The comedian’s hard-won reputation and popularity could be permanently damaged by his ‘morally wrong’ tax arrangements
Jimmy Carr was performing in Stockport on Friday night, under the tagline “leave your conscience, common decency, and moral compass at home”. Which is the same, joked Twitter users, as his tax advice. Online, in the newspapers and in the stalls, it’s been open season on Carr this week, as news of his “morally wrong” tax arrangements (in the prime minister’s rush-to-judgment) made one of Britain’s most successful standup comedians the subject, and no longer just the teller, of cruel gags.
Cruelty – or at least the appearance of it – is Carr’s stock in trade, and he’s been doling it out for over a decade. Having quit an unloved job in marketing aged 26, in the throes of what he later described as an early midlife crisis, Carr turned to comedy (and had therapy, renounced his Catholicism, and lost his virginity) at the turn of the Noughties. His first standup show was called Bare-Faced Ambition; he never wasted time with false modesty. The show introduced a standup whose tart and tasteless mode arrived near fully formed. He joked about rape, teased Stephen Hawking about his motor neurone disease, and made up a spoof press quote for his poster: “Jimmy Carr is the bastard child of Cecil Parkinson and Sara Keays.” You can’t say we weren’t warned.
At the time, his supercilious amorality seemed daringly new – and came hand in hand with an irresistible joke-telling skill. Here was a master craftsman of the one-liner to rival the great American gagman Emo Phillips. The jokes were so adroit (“throwing acid is wrong, in some people’s eyes”) and the aloof personality so obviously a caricature, it was hard to take offence as Carr jabbed his rapier at the audience’s soft liberal underbelly.
But, like Al Murray’s Pub Landlord character before him, what started playful and even subversive ended up crude – a prime example of what we initially assumed was being sent up.
In recent years, Carr’s live act has become less varied, less sharp, more wearyingly obsessed with anal sex and the flouting of supposed taboos. No matter his obvious intelligence and personal charm, I’ve left his last two shows depressed by the low horizons and the grim atmosphere Carr’s comedy generates. On both occasions, Carr invited questions from his audience and used this kind of response: “Is it shoplifting if you rape a prostitute?”; and “Why is your mum always wet?” In this context, Carr’s default defence – he’s just trying to make people laugh – feels beside the point.
And yet, Carr’s reputation as a fearless sayer of the unsayable has been sustained by a succession of media-stoked controversies, over his jokes about amputee servicemen (“we’re going to have a fucking good Paralympic team in 2012″) or a car crash quip in the wake of a pileup last November. These gags, and that reputation, explain much of the schadenfreude surrounding Carr’s exposure this week. The rest can be traced either to the bizarre conviction on the part of some commentators that Carr is leftwing (of which I’ve seen no evidence in 10 years watching his comedy), and to the same ambition and careerism that has long made Carr the butt of other standups’ jokes.
There has never been any shortage of Carr-sceptics in the comedy industry, from old-school comics such as Jo Brand (Carr, she once told me, “appeals to all the people out there who think ‘where have all those delicious anti-women jokes gone?’ “) to this generation’s favourite curmudgeon, Stewart Lee, who patronisingly spells out the jokes in his own set “for all the Jimmy Carr fans in the audience”.
In the Twitter-storm over Carr’s behaviour this week, colleagues including Charlie Brooker and Frankie Boyle showed little sympathy. “It’s OK to avoid tax,” tweeted Boyle, “providing every time you do a joke about a town being shit, you add ‘partly down to me I’m afraid’ under your breath.” But Carr has his supporters: comics including Rufus Hound, John Bishop and even the militant lefty Josie Long shifted blame from him to the system of which he has taken advantage.
Will Carr’s career survive the row? Ken Dodd never entirely shook off the tax-dodger tag. Carr’s armour-plated, high-status persona will be harder to sustain now we’ve seen him vulnerable. His position on Channel 4’s current affairs comedy The 10 O’Clock Show has obviously been compromised: hypocrisy isn’t a good look for a satirist. I suspect Carr will ride it out, but his ambition as stated in a recent interview (“a great comic is loved and … I aim to be”) now looks that much harder to realise.
When Jim Davidson, of all people, cropped up on BBC1’s This Week on Thursday to defend not just Carr, but tax-dodging in general, it brought to mind Stewart Lee’s gag when in 2004 Carr accused Davidson of plagiarism: “If you write a joke that Jim Davidson can steal, it’s time to think about changing your material.” The same goes for tax arrangements: if yours are approved by Jim Davidson, it’s time to think about changing your accountant. By the time of his midweek apology, Carr had come to that conclusion. Whether it will rescue his popularity and hard-won media ubiquity remains to be seen.