On comedy, Jimmy Carr and freedom

Poor old Jimmy Carr. What is the world coming to if a comedian can not make a joke about the “positives” of the Holocaust?

Carr makes the quip during his comedy special, streaming on Netflix. Everyone knows about the murder of Jews, he notes, but no one talks about the thousands of Romani people who were killed, “because no one ever wants to talk about the positives”. It took a while for people to notice, but the backlash this week has been fierce.

Carr is portraying himself as the victim of this incident, a brave comedian heroically standing up for the right to offend. Indeed, at the start of the same show, Carr declares that there is a difference between joking about rape and rape. This is lucky, because old Jim likes a rape gag. There is no reason to believe Carr has any sympathy with rapists or animus towards Romanies, though the fact that Carr did not make Jews or gays the butt of his joke suggests a degree of care over which minority to pick on.

In the seconds after the gag, Carr observes that he loved it because it was (a) “f ****** funny”, (b) “edgy as all hell” and (c) educational, since people do not know about the Nazis’ victims besides Jews. Given Carr’s style, I’m not convinced by the mission to explain.

Carr’s remarks also show he knew what he was doing. There is no subtle subtext. The shtick is entirely the shock value of saying the unsayable. He also knows that, as a star comedian, he is pretty insulated from the consequences, especially if he has a better accountant these days.

But assuming, for the sake of argument, that Carr has broken no law in his comments on a protected ethnic minority, what is the correct response? Absolutists on both sides of the free speech debate find this easy. Carr’s defenders argue his style is well known. If this kind of material offends, they say, then do not watch him.

There is a purity to this argument. Nor is Carr the only one peddling the “it’s just a joke, get over it” defense. Ricky Gervais, a far subtler comedian, is also ostentatiously taking on the joke police with aggressively offensive routines. But does freedom also include the right to boycott Netflix or to pressure advertisers?

Similarly, those with no attachment to free speech will also find this easy. Carr’s joke targets an abused minority, and he should face the consequences. Humor has the power to fashion attitudes, and it’s striking how few of the “It’s just a joke” crowd are from demographics likely to be at the sharp end of the punchline. Morally, the joke is no different to those told in the 1980s about the “upside” of AIDS.

But where does all this leave those of us who care about free speech, especially for comedians, but who can see this joke is repellent? Some will always reject jokes about the Nazis or the Holocaust, but the core problem here is the butt rather than the subject of the joke. Like so much of Carr’s humor, this punches down; the joke is on the victims. Do we just have to shrug and bear it?

The issue is complicated by the rise of streaming services that allow people to circumvent the filters and checks of traditional broadcast channels. Overtly racist and sexist comedians were taken off broadcast TV. But Netflix or, to reference another recent controversy, Spotify have largely removed those constraints. They even reward controversialists.

Supporting free speech is worth little if you only defend the stuff you like, but does that mean I have to support Carr’s right to TV shows? At time of writing, it is not clear if he will face any sanction. But would Channel 4, say, be wrong to decide this was not the type of host it wanted? My own conclusion is that even though I am instinctively on the free speech side of the debate, I would not get steamed up if he faced consequences. He has chosen to profit by outrage, so can hardly complain if he is consumed by it. This is just not something I would wish to defend. And this is perhaps the lesson.

Comedians everywhere are trying to hold the line against those who feel they have a right not to be offended. But if Carr is defending freedom rather than just trying to coin it in with shock jokes, then part of that battle has to include helping allies to support you. He could defuse this by agreeing to cut the joke. But if he chooses to make this a point of principle, he needs to recognize that not everyone is a purist.

Few freedoms are absolute and one of the ways you defend liberty is by not abusing it. We may have a right to offend but that is not the same as an obligation. So, the question to ask is whether a joke ostensibly celebrating and minimizing the murder of hundreds of thousands of people is really the hill on which freedom fighters wish to die?

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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