‘Missing the elephant’ – Jimmy Carr still getting away with ‘Gypsy/Holocaust’ joke

2 October 2023
‘Missing the elephant’ – Jimmy Carr still getting away with ‘gypsy/holocaust’ joke

Opinion - How ‘hard-hitting’ liberal radio presenter James O’Brien failed the Romani and Sinti people by not hitting hard enough and failing to question guest Jimmy Carr on his infamous ‘Gypsy/Holocaust’ joke.

LBC radio presenter James O’Brien’s ‘Full Disclosure’ podcast has failed to live up to its name after platforming controversial comic Jimmy Carr and failing to address what the comedian himself has described as ‘a career ending joke’.

I am of course referring to the infamous ‘Roma Holocaust Joke’, which although caused a certain backlash at the time - 18 months later - Carr can be found sat cosily across from O’Brien, in a conversation that ranged from self-help to ‘mummy issues’, but sadly as far as I and others among the Gypsy Romany and Traveller communities are concerned - missed the mammoth-sized elephant in the room.

Being a fan of James O’Brien, naturally it was a matter of time until the YouTube algorithm led me to the podcast in question, which was uploaded about a month ago. At first sight, I immediately assumed, by the show’s title ‘Full Disclosure’, that perhaps O’Brien was to grill Carr on the issue, or at least offer an opportunity for discussion. However, I was to be disappointed - as the joke itself was never actually brought up. In fact, the closest they got was a moment towards the end when O’Brien sympathetically asked the comedian: "When you got (air quotes) cancelled, did you think it might all be over?"

James O'Brien
Missing the elephant - James O'Brien. Photo by Roger Green - James O'Brien at the 2019 Chiswick Book Festival, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=127909747)

Throughout the interview, the issue concerning Carr’s supposed cancellation was delivered so vaguely by O’Brien - that it wasn’t even clear whether they were referring to the Holocaust Joke or perhaps another previous moment in Carr’s controversial career. Either way, due to Carr’s responses it would seem that the comedian has had full support of fans and fellow industry members.

This show of solidarity however is not shared by many within the GRT community. In fact, it would appear that this zealotry towards the championing of rights for offensive comedy - falling under the banner of ‘it’s just a joke’ - is equivocal to a comedian's right to offend trumping an historically oppressed people’s right to exist. And the latter is far from hyperbolic. In the joke, Carr made it very clear, live on stage in Whitley Bay at the end of 2021, when he said:

“When people talk about the Holocaust they talk about the tragedy and horror of six million Jewish lives being lost to the Nazi war machine. But they never mention the thousands of gypsies that were killed by the Nazis. No one ever wants to talk about that, because no one ever wants to talk about the positives.”

The punchline was subsequently met with rapturous applause and even triumphant cheers from the crowd - a reaction that many already hurt by the joke itself would argue was more than just a heavy dose of salt in the wound. In fact, in the wake of the controversy, speaking to James O’Brien’s colleague at LBC, presenter Andrew Castle, a GRT spokesman Billy Welch said: "When I heard the crowd laughing, it struck fear into my heart."

Though O’Brien can be perhaps excused for not being as emotionally charged by the joke, we can't be so charitable about his selective amnesia and negligence in not bringing it up in his interview with Carr. This loss of memory, or lack of interest, is further highlighted by the fact this issue has effectively slipped under the radar of any usual suspects among the progressive/liberal media, online or otherwise; and therefore, has been the main crux as to why I decided to take it on myself. My sentiments being that - if Carr had made such remarks about any other minority group, the public reaction would have been much more than the mere storm in a teacup back in 2022 when the joke was first leaked. Furthermore, it’s incredibly unlikely that Carr would have found himself sitting so cosily in front of a progressive and self described 'liberal' journalist like James O’Brien (James O'Brien has described himself as 'liberal' in his political leanings).

To be charitable to O’Brien, it could be that knowing the comedian's immovable stubbornness on the subject the presenter decided not to push. Either that or there was some sort of pre-interview agreement. As of yet however, O’Brien has failed to comment when approached by the Travellers’ Times on any of the issues put forward.

During the joke’s initial fallout back in February last year, the comedian’s defence of what he admitted was a “career ending joke” was to say that “political correctness has no place in comedy” - “and that he has never apologised for a joke.”

In the sake of balance then I believe it is important to ask oneself: when is it ok to make ‘Gypsy jokes’? And can you indeed poke fun at the Holocaust?

On reflection, I for one, believe that the answer is yes to both propositions - but the content and context matters absolutely. It’s a tricky tightrope and one that puts the most skilled comedian to the test - a test that Carr on the stage back in Whitley Bay, despite audience appreciation, severely failed. For it’s not a matter of whether you make people laugh or not - to use a literary example from Shakespeare, on occasion Hamlet’s Iago elicits the odd laugh from the public, but this does not discount the character’s abhorrent and explicit racism. Iago is the villain of the piece and the only way any comedic quip could absolve his evil would be in the presence of an equally evil audience.

Echoing the thoughts of a comedian of Jewish heritage, David Baddiel, on the subject of ‘Holocaust jokes’, it would appear that the old adage of punching up rather than down, as cliche as it may seem, remains paramount to the situation. Baddiel has made an example in the past with a joke about two Holocaust victims in heaven making light of their ordeals in the concentration camp. God comes over and says, ‘hey guys, you can’t joke about the holocaust,” to which one victim replies, “Well I guess you just had to be there.”

The above does exactly what comedy should do, speak truth to power (in this case the highest imaginable power there is) in a witty and intelligent way - not simply revert to cruelty and schoolyard bullying for the mere temptation and titillation of causing offence. The latter is exactly what Carr was aiming for with his joke - and the results of which were clearly to be seen with the audience’s reaction - as they cheered, clapped and laughed at the sound of their comedic hero seemingly legitimising their bigoted views.

Roma Luton supporters protest against Jimmy Carr’s ‘gypsy/Holocaust’ joke outside his performance at the Grove Theatre, Dunstable, February 2022 © Mike Doherty)
Roma Luton supporters protest against Jimmy Carr’s ‘gypsy/Holocaust’ joke outside his performance at the Grove Theatre, Dunstable, Bedfordshire, February 2022 © Mike Doherty

Carr’s dismissal of critics with the air of ‘it’s just a joke’ has certainly been acknowledged and supported by fans and public figures alike, but it undoubtedly comes across rather callously and crassly to anyone from a community targeted and murdered by the Nazi regime. When approached by the TT to address the debate surrounding the fine line between freedom of speech and hate speech, Jonathan Lee from the ERRC, (European Romani Rights Centre) said: “Issues around free speech and hate speech are complicated. Personally, I would say that Jimmy Carr’s joke was not in my taste, but he has a right to say it (in the UK at least). Equally, Gypsies and Travellers who protest outside venues where he is booked also have the right to express their outrage.”

In reference to O’Brien’s platforming of Carr and failure to address the controversy, Lee added: “I would personally expect a journalist like James O’Brien to grill Jimmy Carr harder on the joke, and whether he thinks that is an acceptable joke to make against a vulnerable and besieged ethnic minority group (as well as perhaps on the debate of whether comedy is somehow exempt from such criticism or not). I suspect that if the joke had been about another group, he might have been less understanding and the interview would be more about holding Jimmy Carr to account over why he makes his comedy a matter of racist jokes which punch down rather than up.”

He added: “I think the debate about comedy, free speech, and hate speech became a defence line for Jimmy Carr. These may well be valid arguments, but they only muddied the water for the interview with James O’Brien. In the interests of journalistic ethics and integrity, O’Brien should have been tougher in conversation around this joke. He should have, for the sake of balance, questioned how Carr thinks he was allowed to get away with it remarkably unscathed, before moving on to questions such as the one he asked about his career.”

Lee’s evidently balanced response, which indeed very much reflects my own, should stand testament to the fact that the anger towards Carr and O’Brien cannot be dismissed as mere ‘woke snowflakery’. In actual fact, no one is calling for Carr’s cancellation. Instead it’s a call for the media and the public to show some appreciation of the Roma’s historical oppression and address the issue appropriately rather than gloss or skirt over it.

O’Brien’s failure to comment on the issue perhaps reveals the level of seriousness he values anti-Gypsyism and the Roma Holocaust. Unfortunately, this lack of interest appears to be rooted in the unwillingness to recognise the Roma and their subgroups, including British Romanichals, as an ethnic racial group whose origins lie outside of Europe. If people knew more about Roma and GRT history and the centuries of oppression these communities have faced, then there would be a lot more sensitivity towards anti-Roma discrimination. A discrimination very much based on race and in terms of the Holocaust very nearly resulted in the absolute obliteration of the Romani’s existence - a crime against humanity that happened only a handful of years before my own father’s lifetime.

For this, as far as O’Brien, the media and public at large are concerned, the controversy of Carr’s joke may appear like a fading memory in the blurry broom cupboard of twitter rows, media storms and online outrage - but to GRT folk, the multi-generational trauma of oppression and persecution that culminated in the Holocaust is no distant echo from an ancestral past - but rather a living, breathing and persevering reality that, jokes aside, is no laughing matter.

By James Emmerson

(Lead photo: Jimmy Carr by Albin Olsson - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39604874)