contains some very bad words and quotes some very bad taste jokes
Jimmy Carr also came in for a lot of criticism after a Netflix special called His Dark Material. The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust described the routine as "abhorrent", Hope Not Hate said that he was actively celebrating the Holocaust, and some MP or other talked about him perpetuating and legitimising racism.
And again: his act is clearly in the most appalling taste. He jokes about penises, vaginas, sex, masturbation, funerals, child abuse, cancer, strokes, concentration camps and rape. He makes rather a thing of telling jokes about rape. In themselves, they are not particularly shocking: the shocking thing is that he tells them at all. He claims that, approached by a call-girl in Amsterdam, he replied "I don't need to pay for sex: I'm a rapist" and immediately eye-balls a female member of the audience. "You look like you really don't want to be laughing at that rape joke. But somewhat ironically, I'm forcing you."
And that's very much the formula. Warn the audience that the next joke is going to be incredibly offensive. Make an incredibly offensive joke. Upbraid the audience for laughing at it. Point out that they knew what the act was going to be like when they bought the ticket. Rinse and repeat. It's not that from when Humphrey Lyttleton, of blessed memory, used to mouth "what?" and look bewildered after some filthy double entendre. Or indeed, Frankie Howard's trademark "Ooo...don't you dare!"
Ricky Gervais justified his dreadful material because it was ironic. He was expressing terrible opinions, but he didn't really believe any of them. My contention is that he clearly did believe quite a lot of them, and the audience wouldn't be whooping and applauding if they didn't believe some of them too. Carr mostly doesn't do opinions. When he does take a stance, it is generally on the correct side of an argument. Early in the act, he talks about covid:
"Let's talk about the controversial thing: the vaccine. Who's not going to take the vaccine because they think it might be dangerous? Raise your hand. Now take that hand...and slap yourself in the fucking face."
And a bit later, about race:
"Black Lives Matter happened: clearly a good thing. And then people who didn't really understand it came along and started saying 'all lives matter'.... It's like someone saying 'save the whale' and someone saying 'save all animals'. Yes, but we don't have a problem with people harpooning pigeons, you daft cunt."
It was said of 70s Irish raconteur Dave Allen that he thought any old shaggy-dog yarn became twice as funny if he added the word "bloody" to the punchline. Jimmy Carr takes the same approach with rather ruder words.
Both remarks are recognisably jokes. The first involves a change of direction -- raise your hand to show assent / raise your hand in order to hit yourself. The second involves an absurd analogy. The point about the stupidity of the "all lives matter" slogan would be made equally well by pointing out that "all houses matter", but fire trucks don't generally speed to buildings that are not currently burning down; and that "all swimmers matter" but we don't generally throw life jackets to people who are not drowning. But the absurd image of people hunting pigeons like whales makes the political point with a belly laugh. If the object was merely to shock and court controversy, he could presumably have done a little rant about snowflakes wearing face pants and sheeple kneeling at the shrine of PC. The Ricky Gervais routine writes itself: if you won't kill Hitler in case it changes the colour of your hair, then obviously you won't wear an uncomfortable item on your face to stop someone else getting sick. Carr doesn't do this. Some people are even now writing essays accusing him of excessive wokeness.
But he rarely expresses a point-of-view, ironic or otherwise. He certainly never says "Maybe rape is good, actually", even as a comic stance. What he says is "Rape is terrible. So terrible you shouldn't joke about it. So here is a joke about rape."
Jimmy Carr's defence of his terrible material is essentially that words don't matter and you can say whatever you like:
"Lets start with a trigger warning. Tonight's show contains jokes about terrible things. Terrible things that might have affected you, or the people you love. But these are just jokes: they're not the terrible things. There's a huge difference between doing a joke about rape, and doing a rape. I fucking hope. Or I'm going to jail forever."
Now this is an obvious straw man. No-one has ever claimed that joking about murder is just as bad as killing someone; no one has ever claimed that telling a joke about genocide is the moral equivalent of a war crime. Ricky Gervais says directly that "people nowadays" want you to believe that "words are actual violence", and demonstrates that this is not the case by pretending to beat up a disabled toddler.
But no-one does, in fact, say that words are actual physical violence. You can only get to "a comedian can say whatever he likes because words don't do actual physical harm" if you start from "people in general should be allowed to say whatever they like because words don't do actual physical harm". And some people, sadly, do say exactly that. They say that words don't have consequences. They say that words are so important that it doesn't matter whether they have consequences or not. They say that a romany gypsy who objects to Jimmy Carr's holocaust jokes and a traveller who objects to being called pikey in the playground are both equally pathetic effeminate millennial snowflakes who should suck it up. The real threat to civilisation is not racism, but laws against racism. Bullying is good, actually.
If you want to draw political conclusions from this kind of act, that's the one you should draw. If you ban hate speech, you'd have to ban jokes; if you permit jokes, you have to allow hate speech. Every bad taste joke you laugh at strikes a small blow for free speech.
I think some campaigners are genuinely unable to perceive context, and I think some free speech campaigners are genuinely worried about them getting the upper hand. We all remember moral welfare campaigners who felt that Batman stopping a bank robbery was irreducibly a "crime comic" and Dennis the Menace getting spanked was nothing more or less than a "child abuse comic". Many of us lived through an era where stories about happy same-sex couples were (in some contexts) against the law because "talking about gay people" was the same as "promoting homosexuality." We all agree that this is pernicious nonsense. But fear of this kind of thing can lead to equal and opposite extremism. Rowan Atkinson affects to believe that the right to say whatever you like is the second most important right: not as important as the right to food, but more important than the right to shelter. It is better to be street homeless than to be prohibited from making jokes about silly vicars. It's the sort of thing that only a rich person with a big house could possibly say.
Jimmy Carr is not a free speech absolutist. He says (to his credit) that comedians ought not to "look round" before speaking: if you wouldn't tell a particular joke if you saw a black person or a disabled person in the room, then you shouldn't tell it at all. I rather think that the conclusion he draws is not "There are some jokes I wouldn't tell" but "I don't mind who I offend." Bernard Manning, of rather less blessed memory, used to claim that he was not a racist because he told jokes about every race; which is a little like saying that you are not a wife-beater because you beat up your kids and complete strangers as well. But the point (about not looking round before telling a joke) is well made.
Jimmy Carr tells jokes. Old fashioned jokes with set-ups, twists, verbal ambiguities and punch lines. Not all very clever, but delivered at a quick fire pace, so quantity overwhelms quality. Anyone who frequented Butlins Redcoat Shows or watched Seaside Special in the 1970s will encounter a number of very old friends, repurposed around eternal verities like mortality and self-abuse.
"Once, my mother walked in on me masturbating, and I said 'Mum, stop masturbating'"
That joke is pure Basil Brush-out-of-Groucho Marx:
"This morning I answered the door to the post-man in my dressing gown. I told him to take it off immediately and buy one of his own."
"One morning I shot an elephant in my pyjamas. How he got into my pyjamas, I don't know".
It's also a meta joke, a joke against his own profession. It's a colossal cliche for alternative comedians to tell stories about awkward teenage sexuality. I once heard a guy literally opening his set with "Hey, wanking. Wanking! Wanking, eh? But sometimes your mum walks in. That's in my contract, now I can start the act." Carr's set-up says "I am going to tell an embarrassing story against myself": the punch line says "Fooled you -- it's just a daft wordplay." It's not a million miles from "A man walked into a bar, ouch, it was an iron bar".
"My father died"
"What was it?"
"The big C"
"No, he drowned."
I tell precisely this joke to small children:
"What's a pirate's favourite letter of the alphabet?"
"You'd think it would be R, but they're really all about the C."
At some level, it's another joke about jokes, and a Jimmy Carr joke about Jimmy Carr jokes. It's rather outrageous to talk about The Taboo Illness through the medium of a Christmas Cracker gag. It doesn't occur to us to ask how Person B felt when he mistook drowning for cancer -- was he embarrassed at misunderstanding a tragic situation? or cross that Person A had deliberately misled hm? You might as well ask if my wife had a good time in Jamaica, and whether she was in the end pleased that I insisted she go.
Probably a third of Carr's material involves this kind of change of register: introducing a serious subject and then talking about it trivially; or talking lightly about something and then revealing that he was really talking about something very serious indeed.
"So, I'm in a thirty mile per hour zone, built up area, middle of the day, so what am I doing? Thirty miles per hour. Driving along, minding my own business, come across a guy doing barely ten. So what do you do in that scenario? Flash your lights, toot the horn, let him know, either move over or speed up. He did neither.... And this is what I'm dealing with: he had one of those "novelty licence plates." Beloved Mum, in flowers..."
Ricky Gervais would like us to believe that he actually made an obscene remark about his friend's granny's clitoris at her funeral -- or that his fictional stage persona had done so, or that his stage persona wants us to believe he had done so. The friend's reaction to the utterly inappropriate remark is the point of the story. Carr definitely doesn't want us to imagine that he really doesn't know a wreath from a licence plate, or to consider how people on their way to a funeral would feel if the driver behind them started sounding his horn. Like the cancer gag it's a verbal construct that takes place in joke-land.
I've sometimes been bothered by old Laurel & Hardy routines, because they seem to transpose slapstick situations into the real world. I find it harder to laugh at a pie-in-the-face routine if I am being told that the baker is sad because his nice cake has been destroyed and the bride is sad because her wedding cake has been ruined. I find it harder to laugh at wheels coming off a clown's car if I am supposed to pretend that it is a real car and the owner has lost a valuable asset and been put out of business. Perhaps this is what is meant when we say that joking about terrible things is not the same as actually doing terrible things. Jokes don't even hurt imaginary people: there are no characters in joke land.
Some of Carr's more anecdotal material does have explicit consequences: and notably these stories are a lot less cruel, and sometimes directed against himself. His story about doing a comedy routine in a hospice depends on the reaction of terminally ill patients to his bad-taste jokes. He claims that when he said "We don't have much time, well, I do..." the audience was pleased that he had mentioned the elephant in the room, but when he said "Anyone here from last year?" it fell flat. True or not, the sense that this is a real situation in which the comedian went too far and felt mortified is the point of the story.
But of course, a lot of the act is pure smut, as smutty as possible, smut and nothing but, smut for the sake of being smutty. It's quite juvenile, generally directed at members of the audience and supposed hecklers. ("I'm going to go soft on you. Like every man who's ever seen you naked.") At one point he asks the women in the audience to shout out their names for their genitals. In some possible world, there could have been a feminist message behind this: it is both funny and uncomfortable to hear grown up women admitting to using terms like "flower", "minky" and "nunu". There would be nothing particularly funny about getting men to shout out "cock", "prick" or "willy": that's just what the thing is called. Carr has some ad libs about the various euphemisms -- he is very quick witted indeed, although I do wonder if some of the heckles he responds to are purely imaginary. But it's mostly a build up to a daft punchline in which he portrays himself in a deliberately childish light. "My wife calls it her fu-fu; which to be honest makes mister dingle-dangle not want to do the humpy hump."
Well, yes. We tend not to talk about our thingybobs and etceteras. And because we don't talk about them, we don't know what to call them, and because we don't know what to call them, we only have silly names for them, which makes it harder to talk about them. I believe modern childcare manuals encourage parents to use Proper Words, but very few do so. The one time I was in hospital as an adult, I was uncomfortable with nurses using babyish expressions like "willy" and "number two" but I don't know what else they could have done.
When we mention things we aren't allowed to mention, some people are uncomfortable. Offended, even. Angry. But it makes other people laugh. And it's a comedian's job to make people laugh: so, naturally, he is going to mention things he isn't allowed to mention. The ruder the word, the more taboo the subject, the more people hollering that he isn't allowed to say that on the stage, the funnier the gag. If comedians ever stopped mentioning the unmentionable they would have stopped being comedians. I suppose that some comedians have a genuine fear that this is the end game that the various species of puritan are working towards.
Or is there a kind of unspoken double-think? Is there a kind of cultural agreement that we will pretend that you aren't allowed to say "shit" or "cunt" even though we know you are? And therefore we pretend that when a comedian uses one of those words, we are very shocked indeed, even though we are no such thing? And this allows us to pretend that rude jokes are funny, even if, in the cold light of day, they aren't? (We used, after all, to have a tacit agreement that if anyone said "mother in law" we would all fall about.) On the other hand there are some words that you really aren't allowed to say: even in italics and quotation marks, even in the course of an essay about bad words, even if you use *st*r*sks to blot them out. Fuck me all the fucks you like but if I say "J*h*v*h" or "N*gg*r" god will strike me down with a gigantic boulder. I can't even say that I can't say it.
Carr ends his routine with what he heavily signals will be very bad taste jokes indeed. He describes them as his Career Ending Gags. As usual, many of them are clever and polyvocal:
"I don't like being told to take off my shoes at airports. Really, Heathrow? Just got new carpets, have you? I wouldn't take off my shoes if I was visiting a Mosque. And that sort of cultural insensitivity towards Islam should tell you, I'm not the guy you're looking for."
It's an edgy, taboo subject: terrorism and religion. It takes place, again, in joke-land. If you actually refused to co-operate with Airport security, you'd end up in a cell. I find it very hard to parse it as anti-Muslim. There's a misdirect: wouldn't it be funny if security staff were worried about mud on the carpet. There's an ironic yoking together of two different things: take your shoes off to be searched by security / take your shoes off out of respect in a holy place. And there's a paradoxical pay off: the fact that I won't take off my shoes proves I don't need to. The joke teller doesn't have a clear position and I think our difficulty in processing what has just been said is what makes it funny. Are we laughing at the Islamaphobia of the narrative voice (who won't take his shoes off in a mosque)? or the Islamaphobia of the security man (for assuming that if he's not a Muslim, he can't be a terrorist)? or at ourselves (for momentarily seeing the security man's point)?
oh but Andrew if you had dark skin and were hassled by security every time you went onto an aeroplane or for that matter if you'd lost loved ones to a terrorist attack which could have been prevented by sensible airport searches than I wonder if you'd be laughing I doubt if you'd laugh if you slipped up on a banana skin and hurt yourself you'd probably be quite annoyed there is absolutely no difference between playing my ding-a-ling on top of the pops and doing a blue peter makes table demonstration of masturbation techniques and incidentally no difference between talking about masturbation in an age appropriate sex education presentation and grooming kids on the internet dirty things are dirty islamaphobic things are islamophobic racist things are racist comedy is no excuse
Perhaps, then, it is not particular subjects which are off limits. Perhaps particular subjects are off-limits for jokes. Perhaps the taboo is not "mentioning terrorism". Perhaps the taboo is "mentioning terrorism in a joke.
But which are the joke-free categories?
The Scotsman says "For my last request, I would like to hear a bagpiper play the Bluebells of Scotland".
The Irishman says "Before I die, I would like to hear an Irish tenor sing Croppy Boy."
The Englishman thinks for a minute and says "Would you shoot me first?"
If I am allowed to joke about firing squads, ship-wrecks, death-beds, suicide, and crucifixion who decided that I am not allowed to joke about gas chambers? And won't that create an infinite regress? If gas chamber jokes are taboo and taboo breaking is funny then aren't the kinds of jokes that comedians aren't allowed to tell precisely the kinds of jokes we'd expect comedians to start telling?
I'm not sure if I ought to quote Jimmy Carr's awful, terrible, very bad, not good joke. At first I wasn't going to, but you've heard it already and can easily google for it, so here it is.
"When people talk about the Holocaust, they talk about the tragedy and horror of six million Jewish lives being lost to the Nazi war machine. But they never mention the thousands of Gypsies that were killed by the Nazis. No one ever wants to talk about that, because no one ever wants to talk about the positives.”
We can agree that this joke is in very, very, very, very, very, very, very poor taste. I think we can agree that the very, very, very, very poor taste is the point of it. Carr delivers it in a more than usually arch tone of voice; as if he is speaking in quotation marks. After delivering the punch line, he immediately starts talking about the joke, and why it is funny. ("Edgy, edgy as all hell, it's a joke about the worst thing that has ever happened in human history.") But it would be completely off the wall to infer that the joke is, on any level, actually celebrating the holocaust, or actually calling for the extermination of Roma.
Does the joke depend on anti-traveller racism? I'm not completely sure that it does. The Airport gag was about anti-Muslim prejudice. The train of thought goes: "Dang right, if he's anti-Muslim he can't be a terrorist, oh shit, what am I thinking, ha-ha". But I don't think the holocaust joke expects us to say "Yes! Killing gypsies was a positive -- fuck, no, of course it wasn't ha-ha." I think the laugh is merely about the incongruity of saying that a bad thing was a good thing, with a straight face. One can easily imagine how a comedian in the Ricky Gervais mould would treat the same material. Ironically, of course. Have you ever noticed how gypsies sometimes park their caravans inconveniently, leave lots of litter, and try to sell you craft items you don't really want? All I am saying is that Hitler had the right idea. No, honestly, of course I don't want to kill all the gypsies. Just the ones on my street. No, stop it, gassing minorities is totally abhorrent. You should shoot them. But seriously folks..."
but andrew that's not the point you don't make jokes about genocide you just don't you just don't
Miss Beale said that you mustn't make a joke about bums, because bums are not the sorts of things you should make jokes about. Mrs Whitehouse said you shouldn't make a joke about, er, ding-a-lings, because ding-a-lings are not the sorts of things you should make jokes about. And all right thinking people agree that you mustn't make jokes about genocide because genocide isn't the kind of thing you can make a joke about.
You can make jokes about anything apart from the things which you can't make jokes about. And we all agree which those things are. Except where we don't.
But a joke is a thing which makes you laugh, and a good joke is one that a lot of people laughed at, and everyone laughed at Jimmy Carr's awful terrible no good bad joke
Well, they shouldn't have done.
Boom boom. I'll be here all week.
I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.
If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider backing me on Patreon (pledging £1 each time I publish an article.)
Pledge £1 for each essay.