British-Iranian comic Omid Djalili has never shied away from his heritage – and his new show, Iranalamadingdong, embraces it. James Rampton spoke to him.
It has been nearly 20 years since Omid Djalili first burst on to the scene.
British by birth, he has always been strongly associated with his Iranian roots – both his parents are from Iran, and while some might shy away from this given the current political climate, Djalili has used it to his strength – his latest tour is entitled Iranalamadingdong.
While he has also carved himself a name as an actor, most notably for his award-winning role in the 2010 film The Infidel, he is still a regular on the stand-up circuit.
And he retains a lot of love for his comedic work: ‘I’ve done lots of different things and enjoyed them but stand-up, when it goes well – it often doesn’t – is definitely a love.
‘There’s something deeply satisfying about a good gig. I’m not often happy with myself as an actor. I get upset when I see myself acting on screen, mostly because of the way I look. But as a stand-up it’s always a bonus if you look heavy or awkward or damaged...in my case it helps in fact.’
And he definitely feels more at home when he’s working a stand-up crowd.
He says: ‘When I was working on Moonfleet last summer Ray Winstone told me, “I don’t feel I come alive on set until I’ve done a fight scene and thrown my first right hook”.
‘Similarly, I don’t really feel I’ve come to life unless I’ve triggered laughter from a crowd. It’s probably an illness... comedian’s illness. But I don’t panic like I used to.
‘If a joke misses or backfires I know there’s a hundred more on their way. But it’s strange, I’m getting more serious off stage and savour even more the times when I’m on it.
‘There’s always something in my mind telling me “enjoy it while you can, this isn’t going to last much longer”.’
While this may appear to be a bit pessimistic, perhaps it is why Djalili strives to make every show count – and also why he appreciates the bond he has with his audiences.
‘Sometimes I am genuinely upset when a show is over,’ he explains. ‘I would love to go on all night. In a way I understand Ken Dodd who famously starts at 8pm and sometimes finishes at 2am. My problem is I just don’t have the material.
‘So I usually just take the feeling of loss and disappointment off with me when I say goodnight and drive home alone in the dark thinking of the good times and how I can say more next time and say it better.
‘Most comedians are sensitive to audience reaction. Generally speaking, comics like people. Stand up is basically one person talking to many people. It’s a bizarre dynamic... public speaking has been with us for thousands of years. I remember even feeling a panic when I was younger that I should get up and speak because I’d have to one day so best start young.
‘If you’re not too nervous about speaking and saying what’s on your mind in a one-on-one then that openness is what you need on stage. It’s important not to be too hung up about what people think of you. Finding a comedy voice can take years though.’
But for now, Djalili will be bringing his new show to the Portsmouth Guildhall next Thursday. He says he’ll be less overtly political than in the past, and looking at more personal themes, such as getting older and relationships.
‘I think I’ve maybe come to understand the secret to relationships now.
‘I know when a woman gets married, she has to learn to forgive her man from day one. Because men are idiots. Before they become conscious human beings, that is. They can take years doing the wrong thing before they learn to adjust their behaviour. So women need patience and forgiveness, and a voice to articulate what the man is doing that is wrong in a way a man can hear. Otherwise it’s over.’
Looking at the ‘problem’ of ageing, he adds: ‘We all struggle with growing older. As Dave Allen once said, “I enjoy getting older. I have to because there’s no choice”.
‘When you hit your forties you understand life better, but at the same time your body is more prone to fail. So you have to find a way of joining your received wisdom with physical prowess.
‘A lot of men who hit 40 try to do things that make them feel more alive because they want to prove themselves.’
It’s this impulse that he ascribes to the reason he took part in ITV’s reality diving show Splash! where he made it to the semi-finals of the first series in 2013.
Despite this brush with the world of reality celebrityhood, he has tried to maintain a thoughtful degree of distance from the circus, and not always successfully – another theme his show picks up on.
‘Yes, I talk about the fact that when you become a celebrity, or in fact in any line of work where you feel you are important somehow in a worldly sense because people around you are telling you so, there is a period when you become a fool. It happens to everyone. You start believing your own hype and behave foolishly.
‘A more eloquent way would be to describe it as becoming “a plaything of the ignorant”. Not many talk people about this phase but I’m happy to. I became one. I’ll go there. And it’s bad...’
However, Djalili is relatively content with his lot, as he explains: ‘Well... I think in life you have to count your blessings otherwise you’ll never be happy.
‘But I haven’t worked out the reason why I’m overweight yet, and I really shouldn’t be. It’s an issue that takes precedence...’
I wanted to do something out of the box, stretch my courage and prove I was still a young man at heart even though my bits were dropping off.
I love America. It’s very hard trying to obtain a visa to work in the US. My work visa was delayed so badly I nearly missed my flight. Maybe referencing Pablo Escobar and Osama Bin Laden on the form didn’t help.
I don’t feel the same pressure to talk about things in the news any more. On Twitter, comics feel they constantly have to comment on things that are trending. But nowadays if everyone is talking about fracking I’ll just talk about Peters and Lee.
Where & when...
Omid Dajalili is performing Iranalamadingdong at Portsmouth Guildhall on Thursday, October 30. Doors 7.30pm. Tickets cost £23. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk or call 0844 847 2362.