The Big Interview: Omid Djalili

FOR a man who possesses the energy of a whirling dervish on stage, Omid Djalili seems calm and considered away from it.

Over the past decade-and-a-half, the Anglo-Iranian comedian has established himself as one of the country’s most exuberant stand-ups, renowned for his sharp wit, well crafted cultural observations and customary belly dancing routine. His popular live performances led to two series of The Omid Djalili Show for BBC One, while his acting credits include appearances in blockbuster films such as The Mummy and Sex in The City 2, as well as the hit West End musical, Oliver!.

Now, the 46 year-old is back on the comedy circuit after a three-year hiatus and takes his Tour of Duty show to York’s Grand Opera House and Bradford’s St George’s Hall next month, before heading to the Doncaster Dome and Bridlington’s Spa Theatre in February. “I’m very lucky that I have my fingers in many different pies and I’ve been very busy. I was playing Fagin in the West End and I appeared in a US sitcom with two of my heroes Paul Reiser and Larry David and these kind of opportunities were just too good to turn down,” he says, thoughtfully.

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So what made him yearn to get back up on stage as a stand-up? “I was doing a corporate gig and the audience seemed to be laughing at everything I said, so I thought maybe it’s time to go out on tour again. In the past, I went on tour to prepare material for my TV shows but this is the first time I’m not doing it for a TV show, I’m just doing stuff I want to do.”

Djalili’s live shows blend satire and silliness with a good dollop of what he calls “razzmatazz” and his latest show continues this eclectic mix. “There’s stuff on the Arab Spring and Bin Laden and there’s a bit of dancing, so there are political undertones mixed with impish absurdity,” he says. “You tend to either get called a political comedian or a gag merchant, but it’s difficult to pin me down to one or the other because I try and do a bit of everything which can be confusing for some people.

“I don’t do long routines so I need to have big punchlines which is quite difficult to sustain throughout a show. I remember doing a gig once and thinking it had gone really well and afterwards this guy came up to me and said, ‘you’re much funnier on the telly.’ So it goes to show you can’t please everyone, but what I will say is people can expect some thought-provoking comedy and bit of razzmatazz in my show. There’s something in me that rebels against just standing there and telling jokes, I feel as if I have to give the audience more. I’ve tried to get away from it but I find audiences demand it from me – they want the razzmatazz.”

Djalili is the London-born son of Iranian immigrants. His mother was a dressmaker while his father worked as a foreign correspondent for an international Iranian newspaper. But following the Islamic revolution in 1979 his father lost his job and his parents made ends meet by taking in sick lodgers who travelled from Iran for medical treatment.

His family lived near the Royal Albert Hall and as a teenager Djalili says he was “very culturally aware”, spending his spare time either at the theatre or going to gigs. But growing up in London during the 70s wasn’t always a pleasant experience if you came from an ethnic background.

“I remember going to the Battersea fun fair and seeing an Indian guy get beaten to a pulp by a group of football fans, it was really shocking and me and my friends ran away before we got the same treatment. But generally speaking London was a safe place.”

As a youngster his influences were varied to say the least, ranging from Liberace – “I loved his clothes and I liked the fact he was always smiling”, to Jimmy Tarbuck – “he was my idea of what a stand-up was.” But it was acting, rather than comedy, that he felt was his calling. “I grew up going to the theatre,” he says, “I was really into the theatre of the absurd and I loved Stephen Berkoff and I went to see anything by him and anything avant garde. If any of the big Hollywood stars came over I would go and watch them, like Jack Lemmon in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. My education was from going to the theatre so when I got the chance to play Fagin I was fulfilling a lifetime ambition, because acting was what I wanted to do more than anything.”

It wasn’t until he was 29 that he went to watch his first comedy show, at the Comedy Store in 1994, after his wife suggested he tried stand-up. He took her advice and enjoyed some success at the Edinburgh Fringe the following year with his show the Short, Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son, and then The Arab and the Jew in 1996. But it wasn’t until 2001 when he won the Time Out Comedy Award that he started taking it seriously.

“Lee Mack won the award for best performance but I won the overall award and I was really quite shocked. Lee’s a great comedian and a good friend of mine but I remember thinking at the time ‘wow, people think I’m better than Lee Mack.’

“Until then I would much rather go and do a film than do stand-up, but it’s funny at school I wanted to do science but I failed my O-Level so I did art instead and I always wanted to be an actor but stand-up chose me.”

His comedy career took off at the same time as he was carving out a niche for himself in films that needed someone who could look and sound vaguely Middle Eastern. In Ridley Scott’s Gladiator he played a slave trader whose privates are manhandled by Oliver Reed, and in the James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough, he’s an oil pipe foreman from Azerbaijan. His film CV makes impressive reading but he plays down his Hollywood career. “About 98 per cent of it is down to hanging around and socialising and making a good impression. If you’re half decent and people like you off-screen then you’ll continue to get work. Everyone gets vetted over there, that’s how it works because they don’t want nutters on a film set.”

Djalili has used his ethnicity to his advantage, capable of shifting from a Muslim stereotype to a Jewish one even though he is neither, having been brought up with the Baha’i faith – a religion based on spiritual unity. “I suppose I’ve always had this sense of being an outsider and in my early stand-up I talked about cultural differences and being from Iran although I don’t do that so much now. But I do a bit in the show now where I talk about what is racist and what isn’t and I didn’t do that before.”

He uses some risque material that other comics perhaps wouldn’t get away with. “There’s a sketch where I do a Nigerian accent, but if an English comedian did that they’d get pilloried, yet for some reason an Iranian guy can get away with it. I hope it’s because audiences can appreciate the warmth I have. I went to a very multicultural school with kids from all kinds of backgrounds, including Nigeria, and we all did funny accents taking the mickey out of each other.”

Although he isn’t an overtly political comedian, he’s not afraid of making gags about Bin Laden or Islamic fundamentalism. “I think there’s a common thread which runs between events that have happened in the Middle East, the riots in England and the News of the World scandal. I’m still working out what that is but I think it has something to do with the indomitable human spirit and people fighting back,” he says, voicing an idea he’s clearly given some thought to.

Djalili was described recently by one reviewer as a radiant, rather than radical, comic and it’s an apt description. “I’m not bothered about the financial side of it, or the adulation, it’s about making people laugh. Even if I was playing a venue that could hold a thousand people and only 50 turned up I would still do my utmost to make them laugh,” he says.

“I think stand-up reminds people that we are here to be happy and that’s what I try to do.”

Omid Djalili plays the Grand Opera House, York, (Jan 19), St George’s Hall, Bradford (Jan 20), Doncaster Dome (Feb 11) and the Bridlington Spa Theatre (Feb 18).