'People used to say Jimmy Carr was the new Bob Monkhouse," someone tweeted last week. "Turns out he's the new Ken Dodd."
One wouldn't wish to be Britain's most acerbic stand-up this week. His Twitter page contains, possibly for the first time, an apology to everyone (underneath, comments range from suggestions that he give the money back to assertions that we'd all dodge our tax if we could) while his appearance on Thursday night's edition of 8 Out of 10 Cats will have been slightly redolent of Angus Deayton's final days in the Have I Got News For You? bunker.
Except not really. Deayton's crime was to be seen as the purveyor of some sort of hypocrisy, the logic being that, as the host of a show which mocked politicians for hypocrisy, he couldn't commit adultery, and therefore he had to go before Paul Merton took the Mickey out of him so much that he exploded. Jimmy Carr (I don't know him, but have met him briefly) is an entirely different kettle of mess; as a stand-up, his comedy is all about saying nasty things and, as such, it has no moral content outside that framework.
It is true that on Channel 4's 10 O'Clock Live, he takes part in a programme that does exist in a far more judgmental universe, but Carr's role there – if we briefly posit that 10 O'Clock Live is really That Was The Week That Was – is more Lance Percival than David Frost. He's a sharp clown, not the voice of satire. If David Mitchell were discovered to be spending all his money on wasps dressed as whores, we'd rightly be shocked. But this is Jimmy Carr. He has broken no promises to us because he didn't make any in the first place.
And this is why the Carr furore has been a bit unfocused, like a bull in a blindfold running through the national press. It's all been somewhat odd; in a week where everyone from Take That to Ai Weiwei has been in the news for alleged tax-related offences, the one public figure that David Cameron has singled out for criticism is a stand-up comedian whose crime seems to be, essentially, doing the same as the PM and taking advice from his dad. You wonder what awful crime the Government is hoping to conceal by drawing attention to this: "Prime Minister, we've accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb on Dorset, bit of a cock-up, could you deflect some attention by having a pop at Jimmy Carr for us?"
True, what Carr did was wrong, not legally, but morally (most people, despite the times we live in, do believe in paying at least some of their taxes, and only a selfish child would see tax evasion as a good and useful thing). The fact that he's a comic has muddied the waters, which has been the most entertaining aspect of "Carrgate". Had Mark Steel or Mark Thomas or Jeremy Hardy or anybody with something of the left about them been revealed as tax shifters, then things would be a lot more clear cut. (I joined the howls of joy and shouts of "You awful hypocrite!" when Bono, the main vocalist in U2 and famous for his war on poverty, moved all his gold and diamonds to Holland to avoid paying for hospitals and schools in his native Ireland.) But Jimmy Carr has never claimed to be a friend of the poor. His comedy rarely touches on his views on cancelling Third World debt, and his love of the NHS is something he's found ways of concealing from his audience. Accusing Jimmy Carr of hypocrisy over tax evasion is like accusing Frankie Boyle of breaking his promise to defend the meek.
Let's briefly compare Carrgate with the short flurry of interest in Armando Iannucci's OBE. Most of us, if we registered the occasion, were happy (although if you ask me, it should have been a hereditary peerage, with a castle thrown in and some cannons, and horses with armour on them). But Alastair Campbell was miffed, seeing Iannucci's gong acceptance as hypocritical, as though Iannucci had now joined the Establishment and was about to start closing schools and immolating the elderly. You can at least see where Campbell got this notion from. Historically, some people have always expect certain kinds of entertainer to wear hair shirts. They imagine that the reward of virtue is virtue itself and, unlike every other job in the world, comedy should at best attract no income whatsoever and at worst see its practitioners living in trailer parks, writing material with a pencil stub dipped in their own forehead brine.
This notion – which really only applies to Amish comics ("I see Brother Jesse's got himself a fancy zip fastener on his new pants") and anarcho-vegan jugglers – is a fuzzy and stupid one. It relates to punk rock (and folk, and blues) concepts of authenticity and "keeping it real", as well as the frankly bizarre idea that people who entertain us intelligently should live by higher standards than the rest of us. It's a snobbish notion– implying that people who go on Big Brother or tell jokes in pubs can do what they like because they're thick and evil – but really, it's about passing the burden of responsibility from us to the people we pay money to go and see (or not, if they're on telly). A comic can't do an ad without being accused of hypocrisy by an audience which has singularly failed to opt out of consumer society. A columnist is crucified for not attacking the proprietor of their newspaper by readers who wouldn't dream of criticising their own employer. A pop star votes Conservative and is slammed by fans who can't be bothered to vote for anyone. And so on.
We don't live our lives through people who entertain us, but we do expect them to act out our principles for us, even when we ourselves can't be bothered.
Steve Coogan made a sensible point at the Leveson inquiry, that while he may or may not be a model of moral rectitude, he's neither a politician nor a law-maker and certainly not anybody who's ever set himself in a position of responsibility or public accountability; he's a comedy actor. His private life may be as spicy as you like, but who cares? He's not a hypocrite if he eats a kitten while laughing at some tired babies. He's a member of the showbiz community. That's what they do. And Jimmy Carr is an entertainer, as are all the other shiny-clothed boys and girls who appear on our televisions and make us think that we know them and that perhaps they're a bit better than us. But they're not better than us, because they are us.
Right now, Ben Elton is at home planning to burn down an orphanage, while Billy Bragg is recording a secret double CD of love songs about Tessa Jowell. Worst of all, Chris Morris is making a trance album with Noel Edmonds. Possibly. I haven't entirely researched this.
Entertainers aren't meant to elevate us. That's what Radio 3 is for. They're meant to reflect ourselves back at us, and that's what they do. John Lennon – of "Imagine" and "Working Class Hero" fame – once said something to the effect that his heart wanted him to vote Labour, but his wallet made him vote Conservative. Millions of people feel the same way; a lot of them, oddly, are in the highly paid and competitive world of entertainment (and, as Ernie Wise liked to say, it's show business). We should not be surprised when comedians and entertainers fail to live up to the high standards we set them; we should go and pick on someone else instead. Like footballers.
David Quantick's comedy scripts include Harry Hill's TV BurpReuse content