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The Truth About the Jerry Sadowitz Cancellation
The attempted and, mercifully, failed silencing of Salman Rushdie last week was a stark reminder that our ability to mock, criticise and satirise ideas, beliefs and ideologies is always at risk. As I argued in my last Substack, it also shows that the situation is getting worse, not better.
In our conversation with Joe Rogan, my TRIGGERnometry co-host, Francis Foster and I explained that British comedy is going through a similar, precipitous decline in freedom, and therefore quality. In particular, we singled out the Edinburgh Fringe, the biggest comedy festival in the world, for leading from the front in the woke crusade against comedy.
I know, I know – calling it a “woke crusade” is a typical exaggeration from the permanently-outraged gammon-faced right-wing Brexiteers. There is no restriction of comedy, cancel culture is a myth and no one has any interest in advancing the insanity of extreme progressivism we call “woke” in comedy. Right?
In 2018, four short years ago, Nica Burns, the Director of the Edinburgh Comedy Awards, launched the Edinburgh Festival with an agenda-setting speech. She began by describing the birth of alternative comedy in the UK in the 1980s as comics making the “conscious decision that it was unacceptable to tell jokes that were racist, homophobic and sexist”. Apart from being historically inaccurate – the main shift wasn’t about avoiding offence, it was about using jokes to tell personal stories – this gambit was the launch pad for a much more interesting pivot:
“Today, it is the woke movement which is setting an ever evolving agenda as it seeks to establish a clear marker for what is unacceptable today,” she argued.
“I think as we embrace the whole concept of the 'woke' movement, we will look back at this decade as a transformative moment for comedy, like the 1980s. I am excited!” she enthused, before adding:
“I am looking forward to comedy's future in the woke world.”
Fortunately, I was not at this glorious occasion – I fear I would have torn what little remains of my hair out – but I am reliably informed that, miraculously, nobody in the room laughed or protested, let alone chucked a bread roll or two in the speaker’s direction. In fact, much seal-like clapping ensued from the ‘shakers and movers’ in attendance who were, it seems, also looking forward to “comedy’s future in the woke world”.
If you’re wondering why Mock the Week (gone), the Mash Report (gone) and Live at the Apollo (soon to be gone) became utter crap in a matter of years, you need wonder no more. The introduction of speech restrictions in the name of tolerance – say what you want about woke people but they’re great at unintended irony – combined with a never-ending carousel of forgettable fresh-faced box-tickers was always going to destroy these shows. In the comedy business, as in any other, the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. And if you book and produce shows that are supposed to be funny by focussing on something other than funny, you’re going to end up with something that… isn’t funny.
At this point some readers may be wondering why no one said anything. Surely, anyone who helpfully spoke up to stop the industry from throttling their Golden Goose with diversity and inclusion would be heard with interest and thanked for their service? If you are having such thoughts, I’d recommend a trip to the doctor’s to check for signs of brain damage.
Pointing out this troublesome direction of travel was and remains anathema in the comedy world to this day. Andrew Lawrence who made a provocative but accurate post about this very issue over 7 years ago was immediately ostracised and became a hate-figure. His crime?
He dared to raise the issue of “out of touch, smug, superannuated, overpaid TV comics with their cosy lives in their west-London ivory towers taking a supercilious, moralising tone, pandering to the ever-creeping militant political correctness of the BBC with their frankly surreal diversity targets”.
When roundly condemned for describing some TV comics as “women-posing-as-comedians,” Lawrence responded: “That's what they are. Open-spots who've taken easy breaks that have been gifted to them. Can't say I blame them, I'd do the same”.
Whatever you may think about his tone and phrasing, it is difficult to argue with his diagnosis.
And so, the ongoing cancellation of Jerry Sadowitz, which has shocked many in the comedy world and beyond, is, I’m afraid, more of a sad inevitability than a surprise to those of us who’ve been paying attention.
In their statement explaining the cancellation of the second of his two shows at this year’s festival, the Pleasance Theatre Trust said that it had cancelled Sadowitz’s second and final show “with immediate effect”, indicating that “opinions such as those displayed on stage by Sadowitz are not acceptable and The Pleasance are not prepared to be associated with such material”.
Having failed to understand the difference between jokes told by a comedic character and opinions, the most prestigious venue at the festival explained that:
“The Pleasance is a venue that champions freedom of speech and we do not censor comedians’ material.”
And so, the simple truth is that the people who run the Edinburgh Festival no longer understand comedy, freedom of speech or, indeed, how to keep their dying industry from keeling over.
Ironically, it is the Pleasance themselves that said it best in a statement defending their cancellation of Sadowitz:
“This type of material has no place on the festival.”
Suffice it to say that the vision of comedy put forward by Nica Burns only a few years ago is finally upon us. The woke movement is indeed deciding what is and isn’t acceptable in comedy. And cancelling one of Britain’s most inventive, ferocious and hilarious comedians is what it looks like.