LONDON - “OK, let’s kick off with a question for you, in time-honored tradition,” Jimmy Carr says to me at the outset of our interview. “Do many comedians make it over to Japan?”
Not comedians like Jimmy Carr, no. In the U.K., the 44-year-old stand-up, writer and TV host is a household name with a stellar CV: over 1 million live DVD sales, nine sold-out tours, a series of hit TV shows and a sackful of awards over his 15 years of cracking wise. His anachronistic approach — Carr’s shows are peppered with quick-fire, deadpan one liners — seems niche in an age of personal, narrative comedy. So, too, his taboo-busting black humor, which has more than once caused (mock) outrage in the British tabloids. A real scandal — the discovery in 2012 that Carr was involved in an aggressive tax avoidance scheme — was genuinely offensive, for a short period making him public enemy No. 1.
Not that the controversies have harmed his career, nor his exportability. Carr enjoys a growing profile in North America (he recently signed to Netflix), has gigged in 30 countries across four continents and, to answer his initial question, he’s at least among a first wave of British comedians of such stature to perform in Japan.
“That’s great!” he says with glee. “I’m excited about the gig. I desperately wanted to go to Japan. My promoter friend and I are obsessed with food. So we were looking at places to go and tour with amazing restaurants so we can go and eat some amazing food. And Tokyo was No. 1 on our list. We basically put it in the tour so we could eat incredible Japanese food. It is the best in the world. If you like watching documentaries on people making sushi, which I do, who doesn’t want to go to Japan?”
Inspired by his favorite bands (he once supported The Killers on tour) Carr is “putting my best foot forward” by bringing his Best Of, Ultimate, Gold, Greatest Hits show to Tokyo. Its premise is simple, yet unfamiliar for a comedy gig: “bash out the hits” with 300 of his best jokes every night. Do people want to hear jokes they’ve heard before?
“In comedy, as in life, people don’t remember what you say — they remember how you made them feel. I tell so many jokes people don’t remember them all,” he says.
Carr has never been to Japan before, and is unsure what awaits him. Previous East Asian gigs have been “30 percent ex-pat, but mainly locals that speak English to such a high standard.” He’s just watched “Eight Days a Week,” he says, and was taken away by footage of the Beatles playing in Tokyo.
“It looked so otherworldly. But I do worry slightly there might be too much reverence in Japan, because I like people to join in. When I do a comedy show, I’m not the only funny one there. People who don’t have a sense of humor don’t go to comedy shows, so I try to harness that.”
Is he worried about a language barrier? “There are universals in comedy. Unless it’s a very specific culture or specific to something in the news, people have got the same sense of humor all over the world. Political correctness, sex, relationships — these are universal themes. Not to be barroom philosopher about it, but the world is in a terrible state. Traveling around, people laugh at the same things.”
Carr was born in London into a religious family, and was a devout Catholic until his mid-20s. “I’m an atheist now, not even a lapsed Catholic, which always sounds bad, like you still find children attractive but you deny yourself.”
Uninhibited by his epiphany-in-reverse, he left his “normal life,” a job at an oil company, to try his hand at comedy.
“I just left to go and play comedy clubs,” he says. “I thought it would be more fun, there was no grand plan. I realized you have to take a risk if you want to do something creative. So I moved in with my mum, made no money, didn’t buy anything and obsessed over writing.”
By 2003, Carr was selling out a month’s worth of shows at the Edinburgh Festival and becoming a regular on TV, testament to the dedication to his craft and his mastery with the feed-line, punch-line gag.
“In this day and age people don’t do one-line jokes,” he says. “There’s an American tradition of telling people about their lives. But I don’t mean it. It’s not like I’m telling jokes but there’s a message there. I have no axe to grind. I’m an entertainer. I’m not trying to be a wise man.”
That much is clear from his act. Carr is renowned for unflinchingly tackling touchy subjects. Nothing is off limits: disability, sexuality, child abuse, rape, abortion, 9/11 — it’s all there, and defiantly so. Jokes about Oscar Pistorius and British soldiers who had lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan are among the gags that have caused outrage in the press.
“My thing on controversy is it’s an easy story on a slow news day. I never apologize for jokes. At most I’ve said sorry you’re upset. It was a joke! I’m only joking. I’m not making a serious political statement; I’m just making you laugh.”
Does he understand why some people would be offended at his material?
“You have to be respectful of the right to be offended,” he says, “but I will joke about anything as long as the joke is good enough to warrant it. There’s got to be a gut-wrenching laugh. My favorite noise in comedy is a laugh followed by an intake of breath. Because a laugh is a reflex. A sharp intake is their conscience saying they shouldn’t have laughed at that. The audience regulate comedy in a way that doesn’t happen in other art forms. If the audience don’t laugh it wasn’t even a joke, it was just two sentences strung together. Ultimately they are the arbiters of taste and decency and what’s funny.”
If he believes that controversies over his jokes are newspaper fiction, he does recognize the uproar over his tax affairs — he saved millions via an offshore K2 tax shelter in Jersey — was right and proper. It was a huge story: even then-Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in as the row escalated, calling Carr “morally wrong.” Carr apologized for his “terrible error of judgment” and is contrite over the issue five years later.
“It was absolutely fair enough. You have to take your medicine and hold your hand up and say you’re in the wrong. I was badly advised and did the wrong thing. If you make a living out of taking the piss out of everything you can’t turn around and go ‘don’t joke about me I’m very sensitive.’ ”
Such is his comic skill, he has turned the incident to his advantage. He jokes about it onstage, and when I ask him about Donald Trump, he says: “A TV celebrity saying controversial things that pays no tax has just been elected into high office? This is my time. This might be the next prime minister you’re talking to.”
Proof that Jimmy Carr will joke about anything, even himself, if it will guarantee a laugh.
Jimmy Carr’s The Best Of, Ultimate, Gold, Greatest Hits Tour comes to Yamano Hall in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on Feb. 27 (7 p.m. start; ¥8,500). For more details, visit iflyer.tv/en/TokyoComedyClubJimmyCarr or www.jimmycarr.com.
Get ready to laugh again
Jimmy Carr’s Tokyo show is significant in that he’s a big name coming to Japan, but the occasion also marks the return of the Tokyo Comedy Club, which is back after a couple of years’ break.
A project produced by Shibuya-based events company Eggworm, the series was launched in 2012 when British comedians such as Justin Moorhouse and Alun Cochrane took to the stage at Roppongi Opera Lounge. “Everyone who shows up at a comedy show wants to laugh,” says Eggworm coordinator Peter Melville. “Our job is to bridge the gap between our idea of great content and the audiences’ expectations.”
Hopefully expectations will be met at Carr’s set on Feb. 27. Eggworm spokesperson Nick Clarke teases that more events are in the works, but isn’t giving away too many details.
“There is a smaller comedy scene here that, for obvious reasons, finds it hard to flourish,” Clarke says. “We are hoping that by putting on big shows, everyone will be able to get behind the comedy scene here in Japan.” (James Wong)
For more information, visit www.eggworm.jp.