FOR context: I have never seen Jerry Sadowitz’s penis.

I haven’t seen any of his shows – not because I’m worried about being offended, more because I’m not a huge fan of magic tricks, phallic-themed or otherwise. I don’t know exactly what happened on Friday night that prompted Pleasance to cancel Saturday night’s show, and it seems unlikely they are going to tell us.

Soon after the venue performed its disappearing act, scrubbing the aptly titled “Not For Anyone” from its Edinburgh programme, details about the content began dribbling out. Racism. Sexism. And most eye-catching of all, an exposed knob.

The National: Beacon jerry sadowitz

No, I’m not talking about the Pleasance high heid yin who asserted in a statement that “the Pleasance is a venue that champions freedom of speech and we do not censor comedians’ material” immediately before asserting that Sadowitz’s material “is not acceptable and does not align with our values” and therefore would not be permitted a second airing.

I’m talking about actual genitals, unveiled on stage.

It’s understandable that rumours of the comic’s willy-waving came as a shock to those unfamiliar with his work. The idea that he presented the appendage “to a woman in the front row”, specifically, seemed to suggest a menacing moment that might even border on sexual offending, particularly when combined with the ranting and raving that characterise the performer’s on-stage persona. Free-speech champions put their gas on a peep for a bit.

READ MORE: Jerry Sadowitz cancellation denounced by JK Rowling and Jeremy Vine

I have seen many a wang on the Fringe in my time, and plenty of vulvas too. Hours after Sadowitz tweeted about the cancellation, I was front-row-centre at a riotous show in which, to roars of delight from the crowd, a previously clothed actor emerged from a frenzied giraffe orgy clothes-free. I suppose someone could characterise this as the guy “getting his buttocks out to a woman in the front row,” but that wouldn’t exactly be fair. The actor was playing a character, of course, but isn’t Sadowitz too? That possibility was addressed in a follow-up statement from the Pleasance, which appeared to confirm it was his words (as opposed to his deeds) that were the problem. “In a changing world, stories and language that were once accepted on stage, whether performed in character or not, need to be challenged,” it read (though I’ve added the italics).

This leaves the Pleasance in a bit of a sticky position, not least because it isn’t just a set of comedy venues – it’s a theatre trust that develops and platforms all kinds of performances, serious as well as silly. Its statement is muddled, unclear whether it is equating the use of offensive terms (whether racist, homophobic, sexist or misogynistic) with a show itself being any of those things. The potential to dramatically explore those very -isms will be significantly curtailed if, for example, a serious play about racism, homophobia or misogyny cannot have performers – in character – using appalling language accordingly.

Who gets to decide the meaning behind any particular skit or punchline, and the intent behind the deployment of shock tactics, or does intent no longer matter? Do we need a hate crime act to crack down on artistic expression, or will venue bosses take care of that without state assistance?

Sadowitz apparently used a racial slur, but says his act is now being “cheapened and simplified as unsafe, homophobic, misogynistic and racist”. Short of making public chunks of his script, it’s difficult to see how he can defend himself against claims that he – Jerry Sadowitz, the man – is a bigot. In fact, doing that would perhaps make matters worse. It is, as they say, the way you tell ‘em. Context is everything. Delivery is key. And some of the most interesting comedy executes handbrake turns that swap belly laughs for sharp intakes of breath, leaving audience members asking questions not just about the show but about themselves.

When American comedy performer Natalie Palamides was gearing up to bring her second solo show, Nate, to the Fringe in 2018, she was dismayed by the headline on a preview article in The Guardian. “Can you do comedy about rape?” it asked. “Natalie Palamides thinks so.” Tweeting a screenshot, she added: “No, I don’t.” Was her show comedy? Yes, and very funny too. Did it address rape, and the complexities of consent? Yes, brilliantly and dangerously. But she argued that the headline – on an otherwise good, favourable article – missed the point of the show.

A recording of Nate is now available to watch on Netflix, prefaced with comments from members of the live audience, including a grave-looking woman who says “there were some points that were really uncomfortable for me”. The discomfort, the tension, the nervous, sometimes guilty laughter make for an outstanding show, but is it for everyone? Definitely not. Is it conceivable that some could have tried to have it cancelled on the basis of quoting some lines of script out of context, or describing on-stage nudity, “unsafe” audience participation and horrifying penis-themed goings-on? Absolutely.

Thank goodness that didn’t happen. But which show will be next?