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Canadian Comic Mike Ward Cheapens Free Speech Fight

August 10, 2016

Mike Ward appears on his poster in a muzzle. Freedom of Speech Isn’t Free runs his show title. Ward is the Canadian comic who’s just been ordered to pay $42,000 by the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal for making jokes about Jérémy Gabriel, a disabled Canadian who made a name for himself after being given the opportunity to sing for the Pope. In his Edinburgh festival show, Ward tells us the offending joke, and protests against being taken to court for having cracked it.

It’s not a well-argued defence – although, I guess, it doesn’t need to be. As David Mitchell wrote recently in the Observer, it’s very difficult to justify banning jokes about disabled people (or anyone else), unless they’re explicitly inciting hatred or violence. The court case appears to have been over a series of jokes targeting Gabriel, although here he suggests there was only one offending quip, which asked why Gabriel – who Ward wrongly described as having a terminal illness – wasn’t dead yet.

The whole case has, unsurprisingly, become a free-speech cause celebre, a rallying point for comedians justifiably anxious at our ever more censorious culture. I was interested to see that Ward was making it the explicit subject of his show. Comedians giving us their version of one-day-wonder “offence” controversies is becoming a staple of standup acts: one thinks of Katherine Ryan’s 2015 show, in which she told of the storm that broke when she made a joke concerning Filipino children on Mock the Week. Of course, she has every right to make what was, in fact, a fairly innocuous remark. But I’m sometimes uneasy seeing the standup stage become, if not quite a bully pulpit, at least an uneven playing field where comedians cite their partisan version of some recent row to claim free-speech martyr status.


Would that be the case with Ward? Not quite. He never pretends he’s anything other than a bad-taste merchant, nor that his joke was any better than “mean”. The show – which runs at only 45 minutes – is full of gags that’d curdle milk, from the Gabriel-related ones mocking deaf people who can’t sing to the paedophile jokes in which Ward tries to make his eight-year-old girlfriend orgasm. He makes a pretty spurious moral distinction between “inside” and “outside” jokes, blaming the media for making public and hurtful what was harmless between consenting adults.

But he doesn’t have to mount a stout defence: the joke’s legality shouldn’t be at issue, and I sympathise with his being singled out and heavily fined. But morality is a different question. The best bad-taste jokers allow us to laugh at their twisted ideas by making themselves the butt of the joke. Jerry Sadowitz portrays himself as a self-hating sociopath; he’s not claiming any legitimacy whatsoever for his despicable worldview. Ward might call that hypocritical, or morally evasive – after all, we’re still laughing at the jokes. In his act, there’s no buffer between us and the abuse: we’re complicit. He delivers unpleasant gags as if it’s cool or rebellious to do so, as if we should all be perfectly happy with ourselves for laughing at “retards” and people with Aids. The legal judgment against him will presumably shore up his sense that that’s a freedom-fighting thing to do.

Maybe it is, for some. Others – myself included – will acknowledge Ward’s joke-writing skill, but find the content, and the demeanour, a bit grubby, self-satisfied and, well, diminishing of one’s joie de vivre. In one routine, he tells us how a mother of a child with learning disabilities complained to him post-show about his use of “the r-word” – by which she means “retard”. That coinage, says Ward, is truly offensive, because it cheapens the historical struggle of African Americans. By the same token, muzzle-wearing Ward could be said to cheapen the historical struggle for free speech by using it, not to challenge the powerful, but to bad-mouth anyone different from himself.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. mark taha permalink
    August 11, 2016 3:01 pm

    When it comes to humour-anything goes. There is nothing tat can’t be joked about. You shouldn’t deliberately tell jokes to make someone uncomfortable-otherwise,I’m an oversensitive but overweight Billy Bunter fan and stammering fan of “Open all Hours.”

  2. terry j permalink
    August 20, 2016 1:34 am

    If you dont like dirty jokes, you have the option to not go and be offended.
    The judgements on weather his humour is inside or outside miss the point as much as the idea that Free Speech is only something we fight for in cases we agree.
    Check out the ACLU, they will support the social justice snowflakes AS WELL as the neo-nazi skinheads.
    “I agree with fight speech but….” is common because people support and idea when its abstract but if their comedic range is Seinfeld, they mght find offensive comics like Stanhope, Attell and Lisa Lampanelli offend them so much that they would be willing to draw a line who deserves free speech or not. Im sure that not everyone in america agreed with Carlin’s 7 Things You Cant Say On TV…
    The idea of free speech is tantalizing in theory yet in practice it is most associated with a “but” because convictions can be rather loose.

    I can spend my life NOT listening to boy bands or death metal or rappers to the point that they are a non entity that I might recognize from social media sites but not actually have ever perform.
    The same applies with comics.
    I can go through my life and never have to listen again to a Mencia, Cook or Seinfeld if I choose so. You can choose NOT to listen to Mike Ward’s CD;s or go to his shows. No one is forcing you to listen to it.
    If you choose to seek out a Ward performance and then get offended that is on you.
    As for whether someone who has actively spent his life (or parents) trying to be in the public eye is considered a public figure and therefore fair game for parody is something else.
    If you can make fun of Celine Dion, you can make fun of a guy who is now 20yrs old btw.

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