Canadian ruling on ‘offensive' comedy is a gag - but it's no joke

By Tabatha Southey
Globe and Mail
Apr 02, 2010

It's widely understood that the service offered to hecklers in a comedy club is to be insulted. So much so that had stand-up comic Guy Earle not insulted Lorna Pardy when she disrupted his act – had he, while noticing that she appeared to be lesbian, said, “My good lady, you're correct: I suck, and will now leave the stage in shame” – he might arguably have been denying her a service based upon her sexual orientation.

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As it is, when Ms. Pardy disrupted his act, Mr. Earle used some unpopular words to describe her and she instigated a case against him at the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, alleging that “she and her same-sex partner were subjected to a tirade of homophobic and sexist comments.”

There's no suggestion that Ms. Pardy was denied food or drinks in the restaurant, but she argues that Mr. Earle and restaurant owner Salam Ismail “discriminated against her in the provision of a service … on the basis of her sex and her sexual orientation.” Mr. Ismail, faced with hefty legal fees, might be forgiven for thinking, “Next time, karaoke.” Just another way this suit will irreparably damage one of our legendary cultural industries.

No question, what occurred between those two on that night in 2007 isn't an exquisite vignette of human behaviour that I'd want to show the gods. Ms. Pardy, who claims to suffer from post-traumatic stress from the incident, has admitted that she twice threw water at Mr. Earle “in order to snap him out of whatever rage he was in.”

Because we all know how well that works. Especially the second time. I don't know about you, but when someone starts yelling at me, my first thought isn't, “I should throw water at him. That'll calm him down.”

Perhaps Ms. Pardy's life up until that moment had been lived in a film-noir movie or something. Conceivably to this day, she is convinced that had there been a jug of water or a garden hose at her disposal, she would've been able to induce a Zen-like calm in Mr. Earle. Or else this was a comedy show that got out of hand. Which is no more a human-rights violation than throwing a drink is assault.

The words Mr. Earle allegedly used to describe Ms. Pardy are specific to women and/or lesbians and they're considered derogatory. But I've also heard them used to great comedic effect by women, some of whom were lesbians, and, yes, by men.

I can't say whether Mr. Earle was funny that night. That shouldn't have any bearing on this case. I'll just quote author Philip Pullman's answer this week to a question about offensive content in his latest book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ: “No one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to live their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it and if they open it and read it, they don't have to like it, and if you read it and dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me to complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold. Or bought or read.”

There's a difference between being insulted and discriminated against because one is, say, gay, and being called gay while being insulted. One is criminal. The other's rude. We can't legislate decorum, criminalize offending or allow a frumpy fussiness over language to prevail – because free speech (famously defended by comics) will suffer.

The warnings to Ann Coulter last week followed on the heels of the attempt to change the lyrics to our national anthem lest anyone feel excluded, and this case makes us look ridiculous. I suggest that, for one week, Canada rehabilitate itself by changing the lyrics of O Canada to one long lesbian joke.