Omid Djalili, the Anglo-Iranian comedian, has had an unconventional career so far – he is a revered comic, has his own successful sketch show and has appeared in numerous Hollywood blockbusters, but the BBC has labelled him as the stand-up whose name you might not know. CLAIRE BLACK finds out why
'A LOT of Iranians would like me to give a lecture with slides – like I'm working for the Iranian Tourist Board," says comedian Omid Djalili from his hotel room in Ipswich. "People don't understand that, in this country, if you pick on certain cultural things and show you can laugh at yourself, then people will warm to your culture. When people see Billy Connolly and he talks about some kind of essential and weird Scottish behaviour, they recognise it, laugh and then say, 'I love Scotland. Oh, actually, I'm half Scottish.' They become proud of it.'"
Britain's Anglo-Iranian comedian is talking about his brand of easily digestible ethno-cultural comedy. He's halfway through a national tour, which includes Edinburgh tonight, and he has already been chatting to Johnny Vaughn ("completely mad") and Denise Van Outen ("very tolerant") this morning and it's only just after 9am.
Djalili sounds pretty chipper and he's got every right to be. Watched by almost four million BBC1 viewers – and that was against X Factor and I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here – The Omid Djalili Show was a success. So much so that he's been asked to write a second series of the comedy sketch show. "It's all about getting a second series," he tells me with obvious pleasure. The tour has enough 'sold-out' signs peppered on the website to reassure him that people still want to see him in the flesh as well as on the box.
"This is the show I'm most happy with," he says. "It's not the pinnacle of what I've ever done and it's certainly not the pinnacle of what I'm capable of, but it's the most enjoyable show I've done in years.
"I keep doing stand-up because you just hope that you can get better and find the voice that you want. You have to get back on the road and try things out. I'm amazed that I have about an hour and 20 minutes of brand new stuff that's been getting fantastic feedback."
Djalili has had a funny old career. He's an Edinburgh Festival stalwart with two Spirit of the Fringe awards and a string of sell-out shows to his name. His last two visits to Edinburgh were in 2002 "when I got the record number of five-star reviews (six]", and 2005, "when I got the record number of two-star reviews, which I'm equally proud of".
But the BBC still found it necessary to prefix the publicity material for his BBC1 show with the line: "The stand-up whose name you might not know." Maybe it's because he hasn't appeared on the circuit with the same ubiquity as some of his comedy chums. Maybe it's because we don't remember foreign-sounding names. Actually, that sounds a bit like a Djalili gag.
It might also be that Djalili is an actor, too. In fact, he was an actor long before he told jokes for a living. With roles in The Mummy, Gladiator and the James Bond movie The World is Not Enough, Djalili describes himself as the "perfect, ethnic, Everyman, bit-part specialist". As far as the comedy goes, he says Edinburgh and Glasgow are his two favourite cities to play. "I think for any comedian to come and get big laughs from a really tough, discerning, comedy-literate audience, it is the biggest stamp of approval," he says. "I always get a bit nervous about it, but they're the gigs that I'm looking forward to the most."
Djalili's spent the last 13 years honing his act. He jokes about everything from al-Qaeda birthday parties to suicide bombing, with a bit of bellydancing thrown in for good measure. And whatever controversies and eyebrows have been raised, Djalili feels like he's really hitting his stride.
"The main theme of this live show is Britishness because our British heritage and identity has been outraged recently whether by British suicide bombers or the Archbishop of Canterbury talking about Sharia law," he says. "To have a second-generation British-Iranian talking about Britishness in a live show is quite an interesting way to approach things."
Djalili has been criticised by some for losing his edge to satisfy the mainstream audience, but there are plenty of people who still find him challenging. "I had loads of complaints about my TV show even before it began," he says. "People obviously thought, 'How dare they give an Iranian weirdo a TV show on BBC1!' Some said that they were no longer paying their licence fee because time was being given to a fundamentalist. They didn't even know who I was.
"I think I've been criticised for being too entertaining. When I did the Perrier show in 2002 some people said, 'Oh you're brave tackling the whole terrorism thing and all the issues, but you could go further.' And yes, I think that's true. I feel as I get older and more confident I do go further, but I think you should always keep it light and entertaining. My reaction to some people who go on and just do political stuff is, 'For God's sake, just tell us a joke.' When people know there's going to be something silly they allow you the space to be political.
"I've been a bit more forthcoming in this show with my viewpoint and I've got concrete suggestions about what to do about terrorism," he says, and, for a moment, I'm not sure whether he's joking or not. What kind of ideas I prompt tentatively? "Well, I don't want to give it away. You need to come and see the show. But, for example, I don't think we should call terrorists 'terrorists'. I think that's a huge mistake. I understand the power of words and ideas as I get older and as I become more responsible as a stand-up. I think the media can really help by changing that syntax and vernacular."
Sociologist or comedian? For Djalili it's a mix of the two. He says that he takes an academic approach to his comedy: writing his routine, learning his lines and even doing warm-up exercises before he goes on stage. "I have this habit of stumbling over words, and over important words so I've been doing warm-ups," he says. "Tongue exercises and singing scales like a real ponce. No other comedian does that."
Djalili is the son of a reporter ("the funniest man I've ever known") and a dressmaker, but his parents also ran a guesthouse. Rather than being a joker as a child, Djalili says he was an observer. "We had basically all of Iranian society coming through the doors. The only way to cope with it when you feel like you've got no privacy in your own house is to keep things light and funny. My dad always did that. He's a genuine eccentric. I'm not like that. I'm a very normal, very together, balanced individual."
Djalili's cuddly cultural dislocation routine – politics offset with plenty of silly dancing – may disappoint some, but he has never been happier with what he does. "I will actually humiliate myself as much as I can for the benefit of the audience," he says. "People always expect a big finish and it used to be disco dancing, but now I do this dance therapy thing which is very silly and makes me look like a clown.
"I'm in my 13th year of comedy and it's only now that I understand it all. Comedian friends of mine have said they always thought I was just a good performer, but now they see me as a proper stand-up.
"Coming from people like Boothby Graffoe and Ian Stone, I think that's good. It's like I've made it into the club. It has taken me a long time, but I've finally arrived."
• Omid Djalili, The Playhouse, Edinburgh, tonight at 8pm, 19, 0870 606 3424 and March 12, 8pm, Aberdeen Music Hall 01224 641122.
A FUNNY OLD LIFE
• Omid Djalili, 42, was born in the Chelsea area of London to Iranian parents who had settled in London in 1957. His journalist father was a contributor to Iran's top newspapers and a translator for the Iranian embassy. The family raised Djalili in the Baha'i faith, which he still follows.
• He graduated from the University of Ulster with a degree in English and theatre arts in 1988, and embarked on a series of odd jobs after returning to London, where he was reportedly rejected by 16 drama schools.
• He met his future wife, Annabel Knight, an actress and playwright at a friend's wedding and the couple moved to the Czech Republic via a cultural exchange program, where they became involved in the experimental theatre scene.
• The couple returned to the UK and Knight was instrumental in boosting her husband's career after writing A Strange Bit of History, the one-man play which garnered critical acclaim at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1993.
• In 1995 Djalili returned to the Fringe, this time with stand-up comedy, and gained rave reviews with Short, Fat Kebab Shop Owner's Son.
• As well as his comedy success, Djalili has had numerous film and television roles. His film credits include Gladiator, The Mummy, Spy Game, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
• He recently picked up an international film award for Best Supporting Actor in Casanova.
• The couple currently live in London with their three children, aged 14, 12 and eight.