Free speech and human rights

INTERVIEW: Comic Mike Ward is an asshole, but should that be illegal?

The host of the Nasty Show on why jokes, even horrible ones, shouldn’t be censored
Julia Giles, Just For Laughs

By his own admission, Mike Ward is an asshole. The question is, should that be illegal?

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The bilingual comic has become a lightning rod in the debate over the limits of free speech since a joke about a disabled Quebec boy triggered a human rights complaint from the boy’s family. Sitting down with Ricochet in advance of this summer’s Just for Laughs festival, where he’ll reprise his role as host of the Nasty Show, Ward seems almost apologetic about the joke in question.

“You should never make fun of a disabled kid. That's horrible. It's horrible to make fun of a disabled kid. But you should be allowed to do it.”

In 2010 Ward received a call from Quebec’s human rights commission, in which he was asked to pay damages of $80,000 to the young man and his family, who argued they had been “hurt, vexed and humiliated” by the joke. Instead of paying, Ward hired noted free speech expert Julius Grey as his legal counsel. Hearings at the province’s Human Rights Tribunal recently wrapped up, and Ward is awaiting what could prove to be a costly verdict.

According to Ward, he’s already paid Grey more than $80,000 in legal fees, but this was never about the money. Instead, he says, he wants to avoid a legal precedent that could be used against other comics.

The case has provoked strong reactions, with dozens of cultural figures wearing red tape over their mouths to this year’s Gala des Oliviers televised awards show to symbolize their solidarity with Ward, who was barred from performing at the event over insurance concerns.

Tell us a little about the joke that started all this.

There are a bunch of untouchables in comedy, and I was saying “you can't talk about this person or that person,” and it was all famous Québécois artists and the last one was Jérémy Gabriel, who had become famous because he sang for the pope and he sang the national anthem before a Habs game. I did the joke and it went really well, and when my tour ended we got a call from the human rights commission saying, "We want $80,000 because of that joke." They didn't tell me, "We want to you to take that joke out of your act."

So I got the best lawyer. I actually Googled and asked around, "Who's the best free speech guy?" and everyone said Julius Grey. So I met Julius Grey and I told him, "Look, I want to fight this. I'd rather give you 100k than give them 5k." Not the Gabriel family, it was the fact that my government was bringing me to court. I found that really, really offensive.

One of the questions that comes up, reading about this case, is the idea of punching up versus punching down. The idea is that it's okay to target people when they have heightened status or power. Part of the reason that people were upset about this joke was that it was punching down because it was aimed at a child with a disability. Do you feel that as a comic, as someone who stretches boundaries, that one should be attempting to punch up rather than punch down?

I get that a lot from people. I punch down, I punch up, I punch sideways, I punch everywhere. But I get how technically you should punch up. You should make fun of the king, and not make fun of the peasant that can't afford food. But the peasant that can't afford food will sometimes do something funny or stupid, and I think you should be allowed to make fun of the stupid peasant and the king. You should make fun of both.

You were quoted in Maclean’s saying, "Assholes have rights too." I think what you were saying was that you shouldn't make fun of a disabled kid, but you shouldn't not be allowed to make fun of a disabled kid. Is that roughly your position?

I wasn't fighting for the right to make fun of this kid. That was a horrible thing for me to do, but you know, what's done is done and I can't go back in time.

You should never make fun of a disabled kid. That's horrible. It's horrible to make fun of a disabled kid. but you should be allowed to do it. That's the one thing I like about my whole trial, the way the media portrayed it in the States and in England, it was all about freedom of speech. But here in Canada everyone was always talking about the kid, saying "Well what about the kid?" We're very polite as a society.

Regarding the whole going-to-court thing, we shouldn't even think about the joke, because it's not about the joke. The joke shouldn't be in court. It's the idea of being allowed to say that type of thing, that's what I was fighting for. I wasn't fighting for the right to make fun of this kid. That was a horrible thing for me to do, but you know, what's done is done and I can't go back in time.

You're fighting this thing so aggressively because of the precedent it would set with regard to free speech, but in terms of the joke itself, in terms of what you've heard about the impact it's had on that young man, do you regret that joke at all?

The weird thing is that in court he was saying how this had ruined his childhood, but some of the dates didn't work. Like he said that he started getting teased in 2006 because of my joke, but I only wrote the joke in 2009. They were saying that there were Photoshopped images on the internet of him having sex with the pope, and I never made a joke about him having sex with the pope. But they were blaming me for that too.

What's weird is that the people who wanted to sort of shut me down, or stop me, they made me more popular.

I'm sure my joke didn't help when he eventually did hear it, but they were trying to put everything on me, and I'm not responsible for everything. I did my joke in front of adults, and my show was 16+, so you had to be 16 or older to see it. And when I did the show on TV, I cut out that bit, because we had just started the court thing.

The people that paid to see me saw this joke, but his friends in high school never heard the joke or never saw the joke, so they were blaming me more than I think I should have been blamed.

Do you think that there are limits that should be enforced on a community level, if not on a legal level? Are there certain types of jokes that comics shouldn't tell?

I think comics should basically do pretty much what they're doing now. The only thing is that people have a right to be offended, people have a right to complain, but the best thing to do would be if you find what I do offensive and you don't like it, you shouldn't come see me, and you should tell your friends not to come see me. What's weird is that the people who wanted to sort of shut me down, or stop me, they made me more popular.

I'm doing a run of shows in Edinburgh, and the tickets are selling really well because of the whole thing internationally that my government brought me to court. And the reaction is "that's insane that a comic is going to court over a joke." So they want to see me.

The best thing I think for people, if ever a comic does a joke about you that you don't like, the best thing to do is get in touch. It's super easy to contact a comic. They could have written me on Facebook, on Twitter. If something offends you or hurts you that someone says you should tell them first, and then boycott them. Tell your friends to boycott them. But by blogging about it you just make that person more popular.

I almost feel like the career that I have now is kind of thanks to Tipper Gore. I got into heavy metal when I was young because Tipper Gore wanted to stop metal. I was just a little kid. I didn't even know what heavy metal was, but I was like, "Why does that lady want to stop metal?" And so I started listening to metal. And if it wasn't for her, I maybe would have never gotten into metal. I feel like that's kinda what they're doing for me. I'm getting a lot of love from Europe and North America from people who would have never heard about Mike Ward if it wasn't for the human rights thing.

Where’s the case at now?

I haven't had the verdict yet, but the hearing happened. They want $80,000, and I've paid $93,000 to Julius Grey. So it would have been cheaper to just write a cheque for $80,000 or tell them "Look, can I give you $20,000?" or whatever, but I thought this was important.

Comics are like little kids. So if you tell a comic "don't touch this," that's all they want to do.

The way I saw it, I'm super lucky that I have the type of career where I don't have any kids, and I'm pretty good with money, and I've made a bit of money, so I was like, "Okay, I can go to court and not lose my house, and you know, my wife and I can still eat,” but I was thinking about all the younger comics, or even older comics that aren't at that level yet. If they get a call from the human rights commission, they are so screwed. So I was like, “I think I should fight this, just to make sure that this stops with me.” If I win, great. If I lose….

At first I was really nervous that if I lost it'd be horrible for everyone, but the thing I've noticed by talking to comics, comics are like little kids. So if you tell a comic "don't touch this," that's all they want to do. So I think if I'm found not guilty it'll be good for comedy, because comedians will go, "Okay, they're not going to tell us what we can and can't say,” and if I lose, comics are going to be like, "Okay, we can't talk about that? Well fuck you. We're going to do it anyway."

If you had the opportunity to again make a joke about someone with disabilities, or a kid, would you think twice about doing that now?

I'd think twice about mentioning their name, just for the whole, you know, going-to-court thing, but I still have jokes about people with disabilities.

I think if you tell yourself, "Oh shit, can't talk about that," it's treating someone like they're too weak, so they can't take a joke. I think it's important to talk about everything, but I'd be way more careful now. I'd probably do the same thing, which is a good thing and maybe a bad thing.

Tell me a little about the Nasty Show this year. What’s that going to be like?

It's basically the same thing as every year. it's the best dirty comics in the world doing their filthiest material. And by dirty, a lot of people who have never been to the Nasty Show think it's going to be people doing dick jokes, but there's not that many jokes about sex. Mostly just taboo subjects. It's all stuff that if taken out of context, every joke you're going to hear could end up in court or ruin someone's career.

In the wake of your case, do you and the other comics feel more restrained in the types of jokes that can be told there?

The Nasty Show is still a place where the comics can do really whatever they want. But it's almost the only place now. It used to be that on TV you couldn't say this or that, but then you'd go to a live show and you could do pretty much whatever. But now with social media and all the social justice warriors out there, a lot of comics are taking fewer and fewer chances and fewer risks with their material.

It's all stuff that if taken out of context, every joke you're going to hear could end up in court or ruin someone's career.

The Nasty Show is my favourite type of comedy. Mike Wilmot described it well last year, he said the Nasty Show was like if comedy is Pepsi, the Nasty Show is the syrup. It's just the purest form of stand-up. Oftentimes a comic will think of a joke and go "Whoop, boy, that's a little rough. I should tone it down” or “I should say it this way,” but at the Nasty Show, instead of toning it down you sort of tone it up, if that's an expression. I don't think it's an expression, but it should be an expression.

So no jokes about disabled kids?

I'm going to talk about the human rights tribunal a little bit, as much as I can legally. I'm not going to talk about the kid.

What's weird is that when you write a joke, you don't realize that there's an actual human being behind whoever you're making fun of, and the court thing made me realize that.

When I make fun of whoever, a singer or even a politician, that person might have a wife that is sad about my joke. My goal is, I don't write jokes to make people sad. I write jokes to make degenerates laugh.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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