It’s a steamy, hazy, noisy afternoon in Camden and a…
Omid Djalili was born in Chelsea to Iranian parents. He rose to fame after appearing at the Edinburgh Festival in ‘95 with Short, Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son. Ten years later, he broke Edinburgh Festival box office records.
He’s currently touring his sell-out show Iranalmadingdong and has just published his memoir Hopeful- a Sunday Times Best Seller.
Successful in the States before he was a household name in the UK, he’s starred in his own HBO Special and in 22 episodes of the NBC sitcom ‘Whoopi’ with Whoopi Goldberg. Djalili has won the EMMA Award, Time Out Award, and LWT Comedy Award for Best Stand-up Comedian, Spirit of the Fringe Award as well as the One World Media Award for his Channel 4 documentary, Bloody Foreigners.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of making ‘The Infidel’?
That’s a question I’ve never had before. I appreciate it. I think the main thing, is to go with my instincts. When you do something, you know that the experience or the journey it’s gonna take you on will be good. I was right about everything. Everything that went right and everything that went wrong. So, what have I learned? That I’m right about everything.
You break many taboos in the film, was there anything in the script that you were concerned about?
A lot of things. You have to learn that it’s a collaborative journey, and you’re gonna have conflicts with the people you’re on that journey with. But as long as you like each other and you’re still friends at the end…a lot of mistakes are made, but at the end of the day, I was right about all of it. I keep saying, ‘I was right’ because it was a big lesson for me. I never really trusted my instincts before, about anything, and now I’ve become like a lion.
It must have taken some effort to ensure the comedy was pitched right throughout, without overly offending any particular section of society.
We were already very clear about what works and what doesn’t. Neither David (Baddiel) nor myself wanted to do a film that would offend anyone. I’m not that kind of comic, either. I know they say that as a comic, if you’re not offending somebody, you’re not doing your job, but I don’t believe that.
Humour, like offence, is subjective. There are people who’re offended by The Infidel, but I just think they’re wrong. The majority of people saw that we weren’t there just to make fun or to offend. We were trying to make a point. David, who wrote it, is an out and out atheist, but is not anti-religious. He said that it shouldn’t be about conflict and that a lot of the conflicts between religions are man made.
You were a flaky Muslim, then a closeted Jew in The Infidel- how devoted are you to your own faith?
Well, I’m a Bahá’i, which I’m very passionate about. I came across this quote in the Bahá’i writings which says that to try and prove the existence of God is an unpardonable sin. It’s not our place. I’m very passionate about religion, but I’m probably more passionate about the fact that religions fight and are in conflict. They shouldn’t be (fighting) and that interests me.
But there are rules within the Bahá’i faith, right? You’re not supposed to gossip or indulge in backbiting- how does that fit in with comedy, often relying on both of those ‘sins’?
For me, there are different levels of comedy. Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘Great minds talk about ideas, average minds talk about events, small minds talk about other people’. So, comedy works on those levels. I was an ‘events’ comedian. I talked about 9/11, the 7th of July bombings. That doesn’t make me a ‘great’ mind. I had a few ideas, sometimes, but the majority of my comedy was about events. To backbite in a social setting is very different to say…..hmmmmm. Doing jokes about George Bush, I wasn’t doing them to his face…that might be seen as backbiting. That’s an interesting question, I’ve never really thought about it.
What about the other rules? There’s no drinking in the Bahá’i faith
Yeah, I don’t drink. Mostly for health reasons, but drinking and comedy, who says they have to go together?
It’s a long tour. It’s a good job you’re not drinking. It’s been over 3 years since your last tour, what will you be tackling this time?
There has been one underlying thought, the big question- are we, human beings capable of experiencing the spiritual life or are we spiritual beings experiencing the human. For me, everything has to be about that. I think that as long as it’s funny, people like it when you talk about ideas.
You must have a much wider audience than you did ten years ago, does that affect the material?
I do rethink material a lot. I’m very lucky that I’ve had some broad appeal exposure, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. When you do a BBC show, for example, they’re very mindful of a mainstream audience, so a lot of material is tailored towards that. You may do a whole bulk of work, but the stuff that ends up being shown can be quite limited. That’s probably why I go on tour- to do a lot of the stuff I couldn’t do on TV.
While on tour, do you change material according to what’s happening in the news?
It will be written as we go along. That’s what touring is about. If there’s a major news item that affects everybody, you have to mention it.
Muslims aren’t known for their humour, unlike Jews, so how was The Infidel received by that community? Did you watch the film with a Muslim audience?
Yes, we did. An evening was organised by a group called MUJU Crew, which is about bringing Muslims and Jews together, it was at The Coronet. 300 Muslims and 100 Jews showed up. It was a fabulous experience ‘cause they really got it. There were some women there who were supposedly hard line, who were about to join some extremist groups. The film made them think about not doing that. So, it’s good to see that it had a positive effect on them.
After appearing in so many big Hollywood films, is it frustrating that people know you for the Moneysupermarket adverts?
Ha HA! Good question! I wish they did remember me for the Moneysupermarket adverts. A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘I love your ads’. This kid came up to me the other day and said, ‘I think you’re brilliant.’ I thanked him, then he sang, ‘Go Compare! Go Compare!’
No, it doesn’t bother me. I’m actually really happy that it took a while for people to realise it’s a price comparison website. I’m very glad that the comedy industry haven’t really hammered me over it. It’s free, so that was the one thing that got me, ‘cause I said that I didn’t do ads, that it was against my morals and didn’t want to be seen selling anything. They pointed out that it wasn’t selling anything. They convinced me that it was good for the economy and people will have to bring their prices down and that ultimately, it would be good for British people to save money. I did it only on the condition that I have a say in the comedy of it. It remains a fun thing to do.
You once said that the most expensive thing you’ve bought was ‘the concept of New Labour’. Are you in any way buying the coalition?
All I can say about the coalition is that I’m very glad they all look like they work out, they all look fit. We can’t have someone like me running the country, ‘cause people would think, ‘Oh, he just eats burgers and chips all the time, you can’t trust him’. I have to admit that because they’re easy on the eye, I’m not as suspicious as I probably should be. They’re doing a very good media job in just the way they look. I was at the BBC recently and they were in the studio. I could see them, but I couldn’t hear them, I thought, ‘they look like nice boys.’
You’ve worked on many a blockbuster with an array of massive stars, is there anyone you’ve felt overwhelmed to meet?
Keith Richards. Definitely. When he was on set, everybody was very excited to see him. He got to shoot me, as well. The first time we got to speak to each other, he was in the make-up chair and he was next to me, but couldn’t turn, so he was two seats away, but I couldn’t speak to him. He was complaining about the moustache which was itchy. I said, ‘Keith, that’s ‘cause the bristles keep disappearing up your nose.’ ‘Old habits die hard,’ he replied.
Beyoncé, Mariah Carey and Usher all played private gigs for the Gadaffi regime, had the money been in the millions, would you have done a stand up routine for him?
Well, I think what’s interesting about that is that they claim they didn’t know. Why was Gadaffi in an audience where women are veiled who’re clearly being oppressed, while Beyoncé sings ‘Independent Woman’?
No, I wouldn’t, of course not. I’ve done corporate gigs, yeah definitely. Whenever you do a corporate gig, you have to ask, ‘for who?’ You have to be really careful, they’ll take pictures of you there.
Studying at the University of Ulster, did you come away from there with a different perspective on how religion can divide a community?
Yes, I did. Very, very much. I was shocked. On the first day I was there, in the toilets, there was a British flag and someone had smeared crap over it. All the graffiti was sectarian. It was quite shocking. In my university soccer team, they didn’t like the Catholic players. Our goal keeper was Catholic and nobody wanted to room with him. I asked him why we always ended up in the same room, he said quietly, ‘It’s because I’m Catholic’. Then I realised nobody wanted to room with me either.
You had a successful run as Fagin in Oliver, in what way is the discipline different from stand up?
Well, stand up, the whole point is to try and be loose and live in the moment, and try and do your stuff, but if something happens, there is flexibility to comment on it. Whereas in theatre, the discipline is NOT to comment. In fact, sometimes I did comment, like when the show stopped ‘cause the hydraulics would creak and stop. I would always make a joke about that- and I was told off. I thought I would get plaudits for getting a massive laugh and relaxing the audience, but they said, ‘Don’t ever do that again’. I remember thinking, ‘fuck off, I’ll do that again’. So, I did and they told me off again and I said, ‘Well, fix the hydraulics then.’ When I didn’t comment, they thanked me. For the theatre world, it’s important not to improvise.
Hopeful- by Omid Djalili is out now