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A comedian, a political activist and a hate-speech convict walks (singular because it's the same person!) into an airport and gets barred from the country. No joke.

The strange comedy of Dieudonné reached Canadian soil (briefly) this week, when the Frenchman – real name Dieudonné M'bala M'bala – returned to France after landing in Montreal, where he was scheduled to perform 10 shows. But a funny thing happened on the way to the sold-out run; reports suggest he was turned back at the border.

Yes, the performances – at a small Montreal art gallery – had sold out. There were that many people who wanted to laugh along with this man's particular brand of humour; he has become famous for his anti-Semitism and mocking the Holocaust in his routines and in the political realm (where he is an associate of the extreme right and Holocaust deniers).

Dieudonné – who got his start in a comedy duo teamed with a Jewish comic who later denounced him – has described Holocaust commemorations as "memorial pornography," is the creator of the controversial "quenelle" – a sort of inverted Heil Hitler salute which has been adopted by the neo-Nazi movement; and during a performance remarked that a Jewish journalist brought to mind the gas chambers, before pronouncing "dommage!" (Too bad.)

Hilarious, right?

But the comedian has cloaked himself in the garb of free speech. Is it okay to say hateful things under the guise of comedy that would be unacceptable in any other venue?

Lindy West doesn't think so. In her book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (out next week), the feminist, fat-acceptance activist and hero to women everywhere chronicles her stand against offensive humour at the comedy club; in particular the prevalence of rape jokes.

"Why should I have to sit and cheer through hours of 'edgy' misogyny, 'edgy' racism, 'edgy' rape jokes, just to be included in an industry that belongs to me as much as anyone else?" she writes.

She cites a number of disturbing examples, but also points to the banal and ubiquitous Borscht Belt witticism, "Take my wife, please" – a misogynistic portrayal of women as undesirable nags.

Humour is notoriously difficult to explain. What makes something funny? Comedians, philosophers and academics have taken a run at this big question; I'm not sure I've seen a definition that nails it.

And it's subjective, for sure. I might find things funny that you don't (I laughed out loud at parts of the widely panned Seth Rogen film The Interview, which may disqualify me from weighing in at all on what is or isn't funny); and there is some humour I will never understand (The Three Stooges).

Garry Shandling was a favourite of mine. The day he died, I watched some old videos of his routines. A 1983 appearance on David Letterman's show shocked me. In his set, Shandling told a story about taking a date to a Chinese restaurant and trying to cover up a faux pas (he was speaking French to impress the woman) by asking the waiter to press his jacket.

"Did you ever do that in a Chinese restaurant? You give them your coat at the coat check and they go, 'Back by Friday,' " (he said in an exaggerated accent meant to sound Chinese). This racist joke now lives in perpetuity on YouTube.

What's acceptable in comedy has certainly evolved. The 1983 audience laughed, even applauded, parts of that Shandling joke. Today it would be met with gasps and boos – not that it would ever be delivered, on television or elsewhere.

That Shandling set had me thinking about the Seinfeld Chinese restaurant episode – would it now be considered off-colour? Or the Donna Chang episode? I'm not sure those scripts would see the light of day today.

I saw Michael Richards (best known as Seinfeld's Kramer) perform at a Los Angeles comedy club a few months before the scandal erupted over his use of the n-word directed at someone in the club. The night I saw him, he also went off on an audience member – something about the use of a cellphone. It might have been justified, and it wasn't racist – but like his routine, it was tremendously unfunny.

It made me wonder about the notorious n-word night – was he having a rough time up there and desperate for a fix? Looking for an easy laugh, perhaps there's a temptation to reach for lowest common denominator humour: You're black? Trot out the n-word. You're a woman? You deserve to be gang-raped! You're a Jew? Auschwitz!

Some argue that comedy should remain free of censorship. West – who found herself in a nasty fight over this – disagrees; she points out that people, not being entitled or sociopathic, censor themselves all the time – and comedians censor themselves in a way by choosing the right words to get a laugh.

Granted, there is grey area. And defenders of absolute free speech in comedy will invoke the slippery slope argument. But some subject matter seems pretty black and white. Gang rape? Gas chambers? Even if you think comedy should be the last bastion of free speech, who on Earth could find that funny?

Whether Dieudonné should be let into this country is one thing – we have laws to deal with that. I am more interested in how people vote with their wallets and time (surely as scarce a commodity as cash). I like to think of people not finding the oxymoron of Holocaust humour at all funny and thus not showing up, but standing up for what is right.

The fact that so many Canadians were eager to see this guy – that is no laughing matter.