Among all the references to Alexei Sayle, Ted Chippington and Simon Munnery in Stewart Lee’s How I Escaped My Certain Fate nestled some unexpectedly gushing praise for Jimmy Carr – a far less skilled, alternative or moral comic than Lee or his heroes.
Carr was described as ‘little more than a living saint’ for offering to finance the filming of Lee’s stand-up material during his TV-deprived wilderness years. It has now become clear how Carr could afford to make such grand gestures of generosity.
It is not surprising that Carr avoided tax. As well as coming from a privileged background, he has the ‘I earned it so I’m keeping it’ attitude of somebody who grafted up the greasy pole of showbusiness through years of relentlessly presenting the most undignified of gameshows, from Distraction, through Your Face Or Mine?, to E4’s Stick A Carrot In Your Eye For A Tenner.
His gags are regularly at the expense of the less fortunate, delivered with a tone of stiff, elite condescension, and he has the kind of smug face that wouldn’t appear out of place in one of those photographs of the Bullingdon Club in which David Cameron and Boris Johnson pose in their tuxes while plotting how to gang-bang the nation into a state of baffled servitude.
Incidentally, David Cameron himself has joined the Carr-gate tax debate by describing ‘the Jimmy Carr scheme’ as ‘morally wrong’, which certainly seems to be a case of the pot calling the kettle a shiny toff-faced git who resembles a condom.
What was surprising was that this co-host of 10 O’Clock Live was ever employed on a ‘satirical’ show in the first place. Before fronting ‘Channel 4’s answer to The Daily Show’, Carr was known largely for his controversial one-liners about gypsies, rape victims and the disabled and for presenting shows such as TV’s 100 Funniest Pig Masturbators. He wasn’t exactly the most political of stand-ups.
Like an expenses scandal MP who didn’t seem to realise what he was doing was wrong until he was caught, Carr has now pulled out of his ‘dodgy’ tax scheme. But is this enough to keep his career on track and can he continue to deliver effective ‘satire’ after the exposure of his morally questionable financial affairs?
Comedians can often get away with having unpleasant personality traits or engaging in repugnant activities, deriving humour from their own personal or moral failings, and Carr’s comedy persona often revels in its own meanness.
Paying audiences do not seem to mind the ageing members of Monty Python openly flaunting their greed. Reputedly the most money-minded of all the Pythons, Eric Idle’s 2003 tour of America and Canada was proudly titled The Greedy Bastard Tour and spawned a spin-off book, The Greedy Bastard Diary. John Cleese, meanwhile, admits that the only reason he has returned to live shows is to replenish some of the money lost in his expensive divorce. His is The Alimony Tour. The Pythons’ careers are not exactly in the same place as Jimmy Carr’s, however.
Notoriously, Angus Deayton was fired as host of Have I Got News For You for a far less embarrassing indignity than Carr’s – a sex and drugs scandal. HIGNFY is hardly Blue Peter, so the problem was not Angus’ actions in themselves but the fact that his jokes – and the show – no longer worked post-scandal because any guest that came under fire could quickly deflect all the accusations or jokes thrown at them by changing the subject and turning the heat back on Deayton.
Yet Carr’s role on 10 O’Clock Live differs significantly to Deayton’s position on HIGNFY. He tends to deliver paltry news-based puns at the top of the show, later performing sketches in which he wears silly costumes while messy stuff is thrown at him.
It is not exactly up there with Voltaire, but perhaps Carr is providing an important service here. Audiences who wouldn’t normally tune in to a topical show in which politicians, Lords, journalists, spin-doctors, union leaders, and Boy George are invited to debate subjects such as politics, class, economics, the media, immigration, religion, gay rights etc. (albeit in a somewhat superficial way) might be lured in by Carr’s quips about women being fat slags, gypsies being smelly, or Heather Mills McCartney only having one leg, before their minds are more properly stimulated by the real satirists: David Mitchell, Charlie Brooker and (erm) Lauren Laverne.
Can Armando Iannucci suffer the indignity of accepting an OBE from the establishment and still create biting satire? Of course he can, he’s got a brain the size of Jimmy Carr’s offshore account and he’s a professional satirist.
Conversely, Carr’s position is safe because he was never a satirist in the first place. Carr needs to knuckle down and think of a decent comeback to those hecklers who will no doubt continue, for a while at least, to interrupt his shows by shouting about tax. As reported by Chortle, the best he could muster up at Tunbridge Wells the other night was ‘I pay what I have to and not a penny more. I’ve not broken the law, I’ve not done anything illegal, but morally, morally…’
I’m not sure what a decent comeback might sound like but I’m sure Jimmy’s comedy-sharp mind should be able to think of something (although I do wonder why he hadn’t already cooked up a pre-emptive retort given that he knew he’d been in the papers and that therefore such a heckle was fairly inevitable).
Other than that, he can probably get away with carrying on as he is, as a sort of gateway comedian for 10 O’Clock Live’s more substantial, valuable and genuinely satirical material (of which there is some… sometimes).
Carr-gate will blow over, but in the meantime Jimmy would be wise to exploit both the controversy of the scandal and his role as the host who wears silly costumes while messy stuff is thrown at him. For his current theatre tour he should appear dressed as a medieval jester, imprisoned in stocks at the centre of the stage as his wronged public enact their revenge by hurling gross missiles towards his haughty raised eyebrow-ed head. Bring your own custard pies, rotting fruit and fish heads. £25 per ticket (including VAT). Prices subject to booking fee.
- J.R. Moores is a reviewer for drownedinsound.com, and writes the satirical music blog Spinal Bap. He tweets from @spinal_bap.