Interview with the Scotsman about Jerry Sadowitz
1. It’s often been said that Sadowitz is too uncompromising to be successful, at least not as much as deserves or believes he should be. Yet the recording of his forthcoming live DVD (assuming it makes it to sale) suggests this might be changing, that his cult following could become reasonably lucrative. What do you attribute this to? Why now?
It depends how you measure success. I am not sure that TV shows = success as a stand up. Often it is a distraction from the actual job a stand up is supposed to be doing. It can sanitise an act, but also make a comedian stop doing stand up. Making money can do the same. Jerry has been working for 25 years as a stand up which I would say makes him a success. And he's always had a strong following. I don't think with his act he was ever going to be mainstream or indeed to everyone's tastes. But I would say he is a success. I don't know if his DVD will make him much money. But he is the success he is because he doesn't give a fuck about any of that other stuff (even if he professes to on stage) and has stayed true to his insane artistic vision. That is why he is still going and that is why he is still producing relevant and exciting work. In a world full of airbrushed TV friendly stand ups it is great to see some real and raw emotion and opinion, even if you don't always agree with it. It is as much theatre as stand up and even though I know Jerry a little bit it is very hard to say where the character ends and Jerry begins. He is brilliant at what he does and if you keep plugging away people will eventually realise this.
2. Did he come to mind when you were developing Hitler Moustache? Or indeed any of your work?
I think Jerry was a big early influence on me - he was one of the first stand ups I saw live, but for most of my career I would have been too fearful to try and take the leaps he takes. I don't know if Hitler Moustache was very influenced by him though - I don't think that show is all that offensive and comes at the offensive subjects from a fairly PC level. Maybe I thought about him a little when I debated with myself whether I would use the word "Paki" in the show.
Doing this kind of comedy well is very difficult. Maybe early on I tried to do some stuff which played with offence, but in the hands of an inexperienced comedian (as you will see daily in the clubs) it turns into a mess. I am more influenced by Jerry's uncompromising attitude towards comedy, which I think you need to have to be great. He has ploughed his own furrow and stayed true to that in the face of everything. That is an admirable thing.
I am sure there is some influence on my more controversial stuff - probably more on the Collings and Herrin persona. Like Jerry, with that, I allow my subconscious to take control of me and the voice that politeness usually suppresses to take the reins.
3. Do you think he’s benefitted in some way from criticism of the likes of Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr, as informed comedy fans have directed newcomers to a comic who’s more daring in his handling of offence?
I don't know. I think the kind of people who would be offended by Frankie will be more offended by Jerry. When I saw Jerry recently he made all other comedy seem phoney and pathetic by comparison (including my own). It almost made me want to give in. Jerry is the real deal. I like Frankie and Jimmy, but they are framed in a knowing irony that Jerry doesn't have, which makes him the real deal and attending his gigs unpredictable and slightly scary. He is properly offensive and can offend me, but in the way that art should, rather than in the way of someone saying something for effect (which is true of most other offensive comics - again including me). It's not bad to be offended by someone who knows what they are doing. It is a good thing to have to think about why you believe things and to question if you are right. I think many newcomers are offended and terrified of him in a way that they wouldn't be with Frankie or Jimmy. You need to have an understanding of the form of comedy to really get what he's doing. And even then, you will still be confused, frightened and outraged. Which is what makes him brilliant.
4. How far do you think his style has been copied and sanitised by other comics and how much is paranoia on his part?
He is not the only person to go down this road and I think most of the people who do it have arrived at this destination on their own. Is Jerry really annoyed by other comics or is that the act? I like the way he is happy to lay into everyone, stating that no one is as good as him. There is a truth to that, but also it's perfect for the character. This is why his offensive stuff works. he is the little man, punching out at everyone, but always managing to only hit himself. Frankie is a successful millionaire, taking the piss out of disabled people(for example) from a position of strength, which can at time make him a bully. Jerry's persona means that his anger is justified and it's all about self-loathing. So whether he really believes he has been ripped off or not is not that important. The character would think that and would be filled with fury. But it makes his comedy pure and sympathetic. He is life's victim so if he mocks the weak (or the strong) then it is funny.
Frankie Boyle using "spastic" as a punchline makes me annoyed and unamused, Jerry saying it over and over again, without even a joke behind it makes me laugh a lot. Comedy is all about context. Who is saying it and why. Only someone prepared to wreck their life for comedy could really come close to copying Jerry.
5. Can you think of a British comic that combines intimidation and vulnerability to the same extent? How do you think he achieves this and makes it interesting?
I can't really think of any comedian in the world who does this. It's more like a Beckett character. I think it's down to not really being able to tell where the character ends and Jerry begins. And because he allows that bitter angry part of himself to command him for the time he's on stage, without feeling the need to signal where the veil of irony resides or worrying about being misinterpreted. There's a rawness and honesty to it, even if it isn't entirely honest. It is true within the parameters of the performance. I suppose he is like a man possessed and you can believe that the character is real - though Jerry is in real life a charming and surprisingly gentle and humble man (I think). But even I am not sure.
6. A significant part of his appeal seems to be his attacks on other comedians, an understandably neglected but compelling area of stand-up for many. The likes of yourself and Stewart Lee have done this in measured and spontaneous moments as well, so I wonder what your thoughts are on his handling of it?
I love him for doing this, mainly because he holds no one in such high esteem that he won't attack them, including Stewart Lee who most comics wouldn't dare speak up against even if they secretly envied him or thought he wasn't as good as everyone says. It is almost the final taboo of comedy to round on your peers, and it can easily be mistaken for bitterness or envy. With Jerry (and Stew and myself) I think that that's part of the joke. Railing against the more successful comics is allowing that part of all of us that craves for huge success to come to the fore and of course there are some comics who have had great success without necessarily being as skilled or as funny as some that haven't.
It's good and it's human to vent and if you get it right I think the audience will know where you're coming from. But also they as the kind of fans who like you are going to be inclined to laugh at the kind of people who like Paddy McGuinness. Jerry doesn't hold back from anyone. I enjoyed him laying into Jo Brand, after she chose him as one of her favourite comics.
Comedians should really be outsiders and it should make people uncomfortable when they become rich or part of the establishment or back-slapping at awards ceremonies. But the fact that Jerry is angry that he isn't that successful (even though he couldn't be and wouldn't really want to be) is funny too. Similarly I might feign envy at the Mcintryres and Kays of this world, because there is a part of me that thinks I deserve the credit, but I also know that I would never want their careers or to do the gigs they do. It's funny to do it because you shouldn't do it. And some people won't like you doing it. Which makes it harder to resist.
7. What would you expect/wish/hate to hear in the bit of his show where he asks the audience to name comics and someone shouted “Richard Herring”.
I dread to think, though would be thrilled to be taken down by him. I believe he recently criticised me for my work for SCOPE and resistance to comics using the word spastic (though see above) and I think he'd probably go for the Oxbridge angle with some kind of ferocity. But weirdly I think that because I am not massively successful or on TV that he might hold back a little bit. He saves his real bile for those who are more renowned. I didn't get mentioned when I saw him though, so I was saved the weird thrill mixed with the crushing blow of being ripped apart by a comic that I hugely admire.
8. Does his professed hatred of Oxbridge comics have any impact on you beyond feeling insecure in his presence? And if not, are there other things he says that really get at you specifically?
No, he hates everyone so it doesn't really bother me. I think in reality he is a man who will judge by different parameters than that. He once made a point of crossing a room to tell me how much it meant to him that I had named him as one of my influences, which I found surprising and touching. Though if you catch him in a different mood he will be dismissive or rude. I don't really think of myself as an Oxbridge comic anyway. I didn't ride that bandwagon (if anything it only harmed my early career) and don't label myself by what I was doing 20 years ago. I find some of his act odd and indefensible and unpleasant. But that's also why I like him
9. Can you conceive of anything he could say that would force those who maintain it’s all ironic to think wait, hang on ...?
I don't think all of it is ironic by any means. He is saying what he thinks sometimes and a lot of the race stuff seems to be what he really thinks. Or at least only there to piss off people who don't think you should say that studd. But it's the ambiguity that makes it work. The bit where he talks about the layers of irony above what is true above another layer of irony is genius and probably one of the biggest clues as to what he thinks he is doing. I am not sure even he knows sometimes. Once you are possessed by that inner subconscious voice and once you're trying to say the thing that you're not supposed to say then all rules are off
10. How far do you think he benefits as an artist from being and being seen to be outside the comedy industry? Almost as a kind of bogeyman?
This act can only work when he is an outsider. Acceptance would destroy him. It is what makes it artistically brilliant, even if that is personally frustrating
11. Would he be a more effective comic if the bile was occasionally less incessant, at least in terms of delivery?
He is taking risks and sometimes it doesn't work or sometimes he allows his mood to destroy the gig - but we all do that I think, anyone who takes risks anyway. There are times when I walk away from my podcast feeling a bit sick from what I have said and wishing I hadn't said it. I imagine Jerry feels this sometimes too. but it's the inevitable consequence of playing around in this area and Jerry has no fear of throwing himself headlong over the boundaries of comedy without thinking about what is on the other side.
12. You and he have very different approaches to engaging with audiences, especially on the internet. How far do you think his privacy and policing of his intellectual property (You Tube clips of him rarely last an hour) makes him an effective performer, insofar as wondering at his real opinions and motivations are such a big part of his appeal?
Yeah, he needs the mystery. he needs you to not be sure what is and isn't the real him. But also I think he doesn't like people seeing his act for free. His way of doing things probably means the build up of audience is slower, but perhaps it also means that once they find out about him there is more to gain by seeing him. My comedy increasingly is about being honest enough to reveal the stuff about myself that most people hide, so it is a very different approach, though I imagine that in the long term maintaining a secrecy and exclusivity might make for a longer shelf life. Stewart lee is also very private and rarely (his book aside) engages with the audience outside of the theatre. In a sense it's an old fashioned approach, but one with a lot of validity. I find that by giving of myself freely it gets people coming to the paid gigs and buying the DVDs, but I imagine that keeping things guarded works in a different way too.
13. In a 2004 interview with the Independent, Julian Hall writes that Sadowitz is ‘proud to have “invented” politically incorrect humour in the UK’. What do you make of that?
I don't think he did invent it. But he was unusual amongst the alternative comedians for doing this kind of stuff even in the 80s and early 90s when everyone else was treading on eggshells and anyone who said "cunt" was chastised by other comics. It's incredible that he was doing this stuff in the mid-eighties and he deserves massive praise for being ahead of the game to such an extent. And to find a way to fit in with alternative comedy but to be uncensored and unPC. The real skill is not to be politically incorrect (as all mainstream comedy was that in the 70s) but to be able to make his stuff work in a politically correct market place. There was no bullshit to him, in the way that there was (as it turns out) to people like Ben Elton.
14. Al Murray once described him to me as “our Bill Hicks”. Do you think there’s something in that?
He is the most exciting and original and uncompromising act in Britain, I think. But he should be our Jerry Sadowitz. Or maybe his own Jerry Sadowitz. The great comics are great because they are not like anyone else and I know that's not what Al means, but Jerry is a one off and I think only Daniel Kitson and Tim Minchin come anywhere near him in terms of being fantastic, original comics
15. Do you see the influence of Derek and Clive, Alexei Sayle in him? Or are comparisons to Lenny Bruce and Sam Kinison more instructive?
I am not sure he's the kind of comic to have influences. He is more like Sam Kinison or maybe Lenny Bruce than Derek and Clive. But he kind of feels like he gestated in controlled conditions without influences from anywhere else. It's probably not true. But he's a one off and comes from a peculiarly Scottish perspective that is maybe the main influence on his anger and frustration.