Disarming and dangerous – Jerry Sadowitz

October 19, 2002

How much truly shocks us these days? Perversion? Not when Bridget Jones’s Diary can get a laugh out of sodomy. Corpses? A staple of the television news. Terrorism? How quickly we got used to the re-run footage of airline hitting skyscraper. So it is some sort of achievement that a 41-year-old comedian appearing on a variety bill at this year’s Edinburgh Festival managed to provoke half his audience into walking out.

Jerry Sadowitz’s reputation goes before him. Rude, crude and frankly misogynist. No subject is too tasteless, no taboo too sensitive. He’s been banned, booed off, picketed by pensioners, and physically attacked. For a female interviewer he’s a daunting prospect, but I needn’t have worried: no Victorian lady was ever treated more punctiliously. Ravenously hungry when he arrives, he meekly submits to two hours of questions with only a cup of tea to sustain him. Sprinkling his conversation with references to Mahler, Stravinsky and Nietzsche, he outlines his belief in karma and explains his (somewhat abstruse) theory that Nature is God’s unconscious mind.

Such an unexpectedly civilised encounter brings its own stresses. This is meant to be an interview with Sadowitz the comic brutalist, after all. But – today, at least – he’s gentle, diffident, bizarrely buttoned-up. His front parlour vocabulary and militant sense of propriety would not raise eyebrows in a maiden aunt. Listening to his disapproval of comedians who do their act in T-shirts and jeans, or rely excessively on improvisation when the audience has paid good money to see them, it’s hard to remember that this is a performer who has appeared on stage naked but for ketchup and beans.

Anyone writing about Jerry Sadowitz must first solve the problem of what to call his particular brand of comedy. He hates the tag “politically incorrect”, since it implies a pre-existing genre; “I think there’s my humour which people have copied over the years.” “Rabid” underplays his intelligence. “Scatological” comes close but my preferred option is “profane”, less on account of his liberal use of swearie words than because it conjures the antonym “sacred”, and Sadowitz can only be understood as a fusion of polar extremes.

Paedophilia, cancer, disability, sex with foetuses, the Lockerbie disaster, pensioners … all have been turned into gags. One broadminded punter who attended his Edinburgh show in August describes an ugly evening with two punch-ups in the audience triggered by arguments over his material. Some of his act was perfectly pitched, brilliantly puncturing various forms of hypocrisy, but much of it she found crass: racist, sexist, misanthropic, the most hard core comedy she had seen, far beyond the edgy satire of Chris Morris. “You leave feeling soiled,” she says. “I don’t know how many jokes you can take about shagging your grandmother up the arse, accompanied by very graphic movements.”

What makes this funny? I ask him now. “The fact that everything is so over the top: the delivery, the subject matter.” People rarely walk-out in response to a single joke: it’s the speed and quality and offensiveness of the material. “I’d emphasise the speed and quality as much as the offensiveness.” Later he adds “aggressiveness” to the list, and rightly. There is a palpable air of threat about him in performance. The top hat and suit jacket worn with jeans and Doc Martens recall the droogs in A Clockwork Orange. He’s a comic boot boy, but with a hard-to-gauge ironic twist. Had Bernard Manning’s son gone to art school, he might have turned out like Jerry Sadowitz.

If he kept this stuff to his act, it might be easier to handle, but there’s no hard-and-fast division. His on-stage identity is not a persona, he insists, but a caricatured version of himself. Some of the things he says he doesn’t mean, some he does. Some of the misogyny is real, but exaggerated out of proportion for the performance. With me, he comes across as the old-fashioned sort of gynophobe: too timid to say boo. But a male colleague who went for a meal with him some years ago recalls a string of comments about women sitting at other tables, their clothing, and how they were “asking for it”.

Anger drives his act, he says, then on second thoughts credits “the Art of Comedy” as if he had a direct line to Thalia herself. “Good example: Montreal Comedy Festival. Minutes before going on a voice in my head said ‘you’ve got to say hello moose****ers.’ Another voice in my head said ‘it’s childish, it’s going to create more grief for you’. And the artist won out and that’s what I did.” (He was beaten up on stage.)

The Art of Comedy acknowledges no rules – apart from the rule that nothing should be taboo. “Comedy comes before anything, before your career, before your life. If I think something is appropriate to comment on or if the comedy side of my brain says this would be funny, I’ll pursue it.” It sounds admirable in principle, but on stage the no-holds-barred pursuit of laughter can look awfully like desperation. “I probably wouldn’t like to admit it so much but there’s an element that I’ve nothing to lose. I sometimes describe my stand up as the longest suicide note ever written.”

And yet he never feels so alive as when he’s performing. “It’s the only time I feel … name any positive adjective: strong, worthwhile, useful, engaging. I feel better physically: off stage I’ve got colitis, all sorts of things wrong with me.” In an ideal world, he says, he’d do it most of the time.

Unfortunately life hasn’t worked out that way. Sadowitz’s career is a sore point. It’s no use saying that to have been around for 20 years is success in itself. He’s fiercely competitive, bitterly aware of his peers and their relative good fortune. Jeff Green, Rob Newman and Sean Hughes get it in the neck for doubling their audiences with their pretty-boy looks; Harry Hill for rehashing Harry Worth; Frank Skinner for treading water; Jasper Carrott for employing “about 20 scriptwriters” per half-hour show (“if you can’t do the job, do a different job”); Jonathan Ross and other “bandwagon-jumpers” for copying his style of comedy. “And now the kind of humour I do has become fashionable, I’m still not used that much.”

He was banned by several London comedy clubs in the 1980s for his non-PC act, though it was “very deliberately considered ironic material.” In 1992, when the BBC axed his series The Pall-bearer’s Review, he fell out with his promoter Avalon and didn’t work for four and a half years. He was reduced to serving behind the counter in a magic shop to pay the bills. “I couldn’t watch television: I’d turn it on and see some other comedian doing my material.” Scratch the surface of any performer and you’ll find petty jealousies, but Sadowitz’s disappointments have festered into something approaching conspiracy theory.

He reels off a series of slights he has suffered at the hands of the showbusiness establishment, from not being mentioned in a South Bank Show on British comedy, to not being asked to take part in a tribute to Peter Cook (“whether I would have appeared is different from being asked and being recognised”), and – the one that rankles most – being left out of the first British Comedy Awards. “To not be in the room, to not be mentioned at all, except once …” And that mention, by the compere Jonathan Ross, only made things worse: “You can’t just slit a pig’s throat and go to work, not since Jerry Sadowitz packed it in anyway.”

“I should have sued,” Sadowitz says now, so anguished that I haven’t the heart to tell him that those who dish it out must be prepared to take it too. He harbours particular animosity towards Ross, whom he regards as a blatant imitator. “Of course I’m cross: I don’t go to Channel 4 and sort out the ****ing post which is what he used to do.” Saying this, just for a moment Sadowitz lets go, allows himself to swear, and reveals himself as a funny man. Then he buttons up again.

His problem – one of them, anyway – is doublethink. He craves acceptance from these people even as he despises them. He wants invited to the showbiz party, but reserves the right not to turn up. Play the game or quit griping, I say. And to some extent he is playing it. Hence his obligingness this afternoon, part of a campaign to do away with his “difficult” reputation, counter the dreadful things he suspects the big agents and promoters have been saying about him, and secure more bookings. The obvious strategy would be to build up his live audience by doing more telly work, being careful not to get himself taken off air this time, but he’s terrified of compromise: why not go the whole hog, wear an evening suit, learn a couple of dance numbers and do a Bruce Forsyth …? “There’s a really wonderful quote from Nietzsche: ‘battle not with monsters lest you become a monster’.”

Yet he thinks like a showbiz hustler, has a nose for the hokum that sells. He’d like to have his own comedy video label “like Loyd Grossman has his spaghetti sauces.” He thinks it’d be interesting to franchise his Channel 5 show, The People versus Jerry Sadowitz, to another presenter – someone like Giles Brandreth (!). Meanwhile he wants to try something totally new. Acting maybe, but the part would have to be completely different from anything he’d done before. A Jane Austen adaptation, I suggest tongue-in-cheek? “Yeah,” he says, quite taken with the idea.

The surprising thing about Jerry Sadowitz, notorious misogynist, is that he’s really very likeable. Beneath the paranoia there’s an appealing self-possession. Part of this is physical: that extraordinary face, the cloud of soft corkscrew curls, his distinctive fleshliness. He might not be “comfortable” in his skin but he’s perfect in it. Not that he can see it.

“The off-stage me is a whole bag of misery, very rarely viable as a human being. I haven’t got my own flat, haven’t got my own car, haven’t got a wife. All the models of adulthood I’m too scared and probably too useless to venture into.”

He hates his life, is sick of talking about it (to journalists anyway). If The Scotsman’s readers are interested, it can only be out of nosiness or to make themselves feel better. His background is all very miserable and sad and pathetic and terrible, and he’s not denying it has inspired him, but it’s not his comedy. “You don’t need to know that all Mahler’s brothers and sisters died when he was a kid to appreciate his music.”

At the risk of pandering to the nosy, the bald facts of Sadowitz’s childhood bear repetition. The breakdown of his parents’ marriage. The tearing of six-year-old Jerry from his native New Jersey. The move to Glasgow with his Scottish mother. The desperate longing to see his Jewish-American father. The decades of rancour. Adult life hasn’t been much of an improvement. A recurring theme of his act is sexual frustration. Until renting a flat in north London four years ago he was living with his mother, which was cheap but hardly ideal. However, when his mobile rings and he answers in the softened tones of intimacy, it appears that his love life has taken a turn for the better. Well, yes and no. For the past four years he’s been having a platonic relationship. “It’s very strange: I don’t fully understand it myself.”

The only time in his life he has known happiness was at the age of 22, the year he put down roots in a Glasgow bedsit, wrote the first of his five books of card magic, and lost his virginity. He’d love another taste of contentment, he says. “If it meant no act, so be it. I’d like to know what that’s like: to have a fairly peaceful happy existence for a while.”

Sincere as he sounds, I don’t believe him. He has too much invested in his misery.

In 1997, after four and a half years out of showbusiness, Sadowitz turned his life around. The first step was a close magic show he staged in London and Edinburgh. It won a Scotland on Sunday Fringe First, his first ever award, though he says he “doesn’t really believe in” the accolade. If Sadowitz was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize he’d accuse the judges of rigging the vote.

Stage two was breaking back into comedy. This is a long story and he tells it as if the chain of events has supernatural significance. A friend saw a tiny item in the Daily Mirror claiming he was going to present a chat show on Channel 5. Then he was telephoned by the Scottish Sun. “Prior to that if a journalist phoned me I’d say ‘I’m sorry I’m not talking’ or even swear: ‘piss off’.” He glances nervously at me as if a blush might rise to my girlish cheek. “For a reason I can’t explain I stayed on the phone with this guy.”

Yes, he said, he was doing the chat show. Swearing shouldn’t be a problem, as he would be taking valium … The Sun swallowed this hook, line and sinker. Sadowitz had the tabloid page laminated and hung on his wall. Then he forgot all about it for a couple of months until one day, bored and mildly curious, he rang Channel 5 to see if there was any substance to the story. No one knew anything so he was put through to Alan Nixon, controller of entertainment, who was equally nonplussed but wondered, since Sadowitz was on the line, whether he had any ideas for a chat show? Shortly afterwards, on his way to work at the magic shop, The People versus Jerry Sadowitz popped fully-formed into his brain.

“Complete fate,” he concludes. And that is one way of looking at it. But from another angle all that happened was he picked up the phone and made his own luck. Sadowitz doesn’t care for this interpretation. He prefers to see what happened as a mysterious gift. “It seemed amazing, arbitrary, very random. On the one hand magical, fated by God, destiny or whatever. On the other hand, I think it’s wrong.”

By now I’m getting my bearings in Jerry’s moral landscape. Worldly success is won by the mediocre. He still wants wealth, fame and hero-worship, but loser status offers the powerful consolation of being in the “right”. So he can’t enjoy the golden apple when it falls into his lap. Channel 5 have asked him to write and present a history of magic. They only want him because he’s cheap, he says. He’s about to embark on his first stand-up tour in a long time but instead of feeling that life is getting better, he predicts that with his luck he’ll return to obscurity after the last gig.

The world – fair, unfair, rewarding chancers along with the deserving – is too uncomfortable a place for him. His planet is at least consistent: a realm of totalitarian injustice. One thing you can never call a victim is “wrong”. He may be the shop assistant who talked himself into a £50,000 contract on network television, but in his own head he’s powerless: “I’ve had absolutely zero control of my life this far.” Seen in this light, the racism and misogyny, the polar extremes – profane and prissy, boot boy and maiden aunt – make sense. The problem with Sadowitz is that he wants to win and still keep the moral high ground, and in the binary universe he has devised for himself that’s not possible. Unless you’re female. Or black.

Courtesy of Scotsman Publications