A former Time Out comedy award winner, the British-Iranian funnyman
talks to Jamie Goodwin
Omid Djalili has carved a niche playing with cultural stereotypes. From his 1995 Edinburgh Festival Fringe act, Short, Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son, to his role in the David Baddiel-written film The Infidel, his razor-sharp observations on perceptions of his race and religion have rocketed him to the top of British comedy. We caught up with him.
What have you been up to? I’ve just been invited back to Dubai for a one-off show and I’m really looking forward to it. There are really good audiences in the Middle East. I do remember the expats seemed to laugh at very different parts of the acts than people from the region. I know what the restrictions are here, but I think people are offended by the same things.
You used to start your act in a Middle Eastern accent, then switched to a British one. Why was that? I was playing with stereotypes, then flipping it around and saying, ‘Actually, I’m even more like you than you are.’ But people trust me more now. With a character, it’s quick laughs, and I don’t need that any more. It was a good way to switch focus. But that particular act was borne out of necessity. Eddie Izzard said to me, ‘You can stop that act now, but keep the character.’ I’m actually playing a version of my uncle, who is a professor of English literature at Oxford University. That’s something that always makes me laugh.
What part does your Bahá’í religion play in your life? I am very respectful of religion. David Baddiel is a very interesting person because he’s an atheist. That is why we did The Infidel together. I’ve always believed faith is one thing that is given different names.
How did 9/11 affect your career? I was a Time Out comedy award-winner before 9/11. I was voted the best club comedian in London, which took me by surprise. That’s when I really started taking comedy seriously. Then 9/11 happened and nobody wanted to book me. I was persona non-grata. But I was determined to reclaim my career, so I responded comedically. I went out there and did what I had to do. I systematically contextualised what had happened. I talked about martyrdom. I think I built a bridge from the Middle East to the west. It was a very important stage in my career. There is something in the Middle Eastern spirit where you won’t be beaten. My career was over for about a month, then I reemerged.
Do you consider yourself to be a confident man? I’m a very good actor and I’m very good at pretending to be confident. I was a very silent child – I was deadened. Everybody bar none was totally shocked when I became a stand-up. I always have two little Omids with me, one on each shoulder. One is saying, ‘You are brilliant and you are going to kill it tonight’; the other is saying, ‘Dara O’Briain is much funnier than you – pack it in.’ It’s a secret that I pretend to be confident. For more info, go to www.omidnoagenda.com.