Jimmy Carr interview: stand-up comedy, 10 O’Clock Live and the British sense of humour

As he launches his sixth stand-up DVD into the world, Making People Laugh, Mr Jimmy Carr spares us some time for a chat…

Just a couple of weeks before this interview took place, I went along to see Jimmy Carr’s current stand-up tour at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall. It was a really good gig, and it emerged the day after that he’s played the venue more than anyone else since it was built.

Thus, as we settled down to talk about his new comedy DVD, Making People Laugh, that seemed like a logical place to start…

When they built the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, I can’t have imagined they’d have thought a stand-up comedian would have played it more than anyone else?

It’s such a cool room, isn’t it? We’re recording the DVD there next year, because I just love that room. I think it’s a fabulous space, and a lot of people go there.

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There’s a lovely bit on your new DVD in the extra features, in the part where you meet people after the gig. And you say in that segment that “it makes it for me when people join in”. Seeing your current tour in the context of that quote, you seem to be further expanding just how people can get involved in your gigs? Is there a much bigger risk to that?

Not really, no. But I’m getting a lot more people up on stage, and making them part of the show. It’s a weird tension. The show is dependant on other people. But I genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen in those moments. So, there’s a bigger risk, but there’s a bigger reward. If it doesn’t work, it’s kind of okay, I just get through it a bit quicker.

I interviewed someone [on stage] the other night who was absolutely fascinating, and it was 20 minutes long, the interview part of the [current] show. Sometimes you interview someone and it’s five minutes, which is perfectly okay, but they get nervous and it doesn’t quite work.

The fact that you’re building a new show year after year, you seem increasingly interested in tinkering with the format?

Yeah. It’s interesting. That thing of doing visual style has come on the last couple of years. On the new DVD, Making People Laugh, you’ve got visuals and amazing cartoons, so, as you go through, you’ve got something on screen as well as watching someone perform. So, it’s something else to focus on.

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How much of a sense of an audience do you get by how they react to the Powerpoint slides you run at the start of your gigs?

You get a very nice sense. I’ve always liked the idea of starting the gig before I walk out, because I don’t have any support act.

It always works. I can judge by the reaction to the opening sequence of the show what night of the week it is. A Tuesday or a Saturday. I don’t think people talk about that enough. People talk about where is the best place to play. But it’s not where, it’s when. Saturday night is fabulous.

There is a weird thing where people sometimes book tickets on the basis of a date, so they say it’s the 28th October, let’s go to a gig. And then it turns out to be a Wednesday night, so they’re wondering what they’re doing out of the house!

Partly on that point. Much has been made about how mainstream comedy has gone over the past few years in particular. But what’s that done to the audience itself, apart from it getting bigger? An audience in a comedy club, for instance, tends to be a lot more tuned in and involved than a more mainstream room with occasional comedy watchers? Do you find the same?

I don’t know. It’s a very good question, but I think I’ve kind of got critical mass now. I think that 70% of the audience get what you do, so the 30% of newcomers get carried along. I play to around 300,000 people a year, and I reckon around 200,000 of those have seen me before in the last five years. So, you’re preaching to the choir, really.

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Which of those groups would you say you target your show most at?

I suppose I target it at me, really. It’s what makes me laugh, and sharing it with other people. I’m not trying to write something for them.

You’re over a million tickets sold now, too?

I think it’s 1.2 million, something like that. It’s a lot!

That’s an amazing number…

It’s ludicrous! But it’s little and often, I’m not an arena filler. I work a lot, little rooms all the time.

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You say you’re going to Symphony Hall next year to film the gig, and you’ve filmed this new DVD in Glasgow. But how do you select now which gig is the right one to film?

I’m getting better at picking!

And what I do now is chat to people for longer. So, you know me, I get up there, do the first 15-20 minutes of gig, which is me doing 70 jokes. Then I’ll do something visual, have a little chat with the audience, and try and get to know who the characters are in this room. Who wants to join in.

People present themselves, I think. People who have a claim to fame, or an interesting job, they’ll say something, or they’ll shout out in some way. You get better at tuning in and going, “Well, I think you’re quite interesting, but I don’t think I want you up on stage.” It’s a weird thing where getting better at that feels like a really exciting thing. Getting better at your job is really fun.

I’ve been looking at a few stand-up DVDs, and on one of the most recent, it’s said that on a national tour, you really only find two or three problem audience members at most.

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Not even that. I can’t think of the last time I had a problem. We have a problem about twice a year, when someone is way too drunk and disturbing the people around them. I think I have the air of a deputy head, so when I say shut up, people tend to. You can break the fourth wall a bit and go out and say, “Look, I don’t care, but you seem to be upsetting the people around you.”

That kind of peer pressure tends to shut people up. And if you do ever have to kick someone out of a room, it’s the most bonding experience. Afterwards, everyone goes, “Well, that was a bit awkward.”

Don’t you end up getting a cheer for it?

You can do, but we always make a point of making sure they’re bought a drink or something. It’s very rare these days, though.

What I enjoyed in the DVD is that you don’t seem to have edited this particularly heavily, and you’ve accommodated the interval in the structure of the disc, which is very rare?

I used to record the DVDs straight through. So, I’d do 75, 80 minutes of the show. And they were always quite long. So, maybe a 90 minute show straight through. And then I thought I’d like it to be a reflection of what happened that night. So, we recorded Glasgow, a big, boisterous gig with lots of audience interaction. And I thought keeping that audience interaction in makes it feel more like it’s a live experience.

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Right down to putting the break in the middle?

I watch a lot of comedy DVDs. You talk about Den Of Geek, I watch them all! I love them. I’m a big comedy fan. As a consumer of DVDs, it’s rare that I’ll watch one from start to finish. I’ll watch it, and pick a time to logically pause it, and then come back to it later on. I watch them on trains and planes or whatever. So, I wanted to put in that interval so you can go, “Oh, tell you what, I’ll have a cup of tea and come back to that.”

You do otherwise tend to get to the 50 minute mark, no matter how good the disc, and it becomes oddly harder to watch sometimes.

Yeah. I wanted to make it a two hour DVD this year, or as near to two hours, because I’m aware people watch them over and over again. I get people coming up after the show and quoting whole rafts of the show that they’ve got off the DVD. And I’m saying, “Right, you’ve watched that a lot!” So, you want it to be so you can watch it and enjoy it, but by the time you get to the end, you’ve forgotten the first joke.

You get a full transcript of the disc for you and the lawyers to check before the disc can go out. But were you pulling much out here, because you come across as really quite savvy in the way you’re tailoring some of the jokes?

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There’s not much that was contentious. There were a couple of things where we changed names to protect the innocent. But the fact of the matter is that people don’t sue comedy DVDs, so it’s not like defamation of character or anything. It’s a joke.

Have you got a name for the seventh disc?

Maybe we should run this as a competition on Den Of Geek? [the names of Jimmy’s DVDs put together form a sentence in themselves]. So, what have we got? We’ve got Live Stand Up Comedian In Concert Telling Jokes Making People Laugh. It’s got to work as a standalone title as well, so maybe For Your Entertainment?

If anyone’s got any ideas, seriously, you can have a DVD if you name the next one!

You’re on.

On this current DVD, though, and I know I’m going back to it, but I do like the extra where you have people queuing up, and we hear some of the off-stage comments you get there. Was that a fair cross-section of what you get? Because there’s a real affection that comes across.

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Yes, it is. It’s really nice to meet people after the show. It’s nice to meet people generally, and after the show during a signing, I’ve tried to capture that during the DVD, just as a little kind of extra. Again, it’s trying to put across what the live experience is. You’ve been to see the gig, it’s two hours long, and afterwards you can come and meet me.

That signing thing is there because of the experience I had of meeting Chris Rock a few years ago. Because I’ve played the Hammersmith Apollo a lot, and they let me go backstage and say hello. All I did was go backstage and say “good gig”, but it made it feel like much more of a night out, or occasion in my life. I’m not suggesting I’m Chris Rock, though.

I think your DVDs over the years have tried to capture so much more than the gig itself, arguably more than anyone else’s. Because, in the past, you’ve put alternative audio clips in there, too, for instance?

The cartoons? That was good fun, yeah. Comedy Idol on another.

One of my favourite DVD extras.

Comedy Idol, the idea of getting people on stage really came from that. Giving people a go, getting them on stage to mess around.

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Have you advanced your plans to revisit Comedy Idol?

I’d love to. If I could find another Ed Aczell, he’s bought so much happiness to me. Extraordinary. So many great people off the back of that.

I also want to ask about your upcoming television project, 10 O’Clock Live, which you’re doing with Lauren Laverne, David Mitchell and Charlie Brooker early next year…

You know what, I saw Charlie Brooker and David Mitchell the other night. We all independently said that it’s going to be fine, I’ve got you two there! We’ve all done nothing, but are relying on the others.

It’s interesting, though. Your stand-up work is, by definition, very much you on your own, on a stage. Your television work is far more collaborative. Is that part of the appeal to it, and specifically to 10 O’Clock Live?

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Well, I suppose it’s that thing where I’m trying to replicate that live feel, the excitement of being on stage, on TV. But also, live TV is exciting to watch. And the idea of doing a live show, Thursday night, 10 o’clock, that people can tune in to, is kind of an exciting thing. The last couple of years I guess it’s been the preserve of Saturday night ITV.

Live television has become about light entertainment, certainly, and it has decreasingly much to say. Live surely presents other opportunities, though, which aren’t being exploited.

Yeah, I agree with that. I think it’s a really fun thing, but I’m so enamoured to be working with Charlie, and Lauren, and David.

But also the behind the scenes team. A couple of my favourite writers, Don English, Charlie Skelton, a girl called Christine Rose, bloke called Shaun Pye. They’re fantastic comedy writers, really top of the class. And they’re coming in and working on this.

The next year, then, is presumably taken up with touring and 10 O’Clock Live?

10 O’Clock Live will be the first three or four months of the year, certainly.

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But is there anything else you fancy trying? You’ve hinted at an autobiography as part of the gig on the DVD, for instance?

Well, I don’t know if my story is all that interesting. I don’t think I’ve got that book in me, I don’t think.

But do you have another book in you?

I’d love to write another book about humour and comedy. Writing The Naked Jape was such labour of love, just about jokes. I’ve been toying with doing a book about the British sense of humour. If I can nail that. I think the really interesting thing about the British sense of humour is how much pride we take in it.

I wish you the best of luck with it, Jimmy Carr, thank you very much…!

Jimmy Carr: Making People Laugh is out on DVD now

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