Omid Djalili: Tour of Duty - interview
The British-Iranian stand-up discusses TV, touring and unintentional slapstick ahead of his new tour
This article is from 2011.
Omid Djalili began his UK tour with a more thoughtful style of comedy. But, he tells Brian Donaldson, he just can’t shed his showbiz image
There is mounting evidence that Omid Djalili may be the most accident-prone comedian in stand-up. Setting aside the time he knocked his chicken salad onto this interviewer’s shoes in 2002, his onstage falls are fast becoming the stuff of legend. At the end of his No Agenda DVD, he stumbles and slips on some water, crashing onto his back as he inadvisably returns for a third curtain call, while the night before this interview he ended his show in Leeds by spinning on his belly and knocking the mic stand into the front row.
And then there was the occasion of his first ever gig. ‘It was in Wimbledon and as I went on I slipped on some spilt beer,’ he recalls. ‘I got up and pulled the microphone out of the socket but when I went to pick up the wire I fell off the stage and ripped my trousers. Like a walrus I rolled myself onto the stage right on the beer and my shirt was totally wet. I think my opening line was, somewhat naively, “can I start again please?” So I was invited back because they thought I was some kind of Charlie Chaplin act with all this elaborate physical comedy.’
Ever since breaking through into the UK scene in the mid-90s, Omid Djalili has been a mix of incisive social and political commentary and a proponent of physical fun such as Godzilla impersonations and shaking his booty to soften the blow of a tough gag about race or religion. That friction between the serious and the silly has always made Djalili an appealing comic act but on his new tour he is determined to shed a chunk of that image. Or at least, that was the intention when Tour of Duty kicked off.
‘This was meant to launch the new me, doing thoughtful comedy and refusing to do the dances,’ he insists. ‘But rather cruelly my technician has put together some Beyoncé mash-up and so I do a four or five-second dance which has now turned into doing crazy things like the worm. But on Twitter people have said it’s the most impressive thing they’ve ever seen; perhaps the stand-up is so weak that they’re just demanding the physicality. Some friends of mine have said they miss “Showbiz Omid”. I’m a comic in conflict.’
Djalili also has a mixed track record when it comes to TV. He made two series of The Omid Djalili Show for BBC One, appeared in sitcoms Black Books and Lead Balloon and played on his stage persona for a Moneysupermaket.com TV ad campaign. Over in the States, he has been making steady in-roads for a decade without quite getting that big break. Even with the news that the David Baddiel-scripted movie The Infidel (Djalili stars as a British Muslim who discovers he was actually born Jewish) is set to be made into an American TV series, Djalili remains cautious. ‘I’ve done two of these shows before, Whoopi and The Paul Reiser Show, both of which were quickly cancelled. So unless it’s in the middle of its third season and getting fantastic reviews, I can’t get too excited. I knew of one show which was cancelled during filming because a live audience wasn’t responding and a few years ago Last Comic Standing was cancelled before the final. It’s just so brutal over there.’
But even gigging across the UK can have its harsh side. Especially if you’re the main attraction but suffer from travel sickness. ‘We hired this big tour bus but when we first travelled on it, I got really ill. So what happens is that my warm-up man, Boothby Graffoe, and my tour manager recline back and watch DVDs while I’m following my bus in a car. And they said they couldn’t give it back because they need the space for Boothby’s guitar and clothes. This is what I’m reduced to, following my own tour bus. And at service stations, they don’t get off, I just go to the toilet and get a burger while they knock back margaritas and watch Back to the Future.’
Omid Djalili: Tour of Duty is at King’s Theatre, Glasgow, Sun 20 Nov.