Hear the one about the taxman?
PROFILE: JIMMY CARRJimmy Carr’s has apologised for his ‘morally wrong’ tax avoidance, but can he continue to walk the comic line with heckles of hypocrisy ringing in his ears?
AT A GIG THIS WEEK Jimmy Carr had to deflect a heckle. A very specific heckle. Someone in the audience shouted: “Pay your taxes.” Without missing a beat the comedian replied: “I pay what I have to and not a penny more.”
The 40-year-old multimillionaire, who was born in Limerick to Irish parents, hit the headlines this week after being named and shamed by the British prime minister, David Cameron, who said Carr was “morally wrong” to use tax-avoidance schemes.
It was an extraordinary move for Cameron to single out one person, especially as what Carr was doing is perfectly above board. The “lefty comedian” would be despised by some Daily Mail-reading Conservative voters, so no harm there to Cameron. But the prime minister has opened a can of awkward tax worms, and a number of big-name entertainers are reported to be revising their tax affairs in the light of Carr’s very public outing. The spotlight is now falling on the tax arrangements of Gary Barlow of Take That.
Cameron now tacitly admits he made a mistake in singling out Carr. He has since said: “I am not going to give a running commentary on different people’s tax affairs. I don’t think that would be right. I made an exception yesterday [with Carr] because it was a very specific case where the details seemed to have been published and it was a particularly egregious example of an avoidance scheme that seemed to me to be wrong.”
As for Carr, he has – after consideration, and doubtless with an eye to the potential damage to his career – backtracked. On Thursday he apologised via Twitter for his “terrible error of judgment”. Explaining the background, he said: “I met with a financial advisor and he said to me: ‘Do you want to pay less tax? It’s totally legal.’ I said ‘yes’.”
He added that he is no longer involved in the scheme and from now on will conduct his financial affairs “more responsibly”.
The London Times had claimed earlier in the week that Carr was one of more than 1,000 beneficiaries of the K2 tax-avoidance scheme; it also alleged that the comedian was paying only 1 per cent of his annual income in tax.
It’s a remarkable case. Carr is neither a public servant nor an elected officer-holder. He’s an entertainer and, like The Rolling Stones and U2, avails of perfectly legal tax arrangements. There should, ordinarily, be no pressure on him to disclose his financial affairs.
But Carr’s earning ability depends on the continued willingness of his audience to buy his DVDs and tickets for his shows. (Those for his last gig in Dublin, in 2011, cost €33.) In his act Carr gleefully attacks hypocrites and politicians – a hard thing to do after you have been criticised for being an extremely rich man who has paid very little tax.
The abruptness of Carr’s U-turn – apparently enforced by the deluge of bad publicity – will send shivers down the spine of many of a high-earning entertainer, as they may now be seen as fair game.
GIVEN HIS SHARP SUITS and Home Counties accent, it is a surprise to many to find out just how Irish Carr is. “People in England are genuinely shocked to find out that I’m originally Irish; equally, people in Ireland are shocked to find out that I’m originally from Limerick,” he told this reporter once. “Growing up, I definitely had an Irish way of speaking – I’d use a word like ‘grand’, as in ‘that’s grand’, and I’d talk about going to see a ‘fillum’ in the cinema. The accent I have now is just me overcompensating – it’s ridiculously English.”
Brought up in the Berkshire town of Slough – the setting for Ricky Gervais’s comedy The Office – he says he was so Catholic in his beliefs growing up that he didn’t believe in sex before marriage and didn’t lose his virginity until he was 26. He has long since lost his Catholic faith.
Academically gifted, he went to Cambridge before becoming a marketing executive at Shell. In the pub after work, colleagues would tell him how funny he was, and eventually he summoned up the courage to do open spots at comedy clubs.
He found success quickly – mainly because of the skilled precision of his work. He has one of the highest jokes-per-minutes ratio of any comic going. “If I have five minutes I’ll try to get in 20 jokes,” he says. “If I’m doing 75 minutes I’ll try and make that 200 jokes.”
His material is confrontational – he has been accused of racism and misogyny – but he says he just talks on stage the way he would if he were in a pub with his friends. “The way I like to describe what I do is that I don’t put up any barriers in my material, and sometimes the only way to find out where the edge lies in terms of taste is to go over it.”
No matter how “moral” his tax affairs have now become, Carr will find that in the remorseless world of stand-up he will remain the butt of many a cruel joke. Like Angus “My Cocaine Hell” Deayton before him, he will discover that once you move from telling the joke to being the joke, it’s a very long way back.
NameJames Patrick Anthony Carr
Taxing mattersThe hugely successful comic is having chunks taken out of him for his tax arrangements and has just made an abject apology for using a tax-avoidance scheme.
Sympathy?After reading the Daily Mail’s report that he didn’t need a mortgage and was able to pay cash for his “double-fronted, three-storey, eight-bedroom £8.5 million mansion in London”, there isn’t any.
Finish the punchline“A comic walks into a tax-avoidance scheme . . .