Archive for March, 2008

Celebrities, Comedians

Omid Djalili, seriously funny

The Times – March 22, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

From terrorism to spirituality, no topic is off limits for Britain’s hairiest comedian

Omid Djalili, as a British-born Iranian comedian, offers many illuminating insights into disparate strands of different cultures. Did you know, for instance, that the BBC took a view on the hirsuteness tolerance of its audience? This emerged when Omid – it surely won’t be long before he becomes a one-name brand like Oprah, Delia, Madonna – was advised to move a flesh-revealing shot from the first episode of his television series to the last.

“Listen,” he says in defence of the Beeb, “they knew it was a huge, huge risk for me to be on BBC1 on a Saturday night because to have an Iranian guy for a lot of people is too much, and, ‘A hairy chest is pushing it,’ they said. ‘But a hairy back for a primetime audience is so obviously Middle Eastern…’ They felt this would be a ‘switch-off moment’ for the Christians and the over-fifties.”

The hairy back is something of a running theme – indeed, it prompted him kindly to present me with an opening line for this piece: “At one moment, I thought the talent had his hand up his backside, but he was scratching his rather hirsute back, which has given him a lot of trouble, especially after the sleep apnoea machine didn’t work.” Although as a performer he is fidgety, this is nothing compared to him off stage. Sitting on the sofa of the living room of his home in East Sheen, “the talent” is either massaging his wrist (a tennis injury), twisted awkwardly with his arm agitating behind his back, or yawning every few minutes after his sleepless night – which makes it quite hard to concentrate on what he has to say.

The first time I caught sight of Djalili was last November, when guffaws from my living room drew me in, and it was instant beguilement. His show is the old Dave Allen format of stand-up and sketches, and has the cross-generational edginess of Eddie Izzard or Ricky Gervais, with the more comforting, nostalgic appeal of Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies. He is funny on so many different levels: the way he moves his body (his belly dance, with his mic transformed into a swinging dick, has become a cultish physical gag), his acute observations of Britishness versus Iranian manners, and best of all – since he is almost uniquely placed to do this – is his terrorism humour.

It is Djalili’s wholly serious belief that, as an entertainer, the most effective response to the extremist bullies is to diminish their power to threaten and haunt us by laughing at them. And what could be more British? (“Hitler has only got one ball, the other is in the Albert Hall…”) It is tricky terrain, of course, because the subject is so sensitive – which is what makes it courageous, in many different ways (not least his own safety), of him to wade in.

There’s a long list of the potentially offended: Brits who think he’s being disrespectful of the victims of the suicide bombers; members of the left who are wary of any negative comments about Muslims, even if they are only aimed at those who seek to destroy us; Muslim fundamentalists; the terrorists themselves and their supporters.

But even the terrorist jokes are leavened by their gently absurdist delivery. Djalili refers to this as his “warm and fluffy” quality, but I think it’s more that the sharpness of his jokes is shot through with a very humanist understanding. So his routine on the 7/7 bombers was to point out how strange it was that of all the places the terrorists could have picked, they went for Edgware Road Tube station, “which, after Mecca, is probably the most Islamic place on the planet. And these were British-born Muslims, which made it a very bizarre choice and showed that there’s still a cultural dislocation with certain people.

“I’m a British-born Iranian [but not a Muslim] and I may have been brought up between Ayatollah Khomeini and Dickie Davies but at the same time I know who and what I am. What is it about these people to have completely dismissed Britain, and how stupid were they to hit an Islamic spot anyway? What point were they trying to make?”

His humour also mines his own occasional sense of “otherness” – the disbelief that accompanied his realisation that, in this climate, Djalili can be viewed by his fellow Brits as “the enemy”. In the aftermath of one of the terrorist threats, he was sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow and felt rather anxious about two “suspiciously” bearded and muttering men, looked around to make reassuring eye contact with the other passengers, only to find they were staring at him.

“That actually happened and I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I shouted at people and said, ‘What are you looking at me for? Can’t you see those blokes over there?’ I had a real go at them, which made things worse. People just got upset and averted their eyes and I ended up muttering to myself.” One slight problem with this is that his bearded brethren were doubtless just as innocent as Djalili. But it’s still a relief to hear a comedian having the guts to examine prejudice from his own perspective, only to demonstrate how he is also the victim of the same nervy thought poison.

Of the four million people who watched the post-Heathrow episode, Djalili says the BBC received only 26 complaints, along the lines that the viewers couldn’t believe that the corporation had allowed “a well-known Muslim fanatic” – “I don’t know where they got that,” he says – “to make jokes when people have lost their lives”. His point, as we talk in the middle of a national tour, is that he addresses this new taboo through humour because: “If you laugh and make jokes about the suicide bombers, it helps to remove the fear. I like to think that the hundreds of people who are coming to the show and laughing a lot take away less fear about the Middle East.”

In 1957, his parents moved to London – Omid was born eight years later – where his father worked as a photographer and correspondent for Kayhan, a newspaper read by Iranian expatriates. This career came to an abrupt end with the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the new regime’s official campaign of persecution against followers of the Baha’i faith, which include Omid and his family.

In the Fifties and early Sixties, Kensington – where Omid was born and brought up – was not as chi-chi as it is now, and the Djalilis were able to buy two flats. After his father lost his job, the family home was transformed into a sort of pension for Iranians who travelled to Harley Street for their medical treatment: “My parents would put them up, feed and nurse them, drive them to their appointments and act as translators.”

When I hear that Djalili was sent to Holland Park School – the trendy comprehensive at the time (known as the socialist Eton; all Tony Benn’s four children went there) – I am imagining a sort of arty, bookish household. “No, no, it was the absolute antithesis of that,” he says. “My friends lived like that, but we were a very traditional Iranian family and there were no books.” But your father was a journalist; what do you mean, there were no books? “He wasn’t really into books. He was a pretty crap journalist, I’d say.”

Since his father is still very much alive and well and living in Kensington, I rather wonder how he’ll take that. “He was a crap journalist but he is good with words. I only discovered this about 10 or 15 years ago, but I come from a long line of poets. I was saying to my dad that it’s quite funny how I’ve ended up in stand-up comedy and he said, ‘It’s quite natural,’ because my grandparents and great-grandparents were kind of poet laureate types – very high-level, very well-known travelling poets of Iran. There were five of them who used to pitch up in different towns – like stand-up comedians – and thousands of people would turn up for an evening of poetry. There were two brothers in particular, Nayyir and Sina, who were like travelling troubadours. I haven’t seen the poems myself but they’re printed in Farsi and people say they’re brilliant.”

Both his parents were naturally funny people and great storytellers, traits inherited by their younger son. His mother, a dressmaker, died in 1995: “She was a very sweet lady,” Djalili says. “Very outgoing and bubbly. People are always telling me, ‘It’s no wonder you’re a comedian because your mother was so entertaining,’ that kind of stuff.”

There is something slightly wistful about Djalili when he talks about Iran, which he has visited only once, when he was six: “It’s one of the most amazing countries on the planet – it’s seasonal, it’s mountainous, it has everything.”

A few years ago, he appeared on Channel 4 as part of its Iranian film season and was asked to go back to Iran: “I said, ‘Well, what have you done for security?’ and they said, ‘We can’t afford it.’ So I said, ‘Then I can’t really go.’ But I know through the internet that they’re very aware of me over there and like the show.”

He has not, however, had any contact with the Iranian government and is unlikely, he thinks, to be invited by President Ahmadinejad to be the new friendly face of Iran (the country could hardly do worse) – although he has had messages and letters from the King of Jordan, the Emir of Qatar (as well as Prince Charles), saying “great show” and “loving it”.

One of the details I recall from the avalanche of coverage following the suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly was that he was of the Baha’i faith. This surprised Djalili at the time: “I understand that he was a declared Baha’i but it’s very strict in the faith that you do not take your own life so he must have been really…”

Baha’ism was founded in Iran in the 19th century by Baha’u’llah, a Persian nobleman from Tehran, and seems to be a universalist, all-encompassing spirituality: “One god, one human race – the Earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

Djalili, who embraced the faith of his parents in his early twenties, says that, “It grew out of Islam in the way that Christianity grew out of Judaism. We believe that there is an unknowable essence who cares for us and sends enlightened teachers – people like Moses, Jesus, Buddha and Krishna, and basically that all religions are different chapters of the same book.

“The first two people to become Baha’is in our family were the famous poets, who then became ostracised and beaten by the Muslims in the same way that Christ and Christians were persecuted. Even moderate Muslims today, when I say I’m Baha’i, go, ‘Oh God, I should leave the house.’

“I’m not the kind of guy who’s going to convert people or proselytise, but I do espouse it and talk about it in the new show. The main thing that attracted me is that it’s a faith that says we are all one. But because it’s a community, you’re sometimes forced to socialise with people you can’t stand because there are some brilliant Baha’is but also some weirdos. It is very demanding.”

It’s entirely in keeping with Djalili’s desire to tackle taboo subjects that he would even consider examining spiritual matters in a comedy routine. What interests him is why spirituality is such a lowly, almost embarrassing word in Britain. “People say to me, ‘I’m an intellectual, why must you use words like spiritual? Why can’t you say, ‘The Baha’i nature is striving to achieve more of our humanity’? Why must it connect with God?'”

Despite all Djalili’s new-found success – the BBC has commissioned the all-important second series, to add to his port-folio of films and awards; the new stand-up show has pretty much sold out everywhere – it has been quite a slog to get here. As a teenager, his future did not look promising at all. He even managed to get kicked out of Holland Park School, which must have been quite a feat. What on earth did he do? “I was a bit naughty,” he says. “I kept running into the staff room and playing the piano just to upset the teachers. I also used to chase first years on my moped and in my last year I just caused havoc.”

He went off to live with his grandfather in California with a grand design of enrolling at UCLA, but he was miserable and bored hanging out with the old folks in Orange County so came back with his tail between his legs. Any chance of rejoining his old school in the sixth form was scuppered when the headmaster told him in no uncertain terms that, “We certainly do not want you back!” He attempted to take three A levels in one year and failed them all; a dismal record which was repeated the following year. “It had a very bad effect on me, actually. In the end, I got some scrappy grades and ended up somewhere that no one wanted to go to – the University of Ulster in Coleraine, reading theatre studies and English.”

It was as a student there in 1988 that Djalili had his own taste of sectarian violence. He was throwing stones in the sea one night and heard some locals shouting at him. “I said, ‘Did you call me something?’ and they said, ‘Do you want your kneecaps blown off?’ And I’m thinking, ‘I’m the one with the stones; I’m the one with the power here.’ Then they came out with rifles and took three shots at me and I ran and hid. It was the same week that those two soldiers were pulled out of a car at a funeral and beaten to death. It was a very tense time and my professor said, “I wouldn’t recommend reporting this because the RUC will probably know the people – they’re probably all inter-related and it won’t achieve anything. So just keep your head down and consider yourself lucky.’ So I did.

“I was the most shit scared I’ve ever been. What I remember is that they kept calling me Seamus because if you’re dark, you look like you’re a gypsy from southern Ireland.”

After leaving university, Djalili was rejected by no fewer than 16 drama schools. His response was to take off to Berlin, ending up in the former Czechoslovakia in productions of Ionesco and Brecht and spending four or five years in Eastern Europe. In 1992, he married Annabel Knight, a Scottish actress and fellow Baha’i, to whom we must be grateful, for it was she who persuaded her husband to have a crack at stand-up comedy. In 1994, she took him to the Comedy Store to see Lee Hurst, which inspired him to write his own stand-up act for the Edinburgh Festival. By the end of the Nineties, while still performing stand-up, he was also in demand for films: The Mummy, Notting Hill, The World is not Enough in 1999. Then Gladiator, Casanova and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

It may sound unpalatable, but Djalili’s career really took off after 9/11 – as more people seem to crave a friendly face from the Middle East than wish to demonise that region. But none of this would work if “the talent” was not seriously talented. Whoopi Goldberg approached him to appear as one of the four principals, a handyman, in her NBC hotel sitcom, Whoopi, which ran from 2003 to 2004. She became aggravated with the kind of lines the scriptwriter was coming up with for Djalili’s character: “She told the scriptwriter, ‘We have someone who’s a Perrier-nominated comedian and all you can write for him are Ayatollah jokes. Is that all he’s good for? It’s my show. Write him some proper shit.'”

David Baddiel has written a film with Djalili at the centre of it, in the role of a Muslim man who finds out late in life that he’s adopted and of Jewish parentage. Baddiel first noticed him in Gladiator and was subsequently surprised to see him perform at the Comedy Store, but was really struck by him at the Palladium. “He’s intrinsically funny-boned – like Eric Morecambe. He’s short and squat and yet very graceful, married to this very modern, multi-ethnic thing. It’s a potent combination. He’s a really good actor, which is unusual for a comedian. He responds very well to collaboration and if he works with the right people, he’ll be a really big star. “He does sail quite close to the wind. In his last BBC series, there was a sketch with Osama Bin Laden with a slight suggestion that he is gay. So my primary hope is that he won’t get a fatwa on him and that he’ll still be here in 20 years’ time.”

In his next BBC series, Djalili will be sailing even closer to the wind if the new material at the show I saw is any indication. At times, it seems that he’s almost inviting some fundamentalist madman to have a pop at him. These guys, he says, refer to the Samaritans as their recruitment centre: “You say that you want to kill yourself? Very good, the bus will be there in five minutes.”

He covers many other topics – including the sketches he did for Prince Charles (both he and his sons are big Djalili fans) and, too much for my taste, football (he supports Chelsea) – but then he says, “I’d like to lighten things up a bit and talk about suicide bombing.” At which point he talks about someone shooting him on stage and his blood spluttering “ironically” in the shape of the star of David. “It’s not that I’m anti-Muslim,” he says. “I’m just anti-nutter.”

He told me that his wife is always worrying that he’ll make himself a target but that he feels that it’s imperative to stick his neck out. “Current affairs and everyday issues interest me intensely,” he says, “and I do think that if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem. Even me doing stand-up is a political act because I’m about the only person from my background doing it.”

He admits that he sometimes shares his wife’s fears. “But I’ve had Muslim fundamentalists come to my show and laugh. They’ve sat there stone-faced for 30 minutes and then I do something silly like a Godzilla impression which gets them going. So if you’re wondering about killing Omid Djalili, you might think, ‘Actually, he’s quite funny,’ and think again.”

* * *

Omid Djalili’s UK tour culminates at the Hammersmith Apollo on April 19. For more information, go to www.omidnoagenda.com

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