Omid Djalili stands on stage, a silhouette in front of a huge black backdrop, featuring the name ‘OMID’ in lights, amongst a blanket of twinkling stars. As his performance comes to an end, fireworks stream from the stage and, as he completes his final gyration of belly-dancing, the audience give him a standing ovation.
It is hard to imagine this man of widespread acclaim and recognition in a setting anywhere but here, on stage as the star of his own show. However, sipping peppermint tea in a central London bar, Omid remains as magnetic as his on-stage persona, and I begin to realise that the man behind the mask, is not really hiding behind a mask at all.
Djalili’s latest tour, Omid Djalili Live 2008, focuses heavily on issues of culture, and what it means to be British in today’s society; he jokes that he “should have called the show, ‘Looking for Britishness.’” When I catch up with the tour, his performance sees Djalili bravely explore the difficulties surfacing in British multi-culturalism.
“I’m fascinated by the fact that I’m so British that I say ‘sorry’ when someone bumps into me,” smirks the 42 year old British-Iranian. “I’ve had that very British politeness instilled in me.” Although proud to be British, Djalili is intrigued by the evident duality of British society. Britons are arguably some of the most polite people on earth, yet, he claims, “at the same time, this country has the most dreadful football hooligans who get appallingly drunk and beat up foreigners. I’ve always been very interested in that dichotomy.”
Discussing immigration, hooliganism and terrorism, Djalili broaches contemporary sensitivities, often deemed inappropriate or taboo, and treats them with light-hearted triviality. He claims at one point in his set that Britain has a new motto: “Welcome to Poland.” It is this social mockery which explains why some critics have accused Djalili of offensive shock-tactics.
Djalili offstage is as tongue-in-cheek as he is onstage. As he outlines to me his new material, he says: “I’ll be asking what terrorists really want and underlining the mistakes they have made. Crashing that car into Glasgow Airport, for instance, was a serious blunder. Trying to drive through revolving doors is never going to work is it? It’s basic physics.”
His jokes regarding suicide bombers have, rather unsurprisingly, received the most negative criticism. When this is put to him, Djalili acknowledges it, but maintains that he seeks to entertain audiences, not cause upset. “My show deals with the big issues of today, and unfortunately, terrorism is one of them. By joking about it, we go some way towards removing the fear about it. I’m not saying, ‘I’m a great healer, I helped all these people get back on the tube,’ but I do think we need to talk about it. And in no way am I taking away from the tragedy of people who have suffered. I try to be very respectful and responsible in what I joke about.” He adds playfully, “I’m often unsuccessful.”
Despite a small proportion of negative responses, Djalili’s sophisticated humour is widely appreciated and readily accepted by his audiences. He humbly claims to have “whittled [his] audience down to 14 to 16 year old Pakistani boys from Kingston upon Thames,” but the reality is much more impressive. His current tour has already sold out in numerous venues, following the success of his self-titled BBC 1 television show, which has just been comissioned for a second series. He has previously been awarded the Time Out and EMMA awards for Best Comedian, and starred opposite Whoopi Goldberg in a recent HBO television special.
It would seem, however, that his acting career has not suffered at the expense of his comedic success, as he has also appeared in blockbuster movies such as The Mummy, Anita and Me, Gladiator and Pirates of the Caribbean III. To top this healthy list of accolades, Djalili performed at Prince Charles’s last Christmas party, after which the Prince told him: “You’re not just a very funny comedian; you’re a very important one too.”
In today’s turbulent climate regarding racial issues and a struggle for political correctness, Djalili embraces his topics courageously. “Am I brave? Maybe it’s because I’m from the Middle East and understand a little bit about extremism and what drives people to do extreme things. I know that a lot of it stems from an unshakeable belief in the afterlife and, above all, from brainwashing.”
During his show, Djalili jokes about misconceptions regarding the Middle East, and attempts to break down cultural barriers: “People think that Middle Easterns are not caring and considerate people, that they don’t even have a Samaritans helpline. Well, they do. They just call it a recruitment centre. ‘Please help me, I’m feeling suicidal.’ ‘Ok Sir, that’s brilliant, there is a bus leaving in 10 minutes time. What’s your belt size?’”
Djalili outlines to his audience the difficulties he faced in his pursuit of a career in comedy. He tells the audience that Iranian comedy has a strict structure. Tell a politically incorrect joke about an ethnic minority group then follow this closely by singing a short unrelated pop song. To prove the ineffectiveness of this strategy, Djalili re-enacts this numerous times throughout the performance, much to the delight of the applauding audience.
It is clear that Djalili thrives on the stage. “It’s the best buzz in the world,” he beams excitedly. “Nothing beats the sheer thrill of live comedy. When you hear three thousand people digging every single word you say and laughing hysterically, there is simply no better feeling.”
It seems difficult to get a serious response from Djalili, but in reality, every humorous remark he makes about social and political struggle is sobered by the fact that a sad and dangerous truth lies beneath it. It is with intelligence, and perfect comic timing, that Djalili tackles these subjects. But despite his general joviality, Djalili is more serious when asked what he hopes to achieve through his stand-up comedy. He replies, “my aims were always humble. I only ever wanted to bring world peace.”