The pandemic has changed Omid Djalili. He’s not afraid to admit it.
The British comedian of Iranian descent is not the same stand-up performer he was three years ago when he came to Dubai. He has a brand new show prepared for his Dubai Opera gig on November 7, and self-awareness hangs off of his every word as he takes Gulf News’ call to talk about it.
“The plan is to, I suppose, connect on more levels than I normally do,” says Djalili. “The last show I did, which is called Schmuck for a Night, was trying to make sense of all the social, cultural and political madness that was going on in 2016. But this time, I think it’s trying to make sense of the world we live in right now and give some tips on how we can cope, how to keep your spirits up, and how to serve our communities … People have become nicer, for some reason, because of this [pandemic].”
Does the pandemic lend itself to more meaningful comedy?
“Yes, it does. Everyone’s grown up a little bit,” says the 55-year-old performer, 25 years into his career. “Comedians before, we were wired to find the funny stuff. But we’ve all shifted. The conversations we have with our friends, neighbours, family — it’s become more meaningful in the last six months. It’s not as if this could be the last conversation we have. But certainly, we’ve become more thoughtful in the way we act, in the way we operate … Everything I talk about will be of huge meaning — at least to me.”
Ahead of the show, Djalili talks about wanting to be less needy, helping Russell Brand quit his addiction and making middle-aged women laugh.
Locally, the pandemic hit the performing arts pretty badly. Is it the same way over there, in terms of finding finding gigs and being able to put them on with all the social distancing regulations?
Well, to start with, it all stopped for about four months. Around July, we started doing drive-in gigs. In August and September, we were doing outdoor, socially distanced gigs … Comedians are the last people to go back to work. Some of them are doing Zoom gigs. I’ve done a socially distanced [gig], where a comedy club that would [usually] hold 300 people would let in 90 people. They were all in visors. I didn’t know if it was a comedy club or a welding and soldering conference. Or you have audiences where they’re all wearing masks, so you can’t see their faces, which for me is good. Because even if I’m performing to 3,000 people and there’s one couple who are really good-looking and well-dressed and they’re fast asleep, I will zone in on those people, or on the girl who’s on her phone, or the person who hates you.
Do you actually look at their faces?
Yeah, of course!
Because I know some people will imagine a spot and they’ll just look out into the spot and avoid the crowd...
I did do that. And then someone said, ‘Look, you’re getting such great reactions. You have such a great rapport with the crowd.’ These last few gigs, I never saw them, [because] I was just playing to a dark hole. So then I started requesting a little bit of light on the audience and actually, it made it better.
In your perspective, over the past 25 years, since 1995, how has stand up comedy changed?
I think it’s the same, completely. I hadn’t really seen anybody great doing it until I saw a guy called Harry Hill — he’s a big star here, but he wasn’t a star then, back in 1996. He did a show at the Edinburgh Festival — small venue, 175 people, called the Pleasance Cabaret Bar. And I was laughing so much. You know a show is funny when women a middle-aged woman is out of control laughing, because it’s so infectious. Middle aged women are the most difficult people to make laugh in a stand up comedy show. There were three or four of them who had lost it. I laughed so much, I blew a laughter fuse in the first half. I couldn’t laugh anymore. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, funny is funny.’
But then you see people who are well-known who are not that funny. The most wonderful thing is to see someone who is not very good to start with, and then they become great. I saw Russell Brand 20 years ago, he was with my agency. He was interesting to look at, interesting mind, only 22 or 23. And I asked him, ‘Do you take drugs?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘Well, look, it kind of shows because you’re just rambling. You’ve got some funny lines.’ He goes, ‘Oh, I just go out and talk.’ And I said, ‘No, you’ve got to work out what you’re saying.’
A few years later, he cleans himself up. I saw him literally four years later, absolutely ripping the roof of the Comedy Store in London. I thought, ‘Wow.’ For me, it’s not about comedy has changed. It’s about how comedians change. It’s about how they adapt, how they grow and how they progress. That gave me so much pleasure ... I said [to him], ‘Stop taking drugs. It’s not helping you.’ And he did. I think I was one of two or four people to say, ‘Just stop it, you could be so great.’ I can’t really say comedy has changed, because funny is funny. But it’s wonderful to see people transform and progress. I’m still trying to do it myself.
Do you find that you’re constantly challenging yourself?
Totally. I did a show on Friday to 100 people outdoors. I consciously went out to see if I had changed since the pandemic. There were some of my people who have been following me. They came up to me afterwards and said, ‘We enjoyed that more than anything else before. We thought you were good a few years ago, but this is different.’ So I have changed. And when you change, your delivery changes. I’ve become a little slower, I’ve become a little less needy. There’s a thing I did about Sean Spicer, who was Trump’s press officer. I put it out, because I actually thought it was okay. But even now, just in the sound of my voice, in the nuance of my delivery, I still see that neediness, which I’m trying to get out, I’m trying to get rid of it … The difference between good comedy and great comedy is actually the degree to which the comedian cares what people think of what he’s saying. And I think I’ve tried to care less, but at the same time, care more about the material.
Do you have any career milestones you’d like to hit? Or even life milestones.
Many. And I think that I agree with Jerry Seinfeld. Some comedians think it’s about awards. But in fact, when you’re a professional stand-up comedian, that’s the award - you don’t need any awards. Once they’re paying you to do what you love doing, there’s no need for awards. But there are things I’d still like to achieve — I’d love to make my own films, I’d like to write my own sitcoms… The milestone is to actually do something you want to do. Certainly, my main milestone is to keep those middle-aged women laughing. And I would like to not to piss off as many people just by my manner and when I open my mouth. Especially when you get to a certain age, you kind of annoy the younger generation just by asking, ‘Hey, where’s the nearest pharmacy?’ And then they say, ‘Well, I think past the carpark.’ ‘Sorry, which car park?’ ‘Over the carpark!’ ‘Is it on the left?’ ‘No, there’s a carpark.’ ‘But where is the car park!’ ... That type of thing happens to me almost every day. So, my main milestones is to try to ask where the pharmacy is without pissing young people off.
I know that you’re a massive Chelsea FC fan. Have you been keeping everything going on in the Premier League this season?
To my shame, I have followed every minute of it. I’m in Suffolk and I found a bar to watch a Champions League game and I couldn’t sit still. It’s socially distanced and I thought I would get my steps up. I was trying to get to 10,000 steps and I only had 7000. I was walking around this bar with a mask, so nobody knew it was me, switching between the Chelsea-Valencia game and the Manchester United-PSG game. And I was just muttering under my breath, angry. In the end, they asked me to leave … Thank God I’m wearing a mask, so no one recognises it’s me. Also, my cat scratched me recently and I’ve got these terrible injuries on my face, so people can just see one black eye and then they think I’m some kind of Street Fighter. It’s strange!
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Omid Djalili performs at the Dubai Opera on November 7. Tickets start at Dh395.