A Quebec comedian is defending his right to "make fun of everything" after a joke about a young man who suffers from a condition that causes facial disfigurement landed him before the province's human rights tribunal.
In an interview, Mike Ward — one of the most popular stand up comics in the Canadian province who is known for his provocative brand — said he's "not a monster."
"We all have our limits, but I think we should be allowed to make fun of everything," Ward told VICE News. "If you're offended, that's your problem, not mine."
The family of 19-year-old Jeremy Gabriel, who suffers from Treacher Collins syndrome, lodged its complaint in 2012, after he was the subject of a bit in Ward's comedy special, Mike Ward S'eXpose.
The human rights tribunal proceedings launched in September, then resumed again this week, when Gabriel's mother testified on behalf of her son, who made a name for himself in 2006 after he traveled to Rome to sing for the pope.
In the bit in question, Ward targeted a number of people who are generally viewed as off-limits to stand-up comedians.
He brought up Gabriel, who declined a request to comment on this story, in that context, as the child who sang for the pope in 2006. In the joke, Ward claimed he was happy to defend Gabriel when others were making fun of him. He joked he thought he was a terminally ill child, being granted a dying wish by a children's foundation.
"But five years later, he wasn't dead, he's not dying," he said on stage. "The little bastard, he's just not dying."
He continued, saying that Gabriel couldn't be killed — joking that he'd tried to drown him once but couldn't — and that when he looked up the condition Gabriel suffered from online, he found that it was being "ugly."
The bit stung Gabriel, who testified at the tribunal that his confidence and career were hurt, and that it resulted in bullying at school. In September, he said he tried to commit suicide after seeing the video.
"I was 12 or 13 when I saw those videos," Gabriel told the CBC. "I didn't have 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."
"When we make a joke about someone, about a disabled person, we can laugh, we can make comments, but we always have to do that in full respect," he told the CBC on Wednesday.
But Ward said Jeremy had already been bullied before he used him as the butt of a joke.
"I'm sure my jokes didn't help, but I can't be held responsible for everything that happened to him," he said in an interview, adding that if Gabriel's family had simply told him they were hurt, he would've stopped telling the joke.
He added that Gabriel's mother's testimony — especially her belief that "he wants to drown my son" — made him feel "horrible."
"I do comedy to make people laugh, not to hurt people's feelings," he said. "I felt sorry for her, not because of the jokes but for taking everything so seriously.
If the tribunal rules that Ward violated Gabriel's human rights, he faces the possibility of having to pay the family a sum of money. The comedian says they are asking for $80,000 in compensation.
Some advocates for people with disabilities are standing with Gabriel.
"If we … consider that Gabriel was the victim of intimidation before, prior to his engagement in the public scene, maybe… [Mike Ward] was the drop that made the bucket fall," said Laurent Morisette of RAPLIQ, an organization that fights for the rights of people with disabilities in Montreal and Quebec City.
"We agree that he has the right to complain and bring this case to justice because sometimes, we defend free speech, but we think there's a certain point you cannot cross."
Jeremy Gabriel became well-known in 2006 when he traveled to Rome to sing for the pope. (Photo by Plinio Lepri/AP)
Ward's lawyer Julius Grey, however, will argue that the joke fell within the established norms of comedy.
"Our position will be that satire and comedy are almost always [mean] and hard. That's the nature of comedy," he told the CBC. "The position that we will put forward is that there needs to be larger artistic freedoms."
A number of comics have come to Ward's defense, even showing up to proceedings in solidarity.
Michael Lifshitz, a comedian with musculoskeletal abnormalities, who knows Ward personally, defends him, arguing that his joke was meant to be provocative. If other comedians can make fun of other groups of people, those with disabilities should be fair game too, he told VICE News.
"I question if the people that are defending Jeremy are offended by the joke or if they have this perception of this poor disabled person who needs protection because they can't stand up for themselves."
Lifshitz, who said he applauds Gabriel for pursuing his dreams and singing, said it's "naive to say Jeremy would have a perfect life and no one would ever say anything about him if only that evil [Ward] didn't say that joke."
Ward's friend Derek Seguin, who attended the hearing, said he sympathized with what Jeremy's mother, Sylvie Gabriel, was feeling — even if he didn't agree with everything she said.
Rather than hurt Gabriel's career, he suggested that it raised his profile.
"If you decide to step into public, you should be able to be made fun of," said Seguin.
Lawyers on both sides will present their closing arguments today.
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk