Ben Sixsmith

Jimmy Carr’s anti-vaxxer joke isn’t funny

Jimmy Carr's anti-vaxxer joke isn't funny
Jimmy Carr (Getty images)
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Jimmy Carr was once the smug face of shock comedy. As a stand-up comedian, and a host of various comedy shows, he used to joke with his trademark poker face about looks, disabilities and sexual violence. The Welsh, the Scots and obese women and children were also targets.

When controversy inevitably came, Carr stood his ground. He caused uproar in 2009 by joking: 'Say what you like about those servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're going to have a f**king good Paralympic team in 2012.' Carr said sorry for that gag, but he insisted: 'My intention was only to make people laugh.'

Does Carr still hold true to that view? His new special on Netflix suggests his comedy has changed. A clip of the stand-up gig features him asking the audience: 

'Who’s not going to take the vaccine because they think it might be dangerous? Raise your hand...Now take that hand and slap yourself in the f**king face.'

If you are ageing or physically vulnerable, Carr is undoubtedly right: you should get the vaccine. The risk of Covid seems higher for such people than the risk of side-effects from the jab. But whether you're pro, or anti-vaccine – or, like many people, somewhat apathetic about the vaccine debate – there's a problem with Carr's joke: it's simply not funny. 

It seems many in the audience agree: you can tell no one really thinks Carr is being funny because the crowd quickly stops laughing and ends up cheering and applauding. This, at least, should make a comedian ask themselves what they are hoping to achieve with such a gag.

In the past, a lot of tired 'shock' jokes received a euphoric reception among audiences who liked to think of themselves as unshockable. But Carr's vaccine joke points to a shift in comedy: some audiences now seek something other than just laughter. Comedic affirmation on the grounds of a person's intelligence and righteousness is the aim. And comedians like Carr are eager to deliver. They pursue 'clapter' – a response based on agreement rather than amusement – and pander to the political opinions of their viewers. This phenomenon was masterfully satirised in a Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse parody of panel shows in which the punchlines of assorted comedians were just: 'Oh my God! The Daily Mail!'

Of course, comedians can express opinions. There's nothing wrong with that. But for a stand-up comic being funny should come first. As Carr once said, a comedian’s intention is first and foremost to make people laugh. Otherwise they are a pundit or a life coach.

Later in the clip from his Netflix special, Carr says: 

'The spread of Covid was linked to how dense the population was, and some of the population are really quite f**king dense.' 

Whatever you think about Covid and vaccines you have to admit this is quite a good joke. It is not something you would break a rib over, perhaps, but it is based on clever wordplay. That is fine. But just patting your audience on the back for being smarter than those silly anti-vaxxers is cheap, and no one is laughing.

Is it too cynical to wonder if comedians who had a reputation for being 'shocking' are now keen to offer up their more righteous opinions as a means of securing their careers in a more politically correct cultural climate? Frankie Boyle used to joke about disabled kids. Now his shows contain bone-dry lectures about white privilege. Carr claims to have accepted the fact that 'the joke that cancels me is out there already' but is promoting his special with a humour-free line about vaccinations.

Perhaps I'm being too cynical. I am sure Boyle believes what he says, and perhaps Carr, or his team, put that section out because they knew that idiots like me would write about it and direct people’s attention to his work. But I hope comedians will stop replacing jokes with lectures and that audiences will stop mistaking ideological affirmation for entertainment. 

As the late, great Norm MacDonald said:

'There’s a difference between a clap and a laugh. A laugh is involuntary, but the crowd is in complete control when they’re clapping, they’re saying, 'we agree with what you’re saying — proceed!' But when they’re laughing, they’re genuinely surprised.'

So, comedians, come on: surprise us.