I just had lunch with Québécois comedian Mike Ward. He didn’t order anything, because he’s been avoiding food after seeing himself on TV a lot these past few weeks. “I realized I was starting to look like a fat lesbian,” he said while strongly resembling an obese K.D. Lang. “So I’m fasting.”
Ward should watch what he says. That kind of insensitive joke has saddled him with more than $100,000 in lawyer’s fees and a potential fine of another $80,000 (his case pops in and out of the news for no apparent reason, and we are in the midst of a pop-in).
In 2011, Mike made a joke about a popular kid known as “Le P’tit Jérémy” (little Jeremy), who was featured on Canada’s equivalent of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. It had been several years since this terminally ill Treacher Collins syndrome patient became a national sensation. He broke hearts while singing “I Will Praise God” for the pope.
“It’s five years later,” Ward had said in his French Canadian slang, “and Christ, he’s not dead yet.” Ward insisted the kid is “unkillable,” adding that he tried to drown the boy (who is now 19).
The joke doesn’t translate to English very well and it looks terrible written down, but it’s still pretty funny. I remember hearing Joan Rivers say a similar joke about people with AIDS. She claimed it was easier to do benefits before there was a cure, because you’d get a new crop of gays every year. Now that they’ve cured it, they just won’t go away. I’m butchering it, but that’s what happens when you rip jokes out of the grave and throw them on the autopsy table. They look creepy.
We’ll Show You, Joker Man
Little Jeremy’s parents were profoundly offended by Ward’s joke and in 2012 they filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. The CHRC is an absurd government bureaucracy that began as a way to fight hate in a country globally known for being too nice. They ran out of villains about 40 years ago (the year they began), and have been taking down straw men ever since.
If you’re a Sikh and feel like the waitress took too long to get to your table, call the CHRC. If someone criticized gay marriage, the CHRC will make him pay. Did “Schindler’s List” make you feel bad about being German? The CHRC wants to hear about it. Anything that portrays a group in a negative light counts as a hate crime, and that includes things that are true. In their world, hate speech includes hate facts.
The commission usually gets a settlement for a tenth of the price it costs to fight the charge, but occasionally they come across someone who is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore. Ezra Levant spent more than $100,000 defending his right to print the Mohammed cartoons in his newspaper (which later folded). He’s been a pain in the CHRC’s ass every since.
Comedians Try to Fight Back
Comedians are proving to be even more ornery. With hundreds of comedy clubs across the country and thousands of comedians making millions of jokes, the CHRC figured they’d find a lot of ways to meet their hate quotas—but they may have stepped on a hornet’s nest.
In 2007, amateur comedian Guy Earle mocked two lesbian hecklers who were sabotaging his show. “Don’t mind that inconsiderate dyke table over there,” he shot at the hecklers, “You know lesbians are always ruining it for everybody.” The lesbians proceeded to ruin it for everybody by sicking the CHRC on Earle to the tune of $15,000. The comedian refused to settle “On issues of freedom of speech,” and had to pay another $7,000 to one of the women personally.
You’ll notice the government always gets the lion’s share of the fine. When two lesbians sued a couple in upstate New York for not allowing a gay marriage in the couple’s living room, the government got $10,000 and each lesbian got $1,500. America is almost as bad as Canada, with civil rights commissions deeming speech illegal and forcing everything from heavy fines to diversity training. The Ohio Civil Rights Commission decided the Pleasure Inn’s “For Service Speak English” sign was unacceptable in 2005, and demanded they take it down.
Every Joke Is a Tiny Revolution
That brings us back to Mike Ward. Like Earle, he recognizes the dangers of policing satire. George Orwell said “Every joke is a tiny revolution,” and if we can’t lampoon the world around us, free speech is dead. Although everyone in comedy is presently talking about this case, Ward won’t have an answer for another three to six months.
“I’ll get the verdict via email,” Ward says while rolling his slightly Oriental eyes, “Right next to spam for penis enlargements.” As we saw with Lenny Bruce, cases like this chip away at a man’s soul. It’s precisely that kind of attrition the CHRC feeds on. It’s a dangerous mental game, but without people like Ward drawing a line in the sand, we’re all screwed.
When he began this fight, it looked like the worst outcome was $180,000 or so, but no matter the verdict the other side is going to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. That’s good news. This is no longer about Mike and Jeremy. It’s not even about Canada. It’s about free speech in the West.
“I could have settled early, but I just couldn’t do it,” he said, sipping his diet Coke. “I can’t imagine having to pay some kid $5,000 for a joke.” So, as Jeremy’s father caterwauled in court about the water in Jeremy’s lungs when the boy was born (seemingly going for the PTSD verdict Earle’s “victim” got), Ward sat in the witness stand and refused to budge.
The case has been going on for almost five years now, and the court is usually populated with comedians concerned about the future of their profession. “It’s all comics and one retard,” Ward said, describing the proceedings. “He hangs out there all day no matter what the case because it’s free entertainment.”
Mike then recalled a moment when the prosecution asked if everyone could hear the TV monitor and the mentally handicapped man underneath it blurted out, “I CAN HEAR IT JUST FINE!” He wasn’t kidding, but the lawyer didn’t get it. She sighed and muttered, “Great, another comedian,” and the handicapped man stared, forlorn at the ground.
He had been hurt by the same institution that was supposed to be championing his cause. That’s what happens when we let the state tell us what we can and cannot say. They inevitably do more harm than good.