British comedian Jimmy Carr told UPI in an interview that a joke dealing with an uncomfortable or potentially upsetting subject has to "earn its place" in his set. Photo courtesy of Netflix
March 12 (UPI) -- Stand-up veteran Jimmy Carr, whose latest comedy special hits Netflix on Tuesday, has a system for deciding when a joke goes too far: He lets the audience decide.
The 46-year-old British comic, who splits his time between stand-up and hosting a handful of panel-style British TV shows, doesn't shy away from controversial subjects such as pedophilia and rape in his latest special, The Best of Ultimate Gold Greatest Hits.
Carr told UPI his rapid-fire approach to comedy allows him to reference a wide-range of potentially uncomfortable topics without alienating his audience.
"Sometimes people can get a little bit wary of a topic. Like, 'Oh, I don't want to talk about that topic, it's such a horrible thing.' But you go, 'This isn't the terrible thing, this is just a joke about the terrible thing,'" Carr said. "There's no opinion here, there's nothing to get upset about, it's just a silly joke."
The comedian said it is ultimately up to the audience to determine whether a joke exceeds the boundaries.
"The audience makes that decision. The audience is a genius, they decide what is and isn't funny, and they decide what is and isn't acceptable," he said. "If you're doing a joke about something incredibly taboo -- pedophilia or rape or any of the, you know, the horrors of the world -- you better be sure that joke is funny. It really has to earn its place."
Carr, who has been performing stand-up comedy for more than 17 years, said he often has been surprised at what the audience will let him "get away with."
"I've played on this tour maybe upwards of 40 countries, and it's amazing the consistency, not just across the countries, but across the globe, of what people laugh at and what they don't laugh at," he said.
He said audiences sometimes shock themselves with their ability to laugh at the "horrors of the world."
"My favorite noise when I'm doing a gig is a sharp laugh followed by a sharp intake of breath," he said. "We don't choose our sense of humor, it's a little bit like your sexuality. You don't choose what you're going to laugh at, you just laugh."
He said audience members experience a type of "cognitive dissonance" where they "can laugh at something and not approve of it at the same time."
"It's, I think, a huge catharsis to laugh" at things that make you uncomfortable, Carr said.
The performer admits he has a secret weapon that lets him take jokes to places that might get some other comedians in trouble: a "fancy British accent."
"I get away with a lot of stuff because of my voice," he said. "People say 'well the c-word is very offensive.' Well, yes, maybe in some accents, but in mine, it's a thing of beauty."
Heckling with love
The role of the audience in Carr's comedy is more than just a jury to determine which jokes are funny. Members are treated as active participants in the show.
"I've always felt that there's a kind of inherent arrogance to being a stand-up comedian," he said. "Especially when you get a little bit famous. Because you go, 'I'm in a theater, there's 2,000 people here ... and yet I'm the only one talking.'"
Carr, unlike most of his peers, actively encourages his audience to heckle -- so long as they're doing it right.
"People heckling has got a bad reputation because of dumb people shouting nonsense that's unintelligible. That never helps," he said.
The best hecklers are the ones who know how to "wait for the perfect moment," he explained.
"Also -- not to sound like a hippie -- but if it's with love. If they're shouting something out -- even if they're shouting, you know, '[expletive] off, you [expletive]' -- as long as they're shouting it with the intention of getting a laugh, I'm all about that," he said.
"We're on the same page. I don't care whether they get a laugh or I get a laugh, as long as everyone's laughing, I love it," he said.
A new golden age
Carr said his style of comedy can accurately be described as "all fastballs," which he said is an "old-fashioned" approach to the art of stand-up.
"I didn't intend it to be. I don't think you get to choose the kind of comedy you do ... you just go, 'Well, I'm gonna do the funniest things I can,' and your comedy chooses you," he said.
The jokes in The Best of Ultimate Gold Greatest Hits are quintessential Carr, coming in at a speed of four a minute. The material is likely to be new to most Netflix viewers, but British fans might recognize some jokes from DVDs that have not been released outside of the country.
"I put together this kind of a 'best of' show of all my best jokes that I wrote over the last maybe 16 to 17 years," he said. "The idea of the show was to put everything that I still found really funny in my set."
Carr said there is one major downside to releasing a Netflix special: He now has to write new jokes.
"You do the Netflix special, and then you can never do that material again, you have to start again."
It's the opposite of being a rock star, where everyone is expecting to hear your greatest hits, he said.
Carr said the proliferation of comedy specials on Netflix has reached the point at which there is "a comedy special for pretty much every sense of humor that's out there now."
"It's another golden age; not since the '80s have we seen this kind of boom," he said.
Jimmy Carr: The Best of Ultimate Gold Greatest Hits starts streaming Tuesday on Netflix.