Interview: Omid Djalili
PUBLISHED: 08:55 08 February 2012
Omid Djalili may have come to prominence with movie roles but he's still a comedy heavyweight. JOE BILL meets the funnyman whose latest show leaves the audience with something crazy.
From a bit-part extra in The Mummy to having his own show on BBC1, Omid Djalili has become a household name in just a few short years.
Now one of Britain’s most recognised faces, British Iranian Djalili is about to take time out of his busy schedule to do what he loves most, stand-up comedy.
His Tour Of Duty tour is Djalili’s first for almost four years, but that is not surprising considering he has bagged two series of his own sketch-show on the BBC as well as cropping up in films like Gladiator and Pirates Of The Caribbean.
Anyone who has already seen him live knows Djalili is proud of his heritage but happy to poke fun at both himself and a number of politically sensitive topics.
Djalili has won Time Out, South Bank Show and Emma Awards for his comedy and has been a Perrier Nominee, so why has he come back to stand-up only now?
He said: “Last Christmas, I did a corporate gig, which can be notoriously difficult, and I was so nervous I couldn’t go on.
“I hadn’t done a gig in about a year. The event organisers were getting nervous that I wouldn’t go on, so they cited all kinds of legality at me if I failed to perform.
“As I took to the stage my mind was telling me ‘You’re going to die. You’re just a fat, needy man pleading for attention. You have no integrity and the act has no artistic merit. That’s why I’m here, for the money, not because I care or they care. They don’t even like me’.
“Then the opening joke got more laughs than I’d expected. I started thinking ‘They’re laughing cos you’re famous, not because you’re funny’. It was at that moment I thought ‘Wow. They’re laughing and I’m not even funny. I’m going on tour’.”
And Djalili has not been idle in the interim; he has made two seasons of his own comedy show for BBC1, as well as starring as Fagin in the West End production of Oliver.
Known for his cultural observations and sharp wit on political issues, the title of his new tour is no surprise. He said: “I put out a not-so-serious message on Twitter about what to call the show and I got about 200 responses, many of them very clever.
“It hadn’t jumped out at me straight away, but I saw the very first response back was Tour Of Duty and I liked it. Reminded me of peacekeeping forces and the fact someone once said I was a bridge between East and West and I thought ‘Yes, I’m a bridge, and it’s about time I started charging a toll. £1 for cars, £2 for lorries and £17 for Smart cars. See how smart they feel now’.”
Responsible for two highly-acclaimed DVDs already, Djalili has worked hard on his new show to keep up his standards.
He said: “It’s based on an Eleanor Roosevelt quote about the different levels of thinking.
She said ‘Great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about events, and small minds only talk about other people’.
“In stand-up, you do all those things – you talk about other people, you make sense of events and you elevate lofty ideas. Once you have set up the concept that great minds think about ideas, then you can say things like
‘Doesn’t Ed Miliband look like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit?’”
It is often the content of his fast-paced shows that gets people talking as Djalili takes on the role of controversial characters and uses his knowledge and background to poke fun at sensitive situations, including the tensions in the Middle East.
He said: “There’s an awful lot to talk about. After 9/11, I was saying ‘Hold your horses. Not everyone in the Middle East is a terrorist. Leave Sikh people alone. They’re being attacked just because they wear turbans! They’ve got nothing to do with it’. I was trying to find sanity in the madness.”
“There are so many different levels to what is happening in the Middle East. With profound transformation in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Libya, the people of Dubai have a very British attitude to revolution: marching on the streets chanting ‘What do we want?’ Democracy! When do we want it? After Happy Hour!’.”
Making an audience think is one thing, but the comedian feels duty-bound to send his audiences home with a warm glow.
He said: “I think it’s important to ask yourself ‘What should the audience feel at the end?’.
“When I first saw stand-up, watching a bloke in jeans and a T-shirt at the Comedy Store by the mic and talking, I used to think ‘Oh do something! Dance, move around, change the lighting, use music, do a few accents, change the pace, sing, wear a dress’.
“There was nothing wrong with stand-up and it’s a noble art form, but I noticed every time I watched stand-up my sense of art and creativity was always outraged.
“That’s why I want people to come away with the feeling that yes, we’re all struggling, individually, mentally, emotionally, culturally, globally, but we’re struggling together. And that’s a good thing. So why not dance or do something crazy at the end? Leave the audience with something, anything. I’d shoot a cat out of my backside every night if I could make it work in the budget.”
t Omid Djalili, Norwich Theatre Royal, February 8, £20-£5.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk