It's a kind of magic

Forget rabbits and hats, Jerry Sadowitz conjures up bile and controvers y out of thin air.
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The Independent Culture
Whatever happened to Jerry Sadowitz? Britain's answer to Lenny Bruce. Stand-up comedy's only genius. Obscene and obscenely talented. The man who turned lack of self-censorship into an art form or, at least, if you believed his fans, many of them comedians themselves.

He's doing card tricks at 10.45 in the morning, in a show that boasts one of the strangest warnings ever to be printed on a ticket: "Contains offensive material. No children or magicians admitted."

Card Tricks and Close-Up Magic is funny, childishly thrilling and has moments as beautiful as you will see on a stage anywhere. It's also strangely unnerving. While Sadowitz performs each trick, there's a moment of calm. Then, hey presto (not words you'd find in this magician's vocabulary unless qualified by an expletive adjective), the tricks are over and, often as not, there's a splutter of bile, a muted flash of the familiar Jerry Sadowitz. (The man who will rant about "niggers" taking over London Underground; who claimed this year that "woman aren't even shallow, they're beneath that"); who once took a lit match, tossed it back into the box until the contents burst into flames, then hurled it to the stage shouting "Lockerbie", and this just days after the air disaster in 1988. "Like Americans," Sadowitz the magician says during his act, as he pulls two half-dollar coins from his pocket, "they're loud, shiny and they're worth fuck all."

Psychodrama may be an overused word to describe theatre, but in this case it seems strangely appropriate. Watching Sadowitz conjure is like watching a man wrestle with his inner demons in public, holding them at bay with magic. "For me, the appeal of doing tricks must be partly escapism," he reflects after the show in his soft-spoken Glaswegian drawl, pushing back his straggly shoulder-length hair. "I spent a lot of time in hospitals when I was younger, with colitis. I invented tricks there. I practised. I had a very turbulent upbringing and background up until and including now, and a pack of cards has helped me to concentrate on something else. It's like chess, it forces you to think outside of yourself."

There is nothing new about a mixture of cruel, abrasive humour and comedy, as the story of the 1920s American comedian Frank Van Hoven shows. Van Hoven would give a child - a stooge, needless to say - a large block of ice to hold. As the ice burnt his hands, the child struggled to hold on, and the audience roared, for such a long time, it's said, that the magician was able to pop next door for a drink and return while they were still laughing.

At this festival, the up-and-coming laddish Paul Zenon combines some self-consciously ragged tricks with a slurry of knob gags. ("Jism and a card trick in the same sentence: now that's what I call a variety act.")

For Zenon, comedy and magic feed off each other. "I do comedy and magic," he jokes to the audience. "So if something's not funny, it's a fucking trick."

Sadowitz, however, is quite different. Ask him about the splenetic outbursts that punctuate his tricks and a look of something approaching regret enters his large, starry, animal eyes. "In a way the humour is intrusive," he says. "I want the power of the show to be the close-up magic." Besides, he adds, "I mustn't get too angry about a joke or I start shaking, and then you can't do the trick." For a man whose whole approach to comedy relies upon barely controlled rage, this represents a considerable problem.

Sadowitz's attitude towards other magicians tends towards unbridled aggression. "Don't write that or we'll all get sued," he says after a brief, unprintable diatribe about Paul Daniels. ("What do you get if you cross a pitbull terrier with Paul Daniels?" he asks in the show. "Oh, never mind, just do it.") David Copperfield gets similar short shrift, while in Sadowitz's evening comedy show (hastily thrown together after the room he'd booked proved unsuitable for magic), he caricatures the magician Fay Presto by contorting his face into a mentally-disabled girn and donning a pair of plastic breasts, presumably bought from the magic shop he works in on London's Clerkenwell Road. It's the same costume he wears to portray an imaginary sixth Spice Girl, "C*** Spice".

The ban on magicians seeing Sadowitz's show is no joke. Rightly or wrongly, he is obsessed with other performers stealing his material. Even Max Maven, an earnest mind-reader from California whose act is about as far removed from Sadowitz's as Sadowitz's is from Paul Daniels', has been told to keep away. Paul Zenon recalls going to Sadowitz's magic show in a tiny pub-with-theatre in London and being greeted with a predictable and very public "What the fuck are you doing here?"

"A lot of magicians hate me," Sadowitz says. "They actually think I'm disgusting and quite dismissable, not that they've read my books on magic or seen me perform. A lot of them can't even palm a card. I have no respect for them."

This is just one element in a litany of dissatisfactions and disappointments in Jerry Sadowitz's life. Like the fact that until very recently, aged 36, he was still living with his mother. Or that television executives have never been able to see beyond the extremity of his material - his single, unsuccessful BBC2 series, 1992's The Pall Bearer's Revue was buried by Radio Times with the words "You'll hate him." Despite his extraordinary talent, comedy promoters won't touch him. "A lot of people in this business think I'm completely off my head. They haven't asked my opinion. I've heard all kinds of ridiculous things: I disappeared from the scene because I went to Wales, a sabbatical of six years! I became a monk. Apparently, I set fire to a studio."

He sums up where he's got to like this: "I haven't got anything else to my name, a wife or children or a career, or an academic background. Nothing. I've got comedy and I've got magic."

If he were forced to choose between those two disciplines, Sadowitz would choose the magic. When he talks about an older generation of magicians who have helped him ever since he first walked into Tam Shepherd's magic shop in Glasgow aged 10, he shrugs off his lugubriousness. "Imagine you're interested in music and you find out that Mozart was working in a market on a Saturday," he says, recalling an early mentor. For a moment, he seems happy. But then he describes watching a man called Andrew Galloway, the best close-up magician that he's ever seen, and you realise that Sadowitz's ideal of magic is as painfully austere as his comedy is extreme. "Galloway's act is without humour," he says. "It's without patter, and it hurts. I adore that. If it's done right, it's close to God"

To 30 Aug. 10.45am Assembly Rooms, Venue 3 (0131-226 2428)