As It Happens

Why the owner of Toronto's Comedy Bar decided to cancel a controversial 'free speech' show

Things turned explosive when a Toronto comedy club booked a show billing itself as "comedy in support of free speech." Owner Gary Rideout Jr. explains what happened.
Comedy Bar in Toronto shut down a "free speech" show after its locks were vandalized. (Comedy Bar/Facebook)

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It was supposed to be just another stand-up comedy night at a local club in Toronto's west end, but things turned explosive when Comedy Bar booked a show billing itself as "comedy in support of free speech."

The "No Fascist TO: Free Speech Comedy Show," headed up by comedian Danny Polishchuk, came on the heels of the "No Fascist T.O. Diversity Rally," which successfully pushed to shut down the "Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses" event at Ryerson University. 

The shuttered Ryerson event was supposed to feature speakers Faith Goldy, a far-right reporter who was fired from Rebel Media after appearing on a neo-Nazi podcast, and Jordan Peterson, a University of Toronto professor who refuses to use non-gendered pronouns for transgender or non-binary people.

While the comedy show wasn't associated with the cancelled event or its speakers, its name and promotional art drew immediate comparisons. After the venue's locks were smashed by vandals in protest of the show, Comedy Bar owner Gary Rideout Jr. decided to pull the plug on the whole thing.

Here is part of Rideout's conversation with As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner.

What have the last few days been like for you?

It's been pretty stressful.

Take us back to the beginning. What was this comedy show that was booked at your club?

Danny Polishchuk messaged me and was like, "I have this fundraiser I've been wanting to do" and I was like,"Great, go for it." I knew Danny and I know the comics that he had performing on the show. They're comics that play on other shows at Comedy Bar all the time.

But it wasn't long before there was a backlash. Tell us what happened.

At some point on Saturday this Kevin guy posted telling people that it was it was a "crypto-fascist" event.

At the box office, we received a half-dozen calls or so from people that were concerned about the event.

I asked Danny, the producer, "Are you tied to white supremacists?" He said, "I'm Jewish, of course not."

And then I looked up who he was fundraising for and it was the [Canadian Civil Liberties Association] and I went to their website and that looked legitimate.

I think it's possible Danny was trying to stir some people up and get some attention for the show, but ultimately, it was just going to be a regular stand-up show. At that point I thought people are going to come and see it's just a comedy show and it'll be fine.

The tipping point came when my general manager came to open up the bar and the locks had all been jammed on the venue so that we couldn't get into the building or open for the day.

My biggest concern at that point became, well, if someone doesn't want the show to happen so badly that they're willing to smash all the locks on the venue, then what would they do if they found out the event was going to continue?

Like, what would be the next step? Throw a brick through the window? Disrupt the show once it had started by possibly injuring someone?

Did you contact police?

No. I thought in the moment the best thing to do was to cancel the show and to get the word out as quickly as possible and through as many channels as possible that the show was cancelled. I thought that was the best way to diffuse the situation.

You know, there are people who are saying that whoever destroyed your locks and whoever is behind the backlash may be proving the point that people in the so-called alt-right community have, that the left is trying to limit free speech. What do you think of that?

The whole thing's really complicated. I think the thing people are having trouble with right now is what is free speech and what is hate speech? And where's the line between those two things?

Where do you come down on it?

Do I want neo-Nazis coming to my venue? No. Do I want white supremacists coming to my venue? No. Do I think people should have a right to free speech? Yeah, I do.

I understand that there are groups that are hiding behind the idea of free speech so that they can get away with saying awful things. So I understand where the problems came from.

It's not a new idea to the world of comedy the debate over free speech. This is something that comics face, is it not?

You know, there's not much a comic can't say on stage. And the audience will let them know whether they are willing to hear what they have to say or not. If it's not funny, nobody laughs.

What about any free speech comedy nights? Any of those in your future?

I think all comedy nights are free speech comedy nights. We just don't need to call them that in the show title. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more, listen to our conversation with Gary Rideout Jr.: