I’m being cancelled! Update 3

Came across this article about the cancellation of the comedian Jerry Sadowitz’s show at the Fringe. (This was a real cancellation as opposed to a tweet storm or protest).


As ever, language is the fault line: What words are permissible on stage?  Do racist words perpetuate racism? Is the word an act? Who decides when something can pass as ironic or sincere?

Is the Pleasance at fault, for booking him then being outraged at his “extreme” material? (His most famous opening line? “Nelson Mandela: what a cunt!”) What Sadowitz does is well known. He sets himself up as a hideous sad-sack of a human being, bitterly enraged at his own enfeeblement and the state of the world. Yes, the jokes are horrific, gasp-inducingly so. But the full package – a disturbo-charged portrait of hate and self-hate; an invitation to laugh at how deep into the gutter the human imagination can sink – is (when he’s on form, which he isn’t always) compelling. And, as distinct from Chappelle and Gervais, you’re not meant to admire this character’s opinions. You’re meant to be appalled by them.

The power of character is highlighted here. It’s a complicated issue in stand-up. How ‘real’ are the comedian’s onstage personas? I’ve recently supervised a dissertation on this theme. The student’s research made me think about the fluid nature of a stand-up’s character. The line between their real selves and onstage selves is never fully stable. This gives them a great deal of power to shape an audience’s perception of how a performance relates to social reality. Slipping and sliding in and out of fiction and reality during a performance may shake people out of conventional habits of thinking in a (for want of a better phrase) safe space. But in the political sphere this can frame debates, speeches, referenda and election campaigns in the abstract with no understanding for how speech constitutes political action.

What makes defending Sadowitz hard, particularly for someone like me, is the consensus that certain words (the P-word, the N-word) cannot be used, under any circumstances, no matter the size of the quote marks, by white people. I’ve no argument with that, save to remark that it’s a fundamentalist position, and free speech is a nuanced thing. It’s always needed caveats and exceptions. Ban words outright, and we’re back where US comic George Carlin got arrested for his Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television routine (cocksucker, motherfucker, and the rest) in 1972.

The fundamentalist point in this quote is interesting. Censoring some words shouldn’t limit an artist’s ability to talk about certain subjects. I do believe some words constitute an act of violence for their capacity to instantly de-humanise and render people of colour inferior to white people. But are there no contexts where these words cannot be uttered or written, perhaps as objects of study or to ridicule? I don’t know the answer to this.