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Comedians in Canada are finding it increasingly harder to get gigs, with some saying they have encountered backlash, threats, and cancelled shows due to their approach to making people laugh.
Lizzy Stanton is a Vancouver-based stand-up comic who claims her jokes have gotten her banned from most venues because many owners and managers don’t want to risk offending their audiences, and fellow comedians refuse to be booked alongside her.
Making light about her Jewish ancestry, or saying she drives alone in the HOV lane for high-occupancy vehicles because “I identify as a they/them,” are examples Stanton cites as making her too edgy for the current market. And the comments have been vicious.
“She needs to be cancelled, this girl,” Stanton told The Epoch Times about comments on social media and the push to keep her off the stage. “They say I’m a racist, antisemitic bigot when I’m in fact a Jewish girl. I’m not sure how I can be so racist, misogynist, and nasty, but I am apparently.”
“At this point, once a month I can book my own show and try and wrangle every ‘freedom person’ out to it,” she said, adding that she has come to the conclusion that the “woke” in Vancouver “all absolutely hate anyone that has any individual thoughts, and they will literally lie and slander you.”
Mark Breslin, CEO of the Yuk Yuk’s comedy chain with nine clubs across Canada, says he has seen a shift where comics may be approaching their craft with more caution than they once did.
“This woke thing has gotten really, really powerful and you have to be very careful what you say or don’t say,” he told The Epoch Times. “You have to virtue signal so that people will think you’re a good person, as if that has anything to do with whether you’re a good comic or not. Frankly, some of the worst people make the best comics.
“Yet we have to distinguish between censorship, which is actually a legislated set of rules, and the other kind of censorship, which is a kind of self-censorship, which may be the worst of all.”
Breslin introduced his first venue in 1976, with a goal of allowing comedians the freedom to bring contentious and traditionally risky material to the stage, and he vowed to defend them. In fact, the chain’s different Facebook pages display comments like, “When a customer complains about a comic, we throw out the customer,” and “No refunds for hurt feelings.”
“We like honesty, and if the honesty is a bit ugly, well then, so be it. I think it’s better than repression, which I think leads to even bigger problems,” Breslin said.
‘Handful of Gatekeepers’
Justin Chan the Asian Man shares Stanton’s assessment of the Vancouver comedy scene, alleging that he became the most banned comedian in the city in only a month. This was partly because his comedic character as an ultra-masculine Asian didn’t blend well into the traditional stereotype he says he was expected to conform to, and also because he criticized the wrong people in the industry as well as government legislators.
“Because our industry is so small, it’s held by a handful of gatekeepers in each city. Most of them tend to bend by certain political rules without understanding the consequences,” Chan told The Epoch Times.
According to Chan, the creative expression that once allowed comedy to flourish has been reduced to a safe set of topics where most of the lines comics cross have already been endorsed by the social media establishment. The industry has suffered as a result, he said.
“A lot of people think about themselves as something else, or through the lens of outside in, that they start trying to commercialize their own identity as a moral virtue,” Chan said. “They are trying to fight for attention as opposed to actually bring something meaningful or honest towards their art form.”
Like Stanton and Chan, Calgary’s Brett Forte says he’s also faced criticism and even death threats for jokes he’s made. However, those negative reactions and the publicity he received as a result generated an opportunity he took advantage of.
“My take on this whole cancellation thing is that it’s good for business,” Forte told The Epoch Times. “I’m not afraid of it, and at this point, I’m almost welcoming it.”
As people pressured clubs to cancel his shows, Forte said larger venues stepped up to ask if he would perform for them. And when government restrictions prevented comics from working indoors, he said he arranged drive-in shows in parking lots, performed outside hotels where guests heard his jokes from their balconies, and held several gigs in underground locations, breaking the rules so that he could still earn a living.
“Every day is a line in the sand that is going to move backwards, and it’s my job to dance around it,” Forte said.
“If there’s going to be people that are going to be professionally offended, it’s my job to professionally handle that. As long as you don’t apologize and back away, you’re good. You stand to make more money from all this professional outrage than not.”
Free Speech in Stand-Up Comedy
Dax D’Orazio is a Skelton-Clark Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He is currently working on a research project examining the law and politics of extending constitutional protections for expression to university campuses, and he has published essays related to free speech in stand-up comedy.
“Stand-up comedy in and of itself, and various forms of artistic expression, are usually a really good litmus test for expressive freedom in general because artistic freedom gives people wide latitude for expression,” D’Orazio said in an interview.
“We often expect artists to push boundaries and push buttons, and then to ask very uncomfortable and critical questions about ourselves and about our moral values about society as a whole.”
The challenge, D’Orazio says, is how public performers express themselves on topics that could be both true and offensive but keep enough of a safety net to let them make mistakes without being banished forever. But this could “squelch artistic expression,” he said.
“If there’s an inhospitable climate that’s sensed by artists, they’re going to do a cost-benefit analysis and steer clear from certain forms of subject matter, so the cost-benefit analysis of pushing moral boundaries changes,” D’Orazio says.
“If we want good art, if we want good comedy, we need to give artists that expressive freedom and artistic freedom. I think the main question is, how do we give people ample latitude for artistic expression while also thinking carefully about what appropriate forms of accountability are when people screw up.”
Most controversy erupts after a portion of a performer’s act goes viral online, which is why D’Orazio’s question on what to do “when people screw up” is part of what has recently been reviewed and debated with Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act. According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Bill C-11 is needed to enhance regulation but won’t punish individuals for things they say.
In a speech to the Senate Standing Committee on Transport and Communications on Nov. 16, CRTC chair and CEO Ian Scott described his interpretation of the bill, which he says is only to regulate Canadian content.
“The powers granted to the CRTC under the bill are focused and necessary,” Scott said.
“They would allow us to require that social media platforms support the development of Canadian programs, and make content discoverable and accessible to persons with disabilities. The CRTC is not being given the power to regulate individual users in relation to the content they create.”
He added that “the CRTC has no intention of regulating … digital content creators.”
Mark Joseph, senior litigation counsel for The Democracy Fund, is not convinced. He believes the federal government is moving into territory in which it doesn’t belong.
“I think, generally, Western liberal governments have struggled with free speech enabled by the internet and social media,” Joseph said in an email. “Obviously, speech can be used to challenge powerful institutions and authorities, so these parties are incentivized to censor it, and that situation is playing out in Canada.”
Joseph said that not only will the Online Streaming Act give the CRTC the power to regulate or “filter” content in accordance with the Broadcasting Act, but his group has reason to believe Ottawa is also “planning to introduce a censorship bill that will further restrict online speech.”
“In our view, this is all indicative of government overreach,” he says.
“Censorship laws always expand beyond their initial remit to restrict speech previously regarded as inoffensive. And censorship inevitably affects transgressive or progressive art, so we would expect if censorship laws are indeed enacted, to see musicians, filmmakers, and authors punished for their artistic creations.”