“I like to think of laughter, in academic terms, as benign violation,” Jimmy Carr tells me, fresh from the first night of his trio of sell-out shows at Dubai’s World Trade Centre. “It’s taking something that is a violation, something that is upsetting, and making it benign by laughing at it.”
If that’s the case, then there has never been a better time for a little benign violation. In a year that has flipped so much on its head and brought with it uncertainty and sorrow, finding some light relief is therapeutic. Cathartic, even.
“I think people need that more than ever,” he says. “Everyone has had a tough time. It’s been tough on kids being away from school, it’s been tough on relationships being together 24/7, it’s been tough on everyone in different ways.”
The one silver lining, the British comedian says, is how much the pandemic has brought people together. And come together they did for the first night of his three-day run for DXB Laughs as part of Dubai Summer Surprises on Wednesday evening, his first time on stage in more than 22 weeks.
“It felt absolutely wonderful,” he says, a genuine buzz still detectable. “It was a joy to be back on stage.”
As a stand-up comedian with two decades of experience behind him, Carr was more than prepared for lockdown. “Hanging around indoors for the day waiting for our two hours on stage is pretty much our standard, so we’ve been in training for this,” he says.
But what he wasn’t prepared for was just how much he would miss performing live. “Covid has revealed a lot of things – both positive and negative,” he says. “For me, one of those things is just how much I love my job. Because I work so much all of the time, you never step back to reflect on what a privileged position you are in, to be telling jokes to people for a living.”
This forced hiatus has left the comedian raring to go, and all that pent up energy was very much felt by audience members inside the World Trade Centre, revised for the new socially-distanced normal.
It’s been a while, I wager, since Carr looked out to empty seats among his audience. “Yes,” he laughs. “But I think the way things have been done here, allowing people to book in groups of two or four or six, will be the model for live shows going forward.”
While much has changed since Carr last stepped foot on stage, the man himself remains true to form. His comedy style is as close to the bone as it comes, and his one-liners hurtle toward you with a relentless force that barely stops for breath during his two-hour set.
Carr has always been about the shock factor, and if you find yourself easily offended, his set will be two hours of seat squirming and air sucking for you. But chances are, if you’ve booked a ticket, you know what you are in for.
“The people that come to my show are self-selecting. If they are coming, they aren’t going to be offended – they’ve literally bought into this style of comedy,” he says. “I don’t think anyone came by mistake and thought ‘oh, we’ll go and see a comedian, I imagine it will only be light clown stuff’.”
It's Carr's belief that you can "joke about anything, just not with anyone", and he really hammers that home throughout his Terribly Funny set, which leaves almost no taboo untouched.
But how far is too far? Does Carr have a line, or even know what a line looks like? “The audience decides. The audience is the genius,” he says. “It decides what is and what isn’t funny, and what is and what isn’t acceptable. This is not my first rodeo, I’ve done thousands of gigs so you get a sense of what the audience will and won’t go with.”
For Carr, to get a reaction from a crowd – a gasp or a collective ‘ooh’ – does not make a joke. “There’s no point in being controversial for the sake of it, you have to be funny. First and foremost funny. And if it happens to have a bit of edge, great.”
Still, there are still plenty of gasps to be heard among the laughter as Carr works his savagery on Meghan Markle, Prince Andrew, Michael Jackson and plenty of willing – and not-so-willing – audience members.
“I don’t have a monopoly on a sense of humour, so I like to encourage people to join in,” he says. “You spend all this time writing material, but the bits people always remember are the off-the-cuff quips you thought of in the moment. That’s the magic, the bits that show that you can be funny live, that I’m a funny guy.”