The day Keith Richards shot comedian Omid Djalili, who is touring the region this month
PUBLISHED: 19:00 13 April 2017
Comedian Omid Djalili is bringing his latest show to the region as part of a huge 110-date tour. He talks about rubbing shoulders in Hollywood, finding laughs in the Chilcot report and why he doesn’t mind being called a schmuck.
You have to be a schmuck to do comedy in today’s climate,” says Djalili on why his latest show is called Schmuck for a Night.
“I like the word. It means fool or buffoon. I’m embracing the schmuck in me to take on the big issues of our day. Plus, it’s a word that ends with ‘uck’ which can only be a good thing.”
In person, the award-winning comedian and actor is no-one’s fool, but is extremely down-to-earth, full of wisdom and very funny, which his fans will benefit from on the three stops he’s making in this region — part of a massive 110-date tour of the UK.
It’s a long tour and in the fast moving world of Trump, Brexit and ISIS he says the show has been changing to keep up with events.
“I think the show will change even while I’m on stage,” he laughs. “It’ll be so current sometimes audiences won’t laugh until they get home and turn on the TV.”
He might now be known to millions for his roles in Hollywood blockbusters and West End appearances, but he started his career in fringe theatre, moving on to the theatres of central and Eastern Europe, and then the alternative comedy circuit. And although he’s swapped dingy pub rooms for the big theatres, it’s still live on stage doing stand-up where he’s at his best.
As well as the perpetually fraught relations in the Middle East, in the past the comic has often mined his family background for laughs. He grew up in a large flat in Kensington, the son of Iranian parents, who ran “a sort of guest house” for fellow Iranians, who were seeking medical care in the UK.
Young Djalili spent much of his time sleeping on the sofa to make way for paying guests and, left to his own devices, developed a keen sense of imagination.
He retook his A-levels four times and eventually managed to blag his way into the University of Ulster. While there, he decided to go for broke and, during reading week, flew to the US to get himself a place at Princeton.
“I’d seen films like The Graduate, and this whole thing of Ivy League universities was very much in my head, so I thought I could blag my way in,” he recalled.
He didn’t and returned to Britain where, snubbing the drama school “establishment” he managed to land himself work as a jobbing actor – and fell in love. His tenacity came into its own when he spent years courting his now-wife, Annabel, moving to Eastern Europe in the early 1990s to “demonstrate detachment, dynamism and a pioneering spirit”.
Though his career has taken the mainstream comedy route of appearances on shows like Live At The Apollo and numerous acting credits in both Hollywood films like Gladiator, Sex And The City 2 and The Mummy and TV drama like BBC1’s Dickensian, that spirit has never left him.
Last year he produced an Edinburgh Fringe show called Iraq Out & Loud, which saw almost 1,500 comedians and members of the public read the entirety of the Chilcot Report for 24 hours a day, over 12 days.
He and fellow comedian Boothby Graffoe persuaded a promoter called Bob Slayer that it would be good idea to put on. The Edinburgh Comedy Awards judges agreed, awarding it the Panel Prize.
He said: “While Bob was building a shed to stage it in, we were contacting all our friends in comedy to read it and kick the idea off. It took 285 hours and 1,444 people to read it. I read too. It was a truly one off experience.”
Was there anything funny in such a serious report? “Yes. It was in the final moments of the readings, the very last paragraph of the Chilcot report is: ‘How to read the Chilcot report’ [laughs]. It was a great punchline.
“Comedians are very adept at smelling BS – by which I mean sensing when we’re being fobbed off — so it was important to us that the readings were a simple, non-political, people-powered, public service.”
He has also produced the acclaimed documentary, We Are Many, about the global anti-war demonstrations that took place in 800 cities in 2003.
“It’s not a comedy but you could easily say it’s my crowning achievement so far,” he says, clearly proud of the finished film. “I worked on the project for the last five years, countless edits, screenings, meetings, discussions…the fact that Universal Pictures bought it, that it’s been so well received and hit number one on iTunes in about 10 different countries, you could say I’m very proud of it.”
But will the film and the Chilcot report reading make a difference? Can comedy change the world?
“You can never quantify the impact of such things, but certainly it felt like they were important projects to be part of,” he says. “In this life you’re either a problem or a solution. I’d like to think these projects – which raise more questions than answers – are firmly entrenched in the solution camp. Or at least trying to be…”
Ironically his stand-up isn’t particularly political or agenda-based. “Well yes and no,” he argues. “I’m not party political if that’s what you mean. I have no party political agenda. But I’ll talk about what’s going on around us trying to contribute to the discourse.”
It has been suggested that Schmuck for a Night is mellower than previous tours. Is that fair?
“I’ve become less frenetic,” he admits. “I used to dance every two minutes in between the stand up. I can’t even remember why. It was mentioned to me that when I danced audiences were laughing at me not with me. So it was either stop dancing or ban my manager from the gigs.”
Despite his mammoth tour schedule he is still as busy on screen as ever. He has been seen in the BBC4 series Going Forward with Jo Brand, as well as making appearances in Stan Lee’s Lucky Man on Sky. He has also been cast in Disney’s new live-action production of The Nutcracker, with Morgan Freeman and Keira Knightley, which he is filming alongside the tour.
“You’d think it’d be weird but it has never phased me,” he says about how it feels filming with Hollywood A-Listers, then showing up at a theatre to do stand-up.
“Once in Barnet years ago I was late so didn’t change and came straight to the theatre from the set of The Mummy at Shepperton Studios and walked straight on stage in my film costume. I went on stage in full 1930s Egyptian prison warden garb. I even heard a crowd member say ‘well at least he’s making an effort’.”
Omid Djalili is at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, on April 16-17, 8pm, £24.50, 01284 758000, theapex.co.uk/King’s Lynn Corn Exchange, on April 18, 8pm, £24.50, 01553 764864, kingslynncornexchange.co.uk/Norwich Theatre Royal, on April 23, 8pm, £24-£7, 01603 630000, theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk/Ipswich Regent, on April 24, 8pm, £26, 01473 433100, apps.ipswich.gov.uk