Stand-up comedians often have free reign to say whatever they want during a set, so it might be surprising to learn that a single stand up joke told by Canadian comedian Mike Ward might cost him $42,000.
According to the Daily Mail, the joke was at the expense of Jérémy Gabriel, a famous teen musician who suffers from a genetic condition called Treacher Collins Syndrome that inhibits bone and tissue growth in the face. Six years ago, Mike Ward delivered a bit, titled Le P’tit Jérémy, wherein he explained that he once defended Jérémy Gabriel from other comedians because he assumed the boy was terminally ill. When the comedian learned Gabriel was only disabled and not dying, he joked that the teen had simply been “ugly” the entire time.
“Five years later, and he’s still not dead!” Mike Ward said on stage. “The little bastard, he’s just not dying. Me, I defended him, like an idiot, and he won’t die.”
The joke went even further, claiming that the disabled teen could not be killed. Ward even joked that he tried to drown Gabriel once, but it didn’t work. You can see the full bit in the video below. However, Mike Ward delivers his stand up in French.
Mike Ward is known as a shock comic, meaning he resorts to taboo subject matter to get a reaction out of the crowd. Though most of his material can be considered offensive, the joke about Jérémy Gabriel was apparently one step too far. The comedian found himself face-to-face with a serious legal battle. He was recently ordered to pay the teen $25,000 in “moral damages” and $10,000 in punitive damages. He’s also expected to pay another $7,000 to the boy’s mother.
These charges might seem like a violation of Mike Ward’s free speech, but the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal claims the bit about Jérémy Gabriel resulted in severe bullying at the teen’s school. According to CBC News, the teasing got so bad that Jérémy attempted suicide. Mike Ward’s joke made the teen believe he was “worthless” because of his disability, despite his immaculate singing voice.
“At eight I wanted to follow my dreams, accept who I am and surpass it – give a message to others that because we’re different it doesn’t mean we can’t do what we want to do with our lives. I was 12 or 13 when I saw those videos. I didn’t have the maturity to be strong in the face of this — I lost confidence and hope. It made me think my life is worth less than another’s because I’m handicapped.”
Gabriel reportedly sued Mike Ward in 2012, claiming that the joke became so notorious that it damaged his singing career. But Ward continued to poke fun at the teen on stage, and even the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, which was helping to defend Gabriel.
Now it seems that joking about the disability has finally caught up to Mike Ward. The damages add up to a staggering $42,000. But the comedian is still planning to fight the charges and tweeted a promise to appeal the case.
Even Rocky lost the first one, we’re gonna appeal.
— Mike Ward (@MikeWardca) July 21, 2016
Mike Ward’s lawyer claims that comedians should not face legal consequences for what they say on stage.
“The position that we will put forward is that there needs to be larger artistic freedoms,” he said.
Other comedians have spoken out in support of Mike Ward’s right to free speech, fearing a dangerous precedent of censorship.
— Brad Williams (@funnybrad) July 21, 2016
But Jérémy Gabriel was happy to finally have some vindication.
“It’s a big relief, and at the same time I’m surprised,” he said. “I was happy with the decision yesterday.”
What do you think? Do you side with Jérémy Gabriel or Mike Ward?
[Jérémy Gabriel Photo via Facebook, Mike Ward Photo via Facebook]