The recent decision by the BC Human Rights Commission to award money to an insulted comedy patron seems like a scary precedent. After all, being a comedian does not guarantee a decent income. It doesn’t guarantee any degree of respect from society at large or even the entertainment industry. The one thing that it should guarantee is a license, a license to say whatever one wishes, regardless of social convention. The court jester was free to insult the king and nobles without fear of punishment because of this license. It is amazing to think that medieval society was more enlightened than the current state of Canada.
The counter argument is that the license can be revoked if the comedian fails to elicit laughs. Some people argue that Guy Earle is not really a comedian and was simply harassing a lesbian couple because their public display of affection angered him. The mere fact that he was on stage presented as a comedian should protect him from any legal proceedings. If he’s not funny, he should be fired, pilloried, blacklisted and never booked by anyone again. This effectively revokes his license. I think this rule should apply to any comic who isn’t funny, offensive or not. If nobody’s laughing, get off the stage. If Guy Earle assaulted or attacked the women, that is a matter for the law. It is not a matter of comedy vs. human rights. It is a matter of this asshole vs. that asshole.
However, there is no reason for the Human Right tribunal to involve itself in any case of comedy offending a citizen. Any decent joke is upsetting to someone in some circumstance. The idea of a comedy show is that anything goes. Patrons are free to attend or not. Patrons who do attend are free to leave if they don’t like it. Audiences are not captive and can vote with their dollars.
It should go without saying that a comedy venue is a sacred space. Sacred in the sense that nothing is sacred. Preventing comedians from offending in a comedy venue is equivalent to blacking out portions of the good book in a house of worship because somebody who is not part of the congregation dislikes it. If the Human Rights Commission is saying that this principle of freedom to offend is not understood as implicit, then comedy shows need to take a cue from other litigation-sensitive businesses. In the same way that candy companies are forced to print labels warning that their products may have come in contact with peanuts or other nuts, comedy shows will get in the habit of posting a warning notice. It will likely say that the show may contain material that will be offensive to some sensibilities. The venue and the performers cannot be held responsible for any damage to the feelings, morals, or egos of anyone who enters the premises. By crossing the threshold, you, the patron, agree to give up any right to pursue legal action for compensation for any offense. It seems strange that people in the 21st century need to have this spelled out but, if the courts and tribunals are so ignorant of a convention that reaches back to, at least, ancient Greece, then it is up to the comedy community to make it absolutely clear.