I first saw Jerry Sadowitz in 1987 at the Gilded Balloon in Edinburgh on a bill with two or three other stand-ups (I think Norman Lovett and Arnold Brown were two of them, but my memory is hazy). For a student who spent all his time writing sketches this introduction to the world of stand-up was almost an epiphany. Sadowitz especially was brilliant, full of sound and fury, signifying something, though it was hard to put your finger on exactly what that was. He was shocking and scary and sensational. It did not make me decide to give up sketches and do stand-up at this point, but a young Stewart Lee was sitting next to me (it was actually Stewart Lee - not some bizarre four year old version of him - he was just younger then, as was I) and I'm pretty sure it was a major influence on his decision to work on solo stuff. In any case a whole new world of possibilties opened up to us both, that we would eventually act upon. Sadowitz has always been one of my favourite stand-ups comedians ever since that night.
In my first crack at stand-up I was once asked to support him when my management couldn't find anyone else to do it at late notice. As a recent graduate of Oxford University I surmised (correctly I would think) that I stood for everything this man hated (well maybe not everything, as in his act at least he does hate everything, and I couldnt be blamed for all of it, but you catch my drift). No doubt I was in awe of him, but in any case I didn't really get to connect with him as a person. He was a complicated and quiet man and it was hard to guess how much like the person on stage he really was, but in front of an audience he sparked to bilious life. It was wondrous to see. I am glad that I didn't get any idea of what he's really like, as part of the pleasure of watching him perform is wondering how much of what you see is him.
I loved the way he challenged his audience, his almost suicidal insistence on saying exactly the wrong thing (at the Montreal Comedy Festival in Canada he famously opened by saying, "Hello Moose Fuckers" and was promptly attacked by an audience member, who I can only assume was so angry because he had fucked a moose at some point), the fact that it was impossible to tell whether he was being ironic, or whether the true irony was that he meant what he said, but was still getting a liberal audience to laugh. Underneath it all though was the realisation that he himself was the real victim, not just of his comedy, but the world. There was some real anger and bitterness there, so he'd take the common human feeling of wish for vengeance (which we could maybe indentify with) and then take the idea much further than we would. Yet he was possibly still trawling the horrible, selfish and vindictive black hole that dwells within us all. He is the devil on your shoulder, the whispered voice in your head that suggests the totally inappropriate action. Yet by saying the unsayable out loud he somehow helps us to deal with it, to laugh in the face of tragedy. It's hard to describe or explain why he was so good - whatever, he was really funny. That's enough. And unlike most comics had the propensity to genuinely shock and upset you. He has not been as successful as he should have been, but then maybe anyone as uncompromising as he is could never be that successful.
Anyway, I went to see his close up magic show at the Soho theatre last night, having not seen him live for almost a decade. I didn't know if it was going to be straight magic with no jokes or whether I'd still see the Sadowitz of old, but a five minute rant about the tsunami at the start certainly cleared up any confusion. I didn't think anyone would be stupid enough to do gags about this subject yet and I certainly didn't think anyone would be able to genuinely funny about it, but Sadowitz was on blistering form. Because of who he is, he can say anything - some of which is just downright offensive, but some of which gets right to the heart of it. So he can say that he knows he shouldn't be too upset because it's just a load of chinks, but also berate the Evening Standard for the headline "50 Britons dead" flying in the face of the overwhelming indiginous loss of life. It's cathartic and for me as close to comedy genius as you're ever likely to see (after anything Stewart Lee does obviously). I was genuinely delighted to see he was still the Jerry of old, seemingly ad libbing these abhorrent but wonderfully constructed lines, plus there was an underlying mirthfulness to his performance that I don't remember. As well as a delightful and open bitterness at the success of others and the diminishing chances of him achieving anything similar ( I loved his line about an impossible magic trick being to watch Bo Selecta without shouting "Fuck off, you unfunny cunt!" Big round of applause too.)
Pointless, stupid and needlessly offensive racist and sexist jokes, make you wince and sigh, but then you laugh (well I do) because it's like he has an illness which gives him the compunction to do this. It's somehow primeval. And because he hates everything it makes it almost OK, probably because nearly every joke reveals that he mainly hates himself and the crappy hand he has been dealt (though he is magic enough to change them all to aces.. ha ha I am funny). He discusses the layers of irony in the act (on one layer it's all a joke, but there's a layer under that where he means everything he says) and it's impossible to tell to what extent it is an act. When he talks of his elaborate suicide plans you wonder whether there is some dark truth in them; when he advances on a member of the audience with a knife and threatens to stab her, there is a small part of your brain thinking that one night he might actually do it. It's ace.
Plus he's really good at magic tricks. Go and see him.