Omid Djalili: Why my comedy is seriously funny

In the wake of 11 September, the Perrier nominee Omid Djalili's ambitions now include world peace – and getting his own BBC2 sitcom

Sarah Barrell
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:45
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Some people may be surprised to see the somewhat starry name of Omid Djalili among the list of nominees for this year's Perrier prize. After roles in blockbusters such as Gladiator, The Mummy and Spy Game, surely he's too famous to qualify for the prize. Apparently not. It's his career as a stand-up that counts, which, until this year, hadn't really taken off. It's unfortunate, but it would appear that 11 September may have been the best thing to have happened to this Anglo-Iranian comedian.

"It's true that this was a seminal moment in the careers of many ethnic minority artists," says Djalili of the events of last September. "After 11 September I felt like people looked at me in a very different way. I had to make it very clear what I believed." And, as his show attests, his belief positions him as a "globalist" adverse to the "increasing polarisation" of the East–West debate.

"It sounds very po-faced, but I wanted the stand-up to be contributing to the solution rather than the problem. All I want to do is bring East and West together, make a contribution to world peace – and get a BBC2 sitcom."

So does he see himself as a celebrity? "My TV and movie work are very separate from the stand-up," he insists. "I don't think people come and see my show because I've been in a Hollywood movie. I was in Gladiator for all of four minutes. They come due to word of mouth recommendations. And this is the first time that an ethnic minority act has been nominated for their own show – it's recognition of sorts."

So keen for recognition was Djalili's manager, the story goes, that he wrote to the Perrier organisers, downgrading his client's achievements, stating that while he might have played a venue exceeding a 500-seat capacity (which rules performers out as Perrier Prize candidates) he actually sold only 250 seats. "I think it's hilarious," says Djalili. "I wasn't bothered about the nomination as my shows were selling out but the Perrier is one of those things in the industry that gives you the final rubber stamp."

Omid Djalili in person is a rather serious man. Constantly trying to make weighty points, he rarely finishes his sentences, peppering them with skilfully executed accents to flesh out the characters his conversation calls on. It's a certain frustration, rather than humour, that comes across. "I've always sold out at Edinburgh but the critics, particularly the Scots are very sensitive about ethnic issues," he says and then, breaking into a perfect Prime of Miss Jean Brodie Edinburgh burr, "They don't think that they have race problems up here so why talk about it, and when you do they get quite uncomfortable."

He raises an eyebrow. "I feel that my material is perhaps more valid here than elsewhere. This is a very white festival. It's OK for a working-class comic to do a show about working-class issues, but if you're an Iranian boy raised in a multicultural society with specific comic experiences, people go, 'Oh, he's just drawing on his ethnicity' – as if that's not valid."

Born and raised in London, to Iranian parents, Djalili has a privileged perspective on the relationship between the East and West that has become even more resonant since the events of last September. "I've been invited to write an American sitcom that is Middle Eastern-based," he says, frowning. "I'm not the kind of comedian who uses stand-up as a ladder to get into TV. These are usually comedians who have nothing to say. But there is currently so much racism in the States; Middle Eastern people are literally being hounded out of their jobs. America is crying out for something to tackle this."

Djalili is full of contradictions when it comes to talking about where he sees his career going. On one hand, he loves stand-up for the reaction he gets among people that may not have any idea about his politics; on the other, he is keen to play theatres which allow him to expand on more complex, less comedy-friendly ideas. "That's why I love doing Edinburgh," he explains. "In ordinary comedy clubs you can't speak without a joke for more than 30 seconds – people walk out. Here you can expand upon ideas, like the way I talk about martyrdom being part of the Middle Eastern psyche. Mad as it is, in the back of my mind I think that one day I'll be shot on stage and die a martyr to the cause of trying to bring everyone together."

Not a sentiment to be dismissed lightly, coming as it does from the man who in 1998 was asked to perform at peace talks between Arafat and Netanyahu. So is the next stop Goodwill Ambassador for the UN? "Maybe so," he says with not a little seriousness. "There's only so much you can do in a comedy club – they come in tanked up at 11:30 at night. It's crowd control really," he pauses. "But even at that level you're making a point. And preaching to the converted is less rewarding. I love playing working men's clubs and I did Butlins recently – it was one of the best gigs I've ever done." He proceeds to do a vivid impression of the cockney skinhead who came up to him after the gig not to "kill him" but to complement him for "makin' me fink."

Djalili is at his funniest and most incisive when dealing with these weighty issues on stage, couching them in clowning and buffoonery. "There are lots of comedians that become very political and it doesn't make for an evenings entertainment, that's why I do all the absurd stuff, my belly dancing and bad Godzilla impressions. It's a reaction against preaching." He fidgets with his bandana. "Comedy is a very powerful tool," he says, with a straight face.

Omid Djalili is performing at the Pleasance (0131 556 6550) until 26 August, 7:30pm (running time 1hr). Extra shows 23 and 24 August, at 10.30pm

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