Jimmy Carr has been described as the hardest working person in comedy. And it definitely seems so: he performs all year round and right now he's taking his "The Best Of Ultimate Gold Greatest Hits Tour" all over the world. And he will start a new show in May.
I reached him on the phone while he was in Norway, ready for another gig.
- Oh, hello?
- I'm calling from Portugal to interview mr Jimmy Carr... Is that you, Jimmy?
- How are you? My name is Hugo
- I'm pretty good man, I'm somewhere in Norway, I'm on tour
- You're performing tonight, right?
- I'm always performing man, always performing
- Yeah, so I'm with TSF Radio and I'm the author of TSF Open Mic, a show dedicated to the art and craft of stand-up comedy, and I'm already recording, ok?
- You spend a big part of every year touring. Don't you sometimes think "I'll take a year off"?
- A year? No! I think comedy... I like to think of it as a job. Comedy is a job. All the other stuff is great, film and writing and stuff is all fun, but comedy is a job, and I think your get better at it the more you do it. It's like when you talk to an airline pilot and they tell you... an airline pilot never tells you how long he's been an airline pilot, he tells you the amount of hours he's had in the sky. I think of comedy the same way. I think you don't get good unless you do the right amount of hours, unless you put the work in, so I like to work all the time, to just get better at it. Also, my problem - and this is a great problem I have in life - work is more fun than fun. My job is so fun that when I have a night off I think "this isn't as good as when I'm working".
- Most comedians from the UK or the US only perform in English-speaking countries or countries with high English skills, like northern Europe, but stand-up is getting more and more popular internationally. Do you think tours like yours could pave the way to establish an international stand-up circuit, similar to what happens with bands, for example?
- I don't think its so much tours like mine, I think people are getting better at English globally. You've seen this little shift happen between how it used to be and what it is now. Things like Youtube and Netflix are spreading English and basically media is spreading English at a rate unprecedented. So people don't wait around for their show to be dubbed, they want to watch it straight away. Whether it's a comedy show or Game of Thrones or whatever, no one's bothering to dub that stuff anymore, so they watch in the original English and they pick up the language. I'm touring around the world in the Far East, I'm doing South Korea, from Iceland to the northern countries to South Africa to all over Europe, and increasingly in places like Spain and Portugal where traditionally there wouldn't be British comedy. You really know you've learned a language if you can get a joke in that language, You know your English is top flight if you can get a joke. You have a lot of people in eastern Europe that use stand-up comedy as a fun way to learn English.
- You'll perform in Portugal in a few weeks. Have you thought specific things about Portugal that you might want to write jokes about?
- No, I'll do that on the day. There's a really fun thing about arriving at a country - because I've got the show, I know what the show is. All I really need to do is, on the day just go "so what's kicking, what's happening in Portugal, what are you people talking about?", and that changes, and sometimes it being really topical is quite fun. Otherwise you can fall back on cliches. You can't help but notice as a comedian on the drive from the airport or on the middle of town or a couple of people at the hotel, you can't help but notice little things and make some observations, and that makes the touring very fun because you have to talk to people.
- Do you remember the first time ever you got payed to make people laugh?
- I do, yeah. I think my first ever payed gig was in Plymouth, in England. I drove for about six hours to the gig. I got payed maybe 80 euros.
- When was that? In 2000, maybe?
- Yeah it was around that. I started early 2000. Maybe 2001, something like that, was my first payed gig. I worked so much that first year. I adored it. I suddenly found this thing, and kind of went "I'll just do it all the time". I suppose I was graduating, because there's three different stages of comedy: making your friends laugh, making strangers laugh, and making strangers laugh for money. Those are the levels, and I kind of graduated. But I suppose success in comedy wasn't the first time I got payed, success was the first time I did the Comedy Store in London, because getting a weekend there, it felt like "Oh, I can live off this, I'm making enough money now that I can live my life off telling jokes", and that to me felt like another level of freedom.
- You've said what you look for in comedy is approval. Does this put stand-up in the realm of mental illnesses?
- Yeah, I think there's a strong argument to say that all stand-up comics have got something missing. Regular people look at stand-ups look at stand-ups and say "why would you put yourself through that?. It's such a difficult job to do". Most people don't want to speak publicly and the idea of having to make a thousand people laugh is nerve-wracking and unpleasant, and stand-up comics love the idea of that. There's an awful lot of texts written about comics being manic-depressive, I don't think that's the case. It's a need to somehow getting the approval of strangers, it's pretty needy that you need it everyday, which I do.
- You've written a book on comedy, "The Naked Jape". What's your favorite humor theory? Superiority? Incongruity? Relief?
My favorite is benign violation. Its the idea that no joke is offensive. You take something that is a violation in the world, whether it's violence or tragedy and make a joke of it and make it benign by making a joke of it. If you imagine two Venn diagrams, in one there's violations and one has benign things. You can't really tell jokes about the very benign, there's no edge to it, it's not funny, and equally something that could just be offensive for the sake of it, there's nothing there either. It's finding the right mix.
- Comedy is getting more and more under the radar of political correctness. Some venues require comedians to not joke about certain subjects. What's your opinion on this?
I don't think that's true. It's been maybe overreported, because there's a couple of universities that have very space spaces and don't want to have comedians joke about anything because they don't feel that's right for them, and that's their business. But I think comedy and comedy venues and comedy clubs are the ultimate in safe spaces. You're basically saying "this is a safe space because we've all agreed that we're coming here just to laugh, we've all agreed that this is an arena of our lives that's just fun. We're just trying to have fun here, no one's trying to make a serious point, we're just trying to have fun". So I think people feel pretty safe in a comedy club.
- So if you were starting now, do you think political correctness wouldn't be a problem, with the kind of material you do? Do you think you would have had the same chances to grow as a comedian?
- I think it maybe would be different now. Stylistically my sense of humor is quite dark, and I don't think that is in favor at the moment. At some stages dark comedy is all the rage, and at some stages people want things to be a little bit safer, and at the moment I think people want things to be a little safer, but that's not my sense of humor. I don't find very safe stuff terribly funny, I prefer to tell slightly edgier jokes. But I'm not shouting them through someone's letterbox, I'm telling them live on stage to a paying audience that has the same sense of humor as me, so I feel very comfortable with that. The live stand-up is just pure... that's my sense of humor, that's what I find funny, and if you don't find it funny, you're entitled to your opinion, but this is my show, not your show.
- Do you have a "worst time I bombed" story you can tell?
Not really... I've been doing warm-up shows for the new tour. It's kind of interesting. The show I'm bringing to Portugal is the "Best of" tour. All of these jokes work, they're my favorite jokes from the last 18 years, and it's really fun to do. But then you do new stuff again, you're psyched with a new idea for a joke, "I've got this and it's gonna kill", you say it to an audience and you get nothing, it's pretty humbling. You go "ok...". You're only as good as your material. With my performance style, there's nothing performance-wise in my show, it's all about material. I feel it's quite a humbling thing, and Lenny Bruce said it best. He said "the audience is a genius". The audience decides what is and what isn't acceptable and what is and what isn't funny. All you can do is present them with a thousand jokes and then hopefully you get three hundred back that the audience goes "yeah, that's good enough".
- Louis CK is trying to come back, but he's having a lot of backlash, it seems some people are trying really hard he never works again. Does he deserve a chance of coming back?
Ultimately the audience will decide. There are people that are big fans of other people's comedy and they're not making a value judgment, they just go and see - whether it's Louis or Aziz Ansari or anyone else that's been talked about - they'll make a decision, the public will ultimately decide. Industry in comedy, I don't think it's ever really made a decision on who's going to be the next star. People make that decision. People decide because they go and see someone and you can't fake laughter. What you find funny is what you find funny. It's very much like sexuality. It's a response, a reflex, laughing. That's why you get that lovely thing of cognitive dissonance where you can laugh at something and find it offensive at the same time. Because you laugh, you find it funny, and then you go "oh hang on, morally maybe I shouldn't have laughed at that". But then it's too late, because you already laughed, showing your true colors. If they find Louis CK hilarious, and they think he's the funniest comedian, then if he puts on a show they'll probably buy a ticket and go and see the show.
- Do you remember your very first open mic? How was it?
Yeah, it was in a little place in Islington [London borough].
- Were you nervous?
A little bit, but I'd seen an awful lot of comedy, I've seen enough comedy that I knew it was going to be ok. When you start going to comedy as a fan, you're going to see famous people that have been on TV., right? That's what you do first. You're going to see these big stars, and you think "I'm going to see this big star and it's going to be amazing", and it is. Big stars are funny, they know exactly what they're doing and why they're doing it and they're on point. Then you go to comedy clubs and you watch people see 20 minutes, and the next level is you go and see other open spots, other new comics before you start doing it. Then you start seeing people doing 10 minutes and they're kind of just ok. So then you feel better about doing your first five minutes and it's just ok. But I got a couple of very big laughs and I felt like very early on I didn't choose my style, my style chose me, the idea of it's all wordplay and construction with me, it's not going to be real stories from life.
- Why do you like making people laugh?
My favorite quote is a Victor Borge quote: "laughter is the shortest distance between two people". It really feels like there's a connection, and it's kind of ironic given the type of comedy that I do, which is pretty edgy. But there's something incredible about the connection you get with a thousand people in a room laughing. I recently read about how you're eight times more likely to laugh if you're with other people. So if you come out and see my show as opposed to watching a Netflix special, you're much more likely to laugh out loud. Although you can watch something on TV and find it funny, you tend not to laugh out loud watching it. It's when you go out to a social activity, it's a way that we bond with a group, it's remote tickling, remote grooming. It's one of the most fundamental things in life. Laughter predates language by about a million years. It's a different part of our physiology we use to laugh than we do to speak. It's older than language, we've always done this. It strikes me that it's an incredibly human and lovely way to connect. It's a privilege to do this job.