03/10/2016 17:06 EST | Updated 03/11/2017 00:12 EST

Comics discuss censorship in comedy in wake of Mike Ward case in Quebec

TORONTO — Making fun of a child, especially one with a disability or deformity, is something many comedians say they would never do.

"I draw a line but it depends where you're at in your world," says Gerry Dee. "I have a wife and three kids, so I try to remember that they might hear the joke."

"It's probably something I wouldn't do," says Kevin McDonald. "But on the other hand, in the '90s the Kids in the Hall did lots of stuff that I probably wouldn't do now."

Martin Short takes a harder stance: "You don't do that, it's obvious."

But many in the standup world believe comedians should have carte blanche when it comes to material, and that being called before a human rights tribunal for their jokes sets a dangerous precedent.

Such is the scenario faced by Quebec's Mike Ward, who has divided comedians for making jokes onstage about young singer Jeremy Gabriel, who was born with craniofacial deformities and partial deafness caused by Treacher Collins syndrome.

Gabriel, a fellow Quebec native who has performed for the likes of the pope and Celine Dion, told the CBC he was "12 or 13" when he first saw videos of Ward mocking him.

In a segment of Ward's routine posted on YouTube, the comedian calls Gabriel's hearing implant a "subwoofer" and says he looked up his medical condition online and discovered that he's "ugly." He also joked, among other things, about how he thought Gabriel had a terminal illness but "five years later, he wasn't dead, he's not dying!"

According to reports, Gabriel, now 19, testified before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal that Ward's jokes hurt his self-esteem and career. And his lawyer, Marie Dominique, argued the case was about discrimination. Gabriel and his parents are seeking $80,000 in damages.

Ward's lawyer, Julius Grey, argued the case goes against freedom of expression. Ward's manager, Michel Grenier, said the comedian was unable to comment since a ruling has yet to be made.

"I'm not in favour of comedians being held up on human rights tribunals based on their humour, regardless of how in poor taste it is," says Andrew Clark, director of the Humber College comedy program in Toronto.

"We're not fascists," he adds. "There have been governments that did this and let's just say they weren't the best governments in the world. You have to let the public decide."

The case comes after comedian Guy Earle was ordered by the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal in 2011 to pay $15,000 in compensation to Lorna Pardy. The tribunal said Earle discriminated against Pardy when he unleashed a torrent of homophobic insults at her while he was performing at a Vancouver restaurant in 2007. The restaurant owner was ordered to pay $7,500.

"Not to get too precious about it, but it does seem like standup comedy has sort of become the vanguard of ideas and I think there's a danger in clamping down on that," says comedian Joel Buxton.

"Because if we don't have that, I don't know where else it would express itself. So I find that a little bit worrisome in that sense.

"But then of course things like this become difficult because I don't think many people would say that the victim in this (Ward) case deserved the amount of vitriol heaped upon him."

Edgy, controversial humour has a rightful place in the standup world, says Buxton.

"I know quite a few dark comedians that I very much respect and have actually been able to tackle topics I feel deeply uncomfortable about and (they) helped me process them in a way that ended up feeling positive."

Adds Dee: "Without comics like Mike Ward, we lose a lot of comics that take chances."

Still, some comics say they consider the feelings of their audience and have changed or removed jokes from their act based on the makeup of the crowd.

"If there's a 400-pound person in the front row, I'm not going to point that out," says Dee. "I think of what the person's life is like on a daily basis. And then on the other side of the coin I think: if I was this type of person, would I laugh at that joke?"

Norm Macdonald recalls delivering a joke as anchor of "Saturday Night Live"'s Weekend Update about a guy who'd been "ripped to shreds" and died after being run over by many cars.

"The next day the guy's widow phoned me and she had watched the show.... She decided to watch some TV to laugh and here's some idiot telling a joke about her just-killed husband," he says.

"So I try to remember that these are actual people and that they exist in real life."

Some comics also believe there's a difference between making fun of someone who's in the public eye and invites such attention, like Donald Trump, and making fun of a young boy in what seems like a personal attack.

"The Kardashians have been putting themselves in the public limelight, they want that," says Howie Miller. "Someone who doesn't want to be talked about in a negative way, it's not in their hands anymore."

That's one of the big questions in the Ward case: was Gabriel an unfair target?

"You can argue the parents placed the child in the spotlight and therefore he's a public figure," says Clark. "I would not agree with that, because the parents did it, not the kid, and I don't believe in picking on a kid.

"Do I think that (Ward) should be in front of a human rights tribunal? No.... He shouldn't be investigated for being a comedian, and it was a dumb joke that I don't agree with personally.

"Now that doesn't mean I have a right to tell him what he can or cannot say."


— With files from Canadian Press reporter Cassandra Szklarski in Toronto and Sidhartha Banerjee in Montreal.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version referred to the case being before the Quebec Human Rights Commission