Comedy gala drops joke about free speech over insurance concerns

Quebec comedians Mike Ward and Guy Nantel say a sketch they wrote about freedom of speech for an awards gala was heavily censored by an insurance company hired by the event's producers.

Insurance company for Gala les Olivier reportedly nixed sketch featuring controversial comedian Mike Ward

Quebec comedian Mike Ward is boycotting a Quebec comedy awards gala after the company that's insuring the event censored some of his jokes in a sketch about freedom of speech. (Karine Dufour)

An insurance company's unwillingness to back a comedy sketch about freedom of expression has led to it being dropped from a broadcast of an upcoming awards gala.

The gala's broadcaster  — Radio-Canada — says legal considerations are behind the move, but one of the comedians who wrote the sketch claims he was censored. 

Quebec comedian Guy Nantel wrote the sketch with Mike Ward, who is known for his cutting and often vulgar jokes. An insurance company hired by the event's producers repeatedly asked the comedians to alter the content of the sketch, Nantel said. 

"It's absurd. It's like we're returning to the Duplessis era where it's the village priest who decides what's acceptable and what's not," Nantel said in an interview with CBC.

Ward is currently the subject of an ongoing human rights complaint for jokes he made about a well-known child singer with a condition that causes facial disfigurement.

They took out everything until there was nothing funny left.- Comedian Guy Nantel

The sketch that Ward and Nantel wrote, and were to perform on Radio-Canada's Sunday broadcast of the Quebec comedy awards show Le Gala les Olivier, tackled that controversy head-on, mocking political correctness and censorship.

Nantel says after re-writing the sketch seven times because of concerns from an insurance company, he and Ward have decided to boycott the awards gala.

But the two do still plan on performing their sketch and uploading it to YouTube.

'A delicate topic'

In a statement released Friday evening, Radio-Canada said the decision to leave the sketch out of the awards gala was made by its producer, the l'Association des professionnels de l'industrie de l'humour (APIH). 

"The sketch treats, among other things, a delicate topic that is currently before the Quebec Human Rights Commission, which has yet to hand down a judgement in the matter," the statement reads.

"Out of respect for the process, and following a legal analysis, the decision was taken by the APIH to suspend the broadcast of the sketch."

The public broadcaster added that the APIH was hoping to find a solution to the issue before Sunday's broadcast. 

'High risk of being sued'

Nantel said he was told by the show's producers that it was the insurance company underwriting the gala that was unhappy with the sketch.

"Radio-Canada's insurance company told them they were at high risk of being sued if they allowed our sketch to go to air," Nantel said.

He said the insurance company apparently had concerns about almost every element of the sketch.

"They repeatedly asked us to soften material on the Human Rights Commission, religious groups, homosexuality. They took out everything until there was nothing funny left," Nantel said.

He said he doesn't know which company is insuring the gala.

No insurance, no broadcast

Radio-Canada's statement appeared to endorse Nantel's version of events, that insurance concerns were behind the decision to nix the sketch. 

"As long as the content has not been insured, Radio-Canada cannot allow the sketch to be broadcast," the broadcaster said. 

Radio-Canada also said it remained committed to freedom of expression, pointing out its decision to allow Nantel to criticize its decision openly on their airwaves. 

The broadcaster's unwillingness to support the sketch surprised Nantel, who said it was Radio-Canada and the APIH who approached him and Ward about doing a sketch about freedom of speech at the gala.

"They asked us to do it, and in the end they censored the sketch that they asked us to do," Nantel said.

'Don't be afraid, people can take a joke.'

The sketch that was censored begins with Ward telling Nantel he's afraid to tell jokes after his run-in with the human rights tribunal.

Nantel then says: "Don't be afraid, people can take a joke."
Comedian Guy Nantel told CBC the idea of an insurance company having veto power over jokes is 'absurd'.

Ward replies: "Tell that to the Human Rights Commission. Here's a joke they wrote for me: 'What's the difference between a homosexual and an Inuit person? There is none, both are fantastic! Long live diversity!'"

It continues with a series of jokes that refer to lesbians, Jews and Tim Hortons cashiers, but all in the vein of poking fun at overzealous political correctness.

Comedian blames Radio-Canada

Nantel blames Radio-Canada for not having the courage to ignore the insurance company's concerns.

"It's Radio-Canada who should say: 'We won't be dictated to by an insurance company'. It's up to them to make the decision," Nantel said.

Nantel said this incident, along with the complaint against Ward at the tribunal and the controversy around French comedian Dieudonné performing in Montreal this week, all demonstrate that there's a danger to the free speech of comedians in Quebec.

He said the whole point of the sketch was that political correctness is out of control; the reaction to it simply proves that point.

"Honestly, society has gone mad," Nantel said. "There's too much caution, too much fear around these questions."

Comedians boycott awards gala

Nantel is not nominated for an award at the gala this year. He said he won't be attending because of the controversy.

Ward, who's up for comedian of the year, has also decided to skip the show.

He tweeted "I won't be going to the Oliver this year.  If I win a trophy please put it in the recycling for me."

With files from Radio-Canada