This article is from 2007.
These days, whenever you speak to a stand-up about offensive comedy, they seem to be united on one thing: audiences should just lighten up a bit. Or some of them anyway; you wouldn’t want to generalise. While they understand that certain individuals will have their own little areas of concern that they feel aren’t suitable for comedy, they just wish they would keep their feelings to themselves. Or, even better, just be offended by everything and don’t go to see comedy, or strap yourselves in and be offended by nothing. ‘One person came up to me after a show and said that they really liked the stuff about retarded children, they loved the stuff about gypsies, that was fine but they had a child with ADD, so the joke about that wasn’t funny,’ Carr tells me over the phone from Montreal, where he is taking his part in that city’s annual comedy festival. ‘So, everything else is fine, as long as it doesn’t affect you? Now you are the arbiter of good taste?’
The right to offend is almost like a sacred oath for modern comics which allows them to crank up the nastiness and leave a crowd laughing almost involuntarily or shifting uncomfortably in their seats. For Carr, the gag which produces a mixture of the two is the moment when comedy makes its most profound impact. With this year’s Fringe show, Carr will once again test the limits of tolerance among his gathering. And over eight nights at a full Edinburgh International Conference Centre that’s a lot of potential outrage.
‘You know, sometimes a joke is just based on hate and thinking that you’re better than someone else,’ reckons Carr. ‘But if it doesn’t involve those things, then I think it’s OK. A lot of the time it’s just wordplay and what happens is that jokes aren’t offensive until someone tells a person that they could further their cause with this joke. There was that case with Little Britain, where they did that joke about the woman who had a problem with her bladder and suddenly there was some complaints from the National Women’s Loose Bladder Association and the woman who was interviewed was very honest and said that they’d made a complaint because people didn’t know about this problem and it was very good publicity for the cause.’
Of course the knock-on effect is that any deeply hurt member of the public who gets in the news complaining about a joke will only serve to add on a few extra ticket sales for that comic. Being offensive very rarely damages careers these days. When Julian Clary made a live-on-air reference to fisting Norman Lamont backstage at the British Comedy Awards in 1993, the next day’s papers virtually wrote Clary’s showbusiness obituary. This month, he is appearing at the Book Festival with his debut novel and has cropped up on children’s television presenting dog training shows.
‘For me, it’s just nice to be discussed and for people to take a view,’ Carr says of any adverse reaction to his material. ‘But if someone thinks I’m funny, they’re right; if someone thinks I’m not funny, they’re right. That’s the end of the story really, and if you have to make it more of a story then you’ll find a reason: “I don’t like him because he does stuff that’s misogynistic, or he said something that’s homophobic”. Well, I’m neither of those things. These are just little wordplays that titillate and excite. It’s almost pornographic in a sense, the idea that, “he said that thing that you can’t say and it’s kind of fun; I can’t look away”.’
From the moment Carr took his place within the comedy fraternity, people have found it difficult to look away (this isn’t just a cheap swipe at the fact that for a while, whenever you switched onto Channel 4, there he would be providing the filler material to the 100 Greatest Whatevers). Disenchanted with the world of marketing at Shell, this Cambridge graduate of Social and Political Sciences (‘I don’t know whether it’s helped my career but it’s won me a couple of pub quizzes over the years’) snapped up the offer of voluntary redundancy when the company was expecting the youthful likes of him to stay on.
A comedy fan by nature, he had started to write some gags in his last few months at the company, and was happy to take the money and run off to a new life.
‘I arrived at comedy quite dead set on it,’ he recalls. ‘I’m seen by some people as avaricious but I thought I was a massive success as soon as I started playing the Comedy Store. The way it works is that you go to see Eddie Izzard playing for an hour and you think, “my god I could never do that”. Then you go to the Comedy Store and watch guys do fantastic 20-minute sets and think, “I could never do that”. Eventually you go to the Dog and Duck in Stepney and watch some new acts do five or ten minutes, and you look at the awful ones and think, “well, I could do that.” That’s how it starts off.’
Carr’s Edinburgh debut was with the Rubbernecker gang from 2001 fronted by Ricky Gervais and numbered by Stephen Merchant and Robin Ince. Carr’s short sharp shocks and Derek Nimmo-esque faux innocence still remain fresh in the memory and have been honed and chiselled to pinpoint perfection through Fringe shows such as the Perrier-nominated Bare-Faced Ambition through to last year’s Gag Reflex.
This year he is a Repeat Offender and promises another rough ride for those of a sensitive disposition. ‘I’ve got four or five jokes which are genuinely the most “oh, I can’t believe that’s a joke” that I’ve ever written. I wouldn’t really call them offensive, but they’re perhaps things that people might not have thought were now subject matters that jokes could be done about.’ Brace yourselves.
Jimmy Carr, EICC, 0870 4000 886, 16–26 Aug (not 20–22), 9pm, £14 (£12).