Is Jerry Sadowitz the most offensive comedian on Earth?

Jerry Sadowitz has ridden a wave of controversy to his biggest stage yet - Tristram Kenton
Jerry Sadowitz has ridden a wave of controversy to his biggest stage yet - Tristram Kenton

Being cancelled can give any comedian's career a boost. In August, the second of Jerry Sadowitz’s two nights at the Pleasance in Edinburgh was axed after complaints about the first. On Tuesday, riding a wave of adverse publicity, the 61-year-old misanthrope brought his box of magic tricks and “screaming racist shtick” to the Hammersmith Apollo, the largest stage he’s ever played.

The Pleasance’s given reason for dropping him was that “opinions such as those displayed on stage by Sadowitz are unacceptable”. Well, quite. The unacceptability is the point. You’re not supposed to agree. His jokes – delivered in a Glasgow rasp with machine-gun speed and wicked skill – aim to repel. He’s not trying to be a role model or truth-teller; in his black undertaker’s garb, wild hair and top-hat, he’s trying to be the Babadook. Whenever he seems on the verge of making a defensible point, he immediately undercuts it. Britain should spend more on the war in Ukraine, he suggests – to help Putin finish the job.

“Can you believe there are people outside this room who want… to help… others?” he gasps, appalled by the very idea; an excellent, self-mocking line. People he says unforgivable things about include, but are not limited to, the Government, Southerners, Scots (he is one), Jews (ditto), ethnic minorities, scientists, women, children, comedians and every group that comprises LGBTQI (methodically besmirched one letter at a time, in a bit that begins amusingly but sags by the end). Oh, and anyone who lost a relative to the pandemic.

It’s frequently very funny. Unlike, say, Doug Stanhope, he’s not using outrageousness to advance a moral argument. Sadowitz is a toddler flinging seeping nappies from his pram, wantonly chucking gags around like the props he throws on the floor after each trick. (The magic is a mix of close-up card-palming – genuinely impressive to the front rows, invisible to four-fifths of the vast Apollo – and Tommy Cooper-ish prop gags where you’re never quite sure whether it’s about to all fall apart.)

His offensive jokes are never truly shocking because they’re ultimately insubstantial, just as Jimmy Carr’s are. The difference is that Sadowitz has a personality. Carr’s live shows are dull, because they are monotonous factory-lines of one-liners a bot could have written. Sadowitz is never dull, swerving unpredictably between idiosyncratic vitriol and whimsy, puns and surreal fantasias. He has a visual imagination Hieronymus Bosch would envy.

That imagination is put to its best use in a fantasy about the tortures he’d like to enact upon Ant and Dec, and in his opening account of that ill-fated Edinburgh first night. According to reporters, at that gig he pulled out his penis onstage and called Rishi Sunak a racial slur. (At the Apollo, he did the latter but not the former.) Reporters took his words out of context, he says. The context, in his telling, turns into a wonderfully grotesque shaggy-dog story involving him fleeing the venue, a car chase, a reanimated Jimmy Savile, Madeleine McCann and the defiled corpse of the late Queen.

But as Not for Anyone wears on, an unpleasant aftertaste of laziness develops. He relies too often on the same dated handful of stock figures: Savile and McCann turn up repeatedly as easy shorthand for bad taste, just as they did in jokes told in school playgrounds a decade ago. His punning three-word elegy for Whitney Houston is funny but stale; countless Scottish wags made the same joke when she died in 2012.

Beneath it all, he has a weakness for nostalgia. Riffs about old chocolate bars and how policemen were taller in the past aren’t miles from the kind of wry observational comedy he claims to despise. Curdled over 40 years, Sadowitz’s shtick is slowly turning from sour milk into cheese. It’s still very enjoyable in places, if that’s where your tastes lie, but 100 minutes didn’t leave me hungry for more.

Touring until Dec 15. Tickets: