Jimmy Carr Just for Laughs Montreal interview

Jimmy Carr on being controversial again and making comedy with a “strong flavour”

“As a comedian, you desperately want to be liked, but it’s okay for people to be offended and to not like it. I mean, there are those who turn it off and say, ‘That’s a bit much for me and I don’t like it,’ but to say, ‘I don’t think anyone should be allowed to hear that,’ those are two different things.”

I went to a Liberal Arts College and then went on to become a journalist and a historian, so you can probably guess I’m pretty close to being a free speech absolutist.  As long as the speech doesn’t cross the line into clearly defined criminal territory, such as advocating harm towards others, or defaming someone’s character, I genuinely believe people should embrace the right to say whatever they want, no matter how uncomfortable it makes other people.

They have the right to say it, just as much as you have the right to ignore it, or, better, still, come right back at them, prove them wrong and make them look like a fool. I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly groundbreaking or revolutionary here. Our society works largely based on this idea. It is the core freedom of a free society.

Unfortunately, final boss level trolls and charlatans like Peter Jordanson (I’m not going to write his real name, you know who I’m talking about) and his ilk have claimed the torch of free speech for themselves, advancing their retrograde, fundamentally hateful rhetoric while wrapping it in the shroud of free expression. I don’t want to live in a world where they’re censored and prevented from speaking as much as I want to live in one where their idiotic statements and often grossly hypocritical stances weren’t so profitable.

Freedom of speech is a fundamentally progressive idea and more often than not it has been the comedians and satirists of our society who have pushed the boundaries of free speech to point out our inherent societal hypocrisies, challenge government authority, undermine the power of Big Business and other elites, and have pushed the people to reconsider all that oppresses us. 

Unfortunately, social media has both destroyed our attention spans and turned conversation (such as it exists within the confines of the most inherently anti-social medium since the short-lived atom bomb fax machine of the 1980s) into the Offence Olympics.

Enter comedian Jimmy Carr, whose distinct brand of comedy lies not so much in saying offensive things for the shock value, but of pointing out our society’s more glaring hypocrisies through offensive misdirection. He’s a comedian you actually have to pay attention to, and for whom context is literally everything; the kind of comedian who insists you turn off your phone not because he’s overly concerned about pirating, but perhaps because if you’re distracted for even a moment, you’re going to miss some crucially important details.

Carr’s most recent Netflix special starts off with a disclaimer he makes himself: there’s a big difference between telling a joke about something and doing that thing. To me, this should be obvious, but not everyone got the memo.

Towards the very end of the show, Carr makes a joke that I won’t reprint here, because it would lack the context of the previous hour or so of Carr’s comedy and the context created therein. I would encourage you to watch it instead. That joke got him into some hot water, and there were calls for his Netflix special to be cancelled, but ultimately this didn’t occur. I’m glad. Not only do I appreciate Carr’s humour, but as a journalist and historian who’s written a fair bit about how our society has trivialized the Holocaust (something I find truly, inexcusably, offensive), his joke cut deep, right to the very heart of the same problem I’ve written about. As far as I’m concerned, no one has the freedom to go through life without offence, particularly so when what’s offensive is exposure to the darker truths about ourselves and our society. 

Taylor C. Noakes: Am I to take it that given your appearance at this year’s Just for Laughs, your efforts to end your own career have been unsuccessful?

Jimmy Carr: Ah, well, it’s a weird thing. I did call a part of my show “career-enders” and then almost got cancelled. I mean there’s cancelled and there’s cancelled. I seem to get cancelled bi-annually and it’s always over a joke. There’s a difference between the mock outrage that comes with “comedian tells a joke and gets cancelled” and someone who really gets cancelled. It seems like an occupational hazard and it’s unavoidable given the kind of stuff I do. But I think people realize, particularly comedy fans, that my jokes are from my head, not my heart. I’m not trying to change anyone’s voting habits, now am I?

TN: On the subject of the ostensibly offensive joke, do you think people didn’t understand why it was funny, or what the point of it was? Or do you think that there’s just a segment of the population that thinks some topics are completely off limits?

JC: I think it’s a really interesting thing that happens where, if you take comedy out of context, and you present it to people who don’t realize it’s not a statement, they don’t get it, but why would they? They’re looking at their Facebook feed and suddenly it’s vile hate speech and they go “oh this is terrible”  and you go, “no no, within its context it’s ironic and sardonic and it’s dark and it’s fun,” but they haven’t seen the first 57 minutes of the show. They’re just introduced to that bit. So it ends up becoming comedy for people who didn’t want or weren’t expecting comedy. If I’m honest, I think the average man on the street is pretty bright, and a lot of this is mock outrage. Who actually confuses my joke with hatred? With thinking that other people are less than? I don’t subscribe to the idea that comedy is punching down… I think a joke is a tickle, we’re all laughing together. I like to think of myself as an equal opportunity offender. I offend everyone. Hopefully no one will feel picked on.

TN: Do you think there’s a segment of the population that’s forgotten the role of the comedian or satirist, forgotten the social contract we have with comedians, or is it that people just need something or someone to be outraged at?

JC: It’s a hard one. I believe in freedom of speech, I really do. I think it’s sacrosanct. It’s one of the building blocks of our culture. But part of that is realizing that I’m not for everyone — I’m a strong flavour. People who choose to come and see my show have a fantastic time. We get on, you know? It’s almost like a friendship. I mean, think about the people you really laugh with: it’s your friends, family and a couple of comedians that really get you. And your personality and your sense of humour are really tied up together. And then suddenly you get to a stage of fame or notoriety and your comedy gets exposed to people who don’t want to hear that kind of comedy. As a comedian, you desperately want to be liked, but it’s okay for people to be offended and to not like it. I mean, there are those who turn it off and say, “I don’t like this” or “that’s a bit much for me and I don’t like it,” but to say, “I don’t think anyone should be allowed to hear that,” those are two different things. I think that social media, at its worst, isn’t an echo chamber, it’s an amplifier. 

What really happened in my last controversy was that I told a joke, and some people didn’t like it. That’s what happened. So if you want to make a big fuss about that, it’s okay, but it’s really not that big of a deal, and there are other things going on in the world.

Jimmy Carr interview Just for Laughs Montreal
British comedian Jimmy Carr, coming to Just for Laughs on July 27

TN: Focusing now on your particular brand of comedy, I noticed that a lot of your comedy seems to be based on paraprosdokians (a statement in which the latter part of the sentence or phrase is surprising or unanticipated in such a way that makes the reader or listener re-interpret the first part). How did you land on this particular, arguably challenging, form of comedy?

JC: So partly it’s the linguistic thing that’s always fascinated me. I’m very dyslexic, and so naturally, as a dyslexic kid, sometimes you misspeak and misread things and you can either be very embarrassed by that or lean into it. And so you see things in a slightly different way. So I use the English language to write my material, rather than more experiential comedy where you have to wait for some funny shit to happen to you. I can just write, which is lovely. And now I’m doing a little bit more observational stuff in my new show, because stuff has happened to me and it’s interesting. You know, there’s COVID, the world is shit, I had kids — and I have lots to say about that. I’m trying to redefine the dad joke. So it’s not all wordplay, but wordplay is my love language. That’s what I like to think. 

TN: Tell me about your writing process. How do you write?

JC: My whole thing is “never refuse the muse,” so if you think of something that might be funny, just get it down. I’ve learned that you do forget, so write down the nub of an idea, and then the writing process is honing that. The writing process is sitting down with an ocean of notes, half-thoughts and ideas and trying to remember what you were thinking. Often you’re reverse-engineering. Sometimes I just write a nice turn of phrase that I then try to work in in some way. It’s a little like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, you know, what would fit where? What joke goes with another joke, what’s a one-liner and what’s part of a bigger routine? I like to think that my shows are really the best of me, all the funniest things I’ve thought of in the last 12 months. 

TN: So how did you get into comedy?

JC: I was in my mid-20s and I was bored; maybe a little dissatisfied with life. I was working for an oil company, which at the time was very prestigious but nowadays it’s like saying, “Yeah, I worked for the Nazis.” I worked for Shell Oil, had a very boring office job, and I wanted to live a life less ordinary. I wanted to do something fun. And I didn’t care about stuff so I just left it all behind to be a comedian. I kind of left to join the circus, and in the UK, in the year 2000, it wasn’t like a huge industry. It was like, “Come do it because it’s fun.”

TN: Who are your comedic influences?

JC: Early on it was Emo Phillips and Steven Wright. I love the wordplay, the energy, the fastballs. Everything in my act for the first 10 years, it was all fastballs. So no long stories, everything was just punchline, punchline, punchline, and I liked the discipline of that. The audience knows there’s a set-up and so if you don’t land the punchline, it’s this awful feeling. I was trying to land three or four of those a minute — it was like a high wire act. But if you could do it, if you could pull it off, it was just magnificent. I think about that phrase “a laugh a minute“ — if you’re only getting a laugh a minute you’ve fucked up.

TN: Who’s a new comedian, a rising star, that you watch for enjoyment?

JC: A lot. Beth Stelling, Catherine Cohen, they’re both absolutely fantastic. There’s a lot of great talent out there and I honestly think we’re living in a golden age. Netflix is largely behind that, they’ve made the market so big now, there’s something for everyone. My comedy isn’t very mainstream but now everyone in the world who wants to watch that kind of comedy can see it. It’s accessible everywhere. YouTube has really helped as well. It’s hard to make a list because you don’t want to leave anyone out. Ivo Graham.

I don’t want to encourage the young new comedians too much because they’re taking bread off my table. I like to tell the new comedians that they should watch a documentary a day. It doesn’t stop them, but it slows them down. ■

Jimmy Carr performs his Terribly Funny 2.0 show at Place des Arts’s Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier (175 Ste-Catherine W.) as part of Just for Laughs on Wednesday, July 27, 8 p.m., $75–$89.50

For more Montreal comedy coverage, please visit the Arts & Life section.