Smoke and mirrors

IT IS hard to figure out just how monstrous Jerry Sadowitz is.

This is not to say that meeting Sadowitz isn’t disturbing, because it is, which will probably please him no end. It is also not without effort. He is embarking on a stand-up tour of Scotland and this interview is initially arranged before a show in Glasgow, in advance of the main tour. But then I’m told that he doesn’t want to meet there because he doesn’t want me to see the show. Strange. Still, I suggest meeting him in London, where he lives. The negotiations are endless; I touch down still uncertain if he will show.

The voice at the end of the mobile is polite. He names a street. When I reach it, I must phone him and get further directions. It’s quite exciting if you live a sad sort of life. Turns out he’s in a pub called the Green Man (on soft drinks) with a friend, Ian. That’s a surprise. Sadowitz isn’t meant to have any friends.

Ian is a young magician and they met in a London magic shop where Sadowitz helps out. (As well as being a comedian, he is considered one of the country’s best magicians, certainly one of its sharpest card conjurors.) The pub is busy but Sadowitz is easy to spot. He is without the trademark top hat but still has wild, shoulder-length curls. At first, his eye contact is vague. We sit in a little triangle and, for the first few minutes, I ask the questions and Sadowitz answers Ian.

It’s not long before the shock-talk begins - graphic descriptions of suppressing erections at the age of 12 when pretty nurses showed him how to administer enemas for ulcerative colitis, a condition that has plagued him all his life. So if he’s this explicit, how come he didn’t want me to see his show? No point, he says, insisting it would be like listening to the last Frank Zappa album without knowing the back catalogue. He’s not interested in "late-comers". People seeing him for the first time just go on about how offended they are, he says. Well, he throws down the gauntlet by calling the show Not for the Easily Offended, doesn’t he? Silly title, says Sadowitz. He didn’t want that. "I wanted to call it Masturbatory," he says, "Master Batory."

I think he wants to shock people. "I don’t know any more," he says wearily. But he throws out vile, tasteless comments like hand grenades. This is partly because he is genuinely resentful. "I give out the same amount of s***, and the same amount of care, as the world gives to me," he says. But it’s also because grenades explode in your face and he can disappear in the smoke while you choke and splutter.

It’s all a diversion. You know what I think, I say, as he sips water. I think you put up barriers just to see if people bother knocking them down, if they care what lies behind them. He looks directly at me instead of Ian. "Yes," he says. "Maybe." Well, it’s a start.

A DIFFERENT PICTURE NOW. Imagine this. A little boy lives in New Jersey, America. It is Friday and he’s coming home from school for the weekend. His mother and father are separated but he’s going to spend time at his dad’s. He’s looking forward to it. But when he gets home, his plans disappear. "I got into the flat," recalls Sadowitz, "and there were just these suitcases being packed and I didn’t know what was going on. I remember going through a long tunnel and I remember being on a plane and being sick and then landing in Glasgow."

Glasgow was a shock. "It was f***ing freezing compared to New Jersey." And then illness. "A few months later I began bleeding from the bowels. Ulcerative colitis had kicked in."

This is his only childhood memory, and the small, confused, ill boy lurks like a ghost through Sadowitz’s adult conversation. Everything comes back to his family and his illness; to loss, absence or disappointment. "Every dream I’ve ever had has been thwarted," he says. His Scottish mother took him and his sister home, and he never saw his American father again until adulthood. They met up for the first time again about five years ago, but it sounds like it was all too late. "My dad is very quiet. He has no life. I’d like to go back but it’s insufferably boring. He doesn’t want to do anything."

Sadowitz’s early interest in magic developed with visits to Tam Shepherd’s magic shop in Glasgow. (The owner was the card conjuror of the century, claims Sadowitz.) When his stand-up evolved, he dreamed of success. "I thought, ‘If I make it, I’ll find my dad and reconcile him with my mum.’" This is the moment at which I know that no matter whatever else spews from Sadowitz, I can’t hate him. His belief that money and success would fix his mum and dad is like glimpsing the child he once was preserved in a layer of ice inside the man.

There’s a similar moment when he talks about his mother. "She’s a maniac," he says angrily. "If I had to be interrogated by the Nazis or spend half an hour with my mother, I’d choose the Nazis." It sounds like a joke. It’s not delivered like one. He is persistently vague when asked why she is a maniac. Oh, she’s just unstable. Terrified of life. But he gets wistful. "The odd thing is, I still love her, despite the fact that she makes it impossible for you to love her. You put your hand in the fire and it gets burned every time. But I look at her and I think that somewhere in there is a really vulnerable, sweet girl. I’d really love to make her happy. But I can’t."

His parents were totally unsuited to marriage. "They were not unique. My father has a little family business, a scrap-metal business with a yard and lorry. His family all got married, he was in his 30s, and I think he wanted to get laid. My mum didn’t like sex but she wanted children. If you are a man, unless you’re very rich, famous or powerful, your only chance of getting laid is the promise of children. My mum wanted kids and my dad wanted laid. I shouldn’t be here. My sister shouldn’t be here."

It’s a pretty brutal view of human relationships. He must believe something more to have wanted them reunited? "Somewhere along the line I think they probably are suited. My dad is a very quiet, passive person and could have stabilised my mum a bit, and my mum could have brought him out of his shell. Tragic is the right word for it. My dad’s a sad character, my mum’s a sad character, I’m a sad character. Tragedy has followed this little family around. I’m determined to break the cycle."

Break the cycle? "I’m determined not to have children. It’s hard to find a woman because women want children." Lots don’t, I say, but Sadowitz won’t have it. They only say that. Would he make such an awful dad? "No," he says. "But suppose I’m a good dad and my child starts bleeding. I’m not passing on ulcerative colitis."

That almost implies he wishes he’d never been born. "Yes. And sort of no. I love music and I love magic; they are the two great escapes for me." He hesitates, then his face hardens. "But given the choice, yes, I wish I hadn’t been born." And if he were told tomorrow he was going to die? "I’d feel relief. My health’s not going to get any better. I’ll die early. If I live for the next 20 years, I’ve got a colostomy to look forward to. But the heart attack will get me first."

So the cycle of misery stops here. "I’d rather go through life without sex. I’ve done a pretty good job so far." He certainly can’t handle intimacy even on a social level. What’s your name again, he asks. Catherine, isn’t it? Or Christine? Just minutes later he accidentally-on-purpose calls me Christine and repeats the question. Utterly transparent.

He is reputedly a misogynist. "Yeah," he says. "Women are here to assist men and give us pleasure. We are here to provide for them and give them children. Anything else is a perversion." I laugh at this. He says it seriously enough but I’m not convinced. And Sadowitz on biology is about as persuasive as Sadowitz on Women’s Institute knitting patterns. Women don’t have the same bits as men, he says perspicaciously. Female orgasm isn’t a biological response. Dodgy, huh? "I don’t even think women enjoy sex," he continues. "They think they do but they don’t."

I’m curious. And I’m getting the hang of Sadowitz so I don’t indulge in question foreplay. Ever been in love? "Every day I fall in love with women. In the same way that other people look at art, or listen to classical music, I look at women. I wish it was more acceptable to stare at women. But if I fall in love it’s not conducive to chatting anyone up. Me chatting someone up would be like an Ethiopian chatting up food..."

And yet there’s no sense from him that he likes women. "Why do women dress so provocatively if not to attract men?" he asks. He turns to me. "Why are you dressed so nicely?" he demands. I am dressed to the neck in black, in a jacket that cost me seven quid in a sale, and a long pink scarf.

"Hardly provocative," I mutter.

"I didn’t say provocative; I said nice."

Well, I find black and pink pleasing. Why did he choose his navy jacket? Because it has pockets which he needs for keeping tricks in, he says, taking out a pack of cards and laying it on the table. And his T-shirt - why blue? "Because it was the cheapest." Perhaps, he says, if he looked like George Clooney and not the ugly bastard he is, he would choose clothes for the way they looked. Does he really believe he is so completely unlovable? "There are different degrees of love. I’ve got friends, so I must have some lovability. But the idea of someone looking at me and saying, ‘I’ve got to see you again,’ no. It’s not going to happen.

"Some people find trees or flowers beautiful but I find women especially beautiful. I don’t give them any credit for that. I give God credit for that." He believes? "Yes. Atheists say they don’t love God but if they love music they love the person who composed the music and therefore they love God." I would have thought that since he thinks life is so bad, he would find it hard believing in a creator of such awfulness. Sadowitz looks at me. "I didn’t say He wasn’t a c***."

No thunderbolt strikes the table in the ensuing silence. Sadowitz says his belief is intuitive and intellectual. "If I do a magic trick and fool you, you think you have been fooled because of magic powers. But there are no magic powers. There is a method to that magic but you are not allowed to see the method. I see no problem with the argument that we see and live the effect but we don’t see the method." I say that despite his cynicism, a trickling tributary of romance must pump into that vast sea of bitterness in Sadowitz. Not "love" romance but the other dictionary meaning: "a mysterious, sentimental or nostalgic quality". He’s a magician; he just hides it well.

SADOWITZ’S cards lie on the table still. I’m dying to ask him to do a trick but I daren’t. He picks them up. Is he going to do something? No, he says diffidently. Ian will. Show her something, he says. Ian obliges. Sadowitz smiles, applauds. Ian will be famous. But he will control his fame, Sadowitz jokes, in a way he never controlled his own.

Sadowitz had his toe in the door of fame with several Channel Five television shows but his reputation, and the nature of his material, meant the door ultimately slammed on his foot. "I’ve had a f***ing s*** experience of life," he says. Whose fault is that? Life’s, he reckons.

I’m not so sure. Look, I say, imagine he owned a sandwich bar. He creates this bizarre sandwich - a concoction of peanut butter and jam. Sadowitz stares, grins in anticipation. A few people adore his weird sandwich but most come in looking for egg or ham salad. Couldn’t he just widen the repertoire and save the business? Sadowitz shakes his head. "I am powerless," he says.

Maybe he fears failure. "Yes." Maybe he fears it so much it stops him even trying. "I don’t know any more." Instead he watches television bitterly and thinks every funnyman is a watered-down version of him and has stolen his material. Then Sadowitz says, "Sometimes I can be really nice. But today I am being aggressive and angry and arrogant."

I’m not sure I understand Sadowitz’s disturbing levels of self-loathing and unhappiness. Yes, ulcerative colitis is awful. Yes, he got a rotten deal as a kid. But he might be only halfway through his life. No risk; no gain, I say. "F*** it," he replies. Is he capable of happiness? "No. I’m sure I was once. But not now. I spit on it." But he’s capable of kindness. Just as I am switching off the tape, Sadowitz politely invites me to join him and Ian at a restaurant. I explain that I have to attend a press dinner. I am distracted and hit the wrong tape button. The interview is erased. Sadowitz starts to laugh. I feel about this joke much as Sadowitz does about the female orgasm: I don’t get it. In my horrified silence, Sadowitz stops laughing. It’s okay, he says. He’ll do it all again. It is not as bad as I first think; my back-up notes are pretty full. But still... his willingness.

Days later, he acts like a monster for the photographer. Perhaps I have been fooled by a magician’s double bluff but I can’t completely believe in monstrous Jerry Sadowitz. He would despise my pity yet I feel it anyway. He’s considered the forgotten genius of British comedy but it’s not just his talent that is choked; it’s his whole life.

He works in a magic shop these days between tours. He needs the money. He lives frugally in a one-room flat and says, "My dreams have been the same for as long as I can remember." Nothing fancy, just a big flat with a room for his collection of rare magic books and a room for props and practising. The magic shop gives more than cash. "It’s like a good family," he says. "People are really nice; they help you out. It’s genuinely the closest I get to feeling love, to feeling safe."

What does Ian make of his friend, I ask, preparing to leave. "If you just read him straight he doesn’t make any sense," says Ian. "He seems angry and aggressive, but underneath there’s a layer of the vulnerable romantic. But he’s not going to say that because that would really make him vulnerable."

Sadowitz is listening intently. "That’s rubbish," he says scornfully.

The Not for the Easily Offended tour beings in Paisley on Friday. See for more details.