ability to make their concerns heard and this diversity of opinion helps comedy more than it hinders. What scares me is how easily this concern over political correctness can transmogrify into a hatred of others, of new faces and the institutions that protect these people. At the Republican National Convention we saw how easily "I hate political correctness" can stand in for "I hate black people." I love comedy and all sorts of jokes from dirty and offensive to silly and light and love my brothers and sisters who are slinging these jokes and I believe in satire's power to fight back forces of oppression, I just hope that we are paying attention to whether we are on the right side of that fight.
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