Why did Jimmy Carr’s audience laugh at his Holocaust joke?

Jimmy Carr
Jimmy Carr

There has been much condemnation of Jimmy Carr. But maybe for the wrong reason. 

Carr’s joke drew on a reservoir of dark, dank prejudice. Should we be examining that reservoir more than the provocateur fishing in it? Was Carr trying to dredge up an uncomfortable truth? Trite condemnations which fail to explore what lies beneath the surface do little to make things better.

Carr is a talented performer because he knows what makes audiences laugh. And we’d be well entitled to say he is also a poor moralist, because he knows that what makes them laugh is often highly distasteful. In this case, his audience were like thugs in a 1930s bierkeller. They didnt laugh the nervous, guilty laugh of Oops, hes rumbled us’. It was a sadistic, triumphal laugh. They actually WHOOPED at the Roma & Sinti genocide being “a positive”.

What if that were actually Jimmy Carr’s point?

What if he had deconstructed his joke Stewart Lee style and said ‘What’s REALLY funny is you lot laughing. Take a good look at yourselves”. In his words, that really would have been “edgy as hell” with real “educational value”.

A well aimed blow to the funny bone that takes you by surprise and thumps you in the conscience — that could be constructive. But we don’t know what Carr intended. In today’s angry, impatient, nuance-free, discourse-free goldfish bowl of a society, a clever guy like him has surely got to aim more clearly. There is no room for misinterpretation.

A good friend of mine said Larry David makes incredibly edgy jokes about the Holocaust. Thing is, Larry David is Jewish. His motive is different. We don’t know Jimmy Carr’s motive but we know he isn’t Romany.

Let’s go back to the audience instead. WHY DID THEY LAUGH LIKE THAT? I asked that question on Twitter. Here’s one answer: “It tapped into people who’ve only had bad experiences with Travellers illegally taking over land & creating problems. That’s NOT how all Travellers behave, but it’s a high enough number that many people have never had a positive experience with Travellers.” So that makes it right to laugh at the systemic murder of quarter to half a million Roma and Sinti? Twenty minutes from the National Holocaust Centre & Museum I run is the town of Newark. There too I have heard nothing but hostility towards the local Traveller community.

Does popular culture play its part in broadcasting negative stereotypes of Romany and Traveller people? Hmm. It seems to portray glamorous characters with roguish charm who are hard to resist. What’s more, our moral sympathies often lie with them too. In Snatch, Brad Pitt’s Irish Traveller character Mickey “One Punch” O’Neil is not above a little violence – but it is to protect family and when he gets his revenge, we whoop as loudly as a Jimmy Carr fan. In Peaky Blinders, shot through with all the contradictory moralities of The Godfather, we similarly cannot but help side with the Irish-Romani gangster Tommy Shelby and his incantation-chanting sister Aunt Polly (RIP Helen McCrory). Now, then.  Let’s square that with research conducted by the Traveller Times in 2017. It found that only 4 out of 10 parents in Britain believed it was OK for their child to have a playdate with a Traveller child.

Conclusion: do we like our Travellers and Romas to be roguish on the screen and therefore come nowhere near our children in real life?

It’s not unlike the millions of people who have laughed, seemingly innocuously, at Shylock and Fagin. With these caricatures, Shakespeare and Dickens stocked the reservoir of anti-Jewish prejudice, helping to pave the way for the Holocaust — and ‘explainit afterwards. The most disgusting version of Fagin was played by Alec Guinness in 1947, only two years after the liberation of the death camps! Fagin and Shylock are the ancestors of the Happy Merchant memes roaming wild and free through the internet swamps of today.

So there we have it. Fagin and One Punch O’Neil. ‘Jews loving money’ and ‘Travellers creating problems’. The epidemiology of anti-Jewish and anti-GRT prejudice has many similarities. Both are centuries-old. Both speak to xenophobic discomfort with ‘others’ living within our midst. Both led to genocide. And both persist to this day, aided by caricature and lazy assumption.

Whilst the Jimmy Carr case is nauseating, I am fairly sick of the virtue-signalling reactions to it.  They do nothing to re-educate wrongful assumptions. This is about an ancient reservoir of hate. It’s not enough to ban comedians fishing around in it. We need education programmes which bust myths, inspire people to question ‘received wisdoms’— and so drain the reservoir itself.

About the Author
Marc Cave is Chief Executive of the National Holocaust Centre & Museum in Nottingham, UK