Jerry Sadowitz : Talking through his hat
Jerry Sadowitz wants to be billed as 'the most offensive comedian in the world'. But offstage, he's the very model of decorum, as Julian Hall discovers
Tuesday 11 May 2004
It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Edinburgh and it seems that most of the city has gathered on the Meadows to sun themselves. Even Jerry Sadowitz is happy. Well not exactly. By his own admission, he will never be happy. Let's just say that his disposition when we meet outside the Queen's Hall, where he will perform later that evening, is favourable. Despite nearly 20 years of relative fame - a level he remains resolutely bitter about - the 42-year-old comic and magician is enjoying his current tour of Scotland. "It's keeping me moving and keeping me busy, which is healthy for me." Since childhood Sadowitz has suffered from ulcerative colitis. This unpleasant complaint goes a little way to explaining his other afflictions; being a "fucked-up individual" and being "extremely bitter". "I'm also away from London which is good for me; I have no life there except for helping out at the magic shop [International Magic in Clerkenwell]." He mumbles something about being away from bad influences, but doesn't
It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Edinburgh and it seems that most of the city has gathered on the Meadows to sun themselves. Even Jerry Sadowitz is happy. Well not exactly. By his own admission, he will never be happy. Let's just say that his disposition when we meet outside the Queen's Hall, where he will perform later that evening, is favourable. Despite nearly 20 years of relative fame - a level he remains resolutely bitter about - the 42-year-old comic and magician is enjoying his current tour of Scotland. "It's keeping me moving and keeping me busy, which is healthy for me." Since childhood Sadowitz has suffered from ulcerative colitis. This unpleasant complaint goes a little way to explaining his other afflictions; being a "fucked-up individual" and being "extremely bitter". "I'm also away from London which is good for me; I have no life there except for helping out at the magic shop [International Magic in Clerkenwell]." He mumbles something about being away from bad influences, but doesn't expand.
One thing is for sure, he doesn't mean alcohol. Sadowitz is teetotal, something that he believes has helped reinforce his status as a social misfit because he is never able to soften up. "Going into a bar is a traumatic experience for me," he admits, sipping the jasmine tea he has ordered from the Chinese restaurant where we now sit. Most who meet Sadowitz are surprised to discover how self-aware, polite and reflective he is. He shows little of the robust, focused character that shook up the comedy scene in the late 1980s and will again take the stage a few hours hence. "I didn't want to cultivate a likeable stage character and be a bastard off-stage," he says, but he winces when I remind him of some of the fluffier off-stage descriptions of him, one recently going so far as to call him a "cuddly bunny". Sadowitz wouldn't even pull one of those out of his trademark stage hat and cuddly bunnies don't peddle the Comedy of Hate.
Proud to have "invented" politically incorrect humour in the UK, Sadowitz's expletive-laden act continues to treat subjects like rape, homosexuality, Aids and multi-culturalism with all the grace of an abattoir hand. Show me the bunny, I think to myself later while watching the show.
Describing himself as a "moralistic, ethical and non-violent person" Sadowitz paraphrases the late US Comedy of Hate pioneer, Sam Kinison, to explain the line between what he says on-stage and what he actually believes: "I don't advocate wife-beating, I understand it." This empathy is used to explain a recent comment he made about voting for the BNP. "I was very angry that day. What I am saying is that I can understand working-class frustrations that their needs are not being met and why they might turn to the BNP. To dismiss them all as mindless thugs is fanning the flames."
Sadowitz, of course, wants a debate on immigration more open than any mainstream politician could countenance and using language that would require the resignation of everyone concerned. Unsurprisingly he has some sympathy with Ron Atkinson's recent transgression: "He shouldn't have had to resign. Using horrible words means, yes, they lose their currency, but it also makes you stronger if you can take it on the chin - like I do when a friend of mine calls me a big-nose Jewish bastard."
A year ago at The Soho Theatre, a woman who had recently been raped walked out of his show while he was explaining that he admired rapists "because they have to work in the dark". "Oh yeah, I remember. My only regret is that I wish I had been able to come back at her with something funny. You can't take out everything that offends people, there would be nothing left." The walkouts continue but it is hard to believe that audiences can be in any doubt about the Sadowitz shtick. His most recent tour title, Not For The Easily Offended, could have been applied to any of his shows. "I wanted it to be called Master Baiter", he responds, "with maybe a line on the poster saying 'Most Offensive Comedian in the World' ".
Apart from the small matter of the title, Sadowitz has been delighted with the tour, put together by Tommy Sheppard, founder of the Stand comedy club in Edinburgh. Over the years Sadowitz's admirers in the comedy world, who are legion, have scratched their heads and wondered who can harness his talent. For a while he was managed by the eccentric promoter and performer Malcolm Hardee ("that was desperation"), and approached the infamous Off the Kerb impresario Addison Cresswell before ending up at Avalon for a while. Now, as arguably then, he pretty much looks after himself. Well, nearly. "I hate making phone calls and setting things up. No disrespect but I nearly forgot the interview today because I don't keep a diary." So could someone come in and manage the unmanageable? "I have such contempt for agents, managers and promoters" he says, but on the other hand, "I'd love someone to help who is nice, competent and honest. Is that too much to ask? All sorts has been said about me, that I'm difficult. What? Because I need a radio mike and two tables for my show?"
Trust is the key issue for any venture with Sadowitz. He can be generous, yes, as evidenced by the helping hand he gave fellow magician Derren Brown. But he doesn't suffer fools or the rampantly ambitious gladly; he cites Ben Elton and the US card conjuror Richard Kaufman, his "nemesis" in the magic world, as examples of the latter. Add to the pot an obsession with his place in comedy and intellectual copyright; Jasper Carrott and the late Bob Monkhouse are among those he believes have lifted his material. And, oh yes, there's that bitterness again, stemming partly from having watched his own and subsequent generations of comedians bypass him in fame.
"For as long as I can remember, people have lied to me on almost every subject. I have learnt not to lie and to tell the truth at all costs. I hate game-playing, I hate roles and I hate costumes." Sadowitz must know that this, rightly or wrongly, comes across as uncompromising. It is one of the reasons that the people gate-keeping along his path to tangible success, such as TV executives, have shut him out, often seeing him and his stage act as one and the same. Since Channel 5's The People versus Jerry Sadowitz was cancelled he has been trying to get back on the small screen. "I've got lots of ideas for TV" he tells me, unconsciously tying his curly locks into something like a ponytail. One is for a sitcom based around the magic shop where he works in London. "It's written itself," he says, so earnestly that I don't know if even he has seen the obvious joke.
Magic for Sadowitz is more than just escapism, but "one of the great defences of God". "If I do a trick, or an effect, as magicians call it, you see the effect not the method. Isn't that a fair analogy to the universe? The effect is that we are on a planet that appears to be home and that everything is quite natural but we don't actually see the method. There is a magician I think, and he's a very good magician, he's not going to tells us what the method is." Despite being a Glaswegian Jew, Sadowitz's god is a non-denominational magician: "Religions are just the way God disseminates himself to different tribes around the world so they have a way of reaching him, different phone numbers, or a stamped addressed envelope in the case of the Jewish religion." And of the life beyond? "As strongly as I believe in God, I also believe that when you die you return to nothingness - which has got to be better than heaven." Asking Sadowitz, with his funereal pallor, about death is almost like hearing it from the horse's mouth, or at least from the pall bearer. He may repudiate the idea of eternal bliss but in the midst of his answer he says: "The tragedy is that I really love life, but it is tragic, short and - in my case - wasted."
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