Jimmy Carr must be free to say the unsayable
The government has no business decreeing what is funny.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it…
It is a fate that befalls all jesters in the end. The rising gorge, as amusement gives way to disgust. And the event which famously cancels all engagements. Still, most of us do at least get to die first.
In his Netflix special, His Dark Material, Jimmy Carr joked – albeit with more trigger warnings than you’d find on a crate of Colt .45s – that no one talks about all the Gypsies killed in the Holocaust ‘because no one ever wants to talk about the positives’.
Whether or not he really intended the line to end his career, it certainly looks more likely to inflict serious damage now that it has hit social and mainstream media, than it did when safely contextualised by 90-odd minutes of further relentless outrage and callous cruelty.
This is not, for many people, quite the open and shut case we free-speech advocates would like it to be. I know very few people who think the joke was one of Jimmy’s finest, and I know a fair few more who would defend it, if they thought it was a joke, but can’t quite seem to catch it in that light at all.
And I know more than a few who just seek a little consistency. Many would like to know why a man can be arrested and potentially face jail time for voicing his opinion in a tweet, that the only good Tommy is a dead Tommy, while Jimmy here can apparently wish death upon a whole immutable class of people and continue on his way, with nothing more than the temptation of resituating a vastly inflated bank account to trouble his conscience.
And there are many who think that Carr’s comeuppance is long overdue. Not to protect public morality but rather to salt the dish he’s been serving up these past two decades – the pretence that saying naughty things is still a little bit dangerous.
Carr has delighted for so long now in goading notions of taste in comedy that dramatic structure, as much as justice, demands he finally be hoist high and left to hang. Like Squirrel Nutkin, in the morality tales that once raised a nation, if he doesn’t eventually lose at least his tail to Old Brown, it begins to look as if he’s playing at hazard, but with nothing at stake.
In this light, the joke is less merely risqué than what some American social commentators refer to as ‘suicide by cop’.
So, if all Jimmy were facing were a few robust, unscripted heckles from the ‘GRT community’ – a bit of argy bargy at the stage door, a wagon train of caravans circling his north London mansion, or even a really badly tarmacked drive – then I’d be inclined to think at least a game of consequences had been seen to its conclusion.
But we should be very, very wary of allowing our appetite for judgement to make the species leap from private and social disapproval to government decree. Let alone to smile on UK culture secretary Nadine Dorries and her attempts to slip stream the present hot winds of indignation to get some decidedly illiberal legislation on to the statute books.
The performing arts are already in a fragile state. Any whiff of potential trouble and they are, to put it bluntly, in danger of losing their bottle altogether.
Besides, government is notoriously bad at deciding what effect any given theatrical production is likely to have on a poor, trembling, undefended audience. As, indeed, are the people who write, direct and perform them.
In 2010 my father-in-law attended a production of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. The tale of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron and his marginalised but defiant existence in a mobile home, markedly immobile on a patch of Wiltshire scrubland, was perhaps the most widely praised of the decade. My father-in-law, certainly, was greatly moved. Specifically, he was moved to institute proceedings the very next day, to purchase and secure a similar tract of land that lay opposite his house in leafy East Sussex, for fear that Gypsies might decide to come and camp on it.
I like to think that this was an act of self-expression, in mixed media, as valid as the play itself. But it surely wasn’t what Jez had intended.
Likewise, it is very hard to know quite what audiences will think, or do, when they hear Jimmy Carr suggest that the Holocaust wasn’t all bad. The evidence suggests that, taken in the context of the entire 90 minutes’ onslaught of bad taste, they thought very little. For such a successful show, I can remember surprisingly little discussion of it at all until last weekend.
Social media have now done their thing of course, of tweezering out a splinter from a wooden beam, or a living tree, and presenting it as a threat to the thumb of public decency. But it seems likely to me that for everyone who sniggered into their Revels or barked out a laugh on the night, as a response to the rhythm of his speech as much as registering the meaning of the joke, there might very easily have been one or two who did learn something new, or reconsidered something forgotten. Perhaps that picking off of the scab of settled history really did reveal one or two live maggots still coiling under there, that viewers had known nothing about, or had never thought worth bothering to kill.
We live in interesting times, as the old curse has it. Two summers ago, it was statues. Now, it is jokes. Both are worth defending, if only to find out if they really are worth defending. Everything is up for grabs and arguing in good faith is always a sign of good health. Which is exactly why the law should be kept at long-arms’ length at all times – because that is the death of debate.
JS Mill emphasised that only by constantly having to strenuously defend its tenets had Christianity once remained strong. Ideas, like old men, are well advised to lift. Once safely insulated from critique, Christianity quickly atrophied, became weak and, well, here we are. Cause of death: unknown. Nietzsche says murder, but I think something more like a care-home scenario. But if the Enlightenment ideas that took its place are healthier today it is because they have been attacked and defended, vigorously. Not because their virtue is enshrined and protected in law.
Initials aside, it would be beyond facetious to compare Jimmy Carr to The Messiah. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious – ‘His Dark Material’ is a clue, however second hand – with which biblical figure his stage persona identifies. Nor is any one thing he says, however malevolent, sacrosanct to his own belief system. I wouldn’t blame Netflix or Carr, if they decided to snip this joke from the special before the gangrene spreads. Two million views in, it would be rather like closing Newhaven Ferry Port next week to prevent the spread of Covid. And I wouldn’t blame Jimmy if he decided to ‘reflect’ on the matter himself. For a man with a face more like a satellite dish than anyone’s since David Cameron, this would at least be apt.
But Jimmy’s job, like the ventriloquist dummy he increasingly resembles, is to say the unsayable, let slip our secrets and give brief voice to the worse angels of our nature. To let the demons out.
Last week, on his sad demise, I quoted Barry Cryer on the dangers of analysing comedy – that it is like dissecting a frog. No one laughs, and the frog dies.
This week, I’ll defer to Ken Dodd: ‘Freud’s theory was that when a joke opens a window and all those bats and bogeymen fly out, you get a marvellous feeling of relief and elation. The trouble with Freud is that he never had to play the old Glasgow Empire on a Saturday night after Rangers and Celtic had both lost.’
That Jimmy Carr has managed to navigate this path, to entertain vast crowds with a nod to Dodd and more than a pinch of Freud, is surely something to be admired, however resentfully. Sometimes he slips, sometimes he mishits. But his flashes of merriment are still, on balance, wont to set the table on a roar.
Dodd meanwhile, was such an accomplished and iconic clown, a beloved figure right on the edge of lunacy, such a fellow of very nearly infinite jest, that he was chosen by Kenneth Branagh to play Yorick in his film of Hamlet. We see him in flashback, as Branagh delivers what I still think of as The Manifesto, however obliquely, for our trade. We are all quite chop fallen in the end. We might as well enjoy the ride.
Ken Dodd died nearly four years ago, at the grand old age of 90. But my God, what would any production of Hamlet give for a skull like that.
Peter Cook joked about the importance of satire, citing the clubs in Berlin that were so instrumental in preventing the rise of Hitler. Still, if the film was anything to go by, those clubs had one thing right – start by admitting, from cradle to tomb, it isn’t that long a stay. Life is a Cabaret, old chum – don’t cancel the Cabaret.
Now get you to my Nadine’s chamber and tell her, let her paint her laws an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.
Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian. He is currently on tour with his show, Work of the Devil. You can buy tickets here.
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