At the end of his show, Mike Ward took a moment to emphasise the importance of free speech, the vital importance that comedians are free to offend; he even handed out badges to help his departing audience fight the good fight. I agree with him: the survival of free speech is essential for the health of society — and for the health of comedy. I want Ward to be free to perform whatever material he likes, wherever he likes. The question, however, of whether his show is worth attending — not as an act of pro-free speech protest, but in search of laughs — is an entirely separate debate.
Ward can make people laugh, no doubt about it. But they’re also just jokes: there’s no depth to this comedy.
Ward is a shock-comedy veteran, so accustomed to disgruntled members of the public mounting legal challenges that he has been forced to regularly employ a joke-vetting lawyer. Not that that dilutes his set much at all. Freedom of Speech Isn’t Free is almost exclusively composed of taboo topics: paedophilia, AIDS and bestiality form the backbone of his set; paedophilia, as a matter of fact, was so frequently trotted out to add a little humorously tasteless zest to any routine, that it almost seemed passé by the end of the night. His improvised crowd work is of the same hue: interacting with a German crowd member, Ward instinctively reaches for the Nazi joke book; but, as Ward clarifies, “It’s a joke.”
Fair enough. They’re jokes, that’s true. They’re even quite funny jokes, in a shocked-into-laughter kind of way — Ward can make people laugh, no doubt about it. But they’re also just jokes: there’s no depth to this comedy. The laughter is simply extorted out of the audience, which chuckles out of sheer disbelief at the extraordinarily unacceptable combination of words another functioning member of society has managed to string together. It does the job, but there are more satisfying means to the same end.
The connective tissue of the set is the lawsuit in which Ward is currently embroiled, hence the title. It’s a farcical business, which seems utterly preposterous when viewed from such a (thankfully) lawsuit-shy country as Britain. The joke for which he’s being sued, amazingly, is neither offensive enough to justify such legal action (bad taste is not equivalent to hate speech), nor good enough to provoke much beyond a few ripples of laughter.
Mike Ward is not bad at what he does, and a lot of people certainly like him for it (his most recent tour in Quebec grossed over $5,000,000). But out of all the shows on offer at the Fringe, I’d recommend seeing something with a little more substance.