Glasgow Comedy Festival - Omid Djalili
This article is from 2008.
Still the foremost British/Iranian stand-up, Omid Djalili tells Brian Donaldson about meeting Prince Charles, being the new Dave Allen and joking about the Glasgow Airport attacks
There are a few things guaranteed about an Omid Djalili show. There’ll be spot-on regional accents, plentiful jokes about his Iranian roots, a slap or two in the pug ugly face of British bigotry and, the pièce de résistance, an energetic slab of bellydancing. The British-Iranian comedian and actor has been working such tummy jiggling into his act for a decade now, though the roots of it stretch back to him being bullied at school with demands that he perform for his tormentors. On stage, he first did it to cover up jokes which didn’t go down so well. Now, it’s simply expected. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever give that up,’ he tells me on the phone, slightly exhausted thanks to a faulty Sat Nav that resulted in an excessively long drive back to London from a gig in Nottingham the night before. ‘Nothing makes an audience happier than seeing a performer dance. I’ve tried lots of different kinds of endings and I just find that the most successful one is to dance and that makes them feel joyful. When you see some fat, bald man shaking his booty, it’s a very, very uplifting thing. I’m getting heavier as well so it’s not getting any easier.’
Djalili has skirted around the edges of real, proper bona fide fame since making his Edinburgh Fringe debut in 1995 with Short Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son, following that up with critical and audience hits such as Omid Djalili is Ethnic and Warm to My Winning Smile. By the time he received a Perrier nomination in 2002 going Behind Enemy Lines, Djalili had nabbed himself bit parts in The Mummy, Gladiator and The World is Not Enough. Even then, though, he would be more likely to be recognised for dying on his butt at Jongleurs (‘I’ve had people do the poo face at me, saying I stink’) than for appearing in Hollywood blockbusters with roles he once described as ‘third Arab on the left.’
These days, he seems to have hit recognition paydirt now that his face and ethno-cultural shtick have been seen by almost four million BBC1 viewers courtesy of Saturday night’s The Omid Djalili Show. It’s quite a remarkable achievement for a show which perhaps five years ago would have been buried deep in the bowels of BBC2’s graveyard slot. ‘When you’ve got your own show, they seem to be too scared to approach and they now just whisper about me. I used to have this needy stare: “Please recognise me, please like me”, but now I just avert my eyes and hear them whisper. Trevor McDonald lives near me and when he walks down the street, they just part like the sea.’
The success of The Omid Djalili Show feels like a just reward for the long slog of endless touring and tiring days hanging around a film set to say one line that might end up being cut from the final product. Arriving last year and having recently been commissioned for a second series, the show was billed as ‘Dave Allen for the 21st century.’ The comparison seems odd at first glance: how can you confuse a British/Iranian who bellydances vigorously with an Irishman who seemed to spend most of his small screen time in a chair with fag in one hand, glass of whisky in the other telling various tales of how he lost the index finger of his left hand? ‘Dave Allen was an amazing, one-off talent,’ admits Djalili. ‘I didn’t sit down in our show because we wanted to make it a bit more dynamic. I would never want to fill his shoes but the BBC have wanted to do that format of stand-up and sketches for a number of years and they’ve asked a lot of great comedians to do pilots: Tommy Tiernan did one and Stewart Lee has just done one. But because I had more of a multicultural angle and I’ve toured for a while, they thought that they’d get an audience.’
And it seems that it’s not just the BBC who believe they have a surefire hit on their hands when it comes to Omid Djalili; even the higher echelons of modern British royalty are in on the joke. Last Christmas, Prince Charles invited Djalili to perform for his staff, following in the footsteps of Joan Rivers, Stephen Fry and Rory Bremner. ‘He said to me: “Do you like Borat? I think that’s an extraordinary film. I cried my eyes out.”’ Djalili recalls the time when Stephen K Amos once said that the only way he’d get on a BBC sitcom is waiting until Lenny Henry dies. ‘At the Royal Variety, Charles said: “This is the man who wants Lenny Henry dead. You know, one could have that arranged.” Which, in the light of the Diana inquest, is a very edgy joke to crack.’
There are plenty who would claim that Omid Djalili is no longer an edgy comic, but a safe mainstream haven for those who want a splash of racial politics with their stand-up. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, body searches were conducted before fans were allowed into his shows. Nowadays, he’ll still make cracks about pass-the-parcel at Al Qaeda parties, question the real motivation of his team Chelsea’s new Israeli manager and recall the moment when terrorism came to Scotland. ‘I’m aware that everybody has a Glasgow Airport gag but I’m doing one, too. I have a good joke about it and then it gets nasty.’ But fear not, a frenzied bout of bellydancing is looming just over the horizon.
Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, Sun 9 Mar, 8pm, £19; Playhouse, Edinburgh, Mon 10 Mar, 8pm, £19.