Trying to make sense of the world is really giving Omid Djalili something to shout about.
Omid Djalili is a glorious meze of a man. Born in Chelsea, educated in Ireland, Iranian parents, a writer, a comedian (60th best in the world according to Channel 4), now a documentary maker and, of course, an actor.
Many of his film roles have been less than glamorous (‘Bald Fat F**k’ in Dead Man Running is one that impressed me particularly) but Gladiator, Bond, Indiana Jones and Captain Jack Sparrow are impressive workmates for any jobbing movie star. And he is still the most charming man you could possibly attempt to interview in the back of a limo. He is going home after guesting on the Robert Peston show when we speak.
“I was trying to talk about the Iraq War, but Robert was very distracted by cake,” Djalili says, sounding more puzzled than irritated. “They were making cakes for the Queen. It was impossible to make a serious point.”
Djalili is promoting his documentary We Are Many, about the huge number of protests worldwide against the Iraq War. Djalili is very much a globalist in the nicest, most philosophical way. He doesn’t feel Iranian or British or anything, merely ‘national’ as much as a citizen of the world. He feels that the way his fellow citizens came together on that day to protest the war proves his point.
“We are all trying to find our individuality and diversity within the world as a whole,” he says. Even this year’s show is, “about trying to make sense of it all,” on a global scale. ‘It all’ being Isis, the oil trade and Donald Trump, but before you get alarmed, he says, “It is the best show I have ever done. And the funniest. The message is all in the comedy. I watched it back and for the first time ever I think my material is really strong. I used to think I was too shouty. But this material is something to shout about.”
It is 21 years since his first show in Edinburgh. “Most comedians do ten minutes then 20. They build up to an Edinburgh hour. I went straight in with the full show. The Hill Street theatre manager asked how long it was and I said, ‘Fifty minutes. With laughs, fifty nine.” The first night the show ran twenty-two minutes. Not a single laugh. When I came off the manager asked if I was going to do an encore and I said, ‘What’s an encore?’ He had to give the audience refunds.”
The following year he did a double act, “a pure double act”, with Ivor Dembina called, in a Ronseal kind of a way, ‘The Arab and The Jew’. “I am very grateful to Ivor,” Djalili says, “he sort of took me under his wing, he taught me the laws of alternative comedy, about writing your own material, honing it, finding your authentic voice. And about the structure of an Edinburgh show.”
I tell him Ivor can be found in Edinburgh in August with his own show. “Then I’m going to go along and thank him,” Djalili says. “I really owe him a lot.”
He is returning to the Pleasance Grand before hurtling around the country on more than 200 dates – all in proper venues. “I don’t believe in arenas,” he says. “Even if I’m watching a comedian I like from the fifth row, I find myself watching the screen. I could have watched at home.” His ideal venue would be a hundred-seater, “Where the audience can see up my nostrils and I can see the fear in their eyes when I come towards them.” There is the merest hint of a pause. “But if someone offers me two nights at the O2, I’ll take it.”
Words: Kate Copstick
Picture: Andy Robinson
Omid Djalili: Schmuck for a Night Pleasance Courtyard, 23-27 August, 4pm