On the release of his new book the funnyman talks about his Irish upbringing, the joys of laughter, late fatherhood, cancel culture, cosmetic procedures and why we must cherish Bono...
If you’re reading this, Pat Kenny, then Jimmy Carr has a confession about the time he was a guest on the Late Late Show.
“Literally, two minutes before I walked on I said to a producer, ‘Where’s the dig, where’s the angle?’ And he went, ‘Oh, there’s this property thing. You shouldn’t mention that.’ I went, ‘Great.’”
Carr winks at me, the satisfaction of that 2008 night’s mischief-making on The Late Late still ringing around his comic intellect. He had ribbed Kenny on national prime-time RTÉ television about the presenter’s acrimonious and well-publicised land dispute with a neighbour. The live audience – Kenny, too, in fairness to him – doubled over as one.
Moments later, when the prize of a family holiday to Austria – the country was also in the news then following the Josef Fritzl case – was being given away, Carr heckled: “It’s in a basement. You’re gonna love it!”
“He’s a very good-humoured guy,” Carr says of Kenny all these years later. “It’s only messing. I don’t know anything about the details [of the dispute]. I’m just giving him shit because that’s the kind of guy I am.”
To use modern parlance Jimmy Carr “went there” but this is simply what he does. Nowhere is out of bounds to the box office stand-up and 8 Out of 10 Cats host who views himself as “an equal opportunities offender” with a “blanket-bombing approach” to poking fun. At the same time, he has said, he is not picking on anyone or trying to make any points.
“Having political correctness at a comedy show is like having health and safety at a rodeo,” he says. “It just doesn’t fit for me.”
While in 2008 he may have seemed like your archetypal showbiz one-liner machine, albeit one with a particularly lacerating style, Carr almost feels like an endangered species in the times we now live in.
Is stand-up in peril from the morality police and cancel culture? Carr is unperturbed. “I think it’s actually going through a golden age,” he says. “It’s probably never been in ruder health.”
And lockdown has exacerbated this, he goes on to explain. “People are waking up in the morning and checking their phones, and then looking at screens all day, right up to the end of the night. Even if you’re travelling, you’re on a sat nav, you’re watching Netflix, you’re watching TV. We’ve never been more connected but felt more alienated. The individual has become sacrosanct in our culture.
“And there’s something about a comedic experience, and music as well – you become part of a tribe. And it’s incredibly cathartic. You can watch the same show on a screen and then watch it live in a room – you’ll laugh 30 times more in the room with other people around you. Even if you’re on your own in that room with strangers you laugh more. It’s social signalling and that releases the endorphins.
“I like to think of myself as a drug-dealer. I’m out there selling the best drugs in the world. But they’ll never take me alive because the drugs are already on you and I can just tease them out.
“We took it for granted but that was the experience we were having on the regular [before lockdown]. And after 18 months of not having that, the audience reaction has been extraordinary.”
Not that Carr or indeed his long-term partner Karoline Copping were short on entertainment during lockdown in their London home. After some speculation, the couple recently confirmed they had welcomed their first child in late 2019.
“It’s all been fun so far,” he says of fatherhood. “I’m slightly over the people who go on about ‘the terrible twos’. It’s a child, what did you expect? The whole secret of happiness is to manage your expectations.
“Has it changed me? Well, I suppose there’s the emotional side. There’s a lovely quote that having a child is like having a medical procedure where your heart now lives outside your body, which I feel. It’s lovely and terrifying. And then comedically? Not one jot.
"I’m trying new stuff at the moment because I’ve got a special coming up so I’m writing for the next tour, and it’s as harsh and funny as ever. So, you don’t suddenly become a nice family friendly observational comic. You are what you are.”
Carr has always embraced our ability to improve things about ourselves that we’re not satisfied with. A fresh-faced 49, he happily ascribes his appearance to medical wonders and recently underwent hairline surgery as he felt he looked too much like “a snooker-playing vampire”.
He jokes: “I’ll be a great dad because, as an older father, I’ll never seem shocked by anything, not because I’m not shocked but because I’ll have had so much f**king Botox nothing will move. I’ll seem cooler than I am.”
The story of how a dyslexic Cambridge graduate and high-flying Shell marketing executive re-imagined himself in his mid-20s into one of the most popular stand-ups of his generation is a saga of determination and malleability.
It’s no wonder that Carr’s new memoir Before & Laughter takes the format of a self-help guide because that’s precisely the mindset he has turned to throughout his hugely successful career. Compiling these lessons for self-improvement might also come in handy as a tome of fatherly advice.
“That’s what the book is,” he says. “Look, I’m an older father, right? By the time my kid’s 25 and starting to think about his first big mission in life and finding his purpose I’ll be too old. I’ll have forgotten all this shit so I put it in a book.”
For someone so unflinching in their brand of comedy, it is perhaps unsurprising Carr would be so candid about his own life. Before & Laughter covers in detail that reinvention in his early years, the demons of his youth and comedy’s role in vanquishing them, and even his hauling through the British press after being exposed over a tax avoidance scheme in 2012.
“Stand-up comedy raised me,” he writes. “It taught me all the skills I needed for life, except for tax accounting.”
If you can laugh at others then you must laugh at yourself is his rule. Even today, dapper as ever and speaking across Zoom, he jokes about whether future comedy routines about parenting might be tax deductible. At the time, however, the very public shaming took a toll.
“I’m not asking for anyone’s sympathy because really all you can hope for with tax avoidance is self-pity, at best. But it was nice to think about and put out there because I made a serious statement [of apology] at the time – it was very quick and easy – and then made jokes [about it] and importantly took jokes.
“The lucky thing for me about getting publicly shamed it made me much more empathetic towards people. The big lesson I learned was call people on the f**king day. Reach out and say, ‘Hey, look, are you OK?’ Because you might think it’s water off a duck’s back but actually it hurts going through that stuff.
“In cancel culture we haven’t really worked out redemption… You cancel people and that’s it. And because everything’s online it’s happening straight away. You never get distance. You never get to forgive anyone or go, ‘He’s had his time on the naughty step; he can come back now.’ It was easy for me because all I had to do was pay it back. You’re absolved. You’ve said you’re sorry.”
Carr agrees there is some hypocrisy around the rush to judge those in the public glare over their tax affairs but he is genuinely baffled by the treatment received by Bono, especially in this country.
“I’m lucky to know Bono a little bit,” he says, “and he seems to get a tough time for… what? The. Nicest. Guy. In the world. I mean the amount of their money [U2] give away… it’s insane.
“Maybe that’s an Irish thing or whatever but I’ve got such a fondness for that band. And I think the last two records they made might be the best stuff they’ve ever done… I can’t get over that thirst for getting better that they have… And it makes me kind of go, ‘I can write one-liners but I want to write routines, I want to get better at this.’”
Carr will also name-check Noel Gallagher, David Holmes the composer, Terry Wogan (“gifted”), and Tommy Tiernan (“top five comedians of all time? You’ve got to think he’s right up there”) as inspirations. It is telling how all just happen to be headline entertainers in the UK with strong Irish DNA, which also describes Carr himself.
His parents Jim and Nora arrived from Limerick to Slough, near London, (“they really had a theme – towns that no one has a good word to say about”) and six weeks of every summer were spent in Kilkee, Co Clare.
When he tours on these shores he still sees relatives on his mother’s side who are dotted “all over the place”. He held his Irish identity close as a child and he recalls his mother Nora, when he was aged six, being the subject of the anti-Irish sentiment that swept Britain in the wake of IRA bombing campaigns.
“I’ve got a quote from Morrissey in the book – ‘Irish blood, English heart’. That song pretty much sums it up. It also gave me an excuse to email Morrissey, which is quite a thrill…
“What makes a country interesting is immigration. I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about the Irish. I just think we came in the 1970s or whatever. We’re going to see that again with other immigrant groups… Being first generation immigrant is very special and that comes out in all kinds of things, not just in arts but in business and in life.
“It’s interesting being part of the diaspora… you felt slightly out of place here and out of place there. You’d go back to Ireland for the holidays and everyone would think you were a Brit. And then you get back [to England] and everyone would think you were Irish.
“I liked being Irish, though, as a point of difference and not quite fitting in. It’s quite a comedic thing – when you describe comedians they’re in a room of 1,000 people with one person facing the wrong way.”
Another pattern Carr sees in his industry is a desperation to find laughter when growing up and this brings our conversation back to the cornerstone of his new memoir, his desire for his son to have a sense of Ireland and indeed the person who was his drive to become a comedian in the first place – his mother, Nora.
“Paging Dr Freud! If you’re interviewing comedians my advice is always ask them which of their parents was sick. I’ve got a bit of a weird laugh but my mum’s was properly strange. She had narcolepsy and a thing called cataplexy where you would lose muscular control when you laugh. She would properly collapse and melt like the witch in The Wizard of Oz.
“So if she walked in with a tray of teas then as a kid I was massively motivated to make her laugh because if she laughed enough everything went up in the air. I grew up in a house with a bad atmosphere so you always wanted to make things OK. And I think that’s where it’s a compulsion to do comedy.”
Friend and fellow comic Adam Kay got in touch a few weeks into the pandemic asking if Carr would contribute to a book of essays in aid of the UK’s National Health Service.
It presented Carr with an opportunity to write about the staff who had cared for his mother in her final days and weeks in Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital. “You never get to thank them because the day you leave you never go back,” Carr says.
A publisher then contacted him about a book. Carr had enjoyed the experience of writing something for Kay’s book but also found that having his own child had made him think a lot about Nora, who he remembers as “fun, loud and inappropriately sweary”, not to mention the source of any innate talent he might have.
Nora’s death, his father’s estrangement (the couple separated when Carr was 22) and the misery of corporate life were what had originally jolted him into action in his mid-20s.
“I was sad and I wanted to feel joyful. I was drawn to comedy but I’d never written a joke,” he says.
Part of that transformation was a wholesale rejection of the Irish Catholic mentality he was reared with.
“That was really the nub of everything,” Carr says, “because you lose that baggage. I think atheism should be celebrated as a rush of blood to the head. It’s incredibly empowering. Suddenly you’re in charge. You’ve got this one life – what are you going to do with it? It really focuses the mind a bit more clearly.”
Being back touring again is a slightly different prospect this side of lockdown, given the added pull of domesticity now. Though, he says, “it feels very dismissive of my partner to go, ‘Yeah, home will be a big deal now we’ve got kids – before it was just you so that didn’t matter!’”
Home has always been a place filled with laughter too – “she probably says as many funny things as I do” – and there is just a little more of it in the air now.
“I’ve got a very different sense of humour with my kid than I do on stage,” Carr says. “But I do rely on comedy with him as well. I really like making him laugh. There’s a First Peoples of North America that have this tradition where they celebrate the child’s birth, ultimately, after about a 100 days when the baby laughs for the first time. I think that’s really beautiful, the idea that they’re part of the community when they laugh.”
‘Before & Laughter’ is published by Quercus, €14.99, and out now