Omid Djalili has carved a niche playing with cultural stereotypes. From his 1995 Edinburgh Festival Fringe act, Short, Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son, to his role in the David Baddiel-written film The Infidel, his razor-sharp observations on perceptions of his race and religion have rocketed him to the top of British comedy. Ahead of his Dubai gig on May 6, the comedian tells Time Out about success, spiritually and reinventing his career after 9/11.
Hi, Omid. So you’re coming back to Dubai?
Yes, I’ve been invited back for a one-off show and I’m really looking forward to it. I enjoy performing for an international audience. I performed in Dubai in 2009 and in Jordan in 2010. There are really good audiences in the Middle East. They are quite savvy and comedy literate – they’re not just happy that you’re there.
I do remember the expats seemed to laugh at very different parts of the acts than people from the region. I know what the restrictions are here, but I think people are offended by the same things. The comedian before me got into trouble for saying something he shouldn’t have. So I went out there and said something much worse to take the pressure off him. I said something about taking my clothes off and performing. At this show, it will just be me alone. I like that because you can build up a good head of steam.
Before you were so well-known, you used to start your act in a Middle Eastern accent, then switch into the Queen’s English. What kind of reaction did it get?
I was playing with stereotypes, then flipping it around and saying, ‘Actually, I’m even more like you than you are.’ But people trust me more now. With a character, it’s quick laughs, and I don’t need that any more. It was a good way to switch focus. But that particular act was borne out of necessity. Eddie Izzard said to me, ‘You can stop that act now, but keep the character.’
I’m actually playing a version of my uncle, who is a professor of English literature at Oxford University. That’s something that always makes me laugh. He’s very moved by it. He says [slips into Middle Easter accent], ‘Omid, this is great, but if you could just get some Wordsworth or some Keates into these characters…’.
What part does your Bahá’í religion play in your life?
I am very respectful of religion. David Baddiel is a very interesting person because he’s an atheist. That is why we did The Infidel together. I’ve always believed faith is one thing that is given different names. But religion has done some good. It promotes morality, community and oneness. It is the big question: are we human beings who exist spiritually or spiritual beings who exist as humans? If there is an afterlife, those who believe will be saying ‘ha ha’ to those who don’t. The believers can’t lose.
How did 9/11 affect your career?
I was a Time Out comedy award-winner before 9/11. I was voted the best club comedian in London, which took me by surprise. That’s when I really started taking comedy seriously. Then 9/11 happened and nobody wanted to book me. I was persona non-grata. But I was determined to reclaim my career, so I responded comedically. I went out there and did what I had to do.
I systematically contextualised what had happened. I talked about martyrdom. I think I built a bridge from the Middle East to the west. It was a very important stage in my career. There is something in the
Middle Eastern spirit where you won’t be beaten. My career was over for about a month, then I reemerged.
Do you consider yourself to be a confident man?
I’m a very good actor and I’m very good at pretending to be confident. I was a very silent child – I was deadened. Everybody bar none was totally shocked when I became a stand-up. I always have two little Omids with me, one on each shoulder. One is saying, ‘You are brilliant and you are going to kill it tonight’; the other is saying, ‘Dara O’Briain is much funnier than you – pack it in.’ It’s a big secret that I pretend to be confident.
Omid Djalili performs at the Comedy Social at Madinat Jumeirah Amphitheatre on Friday May 6 at 7.30pm. Tickets Dhs200. www.timeouttickets.com.