Canadian stand-up comic Mike Ward is currently being tried before the Human Rights Tribunal (an unelected panel btw) for a joke he made. You read that correctly, he’s currently on trial for a JOKE. Let’s break word down:
- :something said or done to cause laughter
- :a brief story with a surprising and funny ending
- :someone or something that is not worth taking seriously
That’s the Merriam-Webster definition of the word “joke” and at no point does it mention people’s feelings. Because that’s what we’re really talking about here, whether it was mean or not. Not whether it was funny (it was), but whether it was appropriate. Is there such a thing? An appropriate joke? An appropriate amount of funny given circumstances? Or do bits live and die by how funny they are? I was under the impression it was the latter but I guess I, and all comics, should submit our jokes for approval to some bureaucrat. Cause that’s how great art is created, it’s vetted and approved by people incapable or producing any art themselves.
Mike’s in hot water right now because he made fun of a young disabled Quebecois man and entertainer named Jeremy Gabriel, making fun of Jeremy’s personal appearance being at the heart of this. As comedians, part of what we do is comment on the world around us. Mike is a stand-up comic in Quebec and Jeremy is a famous Quebec personality. That’s where that joke comes from. Not from a place of hate but from a place of public consciousness. Mike wrote a joke about a famous Quebecois person and performed it to an audience of Quebecois people. The joke did well, too – it’s not like the bit bombed. And if the joke had been meaner than it was funny it would’ve bombed hard. HARD.
Every time we step on stage the audience is letting us know whether it’s too much or not enough and it happens after every single joke, finding that balance is what we’re striving for. If Mike Ward is found guilty then comedians lose the ability to practice, the ability to grow and the chance to find that line. Future comics will be expected to show up to their first open mic with a complete understanding of what art is “appropriate” and what art isn’t. Man, I’ve said some heinous things on stage in the past. Guess how I learned I went too far? By failing. Over and over again. Not a lot of us come out the gates ready to be booked, we spend a fair bit of time being not very good at this. Take away our chance to suck at comedy and you’ll also be taking away a chance to be great.
Mike Ward has spent many years honing his art. He’s even done so in two languages. By saying Mike Ward is guilty you’re also saying art is wrong. My buddy and awesome stand-up comic Bryan O’Gorman had a great thought on this whole situation – would an actor be treated in this manner if they portrayed a murderer? Of course not, because we’re able to to bring context to the discussion. Why does that not happen with comedy? Why is comedy the one art-form held to a different standard than all others?
Mike cannot lose. That’s the gist of this. This isn’t just an attack on comedy, it’s an attack on art and all expression. Would it suck to be that kid and find out you’ve been made fun of by a comic? Absolutely. But once you enter the public eye you do so knowing that it’ll be bitter sweet. Celebrities get made fun of, this isn’t new. Joan Rivers made a career of it.
Mike cannot lose. He just can’t. Comedians are the keepers of the line right now, we fight that fight. What happens if we get struck down? Who’s going to keep the line then? We are a passionate lot, sometimes petulant in how we handle our beliefs but we are passionate. We defend that line with pride, we’re the gatekeepers and caretakers of the word – we are artists in the truest sense.
So what’s next if Mike loses? No more sad songs? No more scathing editorials about politicians? Where’s the line then? Who guards it?
We can’t let our feelings outweigh our common sense. A comedian should not be put on trial for performing comedy at a comedy show. I don’t know how much simpler I can make this.
Mike cannot lose.