Who went too far: Jerry Sadowitz or those who cancelled his Edinburgh fringe show?

<span>Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

If we don’t defend free speech, we live in tyranny. That’s the tenor of the coverage following the attack on Salman Rushdie. So is it also our take when a comedian uses “extreme racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny” onstage? That’s the question surrounding the cancellation of Jerry Sadowitz’s show on the Edinburgh fringe, and – spoiler alert – I, a mere comedy critic, am not certain of the answer.

What I do know is that this marks a watershed moment. Many of the earlier cancel culture v comedy furores have involved powerful acts (your Dave Chappelles, Ricky Gervaises and Jimmy Carrs) not being cancelled at all. I’m being silenced, they yell, halfway through their Netflix specials.

It’s a different story this time. Here’s a show that has been pulled hours before its performance, denying hundreds of ticket-holders their chance to see it, in response to complaints from audience and staff about Sadowitz calling Rishi Sunak a P-word and flashing his penis at the front row. The decision has caused much debate, with some critics, among them famous comedians, citing the need to defend free speech and artistic creativity and others insisting that Sadowitz has crossed a line, beyond which there’s no debate to be had.

It’s important to note here that Sadowitz is a very different act from Gervais and Carr: low status, stubbornly niche, the connoisseur’s misanthrope. I dislike boorish comedy that punches down for kicks, and I appreciate it can be hard to spot the difference when an act only seems to be doing so – especially when they’re quoted out of context amid a hysterical media storm. But writing about the offensive comedy debate, Sadowitz has long been my go-to exemplar: if you’re as skilful as he is, if you take the pains he takes to contextualise the material, you can be as brutally unpleasant as you like without censure. That appears no longer to be the case.

Is the Pleasance at fault, for booking him then being outraged at his “extreme” material? (His most famous opening line? “Nelson Mandela: what a cunt!”) What Sadowitz does is well known. He sets himself up as a hideous sad-sack of a human being, bitterly enraged at his own enfeeblement and the state of the world. Yes, the jokes are horrific, gasp-inducingly so. But the full package – a disturbo-charged portrait of hate and self-hate; an invitation to laugh at how deep into the gutter the human imagination can sink – is (when he’s on form, which he isn’t always) compelling. And, as distinct from Chappelle and Gervais, you’re not meant to admire this character’s opinions. You’re meant to be appalled by them.

I don’t believe comedians should get a free pass (“it’s just a joke”) to be as abusive as they like. Yes, allowance should be made for context: this is a comedy show, and audiences at a Sadowitz gig have paid to be outraged. But comics should be receptive to trenchant criticism if this is their shtick. And venues have the right to book, and not book, who they want. And yet, within all that, I’d defend a space for comics like Sadowitz, performing one of humour’s age-old functions, as a safety valve for our darkest, most transgressive impulses.

Easy for you to say, cis white male critic! – against whom racial slurs of the type Sadowitz used are seldom directed. I can see the point when the black British comedian London Hughes tweets: “Lol white male comics, if you can’t be funny without being racist or getting your dick out, then I dunno, maybe comedy just isn’t your thing?” (That said, perhaps Hughes plunges us further into insensitivity here by assuming Sadowitz identifies as a “white comic”. He is Jewish.)

What makes defending Sadowitz hard, particularly for someone like me, is the consensus that certain words (the P-word, the N-word) cannot be used, under any circumstances, no matter the size of the quote marks, by white people. I’ve no argument with that, save to remark that it’s a fundamentalist position, and free speech is a nuanced thing. It’s always needed caveats and exceptions. Ban words outright, and we’re back where US comic George Carlin got arrested for his Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television routine (cocksucker, motherfucker, and the rest) in 1972.

Carlin’s radar twitched at the sensitivity around those words, and he walked towards it. That’s what some comics do, Sadowitz among them. A comic also needs a radar for the changing times: what was funny to a lot of people in 1972, or 1990, may not be funny to a lot of people now. New and more mindful modes of comedy are emerging, in a new generation’s hands – and they’re exciting to watch and write about. Maybe Sadowitz should better tailor his act to these changing tastes and times? Or maybe (“I have never once,” as he wrote in response to the row, “courted a mainstream audience”) he doesn’t want to? It’s his choice. In the meantime, audiences and programmers should look a little harder at the small print before booking Sadowitz next time – or refusing to do so. The title of his cancelled show, after all? Not for Anyone.

  • Brian Logan is the Guardian’s comedy critic and the artistic director of Camden People’s theatre

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