French-Canadian comic Mike Ward has been a big name in Quebec, and across Canada for years now with a strong successful stand up career. A comedian since 1993, Ward has produced multiple stand-up specials and has become a veteran of some of the biggest venues in comedy, like Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival. In recent years, however, Ward has attracted attention for the wrong reasons: In 2012, the comedian (without his knowledge at first,) was charged by Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal with violating the rights of Jeremy Gabriel, who was known to Ward and most Canadians at the time as “Little Jeremy.” Jeremy, who has Treacher Collins syndrome, had gained notoriety in 2006 when he sang for Pope Benedict XVI, an impressive feat for a child who had been deaf only three years before.
Between 2010 and 2013, Ward toured material from his special s’eXpose, which featured a bit on “Little Jeremy,” specifically about how Ward thought that the child had been dying when he first saw him on TV, and how surprised he was to see he was still alive years later. The bit was popular with French audiences, with Ward using the material for years before it came to the attention of the Gabriel family. That ended in early 2013 when Ward received notice that he was being charged with violating Jeremy’s rights to privacy. The Gabriel family is suing Ward for $80,000, and the comic has already incurred an equal price in legal fees in the process of defending himself.
This court case comes at a critical time in the world of comedy, as recent years have seen countless discussions take place over the validity of joke topics that are considered taboo by many; whether they be rape, murder, race, or religion, there are some topics that many have a “zero tolerance” policy towards. Each side has staunch supporters: Those on the side of the Gabriel family assert that it’s never ok to mock a child or someone with a disability, regardless of context, and those on the side of Ward argue that regardless of how inappropriate it may seem, free speech dictates that all subjects must be open to satire and mockery.
I spoke with Ward on the phone last month, and got one of the first interviews with the comic since his final date in court on February 26th. Now able to speak freely on the matter, Ward opened up to me about the details of the case and how he feels about being sued for his comedy. Let’s just say that Ward is as unapologetic as you’d expect him to be, and his response to it all is one befitting a comic with his reputation: “My goal in the next couple years is to hurt disabled children everywhere with my comedy.”
Our conversation can be found below.
The IBang: Let’s get right to it. So you’re from Quebec?
Mike Ward: Yeah, I was born in Quebec City, which is the same town as Norm McDonald. My dad’s English and my mom was French, she died — so I grew up in both languages. I started doing comedy mostly in French: I started in French in ’93, and I started in English in 2007.
The IBang: Oh wow, that’s pretty recent. So you did a solid decade-plus of French-only comedy.
Mike Ward: Yeah, because of the Montreal Comedy Festival, there’s a huge market in French Canada. American comics can make a good living, but Canadian comics either have to go to England or to the states, or perform in French. I like Montreal, so it was easier to work in French. When I’d do shows in English, I’d do little open mic nights for like eight people, whereas when I did it in French there’d be like 400. So I figured it’d be easier for me to grow as a comic if I had actual people to test my jokes on. I thought I’d just do French until I was 25, that was kinda my plan, and then I was like “I’ll move to New York when I’m 25,” but I ended up meeting a girl and getting kind of lazy and just . . . living. I still like Montreal — I hate the fact that the Quebec government took me to court — but I still like Montreal.
The IBang: You’ve got to harbor some love for it, despite how it treats you at times. I’m sure their intentions are good.
Mike Ward: *laughs* Oh yeah, exactly, exactly.
The IBang: It was kind of hard to track down the history of the infamous “Little Jeremy” material, seeing as how you only performed it in French, so why don’t you give me some background on the bit. How long had you been doing that material before this whole controversy kicked off?
Mike Ward: I started doing a one-man show that toured from 2010 to early 2013, so I did that for two and a half years in theaters. I had done the joke in clubs for a couple months as well, working up to the tour, so essentially about three years. The tour was almost over when the human rights people contacted my manager. They didn’t say “Your joke is hurting this little kid” or whatever, they asked “How long does that joke last?” because they wanted to get paid like they had written the joke, they wanted royalties on the material.
The IBang: So they wanted to be paid for the joke that they found incredibly offensive and didn’t want you to perform anymore?
Mike Ward: Exactly.
The IBang: Of course, that makes perfect sense. So this bit was old news before it became a big deal?
Mike Ward: Right, and when the Human Right’s Tribunal (referred to as the HRT from here on out) pressed charges, my tour was pretty much over, so I haven’t done that joke since. I keep telling people — I’m doing a show next summer in Edinburgh — and I’ve never done this joke in English, because English-speaking audiences don’t know this little kid, but I think I’m going to start doing that joke in English just to get my money’s worth.
The IBang: So that tour you were doing, that was s’eXpose?
Mike Ward: Yeah, we sold 135,000 tickets and grossed $5 million Canadian, which is basically $14 American.
The IBang: So that was an all-French set. I saw an interview you’d done where you said you felt that you got better reactions to jokes on touchy subjects like religion and the like from French audiences as opposed to English audiences. Were you surprised that a French-language bit like the “Little Jeremy” material caught flak for being insensitive?
Mike Ward: Umm, no not really. I’ve noticed the difference — and I hate when people go “black crowds are like this, white crowds are like this,” but that’s exactly what I’m going to do — but English crowds, both American and Canadian, get offended when you talk about a group of people, whereas French people never get offended if you talk about a group. You can say stuff that’s borderline racist, make jokes about black people, Arabs, whatever and it will work, but if you mention one person’s name, they lose their fucking mind. I think that’s what happened.
I did a show a couple months back in English and I was talking about the Make-a-Wish people, and as soon as I started making fun of them, a table got up and a guy — it was really weird, he threw a bowl of popcorn at me, which is like the least violent thing you can do —
The IBang: That sounds more pretty and festive than anything else.
Mike Ward: — Yeah, it was like confetti. That wouldn’t have happened in French; in English, naming a name, no one cares. I remember a couple years ago I got in trouble in French Canada. I mentioned a little girl that got kidnapped, in a joke, and for some reason people in Quebec lost their minds, but at the same time Leno was doing jokes about JonBenét Ramsey on TV, so was Letterman. French people get really offended if you name a name.
Like with the whole Hannibal Burress-Bill Cosby thing, if he was French Canadian and he had mentioned another French Canadian that was a rapist, people would have been pissed off at Hannibal. “That’s mean, his rapes are secret!”
The IBang: So the HRT case, when was that actually brought about?
Mike Ward: It was late 2012, but I only found out about it in early 2013. The HRT people had their own little hearing that myself, my lawyer and “Little Jeremy’s” family didn’t attend, it’s just the human rights people who I guess watched my show and then decided “Is this wrong? Should he have done this?” I was found guilty in that thing, then they sent me a letter saying I had to give the kid’s family $80,000. It’s going to cost me more than $80k in lawyer fees, I thought this was basically extortion. I almost felt like I was in a mobster movie and this was a shakedown.
The IBang: Right, that’s understandable. I saw a clip of you on Gavin McInnes’s show just a couple weeks ago and I believe you were saying that regardless of the outcome, you’d have to pay $100k in legal fees?
Mike Ward: $90,000. So far I’ve given $90k. I think I’ve paid the last of it, maybe I’ll get another bill, I hope I won’t but either way, I paid a little more than what they were asking. Like I said, I’m a glass half-full kinda guy, I’m happy that I was in a place in my life where I could say “Fuck this, I’m going to fight this, I’m going to go to court.” It’s funny, whenever Americans hear about it, or even Brits, for you guys free speech is important, but Canadians for some reason are like “Oh but you shouldn’t have made fun of the kid.” Of course technically I shouldn’t have made fun of the kid, even I won’t argue that you should make fun of little kids. But you know, you should be allowed to make fun of little kids.
The IBang: So you were formally charged in late 2012, and learned of the charges in early 2013. During that time, have you spent a ton of time in court or has this gone down mostly through updates in the mail or through lawyers?
Mike Ward: Well, the first time I even had to go to court was in either September or October of 2015. So I waited two years to even go to court over this, and my lawyer kept telling me that “This is such a stupid case that we’re going to go in, it’ll take like two hours, and then at lunch the judge will give a verdict and we’ll just leave.” So we got to court the first day and we saw that they had so many witnesses and we realized, “Oh ok, this is going to take way longer than we thought.” So we talked again and he said “This will probably take about three days,” and I thought he meant like Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. But that first day was in September, and the second day wasn’t until February 24th, and the third was February 26th. So I thought we’d get the verdict on that last night, but now I’m told I won’t get the verdict for another three to six months.
The IBang: That must have been maddening.
Mike Ward: Yeah it was. I’m not stressed about interviews and watching what I say now, but from September to February, I was always super nervous because I knew that if I said something, even as a joke it could get me in trouble and they could use it against me in court.
The IBang: As a comic, it’s got to be tough to not be able to mouth off about a situation like that.
Mike Ward: It was. In December, I took a whole month off because the case was making me bitter and angry, and all the people insulting me on Facebook was getting to me, so to avoid becoming the “Fuck the government, fuck this, fuck that” guy, I went to my house in Florida to just relax. I hung out in my pajamas and drank rum and cokes and after a month, I was just super zen about the whole situation. At the end of my month, I spent a whole day just telling people everywhere on the internet to fuck off, but in a way that made me feel better.
I had a guy write me who said “I don’t know if you have kids, but I hope they both die of cancer,” so I just wrote back” Well you, sir, are a gentleman, and you seem like a delight.” And I spent all day just writing back the same basic joke to people who wanted to murder me, just telling them “You seem like a nice person, if you’re ever in the Montreal area you should look me up,” and it just made me feel so good. I learned how to live with these people, I see them as fucking buffoons who take jokes too seriously. If you don’t respect the people insulting you, the insults don’t hurt.
The IBang: Do you think it was that stereotypical Canadian politeness that pushed this whole controversy into being?
Mike Ward: Yeah. It’s weird, I knew that Canadians were super polite, but I didn’t know our legal system was this polite. It’s crazy to me. When I first started doing comedy, I was obsessed with Lenny Bruce, and I kept on thinking “The 50’s were crazy that a comic could go to jail over a joke,” and I’m not in jail, but they’re asking me for money. It’s weird that in 2016, I’m in court trying to explain funny.
The IBang: Yeah, the fact that you need to explain, in a court of law, something that was very clearly in the context of a joke is a bit ridiculous.
Mike Ward: And it’s weird too because in the joke, I say that the kid was un-killable and that I tried to drown him, and in court, the first time I mentioned that, they were like “Mike Ward, in his joke, said he wanted to drown Little Jeremy,” and they kept on harping that “He said he was going to drown him,” everyone was acting like that was the intent of the joke, that I woke up one morning and said “Ok, I want to drown this little fucking kid, what’s the best way to go about killing him?”
The IBang: During the HRT trial, “Little Jeremy’s” mother testified that she thought you wanted to kill her son via drowning; Do you think that the HRT and the Gabriel family are aware that they’re taking the joke out of context, or do you think they genuinely thought that you were out to kill Jeremy?
Mike Ward: I think the family actually thinks that I meant to harm the kid. In court, the mother actually yelled at me that “Disabled people deserve to live too.” And I was like “Oh my fucking God, that’s crazy.” It reminded me of that time that Patrice O’Neal was on Fox News defending Opie and Anthony, and he was trying to explain funny to that lady. It was weird, they were asking me “Why is that funny, you drowning a little kid?” and when it’s asked like that, it’s obviously not funny because it’s taken out of context. The HRT people, they’re just so used to going after everyone, and they see everyone as kind of the enemy. Like I wasn’t even sure what the HRT did, I only found out that it existed when I got a letter summoning me to court. But they basically go after racist building owners that won’t rent out rooms to black people or Arabs, or someone that won’t put up a ramp for disabled people. They’re used to dealing with fucking assholes, so they’re seeing me as just another asshole.
The IBang: One of the arguments that the Gabriel family’s lawyers made was that you violated Jeremy’s right to privacy because he was not a public figure, and therefore wouldn’t have the thick skin to resist or ignore jokes about him. But at the time that you were making the joke, he was actually a pretty big public figure up there, right?
Mike Ward: Oh yeah, yeah. When I did my jokes about him, I didn’t have to explain who he was, I’d go on stage and everyone knew who he was. He’d been on TV, he had an album out, he wrote a book. My manager asked the HRT woman “Well, can he make fun of GSP (UFC Fighter Georges St-Pierre)?” and she said “Yeah, well GSP is famous.” So then he said “Ok, is it because he’s disabled?” Then he named this singer from Montreal who’s disabled and he said “Can he make fun of that singer?” and she said “Yeah, that guy’s famous.” So my manager said “Yeah, well Little Jeremy’s famous too,” and she replied “No, he tried to become famous but it didn’t work.”
The IBang: Nitpicking.
Mike Ward: Ok, so because he doesn’t have Justin Bieber’s career, you can’t make fun of him?
The IBang: Yeah, that’s a logical stretch for sure. It’s hard to believe that they didn’t realize how silly this all was as it was broken down to them like that.
Mike Ward: Right? I think they just wanted to use me as a sort of warning to all the other comics, like “We know you guys are sometimes dicks on stage, and here’s what happens when you’re a dick on stage.” Some of the best comedy comes from dicks on stage. Like look at Louis C.K.’s bit about pedophiles on SNL, that’s the best opening monologue I’ve ever seen on SNL. It was amazing, some people got offended by that, but if Louis was afraid of offending people, he wouldn’t have gone there and instead would have done some shitty jokes about Trump’s hair or whatever.
The IBang: Yeah, I know what you mean. That’s why I’m glad that you’re both willing and able to fight this court case, because if you win — and I’m pretty certain that you will win —
Mike Ward: I hope I’m going to win, but I was talking to someone a couple of days ago and he kind of changed my mind about something. I was saying “I hope this [court case] doesn’t scare other comics into taking less risks” and he said “I think this is going to be good for edgier comedy because people are going to go ‘Oh, I can’t make fun of little disabled kids? Fuck you, I’m going to do a bit about a disabled kids.’” So I don’t think there will be that many jokes about little disabled kids, but I do think that comics who tended to push the boundaries are just going to push it a little bit further now.
The IBang: Exactly, and I’m looking forward to that. The case is going to have an interesting effect, and it seems like the public opinion is that you’re in the right here.
Mike Ward: What I’ve noticed is that the Canadian press is very torn, like “He should be allowed to say this, but he shouldn’t have said it, what about the poor kid, blah blah blah,” so they’ve been sensitive to it. But I’ve been lucky because everyone in comedy has shown a lot of support, so I’m really happy, because I don’t want to be the guy that makes them go “Ah fuck, he ruined it for everyone.” *laughs*
The IBang: Yeah, you don’t want to go down in the history of comedy as the guy who ruined handicapped jokes for everybody. I don’t think that’s how it’s going to go, though. You’re handling it very well and it seems like the majority of the media is on your side.
Mike Ward: Yeah I think so. What’s weird is that the social justice warriors online who are talking shit about me and thinking this will ruin my career don’t realize that this is actually opening doors for me. If it wasn’t for this situation, you and I wouldn’t be talking right now, so this is opening avenues for me in the states and in England; my goal in the next couple years is to hurt disabled kids around the world with my comedy.
The IBang: That is a noble goal my friend! People who only know of you from this HRT controversy and isolated quotes from your act might think you sound like some insensitive monster with a grudge against the handicapped, but you’re actually pretty involved with charities, correct?
Mike Ward: Yeah, I am. There’s a company in Montreal called Kenova, they make robotic arms for people who are disabled to be able to open doors and stuff, and they cost like $35k. I’ve done benefits to raise money for these, and we’ve bought 5 of these for disabled people. One of the guys that I met because of this, the government wanted to put him in a home because they didn’t want to leave him alone in his apartment, and he’d written on Twitter that he was thinking about suicide. So I asked him what he’d need to be able to stay in his apartment, and he said he’d need a 24/7 nurse, which would cost $40k a year. So I told him we’d organize a show a year to raise money for this, we’d get a 1000 seat room at $50 a ticket and you’ll keep everything to pay for your apartment, and we’ve been doing that for four years.
Last summer, I actually got a humanitarian award for the work I do for the disabled. It was weird being in court at that time and having a woman yell “Disabled people deserve to live!” at me and just wanting to hit her over the head with my award.
The IBang: That’s hilariously ironic.
Mike Ward: I’m not as good of a person as people that like me think I am, but I’m not as bad of a person that people who hate me think that I am. I respect everyone, but on stage, I respect no one.
Ward will be hosting The Nasty Show at this year’s Just For Laughs Festival, which takes place from July 20th to the 30th. He’ll be doing a residency at the Gilded Balloon Wine Bar in Edinburgh, Scotland from August 3rd to the 30th. He’s also a regular collaborator on Artie Lange’s The Nasty Show on Showtime, and currently has an album out, available for purchase on iTunes or free streaming on Bandcamp.