Jimmy Carr: The new Monkhouse

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The Independent Online

He's everywhere, this deadpan comic with a nice line in withering put-downs. Last week, he even started flogging M&S suits to the British working male, joining Bob Mortimer and Martin Freeman in a David Bailey billboard photo. "Who doesn't wear M&S underwear?" read Carr's PR bumf. "They've been 'supporting' me for years, and now I'm glad I've got a suit to wear as well."

Bu-bum. The joke may have been (uncharacteristically) laboured, but it still made a splash on Thursday's news pages. For Carr is suddenly hot property: he's a marketing man's dream, a household name in Britain and a rising star in the US. Little wonder his Edinburgh show Jimmy Carr, Off the Telly is the hottest ticket at this year's festival.

As befits a burgeoning superstar, Carr has a bulging diary. Next month, he kicks off a 20-date UK tour, and a DVD of his stand-up comedy will be launched before Christmas. His latest TV show, 8 Out of 10 Cats, has just been recommissioned by Channel 4, and film scripts are landing on his agent's doormat. Right now, this Home Counties boy is laughing all the way to the bank.

So what is Jimmy Carr's secret? His stock in trade is the brutal one- or two-liner. On stage, he's a master of cruel observation, who makes his audience laugh at things they feel uncomfortable with: "a cat has nine lives ... which makes them ideal for experimentation" goes one typically dry gag. "Sting boasts about eight-hour tantric sex sessions with his wife, Trudie Styler," runs another. "Imagine how long he could keep it up if she was a looker."

His appeal isn't all in the razor-sharp gag-writing, though. Through sheer hard work, Carr has blossomed into one of the most polished performers in the business. His flawless delivery was perfected in a couple of years on the comedy club treadmill, a circuit he continues to pound to this day. It lends him a clinical precision, a slickness that's allowed him to blossom as a TV host and the great hope of Channel 4 comedy.

"Jimmy is just a very, very good host: he's generous with guests, and brilliant at delivering jokes," says Andrew Newman, the head of entertainment at Channel 4. "But he's also an excellent writer. He delivers funny material effortlessly, and at a rate of knots. When he's presenting for us, he'll be reading off an autocue, but he's normally written plenty of stuff on that autocue."

"He obviously looks good on telly as well, and his last show, 8 out of 10 Cats, was the most successful new comedy show we've had in ages," adds Newman. "It had five million viewers by the end of the series; we'll certainly be seeing a lot of him on Channel 4 in the future."

This success story was a long time in the making. Fittingly, given his recent appointment at M&S, Carr started his adult life as a professional suit. One of three sons, born to Irish immigrant parents - he retains an Irish passport - he enjoyed a comfortable childhood in commuter-belt Berkshire, and studied social and political science at Cambridge.

The middle-class background often featured in his early routine, and is said to have inspired the first joke he ever wrote: "Working class kids say they were born in the East End, and there was only one way out. I grew up in a cul-de-sac. There was only one way out."

A lifelong talent for joke-telling didn't immediately throw Carr into the spotlight, though. Fresh out of Cambridge, he opted for a career in the marketing department of Shell. It turned out to be a dreadful mistake, and contributed to a minor breakdown. After experiencing a "quarter-life crisis" in his mid-20s, Carr quit the oil firm and spent three years training as a psychotherapist. As a result, he's still able to give life management coaching. "I'm able to stop people smoking, or deal with phobias," he says.

Comedy arrived in Carr's life at the age of 25, when he went to stay on a hippyish spiritual retreat in Greece. "I had this road to Damascus moment," he has recalled. "Someone said, 'You're funny, you should be a comic.' People had said it before, but I suddenly heard it for the first time, and thought yeah, that would be a laugh."

Carr went professional in 1999. There followed a period of relentless professional self-improvement. For the next two years, he spent almost every night on the comedy circuit. He visited an estimated 300 venues a year, watching other comics and learning from their routines. "I had to teach myself to write jokes," he recalled. "I picked the ones I liked, and then sat down and thought, 'How does he come up with that?' I wrote most of mine backwards: find the punchlines first and then work back from there. Good set-ups are the tough bits. Punchlines are easy."

Colleagues were immediately impressed by his dedication. "Jimmy was and still is the embodiment of pure professional application," says one manager. "He's groomed himself, and practises and practises. I remember seeing him on the circuit five or six years ago, and he'd walk on stage with a stopwatch, timing his new gags, and refining them to technical perfection."

It didn't take long for the plaudits to start rolling in. In 1999, Carr was "spotted" by Hannah Chambers, a rising star of comedy management, at a now defunct club called Aquarium in Tottenham Court Road.

"He had an immediate appeal for me," she says. "We both came from Cambridge, and had the same outlook on life. I've always had a love of puns and wordplay, and was impressed by a raw young comedian doing it so elegantly."

Chambers signed Carr in 1999, and encouraged him to continue with a "fast-track" education on the comedy circuit. In 2001, he appeared at Edinburgh in a show called Rubberneckers, with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. A year later, and he was back with his first solo show, which won an immediate nomination for the Perrier Award.

He couldn't follow it up with a win, though. By 2003, Carr had been banned from the Perrier on the grounds that he was too famous. After parts in the Royal Variety Performance, and a Peter Cook tribute on BBC2, he'd been snapped up by Channel 4 for a light entertainment show called Your Face or Mine.

Since then, the TV roles have come in thick and fast. "He's just done everything that's come his way," says one producer. "Not all of them have worked, but by God he's a hard worker. Your Face or Mine was good, but not brilliant. The Friday Night Project was the same: good, but not brilliant. As was 8 out of 10 Cats.

"Distraction was in my book a disappointment, but then the Americans have loved it, so who knows? On TV, I'd say he's had about a 50 per cent success rate with what he's done. But he's had 100 per cent exposure, and it's worked. So you'd have to say that he's been managed very well."

Estimations of Carr's earning power now put his income at around £1.5 m a year, the sort of salary that might inspire arrogance in some performers. However - both on and off the record - friends and colleagues report that he has remained firmly grounded.

"Jimmy is really the most courteous guy," says a friend. "Sure, there are people who think he's a touch smarmy, and a year ago perhaps the knives were out for him. But he's come through that. If you look at him now, he's just a nice, interesting guy. I was watching him in Edinburgh last week, and it's incredible how polite he was. He's always genuinely interested in the fans who came to speak to him."

His personal life is also pleasantly monochrome. Carr and his girlfriend Karoline, a TV executive, live in north London, with a cat called Cookie. They've been together for four years, since before Carr hit the big time. Their relationship has withstood the demands of the spotlight and marriage rumours abound.

A rare blip on the personal front came in December, when Carr and his brother Colin took their father Jim to court, alleging harassment in a row over custody of their younger brother, Patrick. Headlines came and went, and Carr lost the case. He's understood to remain estranged from his father, who remarried shortly after his mother's death.

In future, Carr is likely to remain a fixture on TV, but is writing a book for Penguin, and has dipped a toe in the film world, with walk-on roles in the upcoming films Confetti and Alien Autopsy. Like Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon before him, the bright lights of Hollywood are looming on the horizon.

"If you see Jimmy in a green room with Matt Lucas or Ricky Gervais, and anybody you care to mention, he'll hold his own," says another colleague. "He's a brilliant banterer with a mercurial wit. He's the nearest we've got to a new Bob Monkhouse: he's a workaholic, with books and books of jokes, gameshows. Monkhouse had his knockers, but he was ultimately accepted as one of the greats."

And you get the feeling Jimmy Carr may also be on the road to greatness. As for M&S, they've bought into an unlikely fashion icon. When a friend once told Carr he looked like a "fat, gay Hitler", he, typically, took it on his (podgy) chin: "It was quite a character assassination, in just three words, but in the end, I thought it was pretty funny."

A Life in Brief

BORN 1973 in Slough, Berkshire.

FAMILY Lives with girlfriend Karoline in north London.

EDUCATION Studied social and political science at Cambridge.

CAREER Began stand-up in 1998. Perrier Award nominee 2002. Time Out 2003 award winner (best stand-up); Royal Television Society Award winner 2003 (best on-screen newcomer); Silver Rose of Montreux award 2003 (best game-show, Your Face or Mine).

HE SAYS "I made a joke about fat people at a gig last week and a big-boned lady came up to me to complain that I was fattist. I said, 'No, you're fattest.'"

THEY SAY "He is polite, courteous and well turned-out, but terrible things come out of his mouth at inopportune moments." The Guardian review, December 2004