Literally hundreds of articles have been written about Mike Ward and what came to be known as “The Joke”. Most of them missed the point. Toronto writer Marty Younge writes the first article that properly covers Mike, The Joke and everything that followed. She spoke with Mike for the article early in 2020.
When Mike Ward approached the stage to accept the highest award in French Canadian comedy the Olivier for comedy person of the year he knew it was no time for short-winded bashfulness. As Quebec’s comedy elite sat from the standing ovation Ward began his acceptance speech displaying a demeanor of purest vulnerability for a comedian: unflinching seriousness.
“In the media every time they talk about me they say I am relentless. I was relentless because I did The Joke. Let’s talk about being relentless. They talked about my joke in thousands of articles, TVA (60 stories) Huffington Post (20 articles) Le Devoir (40 Articles), La Presse (80 articles), The Montreal Journal (90 articles)…. and I am the one who is relentless,” he said.
The articles are about Mike Ward, the comedian who in 2016 was fined $80,000 by The Human Rights Commission for telling a joke about a disabled child star. Now the child star is 23 and Ward is still fighting. All those articles and now there is one more.
Mike Ward’s situation is a complicated, connvoluted, cautionary tale about the worst-case scenario when the humorless are displeased. It’s been a costly vicious battle fought between two people who have never spoken played out in the cultural anomaly that is Quebec’s French-language Entertainment Industry.
“The Joke” and its story was started, escalated, and regurgitated by a Franco idiosyncratic government body dancing cheek to cheek with a glossy and gaudy pop-cultural landscape, where a person warranting the attention of a local celebrity can inexplicably become a real one. Jeremy Gabriel was born in 1996 with Treacher Collins syndrome that caused facial deformities especially a large forehead and eyes. Gabriel was also deaf and received a bone anchored hearing aid at the age of 6 when he began singing. With his mother guiding his career they began playing talent shows and charity benefits leaving wet eyes, empty wallets and well-wishes up and down the province of Quebec.
French Canada makes its own stars in its own language; a small but mighty industry, a testament to cultural preservation. It emulates American show business but has some unique taste and values entirely of its own creation. Child stars– specifically singers– enjoy an extra special place in this culture due to the nostalgic mold cast by the most famous Quebecer of all time Celine Dion, who rose to fame singing in French at 12- the youngest of 14 children in rural Quebec.
Quebecers love a small body and a huge voice with a dramatic and against all odds origin story to match. And in the mid 2000‘s they had found it in Jeremy Gabriel. At age 8 in 2006 he released an album and at age 9 as part of a reality show that granted wishes, he sang for the Pope. In a prideful, predominantly Catholic province it was quality entertainment. Gabriel’s place as a public figure is important context to what comes next. Although a disabled child, he was firmly in the public eye. His stardom a product of sweet (some would say sickly sweet) sympathies, novelty, nostalgia and the zany fickleness of fame Quebecois style. But like all child stars they can’t be children forever and by 2010 Jeremy and his crystal voice had become little more than a thing that happened.
Like all things that happened since the first thing that happened, it became fuel for comedy.
It is hard to make a living in Canada as a stand-up comic unless you are a comic who can do your act in French.
A thriving stand-up scene with tours on a theatre circuit up and down the province is another facet of the unique cultural isolation of Quebec. Mike Ward is one of the top headliners of this scene. He is known for his dark humor. He’s an energetic and exaggerated satirist who slyly skewers all aspects of his tiny but profitable part of the planet. And his 2010 show S’xpose would be no different It would, however, include 2 minutes on Gabriel’s brush with fame that would come to be known as The Joke. The Joke would impact Ward’s career along with the national conversation surrounding free speech and comedy forever.
The following is a translation of The Joke that was performed in french.
“Remember Little Jeremy? The kid with the subwoofers on the side of his head. In the beginning everyone shat on that kid. I was the only one who defended him. When he sang for the Pope everyone was like, he can’t sing, he’s off key, he’s horrible. I was like, he’s living his dream who cares if he’s off key let him live his dream. Then when he sang for the Canadiens, people were bitching ‘he can’t sing he’s garbage he’s such a bad singer’ and I was like he’s living his dream, he’s a dying little boy let him live his dream. He sang for Celine; people said he’s horrible he’s f****** garbage and I was like he’s living his dream let him live his dream. I defended him but now 5 years later….. He’s still not dead yet. Like an idiot I defended him and he just won’t die. I saw him last year at a waterpark I tried to drown him wasn’t able the little f***** is unkillable. I looked up his illness online to see what it was, turns out he’s just ugly.”
Although Ward had made fun of Gabriel in S’xpose it would be another punchline publique Patrick LaGace that would come to play a crucial role in some of the most dramatic and documented consequences of a joke bombing.
Lagacé an opinion columnist for the French language news paper La Presse took issue with a bit Ward had included about him in S’xpose. Simply put, Ward had called him a narcissist. So in almost validation of that character summation he decided they best way for the two men to settle their differences was publicly. In 2012 Lagacé invited Ward onto the interview show Les Franc Tireurs. The tone of the interview quickly became combative. Lagacé began to cast himself as the simultaneous hero and victim with a thin skin and a bleeding heart. As if he was the first journalist to discover that comedians sometimes exaggerate for effect, he conveniently seemed to forget that free speech is as essential to Ward’s craft as his own.
At one point in the interview Lagacé became unsatisfied with the task at hand and began to question Ward’s jokes about Gabriel. He asked why Ward felt the need to make fun of a disabled child and omitted that the disabled child he was talking about was Gabriel–a child of exceptional ability and marginal fame. When asked about this encounter Ward cannot recall the exact question but remembers the tone of the 2012 interview clearly. “The interview was very confrontational. I had made a joke about him (La Gace) being a narcissist he had proceeded to make fun of me on another talk show the largest in Quebec. We don’t get along,” Ward told me in a telephone interview.
That appearance on the Les Franc Tireurs would be the first steps in a joke becoming The Joke. La Gace created the narrative. Ward no longer was a comedian engaging spreading levity to dark parts of a theatre from the spotlight. Ward had now become a man who hated a disabled boy.
It would be this clip that found its way to Gabriel’s camp and prompted him to contact the Human Rights Comission of Quebec. The Human Rights Commission of Canada was an idealistic government body formed to uphold The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Introduced by Pierre Elliot Trudeau in 1982 It was essentially made to hold people accountable for acts of discrimination in each province and territory. In the Canada presided over now by Trudeau Jr., it has become something of a national complaint department, and in their home province of Quebec a corrupt hypocritical circus.
It was a panel of amoral signicafants who defend “discrimination” in a province whose government is attempting to ban all religious symbols (except of course the giant neon cross a top Mount Royal). In 2017 the commission hired Teresa Thermitus as president– a Haitian born anti-discrimination lawyer who was touted as the visionary diverse leader who would bring a new shining era of justice. She was fired a year later for “lack of ethical norms” and “abuse of authority.” Thermitus was replaced by Camil Picard who would later be forced to resign while being investigated for having sexual relations with a 16 year old boy while working as a manager of a group home in 1983. Camil Picard worked on the Ward case…from his office in a glass house most likely.
Ward was at home in 2014 when a Bailiff delivered him notice in writing from the Human Rights Commission of Quebec that he was to pay 82,000 dollars in damages. The breakdown was $40,000 to Jeremy Gabriel’s mother, $15,000 to his step father and $27,000 to Gabriel himself for discrimination stemming from The Joke.
Ward hired human rights lawyer Julius Grey a fitting moniker for someone who makes his living deciphering the Grey areas of bad taste and legality. Grey made it clear to Ward that paying would set a dangerous precedent. If Ward settled it would send the message any comedian who made a joke that offended someone could in theory also be prosecuted. So Ward decided to fight. “I didn’t want to create a precedent and pay because of a joke so I was like, ‘No we’re going to fight this.'”
In 2016 Ward appeared in front of the Human Rights Tribunal, a court specifically created to hear cases brought forth by the Human Rights Commission. No Jury. Some would say a stacked deck of bureaucrats working in well oiled cahoots.
The media had a frenzy. Their little angel Jeremy was all grown up and fighting a nasty devil. “He was 16 when he found out about the joke. I don’t know if it hurt him enough to want to call the Human Rights Commission or if he saw it as a way to make money. The thing that I think is probably more likely is he saw it as a way to get back into show business,” Ward told me.
At the trial The Joke was played in the court room, got a laugh and proceeded to be picked apart as if Ward had gone a multi city tour proclaiming he was a murderer. Ward explained, “when the lawyers were talking about it they were taking everything like it was something I actually wanted. They were acting as If I had actually wanted to kill this little boy.”
Mike recalls how weird and scary it was hearing the tribunal take things so literally. “They were explaining why it was wrong to want to drown someone because they are disabled and I was like I don’t want to drown anyone.”
Despite Gabriel being 18 at the time of the first court appearance, the tribunal upheld the decision to pay damages to Gabriel’s mother but had decided on a much lower figure than the original $82,000. The new figure was $35,000 to Gabriel and $7,000 to his mother.
The Media covered the story using clips of Jeremy’s glory days. But Ward remembers a Gabriel in court who was perhaps more sinister than sick. “I had seen a bunch of documentaries about when people go to court the victims always say they wanted to look the killer in the eye so he could feel their pain. I was trying to look at him in the eyes and look at his mom just to see how they felt. The only thing I saw was rage and anger,” he recalled.
When that new decision was reached, Ward and Grey knew it was motivated by money. The damages were much more affordable; fighting it would exceed the figure in legal fees…but for Ward it had now taken on another price. “It became a weird fight there was no way I was going to let the government tell me what I can or can’t say on stage.”
“Everything is so high stakes now. If he had just talked to me about it and let me know that this joke actually hurt him. I don’t know if I would have taken the joke out of the act but I would have thought okay if this is hurting someone I don’t want to hurt people. On stage my goal is to make people laugh not to hurt people,” Ward said.
It would be two years before the appeal would go to court leaving plenty of time for Ward to think about The Joke and pretty much everything else. “When I was found guilty, that’s when it started to sink in that it was real. I started thinking about all my jokes. Is this joke going to be legal? Is that joke going to be legal? Just thinking about what I could and couldn’t say on stage it made me start to hate doing stand-up and it’s the only thing I’ve done since I was 19,” he told me.
Following the 2016 verdict, Ward worked one week a month, and drank heavily. He felt incapable of writing anything other than venomous rants about free speech and injustice, while a particularly unrelenting Montreal winter circled around him. This went on for months while Gabriel seemed to capitalize on the controversy releasing an attempt at a English Crossover song entitled “I don’t care.”
Then the thaw. After receiving the news of a November 2019 date in appeals court the grips of depression started to loosen. “When I was younger I never understood why Lenny Bruce got into drugs but after going through what I am. At some point I just decided I want to get through this and not die in my 40’s of a drug overdose,” Ward explained. He started to do more gigs and his podcast 2 Drink Minimum co-hosted by Montreal comedian Pantellis had a growing audience. The two were asked to appear on The Joe Rogan Experience to speak about the case.
Then on November 28th the Quebec Court of Appeals upheld the decision that Ward was in fact guilty of discrimination, but decided that he no longer had to pay damages to Gabriel’s mother….he is after all 23 now. His reaction was more practical this time. “Even though it’s not over, I am just trying to move on. I try not to make this change me as a comic. When I see this happen to comics, they either go really dark after and their comedy becomes so fucking hard and nasty that it’s horrible, or they become super tame and are afraid of everything,” he said.
Ward was now on the hook for $180,000 in legal fees and had to begin developing a defense for the Supreme Court. But before all that could begin, he had a party to go to. This was cancel-culture Quebec style and he found himself nominated for best stand up show, best writing for the stage, best podcast, and the highest honour: Comedian of the Year at the Quebec comedy awards, The 2019 Oliviers. His community had voted for him. His industry made a statement that art was more important than the government’s feelings about his art. He won everything. All the people who had loved watching him lose finally had to report, Mike Ward was a winner.
In his 6 minute acceptance speech for Comedian of the Year Ward held nothing back, unraveling the truth and distortion of his fight. He boiled the last 5 years into a hard resin and shattered it. It was a tremendous display in strength of character. He talked about LaGace, Picard, The Joke and how for everything the media had said about it they never understood what this fight was really about. With millions watching, trophy in hand Ward, took his moment.
“Dark comedy is an art. In the coal mines they would send a canary down with the miners, As soon as there was not enough oxygen the canary would stop breathing and they knew it was time to go up or they would all die. Stand up comedy is the canary of free speech. When you see one of us having problems it means soon we’re all going to have problems and if you don’t realize it when you finally do it will be too late.”
When asked if he felt his acceptance speech was an appropriate platform to address this years of controversy he had this to say. “It was the first time I was on stage and the goal wasn’t to get a laugh,” he said.
A decision regarding if Ward’s case will be heard in The Supreme Court is expected sometime in 2020. Ward estimates the final price of his legal fees will hit $300,000 before any damages he may or may not have to pay. He has no predictions of the outcome, only a ominous sentiment about of the irreversible erosion The Joke has had already.
“Once this is all over I would like to start a fund for whoever the next person is cause there’s going to be a next person.”