“Winner of 50,000 Baftas, and the coveted BBC paedophile of the year award …” No one expected that Jerry Sadowitz would tone down his act after his cancellation at this year’s Edinburgh fringe. His opening words at Hammersmith Apollo – the biggest gig of his 40-year career – swiftly prove the point. This is the show pulled by the Pleasance in Edinburgh after complaints by staff and audience about Sadowitz using the P-word and flashing his penis. The penis is kept in check tonight, but not the P-word, which Sadowitz continues to append to our current PM.
Some will see that as indefensible, regardless of context. The context here is that Not for Anyone is an absolute dumpster fire of decorum, a remarkably sustained 100-minute effort to outrage every propriety going. With grey curls exploding from under his signature top hat, and between wonderfully disdainful magic routines that punctuate the show, Sadowitz lets loose tonight at gay people, geordies, Ian Blackford, the young, all women, all men, Phillip Schofield, scientists, and his fellow Jews, among many, many others. For good (or evil) measure, he cheerleads Putin’s efforts in Ukraine, demands respect for up-skirters, and laments that “every film has been shit” since Harvey Weinstein was incarcerated.
For all of which, he should, I dare say, be expelled into the entertainment outer darkness – which would be fine by him, because no one hates Sadowitz more than Sadowitz, and in any case “I’ve been getting cancelled since 1985”. But let us at least acknowledge that his act can be hysterically funny. Particularly at a time of nervousness around public speech, it’s giddying to hear taboos breached so aggressively. And creatively – because Sadowitz’s baroque imagination is frequently, wildly surprising. And he writes a mean (a very mean) joke.
I will take to the grave the picture he paints of himself as the Pied Piper of comedy, slaughtering all comedians and leaving behind only John Bishop to tell the tale. The punchline to his “do you know what sex is like for a man?” joke is unforgettably squalid. If you’re not spluttering with shock at the ridiculousness of his misanthropy, or his unsentimental honesty, you’re marvelling at the new tiers of offence he can add to images already teetering under the weight of their own unpleasantness.
Does that give him a free pass to use racial epithets? Not at all. I’d prefer him not to: subtract the P-word (it’s notable how few other racial slurs occur) and the show would be none the worse. Often, I want Sadowitz to rein it in: the unsavoury opinions, the use of an ableist slur, the tedious conspiracy theorising about shadowy forces censoring our speech. These are deeply uncomfortable moments. Unforgivable, you might think – until our host begins stealthily to send up what you took to be an incursion of real-world paranoia or bigotry into his comedy. It’s a mug’s game parsing what’s irony and what’s the “real” Jerry. He keeps scrambling those signals and withholding that satisfaction – or that get-out clause.
It puts the onus back on his audience, to ask ourselves: why am I laughing? Why are my ethics and my funny bone in disagreement? Easy for me to pontificate on all this, of course: another white, straight Scotsman like Sadowitz (not that he spares any of those identities here). Some may recoil from what he does on stage. I do too, between those many moments when, tonight, I found it bleakly brilliant.