Last weekend’s big news stories concerned freedom of speech.

The world was horrified to learn of the bloody and debilitating assault on Sir Salman Rushdie, who might lose his sight in one eye. He was off his respirator early this week, thankfully, but, unfortunately, still has a long recovery awaiting him.

Then, here in Britain, on Saturday, August 13, we awoke to the news that raunchy comedian Jerry Sadowitz, 60, had his Edinburgh Fringe gig cancelled at the city’s Pleasance Theatre.

Sadowitz gave only one performance before the Pleasance pulled the plug.

I’ve lived here as long as Sadowitz has been a comedian. For all that time, I have never met a man who liked his brand of comedy.

One could describe him as an equal-opportunity offender. He has appeared on television from time to time. I first saw him in the early 1990s on a comedy show. I couldn’t see what was funny. His jokes were gratuitously offensive and filthy.

Nearly everyone in the UK knows about Sadowitz’s humour, if one can call it that.

His show is not appropriate for a first date and certainly not for a blind date.

Being generous, I would say that, in terms of comedy, Jerry Sadowitz is the 21st century British version of Lenny Bruce.

Like Bruce, Sadowitz was born in the United States.

He moved to Scotland with his Glaswegian mother at the age of seven.

Let’s look at the facts surrounding his cancellation, keeping in mind that the month-long Edinburgh Fringe is supposed to be the bastion of comedic free speech. Its whole purpose is to shock and provoke.

Another thing worth keeping in mind is that Sadowitz actually said what sort of material his show at the Pleasance would include.

The show was called ‘Not for Anyone’.

That should have set people’s expectations, but it did not.

On Saturday, I read Guido Fawkes:

Guido posted Sadowitz’s tweet about how well he thought Friday night’s show went:

Guido tied the news in with that of Salman Rushdie (emphases in the original):

Here’s some news from the Edinburgh Fringe that Salman Rushdie might find amusing. In a statement announcing that they were cancelling further appearances by the comedian and magician Jerry Sadowitz, the venue said:

The Pleasance Theatre Trust have cancelled Jerry Sadowitz’s second and final show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with immediate effect. In today’s society, opinions such as those displayed on stage by Sadowitz are not acceptable and The Pleasance are not prepared to be associated with such material.

Anthony Alderson, Director of the Pleasance 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.

You couldn’t make it up….

No, you couldn’t.

Apparently, among other things, Sadowitz exposed himself to a woman in the front row.

The Scottish Daily Express reported (emphases mine):

Controversial Scots comedian Jerry Sadowitz has been cancelled by the Edinburgh Fringe after complaints from shocked audience members and venue staff.

The 60-year-old had two shows booked at the Pleasance called ‘Jerry Sadowitz: Not for Anyone’ which came with a warning of “strong language and themes some may find distressing”

However, the decision sparked fury from fellow comics such as Leo Kearse, who said: “If the Islamic fundamentalists don’t get you, the wokeists will.”

He added that Sadowitz, who was born in the US and moved to Glasgow with his Scottish/Jewish mother at the age of seven, was the “only comedian worth seeing” at the Fringe this year.

Good grief. Yet, judging from this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and Festival reviews in The Times, he’s probably right.

Anyway:

The Pleasance said anyone who had booked a ticket for Saturday’s gig would receive refunds for their tickets and that they “won’t be working” with the entertainer again.

Meanwhile, Sadowitz was soon busy on Twitter promoting his run of 14 gigs at venues south of the Border later in the year.

How could the Pleasance not have known about Sadowitz’s material when he’d performed there before?

On Sunday, the paper had an update:

The Pleasance has hit back at critics following the Jerry Sadowitz cancellation claiming the comedian made people “uncomfortable and unsafe” to remain in the theatre.

The Edinburgh Fringe venue slammed those who ripped into the “woke” decision as an attack on freedom of speech. The theatre claimed that Sadowitz crossed the line and that controversial comedians “need to be challenged” in a “changing world”

Fans say his unique brand of black comedy has to be viewed in context and questioned why the venue booked him in the first place, as well as asking why people bought tickets to the show if they were so easily offended.

I completely agree.

Whereas Sadowitz tweeted that he didn’t see anyone walk out, the Pleasance claimed that a number of people left during his act:

“A large number of people walked out of Jerry Sadowitz’s show as they felt uncomfortable and unsafe to remain in the venue. We have received an unprecedented number of complaints that could not be ignored and we had a duty to respond. The subsequent abuse directed to our teams is also equally unacceptable

“In a changing world, stories and language that were once accepted on stage, whether performed in character or not, need to be challenged. There is a line that we will not cross at the Pleasance, and it was our view that this line was crossed on this occasion.

“We don’t vet the full content of acts in advance and while Jerry Sadowitz is a controversial comedian, we could not have known the specifics of his performance. The Pleasance has staged his work numerous times over the years, but as soon as we received complaints from those in the building which caused us great concern, we knew we could not allow the final performance to go ahead.

“The arts and comedy in particular have always pushed the boundaries of social norms but this boundary is always moving. Our industry has to move with it. However, this does not mean that we can allow such content to be on our stages.”

I was heartened to read that a Scottish Conservative and a feminist were critical of The Pleasance:

Former Scots Tory strategy chief Eddie Barnes was among the critics of the decision. He tweeted: “The Pleasance’s statement is totally contradictory. But it’s that mealy-mouthed, morally vacuous phrase ‘not acceptable’ that really grates. To whom? And on what grounds? Who decided?

Feminist campaigner Lucy Hunter Blackburn added: “I first came to the Fringe in 1986. The cancelling of Jerry Sadowitz (who I’ve never seen – not my bag, I strongly assume I’d not enjoy his material) feels like an important moment – something to stop and look at hard.”

While discussing the furore on GB News on Saturday night, Scots comedian Leo Kearse said: “The Edinburgh Fringe is over, the SNP have put a nail in it by restricting the amount of accommodation so there’s not enough space for audiences and acts. Nobody wants to go and see woke comedy. It’s like women’s football, it gets written about by the Guardian but it’s rubbish.”

On Sunday evening, GB News’s Andrew Doyle, a former teacher who went into stand up and created Titania McGrath, emphasised that what the audience sees is Sadowitz’s ‘persona’, not the man himself. He added that while Sadowitz is lobbing his offensive material, he simultaneously performs magic tricks. (Sadowitz is accomplished at card tricks in particular. That’s how he got his start.)

Doyle, who has seen Sadowitz’s act, explains that the material is so out there that it makes people laugh:

He’s an equal opportunities offender. Think of the worst thing in your head and then say it.

Leo Kearse and Josh Howie, another British comedian, joined Doyle in slamming the manager of The Pleasance, the Fringe’s premier venue.

According to them, Sadowitz’s material this year was nothing new. Doyle also confirmed that Sadowitz circulated a promo video in which he said what would be in the show.

Kearse said that the people complaining are probably the types who would be okay with Drag Queen Story Hour for children:

Why are we treating children like adults and adults like children?

Howie and Doyle were annoyed to see that some comedians at the Fringe supported The Pleasance. Howie said:

They’re putting themselves out of a job.

Doyle added:

They’re making a rod for their own backs.

Howie pointed out that Sadowitz is ‘revered’ on the comedy circuit and that he has inspired many newer comedians’ material, which makes his cancellation a ‘flash point’. Every new boundary push in comedy today has been thanks to him.

Doyle closed by saying that he had heard most of the complaints had come from members of staff at The Pleasance. Howie said that most venue employees are ‘mostly students’, ergo, likely to be offended and to ‘feel unsafe’.

Doyle asked:

Why do people keep submitting to these brats?

Theirs is a great exchange about freedom of speech in comedy:

On Monday, August 15, BBC Scotland interviewed Russian emigré and free speech advocate Konstantin Kisin. Kisin, who hosts his own podcast, says that such censorship helps no one and that, ultimately, the Edinburgh Festival might become less appealing and lose its audience. The male BBC co-host implied that audience members went only so they could laugh at racism because they rarely get the chance to do so.

Kisin responded, beginning with:

If I were a mind reader like you …

and said:

I have more faith in human beings than you do …

The co-host doubled down:

I was there in the audience. You weren’t …

Kisin asked him how he would assess what was going on in people’s minds as they watched Sadowitz:

You can tell what someone thinks from their body language? … No, no, you did say that you knew from their body language. You said exactly that.

At which point, the co-host abruptly terminated the interview.

Here it is. I applaud GB News’s Colin Brazier for his scathing remark about our being forced to pay for the BBC and their bias:

The same comedians had another go on Monday’s Headliners show on GB News. By then, Sadowitz felt forced to explain his act, which disappointed Josh Howie. Sadowitz is also seeking an apology from The Pleasance. Nick Dixon, another comedian, said that today’s big names in comedy (many of whom probably got where they are today thanks to Sadowitz) need to stand up for him. The owner of The Assembly Rooms, another top Fringe venue, has rightly criticised The Pleasance for cancelling the act:

Earlier that evening, Dan Wootton asked comedy veteran Jim Davidson, whose style is the exact opposite of Sadowitz’s, for his opinion. Davidson got dragged into this because Sadowitz wrote ‘I am not J** D*******, folks’ and ‘a lot of thought goes into my shows’. Davidson was generous in defending a comedian who does not wish to be compared to him. Davidson criticised The Pleasance, saying they knew ‘exactly what act’ Sadowitz was going to do.

Davidson thinks someone within the local council complained, which has happened before in England. He also pointed out that The Pleasance said that even performing material ‘in character’ should not be allowed:

Isn’t every comedian in character?

Here’s the video:

There is a huge gulf between the author of The Satanic Verses and obscene, offensive comedy, however, it is important to defend both.

James Marriott wrote about this conundrum for The Times on Wednesday, August 17: ‘The grubby truth about freedom of speech’.

He gave an unintended plug for GB News. Remember that Murdoch owns The Times and TalkTV:

An honest defence of free speech acknowledges that it inflicts pain on vulnerable people, disperses power unequally and has no scientifically identifiable principles — but that it is precious nonetheless. It is a grubby, unfortunate truth.

Has there ever been a less glamorous time to support free speech? Because social media companies refuse to accept editorial responsibilities, the internet is overrun with the gory worst of what humans have to say.

The most vocal modern defenders of free speech are not artists or libertines but pimply “Enlightenment bros” and the talking heads of GB News. Of course, one’s principles should never be formed in accordance with what is and isn’t trendy. So we are left as the awkward, perhaps half-embarrassed, defenders of this unhappy, dysfunctional system which is nevertheless by far the best one we’ve yet devised.

That probably explains why GB News’s ratings are way ahead of TalkTV’s.

I’ll leave the last word to The Telegraph‘s theatre critic Dominic Cavendish:

Though I’ve seen a number of his shows over the years, I didn’t catch this one. His act – initiated in the 1980s, and bolstered since the 1990s by dexterous card tricks – is easy to summarise: misanthropic, unrelenting bile, awash with expletives and at war with political correctness. No one escapes his performative contempt, which springs from him, but qualifies too as an act.

His patter is knowingly extreme, and can be extremely funny, although the exhalation of laughter wars with the sharpest intakes of breath. His offence-giving once brought him celebrity but that has been on the wane – TV has barely touched him since the early 2000s. Sick-taste comedians have come up in his wake, most successfully Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle, yet he has admirers across the spectrum; even Stewart Lee, the darling of the progressive Left.

As Lee wrote in the New Statesman in 2013, “because Sadowitz is one of the most complete and perfect stand-ups in history, his exact political position is complicated. By accident or design, he appears to be socially, sexually, culturally, physically and economically at the bottom of the pile. This gives him licence to attack everything and everyone, like a drowning rat swimming desperately up the U-bend. And this tells us a lot about the essence of stand-up.”

… It’s impossible to justify every line of Sadowitz’s sets but his worldview is to be suspicious of pleasantness and to detect phoneyness in progressivism. He confronts us with his viciousness and by extension, our own. Times have changed, have they? His pertinent thrust is that people haven’t.

The Pleasance can hardly say they didn’t know who they were booking, this time around.

That they de-platformed Sadowitz just after Salman Rushdie was attacked felt doubly uncomfortable. There’s a world of difference, of course, in being told that your show is cancelled, and being stabbed in the face. But how could the Pleasance feel on the right side of history? Though worlds apart in terms of finesse, and import – Rushdie is a highbrow culture hero, Sadowitz an increasing anachronism – are the two men not both flying the flag for freedom of expression?

Today, sure, cancel Sadowitz. But tomorrow? What about other less provocative but maybe also problematic acts? Take another fringe veteran, Arthur Smith, who gratuitously if comically has a naked woman walk across stage during his Pleasance show. Should he go next? The 2022 Fringe so far has been a sun-lit occasion – but dark clouds have gathered.

I don’t like Jerry Sadowitz’s comedy but I will defend his right to perform on stage.

Like him or loathe him, where freedom of speech is concerned, he’s every bit as important as Salman Rushdie.

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