Omid Djalili is one of Britian’s best-loved comedians, as well as a successful actor with a seriously impressive backlist of roles on stage and screen, including appearances in Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End, The Mummy and Gladiator. The Moment caught up with him ahead of his appearance at The Cresset in January to talk about fame, politics – and Strictly Come Dancing…
You clearly love acting, appearing on stage and screen with great success. So what is it that draws you back to live stand-up?
It keeps me sharp, and keeps my brain working! When I’m not doing it, I sit around, I watch TV. I may do a couple of films, but they are not that taxing to me, whereas stand-up comedy – you have to use your brain. Having worked on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue with Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Barry Cryer, I’ve seen that they’re all guys who stay young by using their minds, they have to think of funny things, sometimes on the spot. It’s the whole concept of using your mind, like how my dad still does the crossword – I think there is nothing in any artform that keeps your mind more alive than stand-up comedy. If you don’t come up with the goods, people will destroy you – they’ll destroy you there and then! Not getting a laugh when you’ve thought of something, consider it to be funny and get – nothing? It’s one of the worst feelings you can have! So there’s motivation, to really work hard to see a joke or a routine through to its end.
So, would you rather have a heckle or a deathly silence?
At least with a deathly silence you can try to pretend it’s not happening and move swiftly on! A heckle means you’ve got to deal with a heckle!
Your material has always been extremely warm-hearted and good-natured, yet within it are always sharp – often very edgy – politically and culturally astute observations. Is it a tricky line to tread, or does this approach come naturally?
It all depends on what kind of comedian you want to be, I think. There are many types of very funny comedians, but for me… I’m always trying to find meaning in what I do, and I think the older I get the more I realise that laughter is not an end in itself: you can use comedy to make a point. When I’m writing a new show, I’ll decide on what points I want to make, and how I can make them as funny as possible – you clothe what you want to say in humour so people can digest it. The problem with politicians is that they don’t have enough of a sense of humour, they don’t connect with people because they’re all about policy and not about the way you say it. I did Question Time recently and I couldn’t follow half of what they were saying – they were all sticking to a party line, regurgitating it like they were some kind of remote-controlled mannequin – you could see they had been told to regurgitate and they were not connecting with the audience. I know people don’t like the term ‘light entertainment’ but I think a problem is that people aren’t light enough! Once you liven things up, people can hear you. I know that my wife can never understand me if I get upset and start shouting, she actually can’t compute what I’m saying – and I think I’m being passionate and expressive! If people lighten up, then communication becomes easier and messages can be received. So it’s something that I’ve learned, that you can use humour to make your point, people not only get it, but they appreciate it more.
Do you ever lean on yourself to be more political, to make your points more sharply?
What I do know is that part of the problem with reviewers is that they often applaud people being ‘dark’, but I’ve always thought that being ‘dark’ is quite easy, whereas being funny is very difficult. Anyone can recite political slogans, the trick is to make it funny, to evoke laughter, to make something so that people suddenly see it in a completely different light. I often feel that a lot of comedy reviewers are more keen on ‘dark’ than ‘funny’! People do say: ‘you know what, you should be a bit more political,’ and I reply: ‘I am – you’re just not seeing it!’ The show I’m doing at the moment, there are political messages in almost every joke, but it’s subtle. I’m a bit disappointed that more comedy-hardened reviewers haven’t seen that, actually, I think they are probably a bit desensitised to comedy – I do think people who see a lot of comedy perhaps start to miss subtleties. Actually, I have never been more excited, as I think this is far and away my best show – I’m even considering not putting it out on DVD just so I can keep performing it! While it’s not overtly political, it’s actually very subversive.
Your work has always been inspired by your feelings of being an outsider, whether as a child living with a constantly changing flow of people to and from your parents’ guesthouse, or as a Londoner with Iranian heritage. But now you’re a success in films, in comedy, as a writer – you’re not an outsider anymore! Has this success made that initial rich source of inspiration harder to access?
Yes, I’m part of the Establishment now! But actually, what comes with that is more responsibility and more pressure – the marginalised outsider will often stick his head above the parapet, but now I feel as though I’m constantly above the parapet: there is a duty to state things that are actually of use. It’s more difficult, more pressurised.
You worked hard for many years to break into showbusiness, but it’s an often-heard criticism that the entertainment world has too many people with the right set of connections rather than particular merit or talent. Is this something you think is a concern?
That’s interesting, and you’re right. I didn’t have any contacts, but a lot of people I know also didn’t have any contacts, such as Sarah Millican who was simply a housewife. Sure, she got a good agent, but she got where she is by herself, there was no-one who pushed her in. I was lucky that I had people around me who supported me, but no, no helping hand. But I think that’s a good thing, a sign of longevity – I’m still here, still hanging around!
Finally, you’ve described how much you enjoyed doing Splash (TV reality show in which celebrities train with Tom Daley to do a high dive). Can we expect to see you on Strictly Come Dancing any time soon?
No, I don’t think so, no! I did Splash to conquer a particular fear of mine – I remember going up the ten-metre board when I was a child and thinking: ‘there’s no way in hell I’m doing that!’ So conquering that fear actually helped me as a human being: I was at a stage in my life when I needed some extra courage. I don’t really see the appeal of Strictly, and anyway I would feel uncomfortable dancing with all those nubile women – I don’t think it would be very nice for my wife for me to be with all those lovely dancers! I’ve done my reality TV, and it helped me overcome a great fear that I had – it was crazy, a really emotional experience. It gave me courage, to take on different projects, even like right now, I’m talking about things I might not otherwise have done. So, yes – thank you, Splash!
Omid Djalili – Iranalamadingdong
Thursday, 29 January, 2015
The Cresset, Rightwell, Bretton Centre, Peterborough
Omid’s autobiography, Hopeful, is available now from all good bookshops and as a Kindle download.