Jimmy Carr And That Joke

Big Fat Quiz Of Everything Returns

I’ve been wrestling with this Jimmy Carr holocaust joke ever since the story broke at the end of last week. I thought it might fizzle out but as it has gathered momentum, with the government even getting involved I thought I’d better chip in.

I’ve followed Carr’s career since the very early days when he would do club spots and enter stand-up competitions. The first time I saw him in Edinburgh in 2001 I think he was on a bill with some other names that were just starting out – Robin Ince, Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais.

Carr was always a worker, prepared to put in the miles and the effort to come a better comedian. He worked hard to get his routines correct, pitching up at clubs with his newly minted gags on a clipboard ready to try them out. He seemed to be about as thorough as a comedian could be.

Which is why the furore over this gag has been confusing. Even though it was part of the section of his show where he knowingly pushed the envelope about as far as it will go I’m still not sure if it should have passed his stringent quality control threshold.

There are two mantras in comedy these days. You can’t say anything any more. Which is patently absurd. And you can say anything if it is funny enough. No subject is off-limits. To me it felt as if Carr’s joke seems to have adhered to the second principle.

But it is more complex than that. First, trigger warning, here is the joke: “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.”

Not only did he make a joke that he seemed to consider highly edgy, he then went on to justify it intellectually by adding that the joke has “an educational quality” because he is bringing up something that often gets overlooked. So for a career ending joke appears to want to have it both ways. Be a total edgelord and also a conscientious educator. 

Carr is clearly not a Nazi sympathiser, let’s make that abundantly clear. And I doubt if there were any Nazi sympathisers in his audience when he filmed the special. But there might have been people watching who think it is OK to make jokes about gypsies. 

In a world we we are all supposed to have fixed, unchanging opinions I just don’t know. I didn’t particularly want to support Carr on this one, but when I heard that paragon of wit Nadine Dorries on the subject my sympathies immediately transferred to Carr. I feel like Paul Whitehouse’s Fast Show character who changes his stance depending on who he speaks to.

If I was going to take the side of people I respect though I might still struggle to stick up for the gag. David Baddiel and Victoria Coren Mitchell both pointed out on social media that they are close friends of Carr. They both defended Carr – Coren called him “a properly decent person”– but not the actual joke. 

Some people on social media have even suggested that the furore is part of some wider conspiracy. The special has been on Netflix since Christmas Day, so why the fuss now? Has the government used it as a distraction tactic to take people’s minds off partygate? I’m not convinced. I don’t think the government is that clever for a start. 

Carr of course won’t be cancelled. In fact it is interesting that he has done this at a time when he has been moving further and further into the primetime mainstream, even hosting Saturday night shows. It’s an odd position. You can’t imagine Frankie Boyle fronting a shiny floored light entertainment show.

Maybe Carr will be less mainstream, maybe he won’t. Maybe he will for a while. Maybe it will blow over before you've even read this. Whenever I’ve previewed Carr’s live gigs I’ve always warned audiences that Carr’s material onstage is a lot more brutal than his material on TV. This has been the case for years so in that sense this latest controversy is no surprise.

He even gives his own warning at the start of his show: “Tonight’s show contains jokes about terrible things, terrible things that may have affected you and the people that you love. But these are just jokes, they’re not the terrible things.”

Carr has never been what you might call a warm comedian. Critics tend to admire his craft rather than like his stage persona. One of my favourite jokes is a joke that Carr has suggested might be the world’s smallest (no pun intended) joke. “Dwarf shortage” - two words, a pun and a punchline. If you don’t like that he has an equally minimalist less contentious one: “Venison’s deer” - though it isn’t quite as good as it works best when said rather than spelt out.

As I said earlier Carr isn’t evil. He is not a bad man. He knows comedy inside out. He is usually brilliant at reading a room - watch him put down endless hecklers for example. But on this occasion it feels as if he maybe got it wrong. But a career ender? I very much doubt it. 



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