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Taboo-buster: the dark side of Jimmy Carr

He's not afraid of tackling taboo subjects in his comedy. But is there a line Jimmy Carr wouldn't cross? Alice Jones delves into his dark side

'If a giant ape and a table-tennis champion got into a fight over a karaoke machine, would the newspaper headline be 'King Kong Ping Pong Sing Song Ding Dong?'" Jimmy Carr's smooth features crumple with faux anxiety for a moment then relax as he leans back on the sofa, satisfied at another well-crafted joke, well told. The comedian's head fairly bulges with such perplexing trifles. His current live show features a segment in which he raps out 80 so-called pieces of "brain candy", along the lines of "That cartoon character, Asterix. I wonder how rude his real name is?" and "Suicide bombers. What makes them tick?" in just 10 minutes. "They're unbelievably silly jokes," admits Carr. "But if you have 80 of them in the row, bang, bang, bang, there's a collective 'Let's give into it' in the crowd."

If watching Carr on stage is a jaw-achingly exhausting experience, then meeting the 36-year-old in person is no less draining. Perched on the edge of his seat in a lavish private members' club, Carr never stops scanning the room as he talks at a million miles an hour, butting in with caustic asides, wisecracks, half-formed jokes and puns on randomly dropped words ("Maternity? It makes it sound like you're going to be pregnant for ages. No, wait, that doesn't quite work..."). Even ordering a drink becomes an extended riff. When the waitress asks if we'd like a large bottle of water, indicating the size with her hands, he looks comically affronted. "Don't go nuts. Not that big. I'd like a magnum of sparkling water. No, make it a jeroboam. And she wants a cauldron of Earl Grey." Is he always like this? "I love the idea of just being funny. It's a nice thing, isn't it? I try and be quite light and funny in everyday life. I make an effort."

For Carr, everything is grist to the quip mill – odd turns of phrase are rolled around his mouth, headlines wilfully misinterpreted, words misheard. He records these instances of "quicksilver" on his Dictaphone before taking them home and honing them into crisp, efficient jokes on his laptop. He never stops. After filming the comedy panel show 8 out of 10 Cats each week, it takes him a full day to return to normal. "I'm in the show's mode of looking for a chink in anyone's armour and saying something funny off the back of it. It tends to mean you're listening very intently and waiting for your moment to strike rather than just having a normal conversation." His last holiday was in March when he spent 10 days at home in north London with his girlfriend, Karoline Copping, a commissioning editor at Five. "But I still wrote some jokes," he says. "It's my job, but it's also my passion and my hobby. I suppose if you counselled children from broken homes for a living, you'd need to unwind. Telling jokes? Not so much. What am I going to do? Think about something serious?"

Carr is one of the hardest-working comedians around. This year, as he has done so every year since 2002, he unveiled a new stand-up show in Edinburgh in August and is midway through its 180-date tour. He drives himself around the country's rep theatres from Bradford to Blackburn, Peterborough to Portsmouth. Afterwards, he always stays behind to meet his fans. "They expect me to be very barbed and closed and actually I'm a lot softer than I am on stage. They often tell me my jokes back and I try my best not to correct them. They say, 'You'll like this one,' and I think, 'Yeah, I know. I wrote it.' I always find that quite charming." The rest of the week is spent writing and filming 8 out of 10 Cats. And he's just released his fourth live DVD.

All this hard work has made him a household name, the Marmite of comedians, loved and loathed in equal measure. "I don't think so, no," he looks baffled. "Of course, I never meet anyone who doesn't like me." Curious. I'd always thought that Carr's shtick was being deliberately objectionable, from his stand-up manner, rapping out one-liners with clipped, clinical precision, to his look, pitched somewhere between buttoned-up ventriloquist's dummy, public-school prig and, Carr's own offering, this, "middle management".

Fellow comedians snipe at him, partly, one imagines, because of his speedy rise to fame and ubiquity. He did his first pub show in December 1999 and was serendipitously offered a £3,000 severance package from his marketing job at Shell a month later. He took it and secured his first paid gig that same January. "£80 for 20 minutes in Plymouth. The petrol was £60 and I only had 15 minutes of jokes. But I was just as happy as I could be." His first solo show in Edinburgh, Bare-Faced Ambition, in 2002 was nominated for the Perrier, and a slew of television jobs followed, hosting quizzes such as Your Face or Mine and Distraction and countless 100 Greatest... shows. These days, his tours draw a quarter of a million fans each year, his Channel 4 quiz attracts 3.5 million viewers and he has sold more than 650,000 DVDs. He is, in his own words, "the marijuana of comedy": mainstream but with a whiff of rebellion. "I've found my audience and I'm the mayor of Lucky Town," he says. "I'm quite an edgy comic. I like dark things. So it's lovely that I've found that many people who share my sense of humour."

But just what is that sense of humour? It's hard to argue with the dazzling wordplay, but there are troubling elements. In the first five minutes of the DVD, he tells a series of jokes about wife-beating. Puns, for sure, but what if Bernard Manning or Jim Davidson had told them? "I don't want to get into the conversation where I defend myself against comics that a) I don't rate, and b) I don't want to be compared to. I think the vast majority of my audience recognise a liberal, slightly over-educated man telling jokes and playing with what you can and can't say."

Carr's point is, I think, that you can joke about anything – rape, paedophilia, disability, terrorist attacks – so long as you never express an opinion. He states, unconvincingly, that no one ever takes offence. "But it's OK to have those moments in a comedy show – push it too far then bring it back. It's just comedy, just silly jokes." It was one such silly joke – "The male Gyspy moth can smell the female Gypsy moth from seven miles away, and that fact also works if you leave out the word moth" – told on Loose Ends, which provided Carr with his own BBC scandal, long before Sachsgate, flustering Radio 4 into an apology. Was he surprised by the fuss? "I wish it would have been a bigger fuss. If it had been, I would have sold more DVDs. It's such a silly joke. How on earth could you misconstrue that? Was anyone offended by that? I don't think so."

Growing up around Slough, "the nice bit", Carr attended Burnham Grammar, then the Royal Grammar School, where he worked "ludicrously hard", gaining a place to read Political Sciences at Gonville & Caius, Cambridge. Vocationless on graduating, he drifted into marketing and by his mid-twenties had sunk into a depression – "my job, my life, how I was, who I was, how I was living... I didn't like it." He turned to therapy and began training as a psychotherapist. Imagine having Jimmy Carr as your psychotherapist.

Somewhere along the line came comedy. "It almost sounds retarded, but I was very unhappy and I thought, 'What would make me happy? Comedy would be a joyful thing to do.' I was sad for a good few years, then I got into doing this and got happy." His father, Jim formed JCProductions Ltd and made Jimmy a director to get his career going. His mother, who encouraged him to take the plunge, died from pancreatitis when he was 28. She had amicably separated from his father, Jim, an entrepreneur, seven years earlier. Her death convulsed the family. Carr has an older brother, Colin, a City banker, and a younger brother, Patrick (currently doing a Masters in film in California).

Carr exudes an air of contentment today. Does he have Gervaisian Hollywood aspirations? "Not really. There's a sense in which you're meant to be heading somewhere that ends in accepting an Oscar. Well, that isn't going to happen. Can you not just enjoy where you are? This is nice enough, isn't it? I tell jokes. It's all I can do." Does he ever worry that the brain candy might run out? "Why would it? It's like the Countdown conundrum, and they're still going with that. Some people are good at Sudoku or crosswords. I'm good at jokes."

This article was amended on 8 May 2009.

'Jimmy Carr in Concert' is out now on 4DVD. For 'Jimmy Carr: Joke Technician' tour dates, see www.jimmycarr.com

* Click HERE to see correction, 11 May 2009