Opinion: The final word on Jimmy Carr
The comedian’s crass Holocaust joke wasn’t funny, but would cancelling him signal the end of free speech?
Tuesday 15 February 2022 By George Chesterton
Humour is not karmically neutral. It is action with consequences for the joker and the target. Even if you punch up, you’re still punching. The trade-off for even the most benign laughter is that someone, somewhere pays for it.
Jimmy Carr’s joke about the ‘gypsy’ victims of the Holocaust conveniently encapsulates the divide between those who believe comedy has a set of unacceptable targets (anything that would come under the workplace definition of harassment – protected characteristics such as race, sexuality, age, disability, religion) and those who believe it is the last, precious bastion of genuinely free speech. It is, of course, not neat enough to fit in either camp.
Comedy is a commodity – in the end the market will dictate supply and demand. Producers and commissioning editors don’t make moral judgments based on their beliefs (this is the media we are talking about here), but decide who is in and who is out based on the potential benefits or harm an individual can do to their brand. Outrage is balanced against risk. Carr is unlikely to endure any major consequences, because enough people in positions of influence are happy to support him, and enough people on the outside don’t mind jokes about gypsies. Shocking, but sadly a reality.
It’s not a joke I’d laugh along with, but unlike a lot of people on social media, I don’t confuse myself with the universe. Carr knew it was a sick joke, caveating it as a ‘career ender’. That risk is surely part of the process for him. He seems like a clever man, if maybe a little too relentless to make relaxed company. Defending the joke on the grounds that Carr is a ‘really nice bloke’ isn’t really a defence at all. It doesn’t help that his supporters are generally media establishment figures from what you might euphemistically call the ‘dominant’ group in society. And it doesn’t help the case against him that his most vocal critics are part of the new left. Neither side does much to help define where Carr’s joke sits.
There is truth in the idea that we need comedians to express what we are often too cowardly to face in public. I really believe that, though I also believe making fun of Holocaust victims in this way doesn’t achieve it. Carr said the joke’s secondary purpose was to highlight the public’s ignorance of the non-Jewish victims of genocide. Perhaps drawing attention to the British public’s ambivalence towards travellers in 2022 would have been a more defendable position, since this is a prejudice that still lurks in the dining rooms of polite society long after many others of the post-war era have faded.
Whether this is crass cruelty or a pungent example of free speech is up to the individual to decide. Those individuals and their opinions make up those things we call society and culture. Perhaps in crudely karmic terms, this can be resolved by a ceremonial biff on the nose from Tyson Fury to restore gypsy honour. The telling irony of Fury’s rage at Carr is that he once made homophobic and anti-Semitic remarks (for which he apologised), and so finds himself on the side of legions of progressive Britons – the same people who signed a petition in their thousands urging the BBC to ban him from the Sports Personality of the Year shortlist. Funny old world, isn’t it?