Wilfully offensive. Shiny-toothed smug git. Jimmy Carr is far from universally popular – but he’s also one of the funniest comedians on the planet.
Behind his deliberately cheesy TV persona, Carr is also a thoughtful student of comedy. Stewart Lee revealed Carr quietly does a lot to help fund new comedians and venues.
A political science graduate from Cambridge University, Carr quit his marketing job to become a stand-up in 2000. Ever since, he’s been a relentless crafter of superb one-liners.
Surprisingly filthy in concert, Carr’s willingness to push the taste boundaries got him in trouble with Ofcom when he made a gag about “a dwarf shortage” on BBC1’s usually cosy The One Show.
Speaking to Loaded from his London home, the 43-year-old says: “It’s the audience who are the arbiters of what’s funny. There’s no point in me saying something horrible just for shock value. If the audience aren’t laughing, there’s really no point.”
Quoting Lenny Bruce, the late 60s comic who pretty much invented shock humour, Carr adds: “The audience is a genius. I love that quote. The audience decides what is and isn’t funny.”
Having been one of the best-selling comedians since his first DVD was released in 2004, Carr is changing by releasing his most recent tour, Funny Business, on Netflix. What hasn’t changed is the gag count. As Carr himself says: “It’s 300 jokes in a row. Three a minute for an hour.”
He’s more serious away from the stage, but more easygoing too. You’d like him.
Loaded: Does writing jokes get easier with experience?
Jimmy Carr: Not to sound full of myself, but I think I’m getting better at my job. Most people get better at their jobs, and performers are no exception. I’m better at being myself on stage. I probably write fewer jokes now, but more of them work.
Loaded: Do you have a great lost joke, where you think “That deserved a bigger laugh”?
Jimmy: I do, but comedy has to be ego-free. The audience knows best. Jimmy Seinfeld has a great analogy, that comedy is taking people on a journey over a ravine. If it’s just a small step over the ravine, it’s no fun. But if the leap is too far, you just fall. You have to get the balance right. There are jokes where I’ve thought “Yeah, that’s going to kill!” and I get nothing. But you can always go back and rewrite them.
“There’s no point in me saying something horrible just for shock value”
Loaded: One of your most famous gags is “My girlfriend can’t get pregnant. Not the way we do it, anyway.” Has your girlfriend (Channel 5 exec Karoline Copping, who has been with Carr since 2001) ever been upset by a joke you’ve made about your relationship?
Jimmy: Never, but none of my comedy is true. It’s just jokes. There’s no message to my comedy. I’m not changing the world about anything, I’m just trying to make you laugh. It’s like being a drug dealer, basically, and the drug I’m dealing is endorphins. Luckily, endorphins are natural and I just try to release them. So my girlfriend has never said “That’s too much”, because she knows it’s just made up. And you also have to have a fairly well-developed sense of humour to go out with me in the first place.
Loaded: As someone who’s done well out of DVD sales, how do you feel that the future of comedy is being available free on Netflix?
Jimmy: It’s just the format that’s changed, I think the comedy special will always be with us. You had albums by people like Billy Connolly in the 70s, then it was VHS videos, then DVDs. The concept doesn’t really change, because funny is funny. And it’s a nice thought that Funny Business is available all around the world instantly on Netflix. After watching an hour of a dark Netflix drama like House Of Cards or Narcos, you need to take the edge off with a bit of comedy. And I’m there for you. The only bad thing I’ll say about Netflix is that it isn’t available in North Korea or Syria. That’s two markets lost to me straight away. Other than that, I’m killing it.
Loaded: Would you ever veer away from stand-up into writing a sitcom?
Jimmy: I think I’ve got the best job as it is. I saw Aziz Anzari’s sitcom Masters Of None and thought “Maybe I could do something like this.” But something that well-crafted looks easy. On a great sitcom, it looks like everyone is just having fun, but you don’t get to see the eight months of hard meetings and slog in the writers’ room first.
Loaded: Are you able to laugh at other comedians, or are you too busy analysing it to smile yourself?
Jimmy: The greatest compliment I can pay a stand-up is when I think “Oh, that’s clever.” When I watched Anthony Jeselnik’s Netflix special, about four times I cursed myself, going “Damn, I should have thought of that!” I always laugh first, because it’s instinctive, but then I wish I’d come up with that joke first.
Loaded: You’re known for your unique laugh. Did you ever see BBC3’s Murder In Successville’s impression of your laugh, when they implied you were a serial killer?
Jimmy: I did, and that was a pretty good impression. But it’s so weird, turning on the TV and suddenly seeing someone do an impression of your laugh. Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse did a fairly decent one of me too.
Loaded: Do you try to write comedy to a 9-5 office routine, or wait for inspiration to strike?
Jimmy: I spend my life waking up at 3am with funny little thoughts. I go “Oh no, not now” and try to convince myself it’s not funny enough to write down. But I inevitably think “Well, this is my job” and write it down anyway. Half the time, the next day I think “Why did I bother?” because it’ll be absolute nonsense.
“It’s so weird, turning on the TV to see someone do an impression of your laugh”
Loaded: What’s your take on comedians like Michael McIntyre being criticised by other comics for not being cool enough?
Jimmy: I’m always struck by the amount of camaraderie there is in stand-up. There’s plenty of room for everyone. I’d hate to be an actor, because that’s when I’d get jealous. Every actor of the same generation must be eyeing up Daniel Craig and thinking “Maybe I can take over as James Bond”, but only one will get the job. It must be a nightmare every time someone else gets the role you want. But people laugh at all sorts of comedy, so we can all just do our own thing.
Loaded: Who are your favourite new comedians?
Jimmy: Rob Beckett could play the O2 in a couple of years. He’s hilarious and has mass appeal. And I can’t wait for Roisin Conaty’s sitcom that’s coming this year. I love everything about Roisin, she’s just got funny bones.
Loaded: Speaking of playing London’s O2 arena, why do you prefer playing theatres? You could easily sell out arenas…
Jimmy: I want to have a long career. I could do a night to 20,000 people at the O2, but it’d feel like a snatch-and-grab. Audience interaction is 20% of what I do, and if you’re playing to 16,000 people you simply can’t hear what people are shouting at the back. I really enjoy it when people join in. Also, if I played arenas, my tour would be 20 shows. I’d rather play 250 shows around the UK when I tour. That’s my job – and I really like going to work.
Jimmy Carr: Funny Business is available from today on Netflix.
Loaded’s deputy editor John Earls has covered entertainment and sport across a range of national newspapers, plus several football and music magazines, since 1990. Follow him on Twitter at @EarlsJohn