The Predicament of Mike Ward: An American Perspective on Canadian Comedy

What’s the difference between a Canadian comic and his American counterpart? Simple answer: location, location, location.

The brash Canadian comedian Mike Ward has had quite the unpleasant experience in his march through the comedy landscape of his country. From all indications, if he thought his native Canada was a place where a comedian could safely ply controversial material, he figured wrong, it seems. And for good measure, such a comedian could also find himself in the poor house should some in his audience decide to take him before the authorities.

But before getting into how Canadian and American comedy stack up against one another, it may be well to briefly recount the Mike Ward story:

In 2010, Ward, in a series of routines he performed at his shows in Canada, attacked a disabled kid named Jeremy Gabriel, whom he denounced as “ugly” and lamented the fact that the kid had not yet died. (Gabriel, 13 years old at the time, was born with a condition known as Treacher Collins syndrome which left him with a deformed face and skull. At the time of Ward’s attack, Gabriel had become something of a local celebrity in Canada’s Quebec province for his singing ability, including singing with Celine Dion as well as singing for the Pope in 2006. Ward claimed that he had initially supported Gabriel’s good fortune, on the assumption that the world was coddling him because he would soon die. Ward said that he felt duped when years had passed and Gabriel was still going strong with his singing fame. In reaction, the comedian said he went on the Internet to find out exactly what Gabriel was suffering from. Ward said he was surprised at what he discovered: “You know what it was? He’s ugly, godammit!”

Long story short, Gabriel and his family sued Ward before the Quebec Human Rights Commission for allegedly “hurting, vexing and humiliating” him and as well as for damaging his [Gabriel] confidence and singing career and causing him to be mocked at school. In its 2016 ruling, the Commission said that the comedian’s joke violated Gabriel’s right to dignity, honor and reputation as well as his right to equality and to be safe from discrimination. As a remedy, it penalized Ward with a total fine of $42,000 (consisting of $35,000 to Gabriel and $7,000 to his mom).

The Commission’s ruling outraged Ward and many of his supporters in the comedy community, He promptly set up a crowdfunding campaign and launched an appeal against the ruling. Speaking on behalf of other comics, Ward said: “If the judgment is maintained, no one will be able to dare to be a stand-up comic, because normally you make fun of things that are controversial, otherwise it’s not funny. …If anything that’s controversial can authorize someone to say, I was hurt, I’m going to court, then we’re finished.” Then he tagged on an interesting analogy: “To bring a comedian to court who does dark humor, for a trashy joke, is like giving Vin Diesel a speeding ticket for driving fast in [the movie] The Fast and the Furious.”

Now, let’s consider a different scenario, this time involving Canada and the U.S., its close neighbor to the south. Both countries are democracies and open societies. So, suppose the Ward situation occurred in the US, will the comedian’s fate be any different? In other words, if Ward would have appeared at some comedy venue in America and viciously attacked some disabled kid, will he face a peril to his career similar to what happened to him in Canada? Well, the short answer is: Probably not!

For starters, considering the central role of the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee in the conversation in America’s public square, there would seem to be no room for an agency like the Quebec Human Rights Commission. Fact is, the agency’s watchdog role carries way too much potential for censorship than the First Amendment could live with. To the blessing of comedians in America, controversial speech oddly seems to enjoy enormous protection from censorship. To say things that hurt somebody else’s feelings or even things that are very cruel are allowed in America’s social conversation. Needless to say, Americans get it clearly that the “free society” they pride themselves in can also be a pretty uncomfortable society where some of the most offensive things ever may yet be safely said. Pretty much everything is allowed, other than a few situations like where somebody’s speech could be viewed as inciting violence or be considered as “fighting words” (the sort that would likely draw a violent reaction from the person to whom they are addressed).

So, in the above scenario, merely attacking a disabled kid, however viciously and however tacky the action might seem, would not be reason enough to find legal liability against a comedian and thus to impose a punishing fine upon him. In short, the Mike Ward ordeal is simply a Canadian story that is hard to imagine in a place like America.

However, given the Gabriel family’s other allegation that Ward damaged Gabriel’s reputation by his joke, plus the Commission’s references to Gabriel’s honor and reputation in its decision, some have wondered why a good old-fashioned defamation action cannot be successfully pursued against Ward even in an American court. Well, not much luck here, either. And the reason is simple enough: Statements that a professional funnyman made to audiences who understood said statements as a joke would not qualify as the kind of false statement of fact that would damage somebody else’s reputation, which is the very point of a defamation action.

Yet just because comedians south of the border are allowed by the law to be offensive to others doesn’t mean that an American comedian whose stock in trade is the plying of unnecessarily “outrageous” material will enjoy a smooth sail to a comfortable career. In an era of political correctness and cancel culture, there is the law and then there is the court of public opinion, two different venues. Whereas the law may not take an outrageous comedian’s money from him by way of court fines, for its part, the consuming public may refuse to give him any money at all by simply not patronizing his comedy. This is a powerful reality that neither Ward nor any comedian in America or Canada for that matter can afford to ignore.

Still, in America, fortunately for comics, political correctness and the law continue to have some good degree of separation from each other unlike in Canada where they currently appear to the merging and this surely can’t be good news for comedy. As the Mike Ward situation demonstrates, it seems that when speaking of the very survival of a comedian’s career, the whims of political correctness and cancel culture are more manageable hazards than the blunt instrument of a court order directed at the comedian. As it happens, an unfavorable court order is no laughing matter, even for a funnyman.

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