Stand-Up Comedy Routine Not in Breach of Broadcast Standards

Ottawa, April 19, 2006 – The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council (CBSC) today released its decision concerning an episode of Comedy Now broadcast on the Comedy Network on September 6, 2005.  In the challenged episode, comedian Gord Disley’s routine poked fun at heterosexual males’ lack of home decorating abilities compared with those of homosexual males.  In the course of the segment, he used the word “fag” on two occasions.  A viewer complained that the word “fag” was discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation. 

The CBSC examined the complaint under the Human Rights Clause of the CAB Code of Ethics, which requires broadcasters to “ensure that their programming contains no abusive or unduly discriminatory material on the basis of […] sexual orientation […].”  The Panel spoke of the delicate balance in such an assessment: 

Much modern comedy has a discriminatory edge, taking advantage of the propensity of individuals to find humour in difference.  The humour may be proposed by individuals poking fun at others or indeed at themselves for the benefit of others.  In either case, it is not all discriminatory humour that will be in breach of Clause 2 of the CAB Code of Ethics; it is only such humour as goes over the edge.  […]  The goal of the Human Rights Clause, of the CBSC and of the National Specialty Services Panel is not to ensure purity on the airwaves; it is to protect against harmful speech.  It is not to avoid any tasteless reference on the airwaves, it is to avoid costly references.  The task of the CBSC is to balance cost and freedom, freedom and cost.  It is a difficult endeavour but not a thankless one.  When the afflicted are protected, the laughers moan.  When the laughers are protected, the afflicted suffer.  

The Panel concluded that the routine did not violate that Code provision because it did not make negative or abusive generalizations about gays although it did acknowledge that that there may be some contexts where the word “fag” could have that effect.  The Panel explained its decision in the following terms: 

In the matter at hand, the humour appeared to be aimed, if anywhere, at straight men, rather than gays, at the creatively-challenged rather than at the creatively adept.  To the extent that the decorative barbs were aimed at both groups, the Panel considers that they were, at worst, equally weighted.  The Panel finds that the humour was distinctly un-nasty.  The question, then, is appropriateness of use of the word “fag”, which is the cornerstone of the complainant’s concern.  Does its presence in the segment colour the skit?  Does it turn an anodyne presentation into a heavy-handed, bludgeoning or nasty one?  Is the term “fag” the equivalent of some of the well-publicized racial epithets that are per se unacceptable?  The Panel considers that the word is not the equivalent.  […]  This is not to suggest that there might not be circumstances in which it might be presented in a sneering, derisive, nasty tone but that is not what the Panel considers the present usage to be.  It is benign, light-hearted, distinctively tickling. 

Canada’s private broadcasters have themselves created industry standards in the form of Codes on ethics, gender portrayal and television violence by which they expect the members of their profession will abide.  In 1990, they also created the CBSC, which is the self-regulatory body with the responsibility of administering those professional broadcast Codes, as well as the Code dealing with journalistic practices first created by the Radio Television News Directors Association of Canada (RTNDA) in 1970.  More than 590 radio and television stations and specialty services from across Canada are members of the Council.

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All CBSC decisions, Codes, links to members' and other web sites, and related information are available on the CBSC's website at www.cbsc.ca. For more information, please contact the CBSC National Chair, Mme Andrée Noël CBSC Executive Director, John MacNab