Give thanks at the altar of the fat one, says Ipswich Regent bound Djalili
Hailed funny enough to give you digestive problems by Oscar winner Colin Firth no less, stand-up Omid Djalili tells JAMES RAMPTON why a corporate gig gave him the courage go back out on tour
Omid Djalili is one of Britain’s finest stand-ups; a rare comedian capable of provoking huge laughter and profound thought at the same time. Yet he has not toured for three and a half years.
All that is changing as Omid hits the road with new show Tour of Duty.
The Time Out, South Bank Show and Emma Awards winner and Perrier nominee fizzes with energy, fantastic character comedy, killer lines, razor-sharp wit and expertly-crafted cultural observations.
Don’t just take my word for it. The critics are just as enthusiastic.
The Guardian calls him “one of the most subversive, let alone funniest, comedians around”. David Baddiel describes Omid as “one of the most naturally funny comedians we have” and Colin Firth, no less, raves that he provides “the kind of laughter that gives you digestive problems”.
When we meet in the run-up to the tour at a caf� near his London home, Omid is equally entertaining in person.
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Responsible for two highly acclaimed DVDs, No Agenda and Live in London, and two sell-out tours he is a comedian who is just as hilarious off stage as on it. Two hours in his company simply fly by.
So what gave the British-Iranian comic the urge to hit the road once again? Funnily enough, it was a corporate gig.
“Last Christmas I did a corporate gig, which can be notoriously difficult and I was so nervous I couldn’t go on,” he recalls.
“I hadn’t done a gig in about a year. The event organisers were getting nervous I wouldn’t go on so they cited all kinds of legality at me if I failed to perform.
“As I took to the stage my mind was telling me ‘You’re going to die. You’re just a fat, needy man pleading for attention. You have no integrity and the act has no artistic merit. That’s why I’m here, for the money, not because I care or they care. They don’t even like me’.
“I went out with that devil on my shoulder and on the other shoulder was another one going ‘listen to the devil on the other shoulder, he’s right’. Then the opening joke got more laughs than I’d expected. I started thinking ‘they’re laughing because you’re famous, not because you’re funny’. It was at that moment I thought ‘wow. They’re laughing and I’m not even funny. I’m going on tour’.”
Omid hasn’t been idle in the interim. He’s made two highly successful series of his own comedy show for BBC1, as well as starring as Fagin in the West End production of Oliver!, the US sitcom The Paul Reiser Show for NBC, Howard Marks’ film Mr Nice and Baddiel’s movie The Infidel.
Now he is back on tour, Omid feels “Too much has happened this year. I need to process it”.
I ask him about the title of the new live show.
“I put out a not-so-serious message on Twitter about what to call the show and I got about 200 responses, many of them very clever. I particularly liked The Unbearable Lightness of Being Omid Djalili.
“It hadn’t jumped out at me straight away, but I saw the very first response was Tour of Duty and I liked it. Reminded me of peace keeping forces and someone once said I was a bridge between East and West and I thought ‘yes, I’m a bridge and it’s about time I started charging a toll - �1 for cars, �2 for lorries and �17 for Smart cars. See how smart they feel now.”
As always, Omid, a deep thinker about comedy, has worked hard on the structure of the show.
According to him it’s based on an Eleanor Roosevelt quote about the different levels of thinking. She said “great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about events and small minds only talk about other people”.
“In stand-up, you do all those things - you talk about other people, you make sense of events and you elevate lofty ideas. Once you have set up the concept that great minds think about ideas, then you can say things like ‘doesn’t Ed Milliband look like Wallace from Wallace and Grommit’?”
He has equally wise things to say about the Middle East. In the wake of the seismic changes which have gripped the region during the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ Omid says “There’s an awful lot to talk about.
“After 9/11 I was saying ‘hold your horses. Not everyone in the Middle East is a terrorist. Leave Sikh people alone. They’re being attacked just because they wear turbans! They’ve got nothing to do with it’. I was trying to find sanity in the madness.
“There are so many different levels to what is happening in the Middle East now. With profound transformation in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Libya.
“The people of Dubai have a very British attitude to revolution, marching on the streets chanting ‘what do we want’? ‘Democracy’. ‘When do we want it’? ‘After happy hour’.
Omid also emphasises the significance of social networking sites in the current Middle Eastern turmoil.
“People are taking charge – governments can’t get away with it any more. In fact no one can get away with anything. You certainly can’t get away with genocide in the age of Twitter - or at least I hope not. Alex Reid was trending the other day so you can never be too sure.
“I imagine Sadat, Arafat and Mubarak in the afterlife being asked what killed them. ‘Sadat, what brought you here? Bullets’. Arafat ‘cancer’. Mubarak ‘Facebook and Twitter’.
Making an audience think is one thing, but the natural showman in him feels duty bound to send his audiences home with a warm glow.
“I think it’s always important to ask yourself ‘what should the audience feel at the end’? That’s the showbiz in me talking.
“When I first saw stand-up comedy, watching a bloke in jeans and a T-shirt at the Comedy Store at the mic and talking I used to think ‘oh for God’s sake do something! Dance, move around a little, change the lighting, use music, do a few accents, change the pace, sing, wear a dress’.
“There was nothing wrong with stand-up and it’s a noble art form, but I noticed every time I watched my sense of art and creativity was always outraged.
“That’s why I want people to come away with the feeling that yes, we’re all struggling; individually, mentally, emotionally, socially, spiritually, physically as a society, culturally, globally... I’ve run out of ally’s.
“But we’re struggling together and that’s a good thing. So why not dance or do something crazy at the end? I suppose it’s just following traditions like a ceilidh or shows in the Middle East that always end in a song or dance, but leave the audience with something, anything. I’d shoot a cat out of my backside every night if I could make it work in the budget”.
Winding up we talk about the philosophy of comedy and he gets very involved and impassioned but checks himself.
“Look, everyone has problems. But for 90 minutes it’s good to have a laugh and forget it for a while - or put it into a context. That context being I’m struggling a little less than you are and collectively you should all come together and be happy for me. I’d like the audience to come and give thanks at the altar of the fat one.”
Omid Djalili is at Ipswich’s Regent Theatre on February 7.