Steve Patterson is host of The Debaters on CBC Radio One, and author of the forthcoming The Book of Letters I Didn't Know Where To Send.
Weighing in on the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal's fine of more than $40,000 against Quebec bilingual comedian Mike Ward for jokes he made about Jérémy Gabriel, a former child singer who has craniofacial deformities brought on by Treacher Collins syndrome, is a tricky matter.
On one hand, comedy is subjective; French comedy is completely separate from English comedy (pun intended) and the jokes in question were in poor taste.
On the other hand, once comedians start being subjected to human rights tribunals for their jokes, well, it could be the end of enlightening comedy.
Not that the jokes in this case were "enlightening." Despite his challenges, Mr. Gabriel, now 19, managed to perform in the public spotlight for esteemed audience members such as Celine Dion and the Pope. I would see that as an amazing achievement to be celebrated. Mr. Ward chose to go another way, insulting the youth's appearance and wondering why, if the disease is supposed to be terminal, he hadn't died yet (maybe it's funnier in French?). The jokes went viral on You Tube.
So, do I agree with the Gabriel family having a right to defend their son's public reputation? Absolutely. But do I agree with fining a comedian for a tasteless joke? Absolutely not. If I've learned anything in the past two decades of performing standup comedy, it's that all jokes can be deemed "tasteless" by at least some people. Particularly if the target of the joke is a specific group or specific person.
Standup comedy, when properly executed, is the purest form of effective commentary. "It's funny because it's true" is, well, true. Comedy can shine light in dark places and help people talk about things they might otherwise not. Or it can be a needed escape from the real world when the real world gets to be too much to bear (which these days is most of the time). If we let tribunals narrow the scope of what a comedian can and cannot joke about, we run the risk of running out of jokes.
My personal comedy mantra is to make fun of the "haves" not the "have-nots." When there is someone in the public eye whose arrogance, attitude and ineptitude should be taken down a peg or two (or perhaps have the ladder kicked out from underneath them completely) I am all for it. But it should be done with witty wordsmithing, precise skill and, where possible, in a way that makes the target of the joke laugh along.
Mike Ward is a skilled comedian. He is a worthy wordsmith (in both French and English, which is no small feat). But he picked his target poorly in this case and now he is being told to pay the price. It happens that he is one of the few Canadian comedians who can afford the fine and will certainly profit more from this notoriety in the media. And Mr. Gabriel and his family can count a small "win" after being publicly shamed through no fault of their own (those heaving backlash against his family for initiating this complaint are, in my opinion, tiny-brained troglodytes).
So where does this leave Canadian comedians? I would say, keep working hard to make your jokes the best they can be. Choose your targets wisely. And I would have thought this would go without saying, but leave vulnerable people such as, say, children with facial deformities, out of your comedic repertoire. Unless they personally requested you to focus your sights on them. Then, make sure they're laughing louder than anyone else at the joke.
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to get back to writing jokes that will offend Donald Trump and any of his supporters, while hoping that he doesn't sue me.