THE Edinburgh Fringe – as the biggest open-access arts festival on the planet – has always been a home for controversy. However, this year’s massive stooshie, over the cancelling of Scottish comedian (and accomplished magician) Jerry Sadowitz by major Fringe producer Pleasance, was as lamentable as it was avoidable.

The second of two shows by the US-born, Glaswegian comedian at The Pleasance was cancelled following what the production company said were walk-outs and complaints about the content of the show (which, reportedly, included language of a bigoted nature and Sadowitz exposing himself). Comedy aficionados are scratching their heads at Pleasance’s claim that, while it knew Sadowitz was “controversial”, it was wrong-footed by the material in this particular show.

This is clearly nonsense. As a leading comedy producer, Pleasance will have been well aware when it booked his Edinburgh shows that Sadowitz is the Lenny Bruce of contemporary comedy in the UK.

Like Bruce – the American comedian who was convicted for “obscenity” in 1964 – Sadowitz’s act has always been dedicated to puncturing the hypocrisy of society’s moralists and testing, often exceeding, the limits of what is acceptable in our supposedly “free society”. I’ve seen Sadowitz screen a video in which the late Sean Connery advocated violence against women, then comment positively on it. I’ve heard him go on an expletive-peppered, misanthropic tirade against just about every social group imaginable, including Glaswegians and Jews such as himself.

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It’s now some 14 years since Sadowitz – having dedicated a magic trick to Robert Mugabe – proceeded to screen a porn film on a big screen during his act. The comedian’s entire shtick is predicated on wrecking the sensibilities of even the least offendable, most libertarian audience member. Not for nothing was his Edinburgh show titled ‘Not for Anyone’.

The idea Pleasance was taken by surprise by the content of Sadowitz’s Edinburgh show makes about as much sense as anything that comes out of the mouth of Nadine Dorries. The producer came closer to the truth when it admitted that it was responding to a “changing world”.

In other words, the nature of Sadowitz’s act hasn’t changed, but Pleasance’s attitude towards it has. Certain types of language are now beyond the pale, Pleasance said in a statement, “whether performed in character or not.”

As the position of a major arts producer, I find this comment spine-chilling. Taken to its logical conclusion, this stance would trash vast swathes of literary and dramatic fiction. Fictional characters – from SS officers to guilty defendants in court cases – make horribly offensive comments in all manner of novels, poems, plays and films. The idea that some language is so offensive it can no longer be spoken, even if it is “in character”, is absolutely anathema to freedom of artistic expression.

Pleasance’s statement avers that the likes of racist, misogynistic, homophobic and transphobic language “need to be challenged.” However, there’s a world of difference between “challenging” something and cancelling it.

When Jimmy Carr makes a disgusting, desperately unfunny so-called joke celebrating the mass murder of Roma people in the Nazi Holocaust, I’m among the first to challenge it. Likewise Ricky Gervais’s use of puerile, 1970s school playground epithets abusing disabled people.

This kind of garbage should be called out. Not least because Carr’s claim that his “gag” about the Holocaust of the Roma was going to get him “cancelled” was disingenuous tosh. In fact, he knew fine well that the manufactured controversy would bring him considerable (and lucrative) publicity on both social and traditional media platforms.

There are powerful forces – from the offices of right-wing newspaper editors to the Tory Government front bench – who are using the much-vaunted “culture wars” as a means of trying to normalise the kind of bigoted language and attitudes that were commonplace in the 1970s.

That’s what makes Pleasance’s cancelling of Sadowitz so frustrating. It plays into the hands of reactionary commentators who are punting the narrative that the “culture wars” are all about narrow-minded “woke” lefties who want to cancel anyone they disagree with.

The Daily Star – one of the nastiest rags on the market – ran a front page last week in which it posed as a beacon of freedom of speech and ridiculed Pleasance. Never mind that, historically, the Star’s idea of “freedom of expression” has been the freedom to spout hateful bile on a regular basis.

The real danger in the culture wars is that, under cover of “freedom of speech”, the likes of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, GB News and the rest return us to the days when racist comedians like Bernard Manning and Jim Davidson constituted the comic mainstream. By cancelling Sadowitz, Pleasance has lent credence to the right-wing attacks on all things “woke”.

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In truth, there is a misguided minority within the identity politics movements, particularly on university campuses, that seeks to cancel people like J.K. Rowling and Joanna Cherry due to their views on gender recognition. I happen to disagree with both Rowling and Cherry on this important issue, but I can’t agree with those who argue that their appearance on a university campus makes trans or non-binary people “unsafe”.

In arguing that it had to protect members of its audience and staff who were made to feel “uncomfortable” by Sadowitz’s show, Pleasance is indulging in the same kind of exaggerated rhetoric. Of course Sadowitz’s act makes people “uncomfortable”, that’s its primary purpose.

Art often makes people feel uncomfortable, and well it should. The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch – which remind me of my mortality and testify to humanity’s capacity for cruelty and folly – make me feel uncomfortable. So, too, does Shakespeare’s play King Lear, complete with the gouging out of the eyes of poor, old Gloucester.

Pleasance’s one-size-fits all approach to “unacceptable” language places Sadowitz (quite wrongly, in my view) in the same category as Manning and Davidson. More importantly, by making so-called “woke” concerns appear to be censorial, the producer has scored an enormous own goal.