Omid Djalili opens the door to his gorgeous house in Richmond, London with a huge, warm smile.
He asks: ‘Tim from Time Out?’ I nod. ‘Come in,’ he bellows by way of welcome, throwing his arms open. ‘I’m just getting myself some lunch, can I get you something?’
He turns on his heels and scuttles off down the hall. I follow his baggy red shorts and yellow T-shirt towards the kitchen. The sound of his bare feet slapping on the floorboards stops as he reaches the fridge and starts pulling out grapes and peppers, ham and houmous, celery and cheese, piling them on to a large plate.
We make our way into the living room for the interview, where he climbs on to a giant couch and lies back like a Roman emperor, chomping away as we chat. He’s the very picture of contentment. So he should be.
Djalili is one of only a handful of British comics who’ve managed to transfer their stand-up success into a flourishing TV and film career. And the only British-Iranian one to do so (Omid was born in London to Iranian parents).
And we’re not talking about any old movies either, he’s appeared in some of Hollywood’s highest-grossing films, such as Gladiator, The Mummy and Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End.
It must be nice being one of the UK’s most high-profile and popular comics?
‘It hasn’t always been like that though. I can recall really dying in Jongleurs [London comedy club] back in 1999. The promoter said, “Don’t worry, everyone has a bad night. Besides they’re all [drunk], no one’s going to recognise you or remember a thing tomorrow.”
However, the next day I was on a plane to Glasgow and this guy tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Here, you were at Jongleurs last night. You were s***.” ’
Djalili winces at the memory and pops another grape in his mouth, and then that lovable grin appears again. ‘He was sat behind me and I could hear him saying, “I could do it better than him.”
I was trapped on a plane the whole way to Scotland with him and his friend. Every time I went to the loo they averted their gaze. It was excruciating.’
But that was nearly 10 years and before he became a bona fide film star with a legion of loyal fans who flock to his live gigs up and down the country. One of his most endearing features though is the fact that his success still seems to be a source of surprise and joy to him.
When he talks about working with megastars such as Johnny Depp he looks like a kid who’s just found the key to the local sweet factory.
‘I’ve been very lucky in my career. Just to have been in some big movies has been great, although I’ve not really starred in them, just had cameos mainly. Having said that, when Tony Scott – Ridley’s brother – introduced me to Robert Redford, he said “Robert you must meet Omid – star of Gladiator” as a joke.
And I said I wasn’t the star and that it was just a small part. And Redford said to me, “Don’t ever say small part. It’s much better to have a small part in a big movie than a big part in a small movie.” ’
Djalili is without doubt the best name-dropper I have ever met. Though there’s no pretentious- ness when he talks about his friendship with the late Heath Ledger or the time Bill Clinton saw his act at the palace of His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Amir of Qatar, and subsequently stole some of his jokes.
These are just the everyday realities of his life. And he obviously enjoys moving in those circles. Who wouldn’t?
‘The people at the high end of the industry are very good to be near. If you’re around good people, the way they think affects the way you think. If you hang around drug dealers or junkies, you’ll become a drug dealer or a junkie.
But if you hang around with high-flyers and people who are honest and focused you’ll find that a) they’re very nice people and b) they just want the work to be as good as it can be.’
And this is an important part of the Djalili philosophy. ‘They’re not really in it for the money. Someone like Ridley Scott – he just wants to leave a mark on this world. I know in my stand-up I don’t really think about fame or anything like that.
I just think about how much joy I can bring to people and then gain the joy of bringing joy. It’s all about joy multiples.’ He laughs, then I laugh, then he laughs some more. So that’s the secret of his success, a positive mental attitude and surrounding himself with high-achieving friends he trusts.
Or is there something else? ‘A builder came up to me the other day and said, “You know what, mate, you’re my favourite comedian.”
I couldn’t help but wonder what it was about me that he liked. Was it that I give him a window into an ethnic world he’s not privy to? Is it the way I undercut political commentary with Godzilla impressions and belly dancing, exposing an impish absurdity?
Was I bridging some cultural gap, showing him that people from the Middle East actually do have a sense of humour and that we’re all the same underneath? In the end I had to ask him and do you know what his answer was? “You’ve got a funny face, mate. I just have to look at your f***ing face and it makes me laugh.” ’ Tim Arthur Djalili performs at the Comedy Convention, Dubai Media City Amphitheatre, April 22.
What are five rules to being funny? There are no rules. But it helps if you speak clearly and in the language of the majority of the audience. It’s always a plus if you trust your material. And if it’s funny to you there’s a real good chance it’ll be funny to others. If not, you might want to look into another line of work. Possibly forensics.
Do you wear a funny costume? No. It’s not me. And if I did it would have to be for a job that pays me. I like the idea of wearing a funny costume and then never mentioning it at all. Like it’s not even a choice. It’s just what I wear every day.
What’s the best heckle you’ve ever heard? A guy yelled at me that I was ‘projecting.’ I was engaged in a debate with someone in the front row that I thought was fake laughing at me. Looking back now I think he just had a strange laugh. But it was really making me nuts.
I hadn’t eaten. I had low blood sugar. I was trying to get the audience on my side but they couldn’t hear his little ‘Ha, ha, ha…’ They just thought I was a bully. Then from the back row, I heard, ‘You’re projecting.’ And he was right. I was. A moment later I simply walked off the stage. Heckler 1, Kirk Fox 0.
What is the secret of timing? I’m going to have to say Rolex. And knowing when to leave. That’s the secret of everything in life. An exit strategy. Kirk performs on April 22.
What is the funniest thing you’ve seen? My friend was jumping a dirt hill on his BMX bike going way too fast. He jumped super high in the air and when he landed his handle bars came off and the bike was still going down the street with no handle bars. Which led to a horrific crash!
Tell us five rules to being funny. Don’t try too hard, have original material, don’t think you’re too good for the audience, do free shows on the way up and don’t steal jokes.
Is there anything you never joke about? Killing kids. Rusty performs on April 24.
Are left-wing comedians in trouble now that the US has finally ousted Bush? No. Lucky for us, but unlucky for society, there are always incompetent people in the government.
What is the funniest sad thing in the world? I’m emotionally dyslexic and I think most comedians are, so I tend to find most tragic things funny because I just can’t process hardcore tragedy.
What’s the best heckle you’ve ever heard? I used to have this joke where I would say ‘I have such small boobs… these are the only two As I got in high school,’ and a guy yelled out ‘A minus!’ Whitney performs on April 23.
April 22 Rob Magnotti 9pm-9:15pm A recent Late Show With David Letterman guest, Rob mixes stand-up with impressionism.
Kirk Fox 9.15pm-9.35pm
Omid Djalili 9.35pm-11pm
April 23 Rob Magnotti 9pm-9:15pm
Whitney Cummings 9.15pm- 9.35pm
Gerry Dee 9.35pm-10.05pm Canadian stand-up who came third on US reality TV show Last Comic Standing.
Tom Papa 10.05pm-11.05pm US Comic who worked as a field reporter on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.
April 24 Rusty Dooley 9pm-9.15pm
Erik Griffin 9.15-9.35pm Star of popular New York-based show, Live At Gotham.
Sebastian Maniscalco 9.35pm-10.05pm One of four comics who stared in Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nights – Hollywood to the Heartland.
Tommy Davidson 10.05pm-11.05pm A seasoned stand-up who’s been telling jokes since the ’80s and appeared in Ace Ventura.