Did a show last night, 75 mins, thought it went well. Didn't see any walkouts. Today I’m told my show's been cancelled. Great stuff. I'm truly sorry for everyone who travelled to see the show tonight.
When I first had the pleasure of seeing JS live, around about 2004, early in his set he said “It’s like I’m leading you all into battle. You won’t all still be here at the end.” He was right; there were walkouts. They missed incredible magic tricks performed with elegance and course humour, and comedy that was exhilarating. I can’t precisely recall too much of the content of that show, but he listed people that he hated, starting with us, the audience, moving on to the city of Edinburgh, and working his way out. He also did a piece about accidently looking up child pornography, and then being so keen to exit it that he accidently put in his credit card details. Operation Ore and Pete Townsend were big news at the time. At the end he said “I’ve never really been good with goodbyes, so, I’ll phone you” and walked off.
In a statement announcing JS’s banning, the director the venue (The Pleasance) Anthony Alderson said:
The Pleasance is a venue that champions freedom of speech and we do not censor comedians’ material.
While we acknowledge that Jerry Sadowitz has often been controversial, the material presented at his first show is not acceptable and does not align with our values. This type of material has no place on the festival and the Pleasance will not be presenting his second and final show.
Chortle reported the following incidents which seemed to be the cause of the ban:
One audience member told the Scottish Sun: ‘He called Rishi Sunak a 'p***'; said the economy was awful because it is run by ‘blacks and women.’ He got his penis out to a woman in the front row. The problem was not the audience.
The last time that I saw Jerry Sadowitz, probably 2019, he also “got his penis out” but it wasn’t to a singled out woman – it was used as part of a scene he was doing, and it landed hilariously. He also used the ‘p-word’ – in that instance, with the word ‘Oxbridge’ in front to describe a clichéd liberal news reporter. I would place a bet that the invective on Sunak also having the word Oxbridge as a prefix to the ‘p-word.’ At the 2019 show, he also spoke of using offensive terminology, with a theatrical raise of his hat. One layer of irony means that he disagrees with everything he does a good job of persuading the audience he believes – an almost audible sigh of relief from the liberal Edinburgh audience. But then, hat back on and demonic grin: he says beneath that layer be believes everything that he says to be true.
JS has an understanding of the craft and form of comedy which places him, in my opinion, in the rarefied company of the likes of Stewart Lee and Chris Morris, and not many other people. JS, like Lee and Morris, use a barrage of psychological tricks to discomfort their audience, and bewilder as well as amuse them. But JS is far more unrelenting, much less obliging. Whilst Lee will torment an audience for minutes, keeping them nervously waiting to see where he’s going about a joke about a Muslim woman causing a delay at a London Weight Watchers, the audience can always take comfort in his impeccable liberal values. If Stewart Lee is like sitting on a ghost train, JS is like watching Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket: his delivery is genius, and the lines are comical, but is he going to hurt someone? Should I feel guilty about laughing?
I found sitting in the audience at a JS show more comfortable than at an Al Murray the Pub Landlord show. Al Murry’s show was painfully funny, but it was obvious that a sizeable part of the audience didn’t know that it was them and their worldview that was being lampooned. Murray was making political capital out of a Little Englander, not celebrating him. The joke was lost on parts of the audience. Should that have mattered? It did to me.
So what happened between The Pleasance and JS? The Pleasance’s statement is incoherent. One cannot say “The Pleasance is a venue that champions freedom of speech and we do not censor comedians’ material” and then say “This type of material has no place on the festival and the Pleasance will not be presenting his second and final show.” They are mutually exclusive, aren’t they?
JS didn’t do a Cosmo Kramer/Michael Anderson racist rant at audience members (as far as I know), he just did his show. As Jeremy Vine said: “I've seen Jerry Sadowitz perform four times. Each gig was more offensive than the last. No one complained because that's what Jerry does.” What did The Pleasance expect? Were there complaints? As comedy writer Viv Groskop Tweeted:
If the cancelling of Jerry Sadowitz’s Edinburgh show is about nudity then loads of other shows should get cancelled too … If it’s about content ... then let grown adults Google acts before they buy tickets. It’s not difficult.
It will be interesting to see what unfolds. I can imagine that this will be a high profile and politicised case. I wonder if JS will attract the same levels of support that self-described comedian Mark Meechan did? But I cannot imagine JS standing as a UKIP candidate and hanging out with Tommy Robinson. JS seems too self-aware and highbrow an artist to take that route. And, it simply wouldn’t be funny.
I think the Edinburgh Festival is degraded by the decision taken by The Pleasance. I don’t necessarily consider denying commercial opportunities to individuals an attack on freedom of speech as such, and nobody automatically deserves an audience or attention. But the venue agreed to host an artist, who possibly sold out well in advance, and then, from what I can gather, proactively decided to deny people who had paid to see said artist’s art, even though the artist in question did nothing different to what he had done before.
This all seems a bit silly and very avoidable.
⏩ Brandon Sullivan is a middle aged, middle management, centre-left Belfast man. Would prefer people focused on the actual bad guys.