'I'm a one-liner guy... but no one's ever made it onto the Mount Rushmore of comedy with that attitude' | Jimmy Carr interview © Matt Holyoak

'I'm a one-liner guy... but no one's ever made it onto the Mount Rushmore of comedy with that attitude'

Jimmy Carr interview

Jimmy Carr has written his first memoir, Before & Laughter which doubles as a a self-help book, in which he reveals how the loss of his mother, religion and quitting his job working in marketing for Shell were crucial to him becoming a successful stand-up. Here he talks to JAY RICHARDSON about what inspired the book, questions of taste in comedy, and being comfortable with his anxiety.


How are you finding performing again? Are audiences really receptive? Are we entering this much vaunted Roaring Twenties?

I genuinely believe we are. The lockdowns been awful in many ways. The theatre industry, the comedy club industry are on their arse. Harder hit than any other business. Anything they tried to do that was creative, putting gigs on outside, putting things online, so much work went into it and it hasn't paid out.

The industry should take advantage of the fact that people are desperate to be entertained. You're 30 times more likely to laugh at something if you're in the room, as opposed to watching at home on a screen.

People are bored of screens. They want to go out and not feel like like we've never been more connected and yet felt more alienated. The thing that comedy gives people is you're suddenly able to be part of a tribe, laughter is a social noise.

You're publishing your book at the same time as Katherine Ryan. You're both very open about your struggles with mental health and the cosmetic surgery you've had. Do you see comedians as anticipating future trends that then become mainstream?

Comedy exists in public and private discourse and there's never been a wider gap between them. If you watch the news, it's a very strange view of how the public thinks. A lot of people don't feel they're reflected in that. And that's why we've got this very polarised world that comics sit in the middle of.

At their best, they have the debate live on stage, joke about things that are interesting, maybe transgressive in my case, try and process it a little. The discursive nature of comedy is fantastic because that's what we're lacking in our social debate.

One of the questions I ask in the book, one of the most fundamental questions in life, is what was the last thing you changed your mind about? If you don't have an answer, then you haven't been thinking. You've just been rearranging your prejudices.

I feel like your onstage persona is well established. But as a person, I've only built up a picture of you from other comedians' anecdotes ...

Am I in trouble?

I guess I'm interested as to why you're only putting so much of your personal life out there now, in this book?

The birth of the book was a phone call from Adam Kay. He said: 'Look, we're doing a book about people's experiences with the NHS, lots of famous people are going to contribute, would you write a piece?'

I wrote about my mother and her death in Guy's and St. Thomas' in central London. How the NHS care team allowed her to die with some dignity. And I found it very cathartic. I spent three days thinking about my mother in a way that maybe I hadn't thought about her before, getting in touch with that grief again, quite a healthy thing to do. I enjoyed the process. And then I got a call from a publisher going 'do you want to write a book?'

And I thought, actually, I don't mind looking back. A lot of things have changed for me recently. I became a father for the first time, the pandemic's hit, we've all gone through this common experience.

I thought it was a good time, it feels like the half-time of life. We're cutting up the oranges, we've all had a look around, how's your career going? How's your life going? What we do know, for a lot of people, the pandemic didn't cause a lot of problems. It revealed problems.

You recommend leaning into what you're good at. And we don't tend to think of one-liner comics changing radically over their career. But has writing the book encouraged you to perform more personal, anecdotal material on stage?

I'm working on that at the moment. I'm always going to be a one-liner guy, always going to have the fastball. Three jokes a minute. I'm trying to get people to that state where they're giddy with laughter. Over a two-hour period, I'm telling maybe 300 jokes.

But I'm trying to get to a place now where I've got a few routines between seven and 12 minutes long, all on a similar subject. And they're made of jokes. But I'm trying to put them together in a way that flows a bit more. Slightly more anecdotal, philosophical.

Philosophical is the way to go for me, as opposed to just stories. But it's a joy to try to change, to try to reinvent yourself 20 years into the game. Once you get a bit of success, you could sit on your laurels. But trying to get better is interesting.

Do you feel as if you've got nothing to lose, that you've proven yourself so you might as well experiment?

As I talk about in the book, I'm not one of the greats. But I've got a lottery ticket to that competition. I'm in that race. I haven't done it yet. But I could.

George Carlin did his best work in his 50s and 60s. Probably in his 50s, he did his absolute best work. So it's all still to play for. The possibility of that is very exciting. And it's not really about the result, I don't really give a fuck about legacy. I care about enjoying the process and the journey.

Trying to get better at comedy strikes me as a wonderful way to spend your life, a really pleasant way to spend your life.

I wasn't aware of your dyslexia. You can draw pat conclusions about comics with dyslexia like Eddie Izzard and Ross Noble and their ability to free associate. But how do you think being dyslexic has affected your comedy?

Dyslexia is a way of putting a label on the 10 per cent of society whose minds work in a very slightly different way. I don't think it's a particularly helpful label because it makes people feel like they're learning disabled. We should celebrate difference.

I think dyslexia does help the creative process. But you know, there are a lot of creative people that are dyslexic, there are lots that aren't. It not mattering is the key thing.

If anyone's reading this and thinking, 'oh, I could never do that, because …', there are great stand-up comics with stutters. The thing you might think is a disadvantage is sometimes your edge.

How robust is your theory that most comedians had a sick parent growing up?

My theory is that if you meet a comedian, and you're gonna ask them a question, and it's not going to be small talk, say 'which of your parents is sick?' Because I think most comics had to take care of a parent. Whether that was emotionally or physically sick, they had a problem.

My mother was depressed and I had to make things OK. That was my role within the family. I was kind of there for vibes. Sometimes it's not obvious but it often is. More often than not with comics, I find it's the case.

You spent a lot of time as a wannabe comic immersed in watching the UK stand-up circuit. But the formative influences you cite are all American. And you do seem to have quite an American sensibility about comedy. Is that fair?

There's something quite old-fashioned about being a gag man, a guy that does jokes. I mean, Milton Jones and Tim Vine were around and I love their stuff. I remember seeing John Moloney at The Comedy Store and he went, 'let's kick off with some jokes'. And then he did 10 brilliant one-liners in a row. It was fucking amazing and I wondered if I could do a whole show of that, where it's just one-liner after one-liner, boom, boom, boom, boom. All fastballs.

But influences. I suppose I talk about, you know, Mitch Hedberg and Emo Philips and Steven Wright. They're kind of great. Demetri Martin latterly.

Analysing jokes, it's almost like working out a crossword puzzle. You're sort of reverse engineering one-liners, coming up with the punchline first and then finding what's the funniest way to get to it.

And how important has been being a 'plastic paddy' as you say, playing the Englishman?

I have an Irish passport. Growing up as a first generation immigrant, you feel a little bit out of step, that you don't quite belong. You go back to your sort of motherland for the summer with your family, you're the Brit all summer. But you come back with an Irish accent and you're the paddy. There's a lot of first generation immigrants that have been incredible comics. Because they're slightly outside looking in.

You're friends with James Corden, and you've had some success in America. Would you move there if the right project came along?

I can fill some small rooms in America. But James is out of this world. It's another level and it's just lovely to see. It's amazing. He's got a little bit of magic, like a triple threat. Incredibly charming. And then he's a song and dance man. Because he's my friend, I sort of forget that he's an incredible actor.

But thinking America is the be all and end all, it's a very old way of thinking that harks back to The Beatles making it in the States and the British Invasion. Everything's global now.

I'm on my third special on Netflix. I'm on YouTube. I'm available everywhere other than North Korea. So I've really got to put time into touring in North Korea.

But otherwise, I feel like I've got great coverage. I love playing The Comedy Cellar in New York and The Comedy Store in LA. But I certainly don't need to be in Hollywood. I'm not a movie star, that ain't gonna happen.

You said you don't care about legacy. But when I spoke to you in 2004, you said you'd like to do a TV show that would stand the test of time. And you mentioned potentially writing a romantic comedy. Are those still ambitions?

It's a lottery ticket. The chances of you having a successful film having not written one are minimal. So I've written a couple of things. Who knows if anything will happen? I don't know whether my skill writing jokes is transferable. But we'll see. I like the idea of having a bit of ambition. I'm not scared of failure.

In terms of doing something that stands the test of time, the stand-up shows are really the thing, the Netflix specials. And it's a nice thought that all the old shows are on YouTube now for free. Someone's watching right now, a whole career being watched every day.

You've spoken of Sean Lock's death ...

He was an incredibly important part of my life. And it wasn't until his passing that I thought, 'I was sort of in a double act for 15 years'. A lot of the funniest moments I've ever had on TV were with Sean. Both of us falling about laughing, crying.

Those shows were a wonderful legacy for him because he was able to be a wonderful, influential stand-up comic. Too few people got to see him live.

Carr and Lock on.8 Out Of 10 Cats

And you were lucky that he was the one effectively roasting you on 8 Out Of 10 Cats when stories about your tax affairs broke ...

I'll forever be grateful. I was publicly shamed in the papers for tax avoidance. And whatever you think about that, I had a topical show to do that week based on the most talked about thing in the news. And I was the most talked about thing in the news. We all knew what was going on.

Micky Flanagan was on, Sarah Millican, Sean Lock. And they were all brilliantly funny at my expense. I took my medicine. It was like being in the stocks and having tomatoes thrown at you. And Sean was a brilliant friend, because he was like: 'You're all right? Okay? Let's do this.' And then was just brilliantly funny. He wasn't judging. Micky and Sarah weren't judgey. They were just really, really funny. It's exactly what needed to happen and I felt lucky to have that that week.

They were different crimes in the court of public opinion and you had a different experience to Angus Deayton on Have I Got News For You. Ian Hislop and Paul Merton really went for him when he had his fall from grace.

Yeah, I'm not sure what the dynamics of those relationships were. But I felt incredibly supported by my friends. I'm very grateful that a lot were foul-weather friends. It's not until serious shit happens that you realise who the mates are who'll take care of you. When I was going through that week, James Corden was on Broadway doing his show. And he called me every night. Just to check in, see if I was okay.

The perception of me is that I would be quite cool with [being under such scrutiny]. That because I tell harsh jokes and have a brutal sense of humour, that I will be unaffected and totally cool, that I was not broken by it. But I was having panic attacks, really suffering with anxiety. It was a very tough thing to go through.

Do you feel attitudes towards comedy have become more censorious over the course of your career? You've joked about being cancelled but do you honestly think that's a possibility for you?

There's being cancelled and being cancelled. There's different orders of that. But it is the new book burning. Taking people away, as opposed to saying 'that's not for me'. I think it's okay to go 'I don't like it' but not to say no one should be able to see it.

Different people like different things. I'm quite an edgy comic and the analogy is food and sex. Some people like spicy food. Some people like plain food. Some people like regular sex, some people like kinky stuff. When it comes to comedy, I like the rough stuff. I like to spice it. That's my sense of humour.

And I'd say, don't judge me. Do your thing. There are so, so many comics, so many different flavours out there. There's a comic out there for you. I've got no time for people going: 'I don't like him'. You've got batteries in the remote, change the channel. Don't look at the video clips, don't come to the show.

Jimmy portrait

Do you think comics have any place telling other comedians that they shouldn't be doing certain kinds of material?

No, I think the audience does that, the audience is a genius. The audience will tell you what is and isn't funny. What isn't acceptable. That's their role.

A comic might tell another comic, 'you shouldn't do that joke'. No, *you* shouldn't do that joke. It's not for you. It's not for your audience, my audience will be fine with it.

There isn't one audience. There's one for everyone. I'm very happy with mine. And they're incredibly loyal. Post-pandemic going out and playing to people again, it's been amazing, the response, the sound of the crowd. It feels like it's gone up a couple of decibels.

Are there any of your old jokes that that you wouldn't do now?

I'm doing them all now. They're all on YouTube right now. My whole career is running live there. So the joke that ends my career, I've already told it. And I'm not taking it down. Let the cards fall where they may.

Sure. But I'm thinking of a specific one where you used the device of a screen to tell it, rather than you at the mic:  'What's worse than biting into an apple and finding a worm? Being raped.'

Yeah, but it's a difficult thing to quote jokes in an interview, because it's not in context. It's not for someone reading this at 8.30am, having a coffee, it's told on stage in front of a live audience.

I'm not sharing these jokes through people's letterboxes. It's also about where it comes in this show. I don't think that joke works written down. I think there's something about the shock factor, which is really valuable in comedy. There's a place for that.

At the beginning of my current show, Terribly Funny, I do a trigger warning. I say: 'Look, 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'. I really stand by that. In society, sometimes people get offended by a subject matter, as if that's the thing. This is a joke about it, this is a way of processing it.

In the book you mention that you still wake up with panic attacks. Are you able to move on quickly when you have a bad gig, or conversely when you have a really good one?

I'm very lucky. I'm preaching to the choir at this stage. So other than new material nights, I like to think the gigs go pretty well. I put a lot of preparation into them. So I tend not to think you learn more from the bad ones than the good ones.

But there could be bad moments in a gig, it could be something that doesn't quite fly or a bit of audience work that doesn't go as well as you wanted. You learn more from that, then. You've got to let it go immediately though and just get on with the next bit. Because the audience live in the moment. No audience remembers what I say. They remember how it made them feel. And that's why they come back.

You're friends with Daniel Kitson. Would you enjoy his standing among the stand-up cognoscenti or are you more interested in entertaining as many people as possible?

I don't know. It's a very difficult thing to answer, isn't it? That's a question about credibility and ambition. And I like where I am, I've got a lovely audience. Yeah, Daniel's incredible but I wouldn't swap careers with him. And he wouldn't swap careers with me. He's incredibly ambitious creatively. But I don't think he's got any desire to be on TV or in films. We started off around the same time, he was incredibly kind. And he is incredibly kind and supportive of other comics, someone I recommend everyone goes to see at some stage.

You say that Nick Cave's Into My Arms was one of your mother's favourite songs. I always liked that Cave's muse is a god he doesn't believe in. Having disavowed religion, does it nevertheless remain a ghost in your machine?

I don't really think of myself as a lapsed Catholic. But I also don't think atheism is a boring, sterile, finger-waggy, austere place to be. I think it's incredible, a rush of blood to the head.

I like being an atheist. I like the idea that this is the one life that I've got, when I'm dead, I'm dead. And I better enjoy this one. I find it very motivating, very freeing. That change in my belief system changed everything. Look what's possible, what's fun. Go and do something joyful.

The depression and anxiety you've experienced, how much is that related to your professional life?

I suffer more with anxiety than depression. Most of the depression in my life has been sadness. Which is great. The sadness is nurture. It's your environment, it's your circumstances, what's going on in your life is fucking up and you don't like it. You're unhappy, that's appropriate.

Depression is nature. There's something the matter with the serotonin levels in your head, you're depressed, that's a serious medical thing. Because suicide is a symptom of depression. People don't think of it like that. But it's weird that they don't think of it like that. It's an epidemic. So I was lucky that it was sadness and I could change my circumstances.

Anxiety is something that I live with and I'm very comfortable with. If you have a creative mind, if you're good at thinking of jokes, there's going to be a flip side. And that is sometimes you can't stop your mind from racing.

At an extreme, it might be a panic attack. And on a day-to-day basis it might be you wake up in a bit of a cold sweat. I don't need to take anything for it, not because I'm a tough guy but I can white knuckle it because it's not that bad. And if it's a trade-off for creativity, I'll make that deal every day.

Do you think your stand-up might expand to reflect more upon your mental health?

I'm trying. I'm working at the moment with my friend, the comedy director Amanda Baker. I'm trying to write new stuff and trying to get her to push me. She sort of directed the book.

I wanted to feel that reading the book was like going for a four-hour lunch break and a walk with me, like a hang at Montreal [Comedy Festival]. I go and see one of my best friends, Neal Brennan, in Montreal, we do that as a five-hour round-trip. And we're talking about this shit. We're funny and serious. We don't do any small talk, just the real shit. I loved the idea of trying to replicate that.

And did that feed into the audiobook?

Thankfully, Amanda really pushed me to find better stories, to go 'okay, we've done enough of that now, we need to do more of this and to find the book's rhythm'. It's not dissimilar to my stand-up. There are lots of very short chapters, we've broken it up and it really feels like me. It really feels like my voice.

After I finished the book, two months later I got a call from the publisher saying I had to go to Soho to record the audio. I went in there, did the first bit and went 'ah, I don't love it'.

So I got Amanda to come in and direct it, like it was a performance, finding the rhythm again. I recorded it standing up rather than sitting down, as you could hear the difference in my voice. I wanted it to be engaging and have that feeling I had when I was writing it. It's weird that it lives as a recording and it took us so long to do. But I'm really proud of it.

Do you feel like you've collaborated enough in your career?

I haven't. I had Iain Morris early on. Before he [co-created] The Inbetweeners, he used to come and see all my shows and basically direct them. Uncredited, he would just come and go, 'that line can't go there, it's got to move there, you need to build that up more…' And you know, he was really good at it.

And Amanda is really good too, she's a musician by trade. So she's talking about being in the pocket of the rhythm. I find it really interesting to work with someone else that comes at it from a different angle.

She goes: 'Your sequencing is wrong and that's too short. And that punchline needs to have more rhythm to it, and you're losing the laugh there because there's too much information'. It's a fascinating thing to be a comic because it's a task without end. And those tasks bring happiness because no-one's ever finished.

So you're still learning?

I'm a one-liner guy, it's all fastballs.

But no one's ever made it onto the Mount Rushmore of comedy with that attitude, right? Routines between seven and 12 minutes long, that build and have a point of view and a feat at the end where you get an applause break. That's where the game is played.

I haven't done that. I don't have the ability to do that. I'm trying to learn that. And I'm so enjoying the process. If I fail, great, I'm failing at trying to be great. And if I don't make it, okay, I've had a perfectly lovely time. But I'd like to be better.

Do you have an idea for your next book?

I want to write a book about how to write jokes. I want to write a book that is only for the people that look at Chortle, that isn't a mass market book. I wrote a book about jokes and their history with my friend Lucy Greeves  [The Naked Jape] which I loved doing and Lucy was absolutely fantastic to work with.

And I really enjoyed doing this book. Amanda and I have been chatting about doing something together which is about the mechanics of jokes, different joke types, how to write them, the best examples in the world. Something that would be a handbook for comedians.

It would be a labour of love. But it's the one area of expertise where I think that I could really add value. I don't think there's anything out there that really does that. There's a lot of stuff about humour, comedy and stand-up but I didn't find a lot of that stuff helpful when I started out.

Most comedy books tend to be theoretical rather than practical.

I think sometimes people are quite superstitious about jokes. They sort of write on stage, they'll come up with something and won't really analyse how they did it because they're scared the magic might not work.

Cognito

Finally, in the book you mention Don Rickles, who continued performing to a ripe old age, and Ian Cognito, above, who never got the chance. Have you thought about how long you'll keep doing stand-up?

Ian Cognito was criminally underrated. I think he's a guy that would have really liked a little bit more commercial success in his life. And I don't know why it didn't happen for him because he was a real force of nature.

He had that thing – I see it in Nick Helm a little bit – when he's on stage, you cant fucking look away. He's an amazing performer. Don Rickles worked till the end and was incredible on stage. I love the stories about him.

Carr Before and Laughter book coverThat thing of dying with your boots on, on stage, I love. And I hope to be lucky enough to do it.

But I don't get to make that decision, the public does as to whether they're still interested. Every show I do is a sales pitch for the next show, that's how I view it. Some people have got hard jobs, they've had to work to get tickets. You'd better be an entertainer.

I don't care what's going on in your life, you better fucking deliver for two hours. It'd better be hilarious.

• Before & Laugher has been published by Querqus, priced £20. It is available from Amazon priced £10, or £9.99 on Kindle, or Bookshop.org, suppotring independent bookstores, for £18.60.

Published: 4 Oct 2021

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