COMMENT: Some say it was hate speech, some say it way misunderstood – either way Pleasance mishandled the situation and Jerry Sadowitz has gained from the cancellation.
If you’ve made it this far past the Edinburgh Fringe without hearing about the Jerry Sadowitz fiasco, well done. For the rest of you, I’m sorry to have to remind you of this. But just when we thought that all of the arguments over the decisions made by the Festival Fringe Society were dying down, this blew up.
So, Jerry Sadowitz is a comedian who I’d never heard of and would probably continued to have never heard of were it not for a couple of performances at Pleasance EICC in the second weekend on Edinburgh Fringe. (Fringe Newbies: EICC is one of the biggest venues on the fringe, which the biggest of big name comedians perform at.) Out of the blue, the second of the two performances got cancelled. A bit of puzzlement at first, accompanied by some nerves – after all, the last known cancellation imposed on artists was one of the most notorious McCarthyite affairs in the history of the fringe. Then word got round about what it was he said and did that led to this. A lot of argument over what he meant, but on the face of it: holy shit. If anything was going to get you booted from a venue, this would.
The Fringe itself is open access, but the venues themselves are free to do what they want, and the decision to cancel was The Pleasance’s. This led to a big debate over freedom of speech at the Edinburgh Fringe. I gave some thoughts at the time, but now things have calmed down, it’s time to give some more.
A lot of the debate has been polarised by ideological leanings. For many people who’ve expressed an opinion one way or the other, it strongly looks like they made up their mind first and looked for argument to support their position second. So I should probably remind you at this point that I am myself very anti-censorship and pro-artistic freedom – although these comments, on the face of it, pushes my patience to the limit. You’ll have to decide your yourself if you trust me to be objective.
Some of this I’ve said before, by most is new. Here we go:
1: The material itself? Open verdict
My stance throughout the censorship debate is that if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Unless you have a compelling reason why it would cause harm to someone (and, no, feeling distressed about an offensive performance nearby doesn’t count), you have no business demanding a venue you aren’t part off cancels a show you weren’t going to see. Nevertheless, it’s only fair to start off considering whether I’d rate it as objectionable. Now, I’m pretty easy going myself, but on the face of it, it looking pretty bad, even by my lax standards. I don’t need to repeat it here – if you want to see it yourself you can follow this link. And don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The defence Jerry Sadowitz and his supporters are using is that he didn’t really mean it. In his statement, he claims, to use his own words, there’s “real fake and exaggerated anger and bile” and he doesn’t always agree with his own conclusions. He’s also been described as going to the darkest of human emotions. I must say, I would normally dismiss this defence out of hand. I have not forgotten the same argument used by Dapper Laughs (as brilliantly skewered by the Daily Mash’s brilliant article of comedy character Bobby Juggs: “Some people might be offended but that’s because they don’t get it. Or they are lesbians who need a good shafting. Joke! I don’t really think that.”) I’m calling bullshit on Dapper Laughs because 1) his “comedy character” was giving real advise to real men about going on the pull; 2) he got into some nasty Twitter fights; and 3) he appealed to a toxic fanbase of Dapper-wannabes.
However, whilst professional pariahs such as Jim Davidson, Roy Chubby Brown and Andrew Lawrence bandy together and rail against the wokie cucks, Jerry Sadowitz argues he’s not like them. And, as far as I can tell, his fanbase likewise distance themselves. And, on top of this, some people whose opinions I respect have seen this and agree that he does indeed not really mean it. Short of going to see this myself – and I have better things to do with my money – I’m going to have to draw a blank.
At the end of the day, offence and humour are both subjective. Does the context justify the offence? I don’t know. But I’m more than satisfied that there’s enough valid reasons to interpret it as offensive. For those who saw the set and complained, I have no reason to doubt the offence was genuine.
2: Why aren’t we discussing the dick-waving?
What I don’t get about this whole business is why there was so little discussion about the other controversial thing: exposing himself to a female member of the audience. The joke about Rishi Sunak’s ethnicity was, at the worst, racist. Shoving your genitals in front of someone’s face without her consent, however, could be a sex crime.
I can’t understand why all the furore over Sadowitz’s set is paying so little attention to this. Surely this is the bigger issue here? Sadowtiz says it’s for the purpose of the funny line that follows it, and maybe it is. But I fail to see how you can brand some unsavoury jokes about women and minorities to be beyond the pale but pay no attention to the dick-waving.
Maybe the people who watched the show and complained can explain. If there’s a good reason why the nob-shoving wasn’t as bad as papers made it sound, fair enough. If you were complaining about it just as loudly but the papers didn’t take notice of that bit, also fair enough. Otherwise, I’m struggling to find a coherent moral standpoint.
Never mind. Since no-one is making an issue of this, I’m wasting my time. Let’s go back to discussing offensive speech.
3: The Pleasance has put itself in an indefensible position
First, a refresher of the rules. The Edinburgh Fringe might be open access and anti-censorship, but the venues are under no obligation to do the same. Every fringe venue I know values free speech, but not to the exclusion of everything else. If a seemingly middle-of-the-road comedian unexpectedly goes on a vile tirade that Hitler was right, he becomes a liability. Few venues are going to risk their bottom line over the right to say that. Similarly, if a comedian is known for unironically proclaiming that the girl in the short skirt wanted it really, no fringe venue with a scrap of sense will book him. And why should they have to? They are businesses, and business fail if they drive customers away.
However, the obvious question I have for the Pleasance is: if in your judgement his material was not acceptable – why the fuck did you book him in the first place? You might have been right to book him, or right to cancel him, but not both. Unless, you course, you had no idea he was going to say what he did – and, to some extent this is what The Pleasance were trying to argue, when they said they don’t “vet material in advance”. But Jerry Sadowitz was notorious for this sort of thing. Exactly what did he do that The Pleasance weren’t expecting? Sure, people make mistakes, and if the Pleasance took responsibility for booking him and apologised, I would have been more forgiving. They didn’t.
As an aside, one thing that left me unimpressed is their claim that they do not censor comedians’ material. Sorry, that’s the bullshit definition used by people who want to claim it’s not censorship when we silence people who WE DON’T LIKE. I am very anti-censorship, but I accept there are some cases where this necessary, such as incitement to violence or racial hatred. If you must censor for those reasons, do so. But it’s still censorship.
I don’t think The Pleasance realises the damage they’ve inflicted to themselves here. Whatever they may claim, they’ve shown themselves willing to give the nod to comedy, only the change their tune the moment they get some bad publicity. If you think this yo’re safe from this happening to you – are you sure about that? Are you certain you can’t be made a pariah because someone wilfully misunderstood what you meant? Do you really want to risk thousands of pounds on a venue that’s willing to throw you under a bus? Until now, I’ve heard many positive things about the Pleasance’s treatment of performers. This might sour things.
4: You can’t ignore how your venue staff are going to react
There is, however, one valid reason why The Pleasance may acted the way they did when they did. Although not confirmed by anyone, the popular rumour doing the rounds is that they were forced to act not by angry punters, but by an imminent mutiny of staff. And if that’s true, the staff would have a point. “You don’t have to watch it” doesn’t apply to the venue staff marshalling a performance. And you cannot expect someone who’s never seen this before to hear racial slurs and “get” whatever the joke is – and certainly not when the comedian calls himself an acquired taste.
Part of the problem arises from the “safe space” ethos strongly adopted by The Pleasance. No-one is suggesting that venues should be free-for-alls with predatory behaviour and bullying, but many venues, Pleasance included, respond to this by doing everything they can make their place feel safe. One argument is that highly visible initiatives such as pronoun badges and posters denouncing racism in all its forms is essential to make everybody feel welcome and included. A counter-argument is that “no groping or harassment” goes without saying, and moves like this only stifle creativity. That is a debate which requires a lot of thought and nuance, and there isn’t room for that here.
What is not sustainable, however, is bending over backwards to tell your staff they are welcome and valued whatever their identity – and then make them marshal an event like this one. Christ, how did they not see this coming? In this context, I don’t envy the position The Pleasance found themselves in. They either went back on a programming decision pretending they had no idea (fooling no-one), or they stuck to their guns and risked a walkout. They probably had no option but to go with this first. But there was no need to get into that situation in the first place.
There are three ways The Pleasance could have approached this in advance. They could have made it clear at recruitment that you’ve got a job to do, however you feel about individual acts (as most commercial venues operate). Or they could said that no-one had to work with controversial acts if they didn’t want to, bringing in outside staff if no-one would volunteer. Or they do a programme that is within the moral sensibilities of their workforce so there’s nothing to complain about.
In short, either cater to the sensibilities of your staff or don’t. Just make a decision. By ignoring this and not coming off the fence until they were forced to, Pleasance suffered a needless blow to its reputation.
5: Sadowitz has a case to answer over abusive fans
One other issue that’s not getting enough attention is the allegations of abusive behaviour from Jerry Sadowitz fans towards venue staff. Details are sketchy here. The only specific incidents I’ve heard of is from people phoning the box office over their tickets being cancelled. That was sadly inevitable. What’s less clear is how staff overseeing the first performance were treated. One possibility – and I’m raising this because I’ve heard of this happening before – is that it was Sadowitz himself was inciting the abuse. I think it’s unlikely he could have done something that despicable without us hearing about it, although after hearing about a separate matter involving The Stand, I’m beginning to wonder.
However, even if he personally did not mistreat staff, I’m not letting the matter drop that easily, for one reason: something I’ve learned over the last few years is that many artists – across disciplines and across the political spectrum – have absolutely toxic fanbases. And the artists in question know this, and make no attempt to stop it. In the worst cases, the artists actively weaponise it to dogpile and harass anyone who crosses them, but they don’t overtly incite this – they know perfectly well how to set this off on a wink and a nod. So that whenever they are confronted they can angrily deny they had anything to do with the abuse (whilst simultaneously being completely fine with it). I can think of at least two cases where it’s lead somebody’s suicide – and the people who set it off of course took no responsibility.
We have a long way to go before I’ll accuse Sadowitz of stooping that low, but there are some serious questions about his fanbase he does not appear to have addressed. I’ve seen enough harassment by proxy to adopt a zero tolerance stance. As far as I’m concerned, the only way to put yourself in the clear is to make it clear you do NOT want your fans acting this way – and it has to be done freely, wholeheartedly and without pressure. Anything less gets me suspicious that your toxic fans are doing what you want them to.
A few years ago, I would have given the benefit of the doubt. A comedian, I reasoned, isn’t responsible for his fans. I’ve wised up to this now. Whether Jerry Sadowitz wishes to be under suspicion is up to him.
6: The Big Four must decide what sort of comedy venues they want to be
Hats off to Robert Peacock for making this observation: comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe isn’t quite as ground-breaking as some people think. In the big commercial venues there’s not that much demand for that kind of comedy. The big demand is for 1) comedians off the telly, and 2) up and coming comedians who might be on telly soon, so you can say you saw them before they were on the telly. And television comedy is never going to be as adventurous as comedy on stage.
At this point, it’s about time I gave my thoughts on the panic that “woke culture is killing comedy”. I don’t believe this is the case. Comedy venues will always adjust to the tastes of the audience. The Stand and Komedia are not alienating their audiences with political correctness, and if they ever did, I’m confident new venues would spring up to cater for those driven away. Where there might be an issue is television comedy. Commissioning editors, I suspect, are a lot more scared about causing offence, and play it a lot safer than they used to. More safety means less risk, less risk means less chance of breaking new ground. I still think that The Office could have created today (and still been a big success), but it’s hard to imagine anyone today having the courage to commission the brilliantly dark Monkey Dust (example: Roy of the Roasters: click link at your own risk). Youtube is increasingly becoming the destination of choice for material that TV stations won’t stick their necks out for any more, and that’s okay.
The question is: do the Big Four want to be a feeder for the tamer world of TV comedy or not? Edinburgh Fringe as a whole will adjust whatever happens. My guess is that The Stand will always programme risky comedians where the big four steer clear (although The Stand has since dropped Sadowitz over a separate matter of alleged mistreatment of staff (£)), and new venues will appear to take popular acts if the existing venues don’t want them. Where do the Big Four want to be in all this? Do they want mainstream appeal as the number one destination for live comedy? Or do they want to be the place that leads the way in comedy and television follows? At the moment, they’re trying to be both, and I’m not sure this is possible any more.
I have no time for this Bernard Manning tribute acts who claim they’re being censored, and whose idea of being edgy/groundbreaking is being an arsehole with a microphone. But I do believe it is better to let comedians sometimes misjudge the mood (and apologise and move on when needed), than have them walking on eggshells and shy away from anything slightly risky. Not everywhere can take these sort of risks. Comedy clubs are the right place, television is the wrong place – but what sort of place do the Big Four want to be? Your call, Pleasance and co.
7: Sadowitz will probably emerge the winner from this
I’m saying this with neither anguish nor triumph: but the person who has benefited the most from this shitstorm is almost certainly going to be Jerry Sadowitz. For anyone who hoped/dreaded that the Pleasance were going to stop an outspoken comedian in his tracks, it’s not going to happen – and, if anything, they have inadvertently done him a favour.
For a start, there’s the Streisand Effect. Cancel culture fans never seem to learn this, but the publicity you gain from this sort of stunt more than outweighs the damage. Especially if you’re already branding yourself as a pariah. The people who are shocked by these revelations were never going to watch you anyway, but people who might be interested but previously never heard of you now have. I’m hearing conflicting accounts on how well Sadowtiz doing with gigs now compared to earlier, but it’s hardly the end of his career. This news shouldn’t surprise anyone – there’s plenty of billboards for Roy Chubby Brown events and he’s way more notorious, so why expect anything different here?
It might have been possible to claim a victory if Jerry Sadowitz was driven out of the Edinburgh Fringe. I don’t think he cares that much – after all, he’d only booked two performances when most comedians run for a month – but had the big venues closed ranks we could have expected a victory chorus of “No space for hate on the fringe”. However, at least one big venue, Assembly, has taken his side – and considering how much the Big Four usually march in lockstep, this is something. It seems highly likely that Assembly would snap him up if he wants it. And Assembly seems much more determined than Pleasance to dig their heels in should there be another staff revolt.
The only thing Jerry Sadowitz does have to fear is himself. Controversy sells, but if that’s your only selling point, it does not sell forever. Eventually, both the fans and the haters get bored of it. The way that people like Katie Hopkins and Jeremy Clarkson (coming soon: Quentin Letts) respond to this is to up the controversy, again, and again, and again, until nobody want to have anything to do with you any more. I have no idea whether Sadowtiz would stupid enough to do this, but past experience suggests that people never seem to learn from this particular brand of stupidity.
If your ambition was to stop the run at the Pleasance – and if you worked there you had every right to complain – well done, you got what yourwanted. But my observation of the so called “accountability culture” champions is that this is never enough – they want transgressors punished and careers ended. I’ll leave it up to you whether Jerry Sadowitz said free speech or hate speech – but whatever it was, Pleasance has ensured there’s going to be more of it.