When British television began its slow, not entirely successful repudiation of racial stereotyping and mother-in-law jokes in the mid-1970s, approaching a more personal, anecdotal style of stand-up comedy, producers initially overlooked the emerging Billy Connolly, even after his seminal 1975 appearance on Parkinson.
“Billy was doing his stuff, obviously. But he couldn’t get on television much because of the swearing,” Jasper Carrott points out. “So in those days, into the late Seventies and early Eighties, I had the raconteur field largely to myself”.
Alongside the laconic Dave Allen, Carrott pre-empted the alternative comedy boom, his act honed in the folk clubs of Birmingham, just as the Big Yin’s had been in Glasgow.
Virtually ever-present on television in the three decades following, with stand-up specials, sketch showcases, clip shows, even a gameshow, not to mention popular sitcom The Detectives with his friend Robert Powell, Carrott’s longevity is nothing short of remarkable.
Less than two years after major heart surgery, and in the week before his 74th birthday, he takes justifiable pride in his status as a pioneer who’s still gigging – a half century since he was hosting and performing songs at his club, The Boggery.
Growing up a fan of the US pianist-satirist Tom Lehrer and conversational American acts like Shelley Berman, Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby, he soon found his on-stage repartee eclipsing his songs, offering “something very new to British audiences” raised on traditional setup and punchline jokes.
Delighted, he tells me about a message of gratitude he recently received from the Edinburgh Comedy Award-nominated comic Imran Yusuf, who said that at London’s Comedy Store, “it’s accepted that I had a lot of influence on the comedians working there. Which I found very flattering. Hopefully, I’ve done my bit. Comedy in the 1970s was very restrictive, all jokes about silly Irishmen and mean Scotsmen. So yes, I feel proud if I helped change that.”
As younger comics are finding in these censorious times, boundaries of taste and offence are forever shifting. Following an early, post-gig dressing down from an audience member after he told Irish jokes, Carrott swapped the stupid Irishmen in his routines for Sun readers, earning him considerable enmity from the newspaper. But by the time he appeared on Saturday Live in 1986, the host, Ben Elton, was rebuking him for a gag about women drivers.
“Very quickly I realised that comedy is a very powerful tool and that you can have an enormous influence upon an audience,” Carrott reflects.”So I’ve probably got a few things wrong but I’ve tried really hard to be responsible. Comedy will always be a minefield.”
Born Robert Norman Davis, acquiring the name Jasper from childhood friends and adding Carrott on a whim later, he’s always had natural comic timing, he believes.
“Where it comes from, I haven’t the faintest idea,” he muses. “In the early days I was so naïve I thought I was brilliant, when I was probably crap. Then I wasn’t that confident but I was doing OK and getting lots of work.” Today, he reckons he’s funnier than ever.
After lengthy, international tours of big arenas, in 2001 he fell out of love with performing, taking an 18-month break. “That lasted about 13 years, I never really had the itch to come back.” Indeed, it was only when his childhood friend, the Electric Light Orchestra’s drummer Bev Bevan, suggested they work together that his passion was reignited. Staging a mix of comedy and music in Birmingham since 2014, he and his accomplished rock covers band are now touring across the UK.
“Playing 1,000-seaters I’ve remembered what it was like in the early days, going eyeball to eyeball with the audience,” Carrott enthuses. Delivering two half-hour sets between the music, “I can blast them between the eyes. It’s been a real revelation and joy.”
His 2017 operation was a quadruple heart bypass, which came completely out of the blue, the former marathon runner having blithely assumed he was “fit as a fiddle… now I know how quickly things can turn on a light switch.” Even as he recuperated post-surgery though, “I never really had any doubt that I would get back and perform because I’m an eternal optimist.”
Unlike some comedians though, he doesn’t live for the applause. He speaks lovingly of his six grandchildren and two recently acquired puppies. Exceptionally rich thanks to shares in Celador, the production company behind Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, he had success in the US with a 1984 stand-up special on HBO. But he chose to stay in Birmingham and harbours little desire to return to television, expressing paternal pride at his daughter Lucy Davis’ achievements in The Office and cinematic blockbuster Wonder Woman.
“My confidence is sky-high because it doesn’t matter if I fail,” he states simply. “This isn’t my career and I can do it for pure enjoyment.”
Naturally, he thinks about his “limited time.” But, he says, the heart scare “made me take stock of everything I’ve done in the last 20 years and how there’s a load of stuff I can still do in the next 20.”
Noting that Glasgow has traditionally enjoyed a reputation as a graveyard of English comics’ careers, he nevertheless remains upbeat.
“When I first came it was with some trepidation I have to admit,” he laughs. “But my memories of Scotland are tremendous, I’ve never had a problem. And in fact, I’ve already got my gravestone worked out – ‘Jasper Carrott: He Never Died in Glasgow!’”
Jasper Carrott’s Stand Up and Rock is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow on 24 March as part of the Glasgow International Comedy Festival