He doesn’t drink, rarely eats after 6pm and approaches every joke as if he were solving a puzzle. But for all his discipline, does Jimmy Carr sometimes go too far?
Sitting opposite me in a dimly lit bar in north London is a 39-year-old comedian whose appearance – black hair, black eyes, black top – seems to reflect his humour. Combined with his baby face, he reckons, this impression of blackness makes him look like a “Lego Hitler”. And it amuses him to tell people that when his girlfriend Karoline Copping, a television producer, first met him 10 years ago, she thought he had “the eyes of a rapist”.
The eyes may be one reason why passers-by give Jimmy Carr a double take, but more likely it is to do with his ubiquity – from guest appearances on BBC shows such as QI and Have I Got News For You to the shows he hosts on Channel 4: 8 Out of 10 Cats and 10 O’Clock Live. That and the constant touring he does of his live show. He tells me he has developed a comedy wiggle of his black eyebrows as a way of acknowledging fans who stare at him, without having to actually stop for a chat when he is trying to catch a train or get to a meeting.
“You never want to be the grumpy guy, although I do have quite a grumpy face,” he says. “So I raise my eyebrows like this.” He demonstrates. “I learned it from Jim Carrey 20 years ago when I was working as an intern in LA. I found myself in a lift with him and said: ‘You’re…’ and he did a perfect Mexican wave with his eyebrows.” Pause. “Then the lift door opened.” Carr tells anecdotes almost as succinctly as he tells jokes, talking quickly and using the f-word in the casual way that others use dashes and semi colons. “I like to write a joke without any fat on it,” he says. “The shorter the better. I cater for people with ADD, basically.”
He certainly employs a lot of these short jokes in his live shows. There are always 300 in a set. One from his new DVD gives a flavour of his comic voice. “The first few weeks of joining Weight Watchers, you’re just finding your feet.” As well as speaking quickly, Carr does something else which I didn’t notice him doing when I last interviewed him six years ago. He laughs easily, a double beat that fades away into an upper register: Ha-haaah! “Yes, I have this crazy honk of a laugh,” he says. “I started out deliberately deadpan, but now I do laugh more. When I look back at my old DVDs, I seem quite uptight.”
Certainly he seems happier; more comfortable in his own skin. Not worried about turning 40 next year, then? “No, I’m fine with it. I think I had my midlife crisis when I was 26. People are having them earlier. It’s to do with life speeding up. Now, I’m paid to have funny thoughts, which was all I ever wanted.” His meltdown came after he graduated from Cambridge and drifted into a job in marketing that he loathed. He gave up work, had therapy, renounced his Catholicism, lost his virginity and decided to become a comedian. “I was very secretive. I didn’t let anyone know I was doing it for the first six months. No friends and family coming along.’’ Can he remember any of his early jokes? “Um, yeah, there was this one where I said: You hear about boxers saying ‘I’m from the ghetto and there was only one way out’. Well, I was from the middle class. I lived in a cul-de-sac. There was only one way out.”
His background was indeed middle class. His father, from whom he is now estranged, was an accountant in Slough. His parents separated in 1994 and his mother died in 2001 from pancreatitis, a loss which affected him deeply.
Has he no need for therapy now? “This is my free therapy, talking about myself to you. I’m in a pretty good mood most of the time. Get a bit grumpy sometimes. But you can’t stay grumpy when you have to think of jokes each day. Joke mining.” It occurs to me that this “mining for jokes” may still be a form of therapy. At 26, he found something that chased away his black dogs. Since then, not a day has gone by that he hasn’t thought up a joke with which to do some more chasing. Indeed, he comes up with so many, usually as he is reading the papers, that he cannot help feeding them to his million-and-a-half followers on Twitter.
Doesn’t he worry that he’s squandering material? “It’s more I worry that someone will read my throwaway jokes on Twitter and think this guy isn’t as good as he used to be. If that’s the case, I want to tell them: ‘No. This is the stuff I’m throwing away. This isn’t my A material.’”
Although he has a reputation for performing jokes that can cause offence, Carr doesn’t regard his material as being gratuitously offensive. They may ostensibly be “about” rape, or paedophilia, or incest, or obesity, but, to him, the jokes are simply “about” jokes, to the point where the subject is almost abstract in his imagination.
A good example of the dangers of this approach came when he was branded “sick” by Twitter users, after tweeting a joke about a car crash just 48 hours after last month’s M5 pile up in which seven people were killed. The comic had tweeted: “A couple married for 66 years died within 3 days of each other. That’s nothing. My grandparents died on exactly the same day… car crash.” Perhaps more worryingly, he doesn’t seem to believe that people might be genuinely affronted. “I always wonder, were you really offended by that? Really? People tend to be offended on behalf of other people. I think generally people are pretty bright and they get that something is a joke and that is all it is.”
But what about the people who aren’t offended? Does he ever worry that they ought to be, just a little, if their moral compass is functioning properly? “No. Gallows humour has always been around because it’s the way that we deal with difficult taboo situations, with death and sex and things you don’t want to have to talk about head on.
“So the dark side seems like a very natural place for comedy to live. It’s difficult to come up with funny jokes about taking the dog for a walk on a sunny day… you don’t need to lighten that load. But if someone’s dying, that’s where comedy tends to occur.”
It’s an unexpectedly thoughtful answer given how cavalier Carr can seem on this topic. Black comedy saved him from his own darkest thoughts, he seems to be saying, so it might help others. In his live shows he plays to huge audiences. Presumably, though, they’re not all middle class graduates with a keen sense of postmodern irony.
Indeed, he tells me there is often a distinctive “Saturday night crowd”, which can be “quite in your face”, and which is different from the more “theatrical” Sunday night crowd. Is he ever concerned that some of the Saturday nighters might not appreciate that he is being ironic? That they are supposed to be laughing with him about the nature of prejudice, not at the victims of rape, or racism? “It will sound like I’m being overly protective of my audience, but I meet people after the show, signing autographs for them, and they’re all different ages, creeds, colours and backgrounds. The thing they have in common is a sense of humour.”
Isn’t that wishful thinking? “No. If there’s a woman in her seventies in my audience I know that there’s no point worrying that this material might be a bit rude for her. She’s fine.” Nevertheless, Carr has aroused anger in the past, in response to jokes he told about British army amputees and another (which occasioned the BBC to offer an apology) about gipsies. Over the last couple of years, however, it is Carr’s fellow comedian, Frankie Boyle, who has provoked thousands of complaints, over jokes he has told about Down’s syndrome, the Queen’s sex life and Rebecca Adlington’s nose, the last of which led to another BBC apology.
Is Carr slightly relieved that Boyle now appears to be taking all the heat previously directed at him? “Saw Frankie on Saturday for lunch when I was in Glasgow. He’s doing his thing…”
I suppose the context for this change of public mood was “Sachsgate”, the incident involving Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand and a notorious phone call. Have comedians had to become more circumspect? “Well, I’m very lucky working with Channel 4, but even when I’ve been working for the BBC they’ve been supportive and have said ‘Say what you want, we aren’t going to try and stop you.’” His defence seems to be that he and Boyle never offer an opinion one way or the other when they’re telling their controversial jokes. But did he offer Boyle any advice on how to deal with the fallout? “I don’t think he’s looking for solace, but I said to him, ‘OK, it was a joke, wasn’t it?’ There was no agenda. The media is partly to blame because they over-analyse and ask what point the comedian is making with that joke.”
That’s hardly fair. There are lots of comedians with political agendas, from Ben Elton onwards. “Yes, he did do some Labour rallies and was a brilliant and influential stand-up. But the idea that people might ask this Frankie Boyle, or this Jimmy Carr, who they should vote for.” He holds up his hands in exasperation. “No! We just want you to laugh and if you don’t find it funny, please leave, because it’s not for you.” Just out of curiosity, why is it, does he suppose, that all comedians on Channel 4 and Radio 4 are left wing? Take his co-hosts on the 10 O’Clock Show, David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker. Left of Lenin, the pair of them.
“Yes, on that show we are left-leaning and liberal but we do try and get beyond the paradigm of a two party system.” He shakes his head. “Even talking to you I’m embarrassed because why am I talking to the Telegraph about politics? There are a million more interesting people you could talk to about politics than me.” He read politics at university, though. Did he ever consider becoming a politician himself? “Not really. I was chatting to Eddie Izzard about this recently. He’s talking about running for mayor and I said I don’t understand it. Why would you go from having the best job in the world to the worst? Do you really want to spend your time organising barricades that will prevent Christmas shoppers from slipping on the pavement?”
I ask what gives him pleasure, apart from thinking of jokes. “Play a bit of tennis.” Who does he play with? He hesitates and grins. “Ah no, that would be a bit name-droppy…” (I Google “Jimmy Carr” and “tennis” later and see that his partner is Jonathan Ross.)
Another difference between Carr now and when we last met is that there’s less of him. “I know, I’m thinking of writing a diet book. Its title will be ‘Put That Down, Fatty’.” (His secret, he says, is hardly ever eating after 6pm). Carr doesn’t drink, either, but he is, he says, a caffeine fiend. “I’m a devotee of Starbucks. I’ve had three ventis today. People knock global brands but when you pull into Kings Lynn and see a Starbucks, you feel so relieved.” Doesn’t he get sick of spending so much time on tour, living in hotels? “On the contrary, they’re a home from home. Last month I spent more nights in the Manchester Malmaison than I did at home.” And his girlfriend is happy about this? “I think she’s been very patient, but I do think my work-life balance has been crap. But when you’re self-employed, you take the work when it’s there.”
I wonder if, after 10 years on the road, he couldn’t now afford to slow it down a bit? “Actually, I only work two hours a day. People give themselves years off in showbusiness, that doesn’t happen in any other job. You never meet a plumber who says I’ve been plumbing for five years and thought I’d have a year off.” When pressed he eventually reveals what really drives him: a desperate need to be loved by his audience. “A great comic is loved and I’m not a great comic. But I aim to be. I’ll work on it. I’ll put the hours in. God knows, if it can be done through sweat, I’ll do it.”