Jimmy Carr has too many credits to name. He is a stand-up comedian. His most recent special, Funny Business, can be seen on Netflix. He is a well-known host, perhaps best known for The UK show The Big Fat Quiz of the Year. Pete met Jimmy when Jimmy was the presenter on a BBC special on the Science of Laughter. Jimmy’s book, Only Joking: What’s So Funny About Making People Laugh, was the first and most helpful one Pete read when he started studying humor. Jimmy joins Pete in Melbourne prior to Jimmy’s show The Best Of, Ultimate, Gold, Greatest Hits World Tour. Jimmy shares that being able to write jokes isn’t the skill, being able to laugh at jokes is the skill. He says laughter is the interesting part, not the material, because it defines humanity.
Listen to Episode #14 here:
The Hardest Working Man In Comedy Jimmy Carr
Our guest is Jimmy Carr. Jimmy has too many credits to name. He’s a stand-up comedian. His most recent special, Funny Business is on Netflix. He’s a well-known host. My favorite UK show he hosts is The Big Fat Quiz Of The Year. I met him when he was a presenter on a BBC special on The Science Of Laughter. His book, Only Joking: What’s So Funny About Making People Laugh was the first book I read when I started studying humor. I’m happy to join him in Melbourne where he is performing stand-up for his Best Of, Ultimate, Gold, Greatest Hits World Tour. Welcome, Jimmy.
I can’t believe your luck. It’s an honor and a privilege to have me here, I would imagine. It’s nice to see you again.
It is nice to see you.
How are things? How’s Benign Violation treating you? Our theories of comedy are there. How’s it going?
It’s going well. I’m winding some of that down. We’re writing a few review papers these days, but not starting a lot of new work.
Review papers and winding that down. Has there been a scandal? What’s your new grift? That strikes me as a great grift to write about comedy, but not to write jokes.
Your book presents theories of comedy but then throughout it, it’s filled with jokes.
I wrote the book with a friend of mine, Lucy Greeves. We had the initial idea to write a serious book about comedy, what it’s for and why is comedy. We wrote the book and we thought, “It was pretty fun,” but if we put a joke on every page that sweetens the deal and makes the press tour much easier. We swatted some in.
On occasion we’ll put a little bit of a joke in a paper. The funniest joke that is in one of our papers is, “Why do gorillas have such big nostrils?” Because they have such big fingers.
I wouldn’t open with it.
We’re using them for illustrative purposes, not for entertainment.
Is a lecture just a gig that goes badly?
Yes, I think it is.
What are you working on at the moment then? What’s the next thing?
I like how this is a podcast and you’re asking me questions.
You can edit this out, but I’m genuinely interested. It’s such a fascinating area and I did think we did that documentary for the BBC, which I’m sure people can find online. It’s an interesting thing that Benign Violation Theory because it is the only theory that you go, “This works for all jokes.” People often get into that thing of they follow one of the other theories and you go, “There’s nothing there. It doesn’t explain why people falling over are funny.”
We always talk about the problem with humor theories is they’re presented like a menu of theories where you have to choose a theory based upon a particular form of comedy. That doesn’t make any sense from a theoretical standpoint, a theory of emotion. You don’t have different theories of fear depending on the thing that’s scary. You don’t have a theory for fear for snakes.
I did a thing in Oxford University, we did a seminar day with people that were academics and they’re working with computers on writing jokes and generating comedy material. It was fascinating AI and comedy. They said, “We’ve got all these machines that can write jokes, and they can write pretty good jokes.” We went in there and went, “That’s not the point.” Finding a computer that can laugh, that’s what matters. That can laugh, that has the feeling of joy that you get from laughter. That’s the human thing. Being able to write jokes isn’t the skill. Being able to laugh at jokes is the skill, and the idea of it being a social activity. I think there’s a Golden Age of stand-up in terms of people wanting to go out and come to a show at the moment because of how we’re living our lives. We feel quite alienated more so in our culture than anywhere else in the western world.
[Tweet “Being able to write jokes isn’t the skill. Being able to laugh at jokes is the skill, and the idea of it being a social activity.”]
People feel quite alienated were incredibly connected to everyone else in the world via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and everything, but we feel isolated. There’s that weird thing where if you watch a comedy show on your iPad on the way to work, even the funniest show in the world. You watch an episode of Seinfeld, you may have a wry smile, but if you watch it with five friends, you’re eight times more likely to laugh when you’re in a group. It’s such a group dynamic thing. The laughter is the interesting part, not the material, because it defines being human.
In some ways, that’s easy for you to say because you’re good at writing the material though. There are a lot of people who would disagree in the sense that it’s hard for them to be funny.
What I do is such a peculiar profession, to be funny for a living, to make people laugh and to get people to pay to come and sit in a room and you make them laugh for two hours. You’re loading the dice. You’re preaching to the choir. They’ve come to see you. Most laughter, the vast majority, 99.9% of all laughter has nothing to do with professional comedians. It is people in conversation, it is that false laughter and it’s how people get through life.
One of the first things when I stumbled on this question of what makes things funny, I tried to steer clear of stand-up a lot only because it’s the exemplar of comedy in people’s mind. It’s prominent in the United States especially, it’s such a challenging craft. So little of the laughter that happens in life happens from someone paying and sitting in a seat, in a dark room with the two drink minimum. If you do focus too much on comedy as a humor theorist, to me stand-up comedy is a humor theorist, it affects your decisions about theories. You end up getting a theory like Incongruity Theory; it’s good for setup punch line kinds of jokes.
I find it interesting the different schools of comedy because I view myself as being quite old fashioned. You could say hacky because I tell jokes. In America, there are very few people that do one liners. There’s myself, there’s Anthony Jeselnik, obviously people like Emo Philips and Steven Wright are the great masters, joke writers. They had their performance 20, 25 years ago. Extraordinary joke writers but you see the prevalence of people that are talking now on stage, they’re stand-ups and they are storytellers. In the tradition of Billy Connolly or Louis C.K., and they’re coming from that standpoint of wisdom. They’re storytellers and they’re sharing their life. There’ll be jokes in there that you could dissect but mainly it’s the story.
There are so many laughs per minute. Your laughs per minute are much higher as a result.
It’s that thing where I’m aware of what the gig is. I’m aware of being an entertainer and wanting people to go away from the show with those little nuggets of thoughts. It’s also the fact that they’re all lives. A lot of the comics that I love, it’s all about truth. When you watch Bill Burr on stage, it’s about his truth. It’s about him telling you what’s going on in his life and what he thinks about stuff. It’s engaging and wonderful to watch. With me, it’s none of that. We’ll assume that everyone gets these are just jokes so we can ignore the cruelty inherent in them, we can just have a laugh and this is the ultimate safe space in a comedy show.
Is that getting harder to do? Have a comedy club or a theater to feel like a safe space?
I don’t think it is. I don’t think anyone comes to see me that doesn’t know. It’s rare that it gets someone. I imagine as a percentage of my income, that it’s people that have no idea who I am. It’s got to be 10% of the audience every night. That there’s a group of four people and they come and see this. “Is Dave coming?” “Dave’s coming.” “Who are we seeing? What’s going on?” I always think of that personally. You want to preach to the choir, but you also want to bring some new people in, which is pretty easy because they’re giving you two hours of their time to convince them that you’re funny.
I’m completely off script, which is fine. I couldn’t help but notice Best of, Ultimate, Gold, Greatest Hits World Tour. You’re doing a greatest hits show. I’ve never seen a comedian do a greatest hits tour.
Yes, but I had an unprecedented tax bill. A couple of years ago, I’ve written a show. I wrote Funny Business and I thought it was pretty good. On Netflix it’s an hour, but it’s a two-hour show. I wrote that and afterwards I was doing corporate gigs, like after dinner shows. You go for a big company and they’re having their dinner. You might give out some prizes and they say, “Could you do half an hour of jokes?” “Okay, fine,” then you go through your back catalog of everything that’s, “I’m not going to try anything risky here. Nothing too rude. These are the hits. These are my go-to, savor. If it’s a tough gig, go to this line, you’ll be fine.”
I was doing those, quite a lot of those gigs. I thought, “Why am I performing all my best stuff for these people that didn’t pay to see me? It’s just a corporate thing. I’ll do this for the audience,” and then trialed it out when I did lots of gigs. I’m obsessed by playing everywhere in the world. I went to Japan and tried it out. Lots of expats there who had never seen me live before, but it worked. It’s a good show. It’s less singer-songwritery, “I wrote this new joke for you.” I upped the volume of jokes, instead of doing two a minute; I’ll go for a minute. I’ll try and pack them in there and get to that stage where if you like those kinds of jokes, you’re forever catching up. From an audience perspective, it’s a fun, entertaining night out. It’s quite a fun thing to do to do a best of. People have done it before. I’ve seen Steven Wright a couple of times, and he does that thing where he does probably an hour and a half and 40 minutes of it is the classics.
It’s your greatest hits but your audience hasn’t heard all of this stuff. Some of it might be familiar.
I went back through everything and I didn’t remember all of it, I don’t think they’ve got much chance. Occasionally watched old DVDs of myself going, then occasionally you go, “That’s a funny thing that happened.”
I don’t reread my papers, but I wish I can rewrite my papers, my papers from fifteen years ago because I could do a better job.
Comedy I don’t think it’s an art, it is a craft and you get better at it. I don’t think you should ask comedians how long they’ve been doing comedy. You should ask them how many hours they have on stage. It’s like being an airline pilot and that 10,000-hour thing is pretty true. I watch early stuff of mine and go, “You’re terrible at this,” but there’s a nub of something. It’s a weird thing where when I look at jokes that I’ve written, you could tell that it’s my joke. There’s a DNA, there’s brevity and there’s a certain word play that go, “I see exactly how I did that and what was thinking.”
You trim your jokes down as short as possible?
I don’t even try and do it. That’s the way they come out. I don’t think you get to choose what kind of comedian you are. Often chat with a friend of mine, John Bishop, who’s a brilliant comic but a real storyteller, a proper storyteller. In his show, if you can see him, he’ll do an hour and a half or two hours and five or six stories but they’re the lovely, undulating, wonderful stories. That’s the comedian I would have chosen to be because you go, “You have six funny thoughts. You’re away.” No, there are 300 one liners, nonsense.
This is a two-hour show. You have an intermission. That’s a lot of comedy.
It is that thing where I’m not doing two hours for the people that come and see me that night. I’m doing two hours so they come and see me again in two years. That was happening in Australia, it’s $80. To come see and see me $80, $90. You want them to come and see the show and go, “That was really funny. There were lots of it. We didn’t feel short changed and we wanted to see him. We just saw him, he told us a ton of jokes and it was super fun.” You want them to feel like, “He’s coming to town? We’re go in.” In the UK I’ve built up that thing of going, if I put a tour on, people come back year on year and it becomes part of their little tradition if you tour around the place.
You tour all the time.
Pretty much, but it’s an odd thing. I can’t think why you wouldn’t. I’ve got the best job in the world, why would you not want to do that?
I always say I have the best job in the world.
Do you think? There’s a lack of adulation in academia. The arguments in academia are vicious because the stakes are low.
That’s true. I think I have the best job I could have gotten.
I agree with that. We’re on the same page, 100%. That thing of like, “I’ve got an amazing job and I get to travel the world telling jokes. Why would you want to not do that?” I always see that thing when people play stadiums, I’m not going to tour for two years and then I’m going to do two months of stadiums. You go, “Don’t do that. The fun of it is doing it.”
I created a comedy game show and I host it. We’ve done it a few times. When I’m up on stage and I did it for my biggest crowd, which is 250 people. When the laughs come, it’s an incredible feeling.
I do think that thing of work is more fun than fun. That’s the life I find myself in. The idea of going, “I’m taking the night off tomorrow.” I’ve done the Australian tour all around me. I’m a big tennis guy. I like tennis so I’m going to go and watch Federer win the Australian Open. That’s great. I’ll have a great time. I have night off. There is a part of me at 8:00 PM we’ll be going, “It’s all about him this evening, isn’t it?” There’s a real narcissism in comedians, even when you’re watching someone fabulous onstage, you go, “No one’s listening to me.”
I assume you tour well. You’re staying in nice places and it’s a comfortable-ish life. You’ve minimize the downsides of being on the road.
I’ve done a week in New Zealand where we did eleven shows in seven days.
That country needs some more comedy.
I did a seven city tour of New Zealand, which is remarkable because they’ve only got four fucking cities.
I was there recently. There’s no comedy in the South Island.
We did Christchurch and I end up doing a 4,000 seater there because the demand was quite high. I do think there’s something about the smaller places that you go, you get better crowds. In Melbourne this evening, there are probably fifteen or twenty other things you could do. Restaurants, bars, there are shows, there’s theater, there’s sports and there’s a ton of stuff happening. Whereas sometimes you pitch up in Napier in New Zealand, the people go, “Who’s on? We’re all going.”
I was in Christchurch. I totally understand that.
The best experience I had of that was in Iceland. Everyone plays Reykjavik. I’ve done Reykjavik a good few times and I like Iceland a lot. Like the people. It’s great. I said, “Are there any other cities we can play?” They’re like, “No,” “We do have an art center? Four hours north.” I went, “I’ll do it.” It’s an 800 seater and the town is 805 people. Everyone came. There was no choice on, “Who’s on?” They just went, “There’s a thing on, we’ll go to the thing.”
They liked it more?
It was great. Great fun.
You have the best job in the world and let’s suppose I’ve taken this away from you. You can’t host, you can’t write, you can’t act. No stand-up. What do you do? What are you going to be?
I would go into management. I would love to go into management. I’d love it if I had the time to do that. There’s something about other people’s careers when you watch them. Sometimes when you see someone you go, “He’s not world famous. I don’t even understand. Has he been given the wrong advice? Is he not in the right stream?” You see people, you just think are incredible and you want them to do brilliantly.
[Tweet “Stand-up is not about youth necessarily, it’s about longevity. The question is how long can you make it work?”]
I had a conversation recently about someone, he doesn’t stand-up but he would much rather be a director and direct stand-up, which is an idea I’ve never heard of before. Obviously I know about directing. It’s great value in intelligent film and so on.
There are people that have got a bit too much talent. I hung out a little bit with Neal Brennan and Neal’s got this thing where he’s good at directing and he’s a brilliant stand-up. There are many different pools on his time. He didn’t even get around to doing stand-up until he was about 30 because he was busy. He’s great at writing, he’s great at directing and there’s other kind of poles. Sometimes that just happens. Other people go, “I’m going to go off and do this other thing because it’s an interesting long, full project.” I believe the expression is, “I’ve got a lot out of myself.” I’ve gone as far as I can with the talent I’ve got it.
The issue with stand-up is not about youth necessarily, it’s about longevity. The question is how long can you make it work?
There was a great article in Vice about the age of comedians and what age they need to be to be a success. It’s different for every comedian. Marc Maron is a good example. Marc Maron when he was 25, 30, incredible stand-up comedian. He’s a brilliant stand-up comic, great comic mind. There was something about him that didn’t quite work because he always had a touch of the, “Get off my lawn,” a 25-year-old curmudgeon doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t quite fit. Suddenly when he hit mid-40s, everything clicked. Everything he said rang true and worked. Louis C.K. may be the same thing, about the age of 40, that divorce and that chewed up thing. Everything seemed right. He fit in his skin. He looked right and he felt like the right kind of comic.
You’re saying there’s a shelf life?
I don’t know if there’s necessarily a shelf life, but there’s a great age to be as a comedian. I’ve looked pretty much the same since I started.
What do you translate? You stay in TV? You do this?
I’ve always thought I’m in stand-up and everything else is a little bit of a side show. Much as the TV things are fun there if someone else makes that decision. The joy of this job is you don’t have a boss that you can do what you want, you can work as hard as you want or you can take time off and sit round. The TV stuff is really fun. It’s nice to have a mix, to play with others and to mess around with other people, do other shows. That’s always fun. The main thing is stand-up. Everything’s come from stand-up and you try and remind yourself that’s where it’s from. Don’t disappear and become a TV host because that doesn’t lead to anything else. Whereas the stand-up offers keep on coming in that are interesting.
What is your advice? Let’s play the role of manager, not agent manager. That’s a more interesting job. You’ve done this largely though on your own.
No, I don’t think so. I think you’ve had an awful lot of help along the way. My manager Hannah, I’ve been with since I started pretty much. I’ve been going about six months a year by the time we found each other. She was about the same level as me. She had just started going to the industry at the most junior possible level. We came up together. It’s a really interesting relationship, but I don’t think anyone does this on their own. There’s a real allusion. It’s sportsman or whatever, there’s always a team behind you. My tour manager or people that have been with you a long time and you feel they sort out the things so you can just get on with the bit you’re good at.
There was a time where you broke through when your stuff started to stand out? Did you make a change or was it a matter of getting good?
Partly a matter of getting good, but it happened quite quickly. There’s a thing called the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. I went up there and I’m still doing gigs in London. There’s a ton of gigs in London. At that time, there was a ton of open spot gigs we could just turn up and do time. I didn’t realize until I got to America, to New York or LA years later, that doesn’t exist anywhere else. There’s no other city where you can turn up and you can do lots of spots as a newbie. There wasn’t much competition at the time. I taught myself how to write jokes and I was getting up a lot. The first three or four years of comedy, I was doing 300 shows a year.
This is like the famous Beatles story.
The outliers thing. It’s the amount of time you spend on stage. I didn’t have much of a work ethic pre-comedy. I did well academically and I had a nice job at the big blue chip oil company and I was doing fine but middle management and boring. I wasn’t working particularly hard at it because I didn’t love it. I found this thing that I went, “I want to do this all the time. I could do this all day long.” That became much easier to go, “I’ll do a show.” It didn’t become work so I could put more and more into it. I didn’t get bored of doing it.
It’s striking. As someone who works hard, I see it in other people. It’s clear you work hard. You’re on the road a lot.
I worked very hard at comedy and I’m a pretty funny guy. No place for false modesty in this podcast. There are some people that have got their magic. You meet some people and they’ve got a funny bones and you go, “I didn’t even know what he did,” but it tends to be that they can’t focus that in the same way, they couldn’t do the tour that I do because they’d go out of their mind. It would be insanity. They just exude it. It just drips off them.
There are parallels in academia, I have colleagues and people I know who are so smart, their minds, they have horsepower in a way that I don’t. The issue is it’s not only about horsepower. It’s not only about the talent.
That thing about going the inspiration, the writing and those great moments where you come up something and go, “That’s going to work.” A lot of the job is the writing, the creativity’s one side of it, but the other thing is turning up. A lot of show business is turning up. It’s going and enjoying performing, enjoying the life, enjoying traveling, enjoying being away, enjoying missing social functions, whatever that thing is. My mother was embarrassed about it, but she thought that there was some Romany blood in our past and thought that we had some Gypsy about us. We’re an Irish family. It’s more than likely. I’ve got that wanderlust. I like being out.
Do you get bored easily?
I think so. That’s partly that style of comedy as well. If there’s a long story, if I do write a long story and there’s a few in the show that anything more than six lines, bored us again. People haven’t laughed in ages.
What are the beats in your day? You’re here in Melbourne and you’re performing at 8:00. What’s the day like leading up to this?
I suppose the great thing about this job is that there’s no two the same. That’s the joy is that there’s no real routine. It depends what you’re doing.
What was this day like?
We went for an amazing brunch place and hung around. Went to an antique store because I’m middle-aged and hung out. We drank some Kombucha. I don’t even know what that is, but we had some. You picked up here. We’ll go to a casino later on.
You’re a late night guy?
Yes, I like late night hanging out, but I get up early as well.
Do you nap?
No nap. Not a nap guy.
I like a good nap.
That feels like an academic thing. It feels like the easy street you’re on.
Teaching, I feel is like performing. I dress the part. I build my day completely around the teaching, so I’m at my best for that. When I’m not teaching, to me the day is all about finding the moments where I’m at my best intellectually to do creative work and then building all these other activities around those.
If I’m writing a TV show or if I’m on a TV show. I want to get back to London. I’m making ten TV shows in eight days. That will be very structured. That will be a very structured day. Get up, eat that, go to the studio, get made up, do that. It’s a very structured day, minute by minute, what you’re doing. At the moment you’re free willing on tour. It almost feels like a vacation because you work the two hours when you’re on stage and the rest of it is either travel, watching TV, hanging out, going for breakfast or going for lunch, whatever you’re doing in the day, you can be writing as that’s going along. You’ve always got the phone with them all time. I’m constantly noting down things. The actual writing phase is very easy for me because it’s just going through the long list of nonsense that you wrote down while you’re wandering around the shops and then it’s the edit process is the work.
I often ask comedians about how do they write it down. What do they write down? It’s either phone. A lot of people store old school and notebooks.
I’m blown away by people that don’t write it down.
I don’t think you can be successful and not write it down. Maybe there are a few people out there.
It seems extraordinary to me that you wouldn’t. There’s a great Mitch Hedberg line about being a comedian. His job is wake up at 3:00 AM, thinks of something funny and then he has to convince himself that it’s not funny so he can go back to sleep. Otherwise, “There we go, I have to pen.”
Do you deal with self-doubt? Do you deal with concerns about, “Is this good enough?” There’s this constant comedian as a narcissist idea, but then there’s the comedian as lacking confidence.
No, very early on in this job, you have to make peace with the fact that you’re not for everyone. You have to also celebrate that you are for some people.
Do you pump it up for the people who like you, with the people who don’t be damned?
All the people that don’t like you be damned is quite an easy, especially because of the type of humor that I find funny, the thing that makes my heart sing is quite dark. I quite like stuff that’s got a little bit of shock with it. It’s funny and it’s got a little bit, “Okay, he said that.” That’s always what’s made me laugh in life and you’ve got to be true to yourself in this. You can try and pander or not share with the audience what you think is funny. We thought that was a very odd thing. I remember meeting some comedians early on in my career that were really funny backstage and in conversation, and then onstage it was quite vanilla.
Won’t take the risk. I’m friends with comedian, Shane Mauss. Shane has a rule which is whenever he feels scared to talk about something that feels vulnerable, he forces himself to talk about it. It’s his best comedy comes out of these difficult things.
The master of that is Chris Rock. A lot of his routines, it’s almost like an academic exercise. He sets up a ludicrous premise that you couldn’t possibly work his way out of. The proof is like “What?” He said “What?” and then five minutes later you go, “That’s the funniest. Yes, of course he’s totally right.”
He has this preaching style of comedy that’s fast. This performance idea, I don’t know much about it. I’m interested in the bones of jokes and your point about dark places, that’s the best place to start because that’s where the arousal is.
The release of tension in jokes. If you think all jokes work in exactly the same way, it’s two stories. In the first story, you force the audience to make an assumption that turns out to be erroneous. The second part of the story it’s the sudden revelation of a previously concealed fact that they’re working that way. It’s much easier if you’ve got subject matter that’s already edgy. It’s quite like “What’s he talking about now? Child abduction. My God.” There’s already the tension there. It’s easy to get the release.
[Tweet “You have to make peace with the fact that you’re not for everyone. You have to also celebrate that you are for some people.”]
I always talk about this with wordplay. It doesn’t make sense from one perspective, but it makes sense from another perspective. Most wordplay is not funny. The wordplay that’s funny is taboo wordplay. It’s wordplay that’s titillating or you’re talking about stuff you’re not supposed to be talking about it in a polite company.
I sometimes forget that onstage with bad language. I grew up in a household where my mother would add an incredible way with words and incredible level of swearing. I still don’t recognize cursing in any sense as being bad. My mother would routinely say cunt, constantly. Would have a lovely turn of phrase. If you ever said, “You look nice.” She would go, “Like a whore to christening.” Still lovely little aphorism. It was funny and it was great. That thing about going the bad language, I sometimes feel onstage. If you punctuate something with a well-timed and well-delivered curse word, you forget most people don’t use that language in everyday life. It’s unusual for them to hear that. Most people don’t live in a Quentin Tarantino, they, “You said that funny.”
It’s an exclamation point for these things. The performance side of things, getting back to Chris Rock, you alluded to it earlier when you were looking back on your old work, this notion of performance.
I suppose it’s that if you write a joke that’s good enough, that other people can steal it and put it on Twitter or whatever happens to jokes or tell it in the pub, it’s the perfect joke. It’s almost like that Alan Moore point about the word we spell words and there is a magical quality to them, and that there’s something incredible about jokes. There’s something extraordinary about jokes and that you come up with these words and they have a physiological effect on other people and make them release this drug that’s already within them.
It’s extraordinary when you stop and think about it. Sometimes you can come up with something that’s perfect on the page. You could read it out and it works. A lot of my stuff is quite well-written and I don’t bring a lot to it performance-wise. If you watch Chris Rock’s already great example. If you watch someone really perform. He really brings it. He really sells them and it’s great material. There are examples as well, which I wouldn’t care to mention of people that have zero material and they just sell themselves. They deliver. There are a couple of people that I enjoy watching. They’ve got nothing material wise, but the delivery is like you go, “I can’t get enough of this.”
There is something that is enjoyable about watching the theatrics of it all.
When it hits perfectly, it’s great.
How have you cultivated that performance side of things? Holding joke equal?
I suppose it’s that thing of being yourself and being comfortable in your own skin on stage, but people can see that. I didn’t laugh on stage. I already noticed this when I was doing The Best Of Show. I watched my first nine specials and I watched the first four, I don’t laugh ever. I’ve got a weird laugh. I laugh on an in breath, it’s a high pitched inhaling. It’s often quite a high pitch and if I really lose it on TV, it can go on for ages. It sounds like a seal being sexually abused in some way. Don’t ask me how I know that, but it sounds exactly like it. A long winter in Newfoundland. I wasn’t at ease enough to laugh on stage for the first probably five, six years of my career because I was tense up there. Being more yourself, being more relaxed. Bill Murray said, “We do everything better relaxed.” You should always be relaxed. Trying to be relaxed on stage is not easy sometimes.
You’re remembering these jokes, you’re looking at timing and your mind is working a lot even though it’s not.
There’s slight physical thing to it as well, stand-up. It’s weight because you still think, you’re just standing there. It’s weird how tiring it can be because I’m standing pretty much stopped still for two hours talking. You think there’s no physical, but sometimes you’re exhausted afterwards.
I remember the first time I ever taught and I was 28 years old. I taught my first class. It was 29 and I remember I was exhausted. I came home and I watched a rerun of There’s Something About Mary. It was the only thing I could do that night. Even now, I feel on the days that I do a full day of teaching, I do six hours of teaching, I almost never schedule something for that evening. Maybe I’ll do something social and light, but I don’t schedule work or anything because I’m wiped. It’s not only that you’re on your feet, but it’s such a highly evaluative.
It’s also that thing of being human. It’s you’re connecting to other people and that group dynamic of that. It’s quite an interesting thing. You’re passively watching and it’s a conversation. As a comedian, it’s easy to see that conversation because feed line, punch line, laugh.
Laughter is language.
Yes. It’s an interesting point because a lot of people miss that and think, “You spoke the whole time.” Yes, but we we’re all communicating. The same with lectures and you’ll know from it’s either nods or eye movements or things. Whether people are getting or not getting it or glazing overall. There are lots of feedback and partly the great thing about my job is the feedback loop is short. You get an immediate fit. If you make a movie, it’s five years from when you put the pen to paper to when you get the feedback of people didn’t like it. With a joke, you go, “Change attack.”
Yes, indeed. The thought experiment is if you performed your show alone in your dressing room or if I performed my lecture in my office, even the same amount of standing, the same amount of theatrics. I found that my lectures got better when I turned the volume up and turn the speed up. Even if I kept that constant, I wouldn’t be as exhausted at the end of the day.
I wonder with that with jokes, whether they’re anything written down. When stuff gets reported on in the papers, if there’s a small controversy about something, they’ll write a joke down and put it. You see it written down and go, “It does seem harsh written down.” Then you’ve taken something from 10:00 PM in the theater and you put it at 9:00 AM over cornflakes you go, “I wouldn’t have told that joke at 9:00 AM at breakfast.”
That’s a true challenge of comedy these days. A good comedy environment, comedy club especially, but even a big hall is engineered to be maximally amusing. From the temperature, from the packing people in, from the acoustics, to the expectation of, “This is going to be funny. I am here to laugh.” When you start stripping away each of those contextual environmental elements, that thing that was a diamond at that thing just seems like a piece of coal.
That makes me think of that someone had that point about the people turning up to comedy shows and they’ve got a certain amount of laughter in them and you’re just tickling it out. It’s a nice idea that people just going to turn up when they go, “I want to laugh. I’ve paid to laugh. I’d been looking forward to this.” Your work was done when they bought the ticket. I often think I reference a lot of thing at the end. It’s a little throwaway line, but the idea that I like people to look forward to the show. I don’t like when people buy tickets last minute so much. I like it when people have had that ticket for three months and then they’re here and right. This is it. We’re at it. We’re doing this thing. I know that I love looking forward to stuff, almost as much as the thing. You go, “We’re going to that? Brilliant, it’s going to be exciting,” and then you’re there, “This is good.” You know you’re going to enjoy it.
The people who study wellbeing, puzzle. As a scientist, you’re not a philosopher but you’re sometimes forced to philosophize. The question is, “What should we be optimizing when it comes to our hedonic experiences? Should we be optimizing this savoring, experience the anticipation, knowing something good’s coming? Should we be optimizing the actual experience, which often is short lived? Should we be optimizing of that retrospective evaluation?”
All of life is a memory apart from the cutting edge of this fleeting moment. That memory of it’s quite an important thing to me. If I’m looking at it from an audience perspective, I want people to go away from it and remember it. They won’t remember the jokes. They won’t remember the specifics of the evening. Virtually in life, in human interaction and relationships, people never remember what you say. They remember how you made them feel. Even though I tell brutal harsh jokes, people go away thinking, “He’s right there. We laughed. We laughed at him, though. Very nice”
Maybe that’s why that storytelling approach to comedy can be successful. There might be fewer laughs, but you feel good. I don’t actually know from an evolutionary standpoint how to describe it, but it’s such a part of being human, it’s something that is wired within us.
The Sapiens guy, Yuval Noah Harari, stories are everything. That’s the nub of humanity is stories. The idea that research that showed that we did about laughter predating language by about a million years. It’s interesting to think of that idea of going back, that was that was there way before language as a way to make sure that the group survives. We did the show with Dunbar and the idea that Dunbar number is increased by laughter. You go from 50 apes, that when the group gets to 60, they go, “No, we’re off over here. Thanks.” When you can get to that Dunbar number of 150 and that allows specialization and that allows everything else. Not to pick up comedy’s importance, but it does strike me that that’s what all of that false laughter within conversation, within life, within social interaction makes that possible.
To me the interesting thing is that what language has done to laughter is increased the frequency of it. The way I’ve always thought about it are, “Yes. Laughter predates language,” but the things that we would laugh about pre-language we’re limited. Language has increased the likelihood of laughter.
It’s very Wittgenstein, isn’t it? It’s the idea of the limits of your language and the limits of your imagination. Now we can imagine all kinds of scenarios, hypotheticals and have thought experiments. Imagine no hypothetical scenarios.
That’s the interesting thing about comedy. People always talk about truth in comedy, but most comedy is not truthful necessarily. It’s built on, “Let’s suppose this is the case,” or, “I’m just kidding,” which is not truthful. The truth can be a useful path to comedy, but it’s not a necessary one.
People talk about kicking their truth in a way that’s maybe I know exactly what they mean by that and they’re using the word correctly, but it’s not quite. These are just the facts. No one’s going up there with the facts.
No, that’s what I do in my life. I bring the facts. That’s what people pay in their course work is for facts.
Not to segue off, but the political world at the moment, the idea that you go. What we don’t have at the moment is commonly agreed facts as a standpoint. It’s a weird thing where people used to have, “We’ve got different opinions now.” “We’ve got different opinions on this, but this is the fact.” Now people have got different facts and you go, “The world’s gone fucking mad there.” It’s a weird thing with there’s some talk about a grand age for political satire because of Trump and you go, “You can do a couple of one liners about him being an idiot, but after that he’s going to be more ridiculous than anything you could say.”
For me in terms of watching comedy, I’m always looking for the stuff that’s different. Staying away from Trump is exciting to me because there are many people, at least in the United States who are doing it on the left. I have two questions for you. I ask this of everyone. What are you reading, watching or listening to these days that really stands out to you? It’s not just good, but you think of as great.
I’m trying to get the last thing that I saw. I just watched Three Billboards and I had to stop the movie to cry. I thought, Woody Harrelson, he’s performance was exceptional. It was brilliantly, brutally, incredibly funny as well. It felt to me like the guy that does it, I forget his name, the director and writer. It’s extraordinary because he’s got this thing where it feels to me like it’s a very human experience. It feels like that’s what life’s like. Terrible things happen. We all fall tragic things and then by turn, something funny happens. I love the tone of the movie. I thought the tone was absolutely fabulous.
I’ve only seen the preview and the preview is compelling.
It’s pretty great. Some extraordinary performances in it. Sapiens, it’s an extraordinary piece of work in terms of his theory and also beyond that. It engenders interesting conversation. Whenever I meet people that have read it and different people have got different views. I suppose from your perspective, very interesting of someone that’s come from an academic background, but it somehow got something that’s become a bit more mainstream.
Yes, it has reached a broader audience than you might’ve expected.
I really enjoyed that. I thought it was a fabulous book. I suppose it scratches the same itch for me as I watch a lot of Adam Curtis documentaries. Very much a polemicist, strong opinions about things. He made The Century Of Self and he made The Power Of Nightmares, very interesting, about narratives and about politics, which I thought were exceptional. I watch a lot of comedies. I watch an awful lot of stand-up comedy. I would say I’m a comedy fan first and foremost, and a performer a distant second. In the last couple of things I watched Dave Chappelle Special, really enjoyed that. Judd Apatow Special, really enjoyed that. Catherine Ryan has a Netflix special.
[Tweet “Is a lecture just a gig that goes badly?”]
Netflix has been great for stand-up.
It’s been extraordinary. It’s a real Golden Age that people can reach a bigger market. Partly my issue with it is people aren’t taking advantage of it because people go, “I’ve got Netflix special, comes out in America.” They go, “Yeah, I’m also going to do a tour. I’m going to do New York and Los Angeles,” then you go, “Yes. Have you been to Malta? You can even go to Malta now. You can play Poland. You can do South Africa. You can do Japan.”
If you have a Netflix special, you can go nearly anywhere?
Pretty much. It’s partly the way people watch television has changed fundamentally in that we are all our own channel controllers now. No one watches what’s on. It’s partly the downside politically is the echo chamber, but the good thing entertainment-wise is the echo chamber. You go, “I like Parks And Rec and The Office.” Then suddenly it recommends a new show and you go, “Am I going to like it?” Yes, you are, “Okay, Kimmy Schmidt,” and then it’s brilliant. It’s exactly your thing, you love it and you find more. People don’t care what’s legally available. They go, “I’ll take that thing.”
You were talking about AI earlier. I’m suspicious of how good AI can get at writing jokes. One thing that AI does incredibly well it says, “You like this? Here’s everything else you’re going to like.”
I’m pretty into music. I listen to an awful lot of music and sometimes those things I find a little bit spooky. When Spotify recommends, it goes, “You’re going to like this band,” you go, “Yes, I do, but you don’t know me.”
I’ve learned to trust and enjoy it. It’s great because you get exposed. Occasionally you meet someone who gets your taste and that can expand your world.
That used to be always the thing. It’s not what you’re like; it’s what you like that matters. I suppose the thing that we’ve lost is that common shared experience. The reason that shows like Game Of Thrones is incredible is because everyone sees it. It’s a global experience so you can do something about that.
What’s the secret to success that everybody knows, but no one can seem to do?
It’s enjoying the passage of time. That’s it. It’s now. People have got different structures, how they organize their mind internally and they’re living in the future or they’re living in the past. A lot of people are getting away from poverty, heartache or whatever happened in the past. A lot of people are frightened of their future. They’re worried about, “I’m going to grow old, be alone and be poor,” or whatever that thing is. Different people are motivated by different things.
How you think about time seems to be incredibly important to how happy you are. The more you can be present, whether that’s through meditation or yoga. It strikes me as quite a lucky thing that no one ever talks about is your disposition. They did an incredible academic study of people that had been paralyzed and people that had won the lottery. They found after three months it’s like, “I’d broken my back. I’m so depressed and I won the lottery. I’m so happy,” but after a year, you are who you are.
You’re back to that, largely. There is a lot of work on this past focused, future focused or present focused orientation and it’s hard to be present focused. If you think about how hard it meditation is, it shows you how hard it is to be present focused in that way.
I almost think we need a different terminology because people are in meditative states on the regular that don’t think they’re meditating. I almost feel when I’m on stage, I’m not on autopilot when I’m on stage, but I’m in a comfortable space doing something that I enjoy and two hours passes by in the blink of an eye. There’s a lovely thing there when you’re going through something in life.
In the literature it calls it a flow state where you’re optimally challenged.
Meditation is tough because your conscious mind can hold five plus or minus two things in it at any one time. You can’t think of more than five things at any one time or seven things at any one time. If you give yourself that many things to think about, you can relax your unconscious mind. When I’m on stage, you’re thinking about, “What’s the next joke? How am I performing this? What line am I going to punch? How long should I leave the pause?” Whatever you’re thinking about onstage, “I haven’t looked up there for a while. I want to acknowledge those people in the back,” or whatever you’re thinking about when you’re on stage, your subconscious mind can get on with other stuff. Sometimes your subconscious mind, you can say something on stage and be quick because it’s relaxed.
My closest thing for this is either when I used to play sports, playing sports made me present. The better I got, the more enjoyable it was because I could do a lot of things at once.
You want to get to unconscious competence. There’s that thing if you get that scale where it goes from unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, conscious competence, unconscious competence, and you want to get to that stage where you go, “I don’t even think about this.” Driving the car is the best example. I find driving a car, I get very relaxed. I’m very creative when I have a long drive. I know exactly what I’m doing. I don’t have to think about the road particularly, you’re present.
I was driving in New Zealand on the other side of the road and it was different than normal. I feel like writing I can get those moments, those flow moments. Not always, but here and there, where all of a sudden time’s passing quickly.
For me it was easy because it’s such a moment’s thing what I do. It’s one liners. I’m not trying to knock out a novel or a paper. Lots of comedy shows are going to see these people sometimes, and this analogy really works. When you watch my show and you go, “It’s like a piece of marble and they chipped away everything that wasn’t a horse.” With me I’m building the Lego. It’s easier. It’s like one liner, I write that and then I can write another one in three months’ time and go, “I’ll do that one after that one.” Does it flow? Yes, they’re both funny. That’s what they’ve got in common. You don’t need anything else. There’s no narrative to it, so it’s much easier. I feel everyone feels this, but I felt I found a grift.
It’s why you have the best job in the world and I have the best job I could get.
What else are you up to now? As a little coda to this, for people in our audience. If you’re not doing Benign Violation.
I’m not giving it up totally, but I’m starting some work on improv. I’m starting to look at how the rules and lessons of improvisational comedy can be more broadly applied. How it can be useful in real life.
It’s very useful in relationships. That idea of going and or we take that and we’ll ‘build on it as a starting point. That’s interesting because those skills, they’re much more transferable skills than stand-up. There’s a great quote about stand-ups that we’re, “Out for ourselves but in it together.” It’s a nice Allan Havey. Great stand-up, great guy. Out for ourselves, in it together, that’s how stand-ups are. The biggest comedy stars in the world are always improv people. It’s guys that came from Second City and your Will Ferrell’s and your Tina Fey’s and it’s that, “Incredible.”
Beyond, “Yes, and,” I’m interested in this notion of gifting. One of the concepts of improv is gifting. “Yes, and,” keeps the scene moving, but what gifting does is that it makes it easy. It makes things easier for you. When you and I are doing a scene, and then I say, “I know it’s hard when X, Y and Z happens to you.” Now I’ve just gifted you something to work with. When I do that, it’s all about making life easier for you and making you more interesting and all that stuff. The idea is that if we’re all doing this, if everybody considers them self a supporting actor designed to help everyone else and everyone shares that, then we all get elevated.
This is what I see as the purpose of this podcast. You’re making me look good. After you see Mike Birbiglia’s movie, Don’t Think Twice, you would really like it.
Not yet, but a lot of people talk to me about it because it’s improv focus.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything, but it’s a wonderful piece. The central premise is a group of improv people, one person becomes the star, one person gets the big break. I like Birbiglia and there’s a great storyteller.
What am I doing now? That’s a glimpse into the things. I’m trying to think about how can I translate the lessons from comedy more broadly into life? I’m starting some work on editing, for instance. I’m here in Melbourne and one of the things I’m working on is a new paper about how the principles of editing are much more widely applied than we often think. We think about editing television, film and books but I think that as humans we’re constantly editing.
The extraordinary thing is not the amount of information. The amount of information we take in is extraordinary through our senses. We have to edit out every day. You get into quite an interesting area where you talk about people on the spectrum or autism that because the amount of information coming in, if you don’t edit that properly, it’s a problem. It’s what we naturally do anyway where we go, “What’s the important thing here?” I suppose it links back to our Darwinian evolution.
They don’t think of it in this way as in terms of adding, subtracting and ordering. Every time we start a day, we’re adding decisions, subtracting decisions and ordering decisions. Those can have a profound effect on our happiness. Those are the kinds of things I’m starting to work on.
It seems happiness is the overarching field
When I get down to it, I want to study big problems. Humor is a big problem. It’s an age old problem, as you know. An even bigger problem which humor feeds into is one of well-being. What does it mean to live a good life?
Someone told me something recently, which I found fascinating. On the flip side of comedy and creativity is anxiety. The idea that the same bit of your mind you can’t switch off and writes jokes is the bit that wakes up in a cold sweat, panicking. It’s that anxiety. There’s quite nice way of thinking about anxiety of going, it’s misdirected creativity. It’s the creative bit of the mind going, “I can’t switch off. I’m thinking this thought again and again.” “What if something bad happens?” as opposed to, “What if something funny happens?”
The way I’ve learned to deal with my anxieties, and mine are mild. I used to think that they’re profound because they’re mine. Their pretty normal level of anxieties is I’ve been able to attribute a lot of my success to that running a motor, whether that be a physical motor or an intellectual motor. Anxiety makes you vigilant and makes you work harder. It makes you think about scenarios, possibilities and so on. An absence of it is not good and too much of it is not good. You’re just finding that sweet spot there.
We’ve spoken about work ethic and work ethic is a roundabout way of saying you’ve got a little bit of a problem with yourself and you want to achieve. Either you’re showing off to other people, you need a sense of well-being.
[Tweet “On the flip side of comedy and creativity is anxiety.”]
You’re fleeing poverty, whatever that thing is. I was having a conversation right before this where I was like, “Why am I working so hard?” There are times in life where it makes perfect sense. It would be a mistake not to, and then there are times where it’s worthwhile to ask that question if the answer is, “Because I like it.”
The more interesting question is, “What else would you rather be doing?” If you’d rather be doing something else, then go and do that other thing. Certainly as a performer and you’re serving the audience, if you don’t want to be there, don’t be there. Someone else has other tickets.
Jimmy, this is a lot of fun. I really appreciate doing it.
An absolute pleasure for me.
- Only Joking: What’s So Funny About Making People Laugh
- Lucy Greeves
- Anthony Jeselnik
- Emo Philips
- Steven Wright
- Billy Connolly
- Louis C.K.
- Bill Burr
- Shane Mauss
- Allan Havey
- Mike Birbiglia
About Jimmy Carr
Jimmy has too many credits to name. He is a stand-up comedian. His most recent special, Funny Business, can be seen on Netflix. He is a well-known host, perhaps best known for The UK show The Big Fat Quiz of the Year. Pete met Jimmy when Jimmy was the presenter on a BBC special on the Science of Laughter. Jimmy’s book, Only Joking: What’s So Funny About Making People Laugh, was the first and most helpful one Pete read when he started studying humor. Jimmy joins Pete in Melbourne prior to Jimmy’s show The Best Of, Ultimate, Gold, Greatest Hits World Tour.