Lessons From Canada’s Cancelled “Free Speech” Comedy Show

Erik McLaren is a Toronto based comic and journalism student. He’s originally from Windsor, Ontario so he has some American sensibilities. A funny guy at the end of the day and willing to talk about anything… I do mean anything.

When it comes to people screaming about insensitivity every time a comic makes a blue joke, or when someone screams about PC culture every time someone gets fired for saying something racist, everyone, on both sides, is an idiot.

Here in Toronto, we’ve seen that play out in real time over the past few days. A comedy club was vandalized, and subsequently cancelled a show called “No Fascists In Our City! Free Speech Comedy Show.”

Now, that by itself isn’t all that crazy. The club had to think about the physical safety of their staff and the comics, and if someone is pissed off enough to screw with your storefront, it’s reasonable to be cautious. The club even put out a totally understandable statement: “While Comedy Bar believes in being inclusive, and the philosophy of free speech in a comedic setting, we cannot jeopardize the comfort of our staff and patrons in catering to politically charged events.”

But this is a situation that only gets stupider with context. The name of the show was a response to Ryerson University cancelling a “Free Speech Panel,” featuring some alt-right favourites like Jordan Peterson and Faith Goldy. If you don’t know Faith Goldy, imagine Ann Coulter drank a baby’s blood, stole it’s youth, and it somehow made her meaner.

After Charlottesville, Ryerson wanted no part of that Nazi friendly mess (For the record, Goldy was fired from Rebel Media for appearing on a Nazi podcast) and cancelled the event. Normally, this is where the story would end.

But Danny Polishchuk, a Toronto comic, wanted to poke fun at the whole situation, you know, like comedians do. “I was definitely trying to make a point, but the joke is there too,” says Polishchuk. He didn’t agree with the event’s cancellation, and wanted to make fun of what he saw to be a reactionary group fueled by fear.

But a group of liberal activists disagreed, and worried that the comedy night might become an alt-right or Neo-Nazi show. Ironically, this was a completely reactionary idea fueled by fear. “I didn’t expect for people to prove my point, like right away,” Polishchuk said.

The problem here is that there are people in the world who think horrible things, and want to act on those things to hurt people. Those are the people and problems comedians make fun of and make us laugh at.

It’s important for everybody, especially comedy fans, to understand and protect free speech. It’s also true that the last thing anybody wants is for comedy clubs to become bastions for racist, bigoted ideologies. But comedy isn’t an ideology, and no one is actively suppressing free speech. There are only two groups screaming at each other, and the rest of us are trying to laugh.

In an interview with VICE, club owner Gary Rideout Jr. said that he didn’t actually want to cancel the event. Obviously, his main reason for doing so was the threat of something other than comedy taking place at his bar. Rideout Jr. initially had the right instincts. “What I would have preferred was the show happened and then everyone there feels like an idiot because it’s just a regular stand up show,” he told VICE.

That assessment is what comedy is all about. People come to comedy clubs to hear jokes. No one is safe from ridicule, but all are welcome to join in. If a comedian is funny, they get laughs, if they’re not, they get crickets, and maybe heckled. Everything is done in service for the laugh, though.

It seems like everyone is worried the world is sliding toward some awful, totalitarian state. I don’t know if it’s true, but comedians aren’t the enemy here. After this experience, Polishchuk says that he’s not going to change anything about his act, or how he thinks about jokes. “I’m not going to cow to people to smash locks,” he said.

We can rest easy knowing that whenever the next fascist regime sprouts up in the world, it’s going to be the comedians who refuse to call them anything other than “dick-face” who get gassed first.

Had the show gone on, there may have been people there for reasons that had nothing to do with comedy. But people there would have just had to see a comedy show, and anybody who goes to a comedy show to do anything but laugh, will quickly be exposed as the asshole they are.

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Erik McLaren

Erik Mclaren is a Toronto based comic and journalism student. He's originally from Windsor, Ontario so he has some American sensibilities. A funny guy at the end of the day and willing to talk about anything... I do mean anything.

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