This kind of cultural cross-reference headline, which we’ll call The Postmodern, can be overused – former music journalists in particular tend rather lazily to want to use song titles all the time. But in this instance it really works, conveying the most interesting thing about Carr: his presence right on the line between funny and offensive.
It seemed to me that in summing up his at-times controversial work using the name of a series of children’s books, the editor who wrote the coverline used a similar approach to that of the comedian.
This I would characterise as a cleverly packaged juxtaposition of things that don’t belong together. Take this joke about rape: “I prefer to call it a snuggle struggle.” Though I share a lot of his interviewer Janice Turner’s views about women, I cannot help but smile at the silliness of “snuggle”, the horror behind “struggle”, the brilliance added by the rhyme. It’s the best headline you’d never write.
Same goes for “Nine out of ten people enjoy gang rape” – the bland survey/advert format makes the nasty subject matter unexpectedly funny.
I once attended an event in which Carr ran through some of his jokes with a live audience – literally reading them off a clipboard – in order to see which worked and which elicited groans or a stunned silence. It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the Madeleine McCann line he tested, but it was immediately clear that it didn’t work – that it got more of an “ooooh” than a laugh. And I think the reason was that it didn’t fit that criterion. It poked fun at a horrible tragedy but without the levity of comic lateral thinking that “at least we’ll have a great team at the Paralympics” adds to the British troops losing limbs in Iraq.
Obviously that Paralympics gag created headlines with which Carr would probably rather not have been associated. But His Dark Material sums up why there’s probably going to be more where they came from.