Why Dubai gigs were not always smooth sailing for Omid Djalili
Comedian returning to the UAE on Saturday with The Good Times tour
WHEN IT COMES to enjoying life’s more agreeable moments, at least regarding career satisfaction, there are few entertainers who can be as fulfilled as Omid Djalili. A mainstay of British television for the last 20 years; appearing in shows such as cult Channel Four sitcom Black Books, the BBC’s Lenny Henry In Pieces, and a comedy variety show bearing his own name, The Good Times is more than an apt stand-up tour title for a performer in constant demand. And that’s before we take into account other occupational highlights including Djalili’s season in a NBC sitcom opposite Whoopi Goldberg, banter with disgruntled giraffe owner Oliver Reed in 2000’s Academy Award winner Gladiator, a brusque tete-a-tete with James Bond in The World Is Not Enough (1999) and lately a standout turn as a besotted customs officer in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018). Stints in the West End, appearing in a Grand Theft Auto video game and playing the lead in films like 2010’s The Infidel also cannot go unmentioned. With myriad strings to his bow, we wondered what encourages the 55-year-old father of three to sign on a project’s dotted line. Surprisingly Djalili is an acolyte of tidying guru (or despot depending on your disposition), Marie Kondo.
“When you move house you’re encouraged to lay out all your belongings then look at them and ask yourself whether they bring you joy,” he recently told us over the phone from his London home. “If not you throw it out. That is unconsciously what I’ve always done with just about everything.
“At the beginning of your career you’ll do anything. When you get to a certain stage you have to ask yourself whether it will bring you joy and, more importantly, joy to those people who will receive it? It is our responsibility to do that, especially now.”
Saturday’s Dubai Opera gig will be Djalili’s first large venue appearance since live performances in Britain closed down to halt the spread of Covid-19. Having played a couple of smaller rooms and even a drive-in show (more on that later) when the UK’s restrictions were eased in the summer, he told us the usual stand-up vibe had changed.
“The gigs are better,” Djalili said. “We are living in a different paradigm. To be able to address that head on is something I’m really looking forward to in the UAE. I think people want to laugh more and I appreciate every moment I’m on stage more.”
Time was, however, when a trip to the Middle East to perform comedy was not always smooth sailing. Djalili’s 2017 visit to the theatre at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray went down a storm and the star was impressed by the audiences’ savvy. “Everyone’s English is perfect and people like Swedish professors and the top talent of the world who contribute to society out there seem to come out. They’re all so intelligent. Way more intelligent than me!”
Though it is a 2008 Dubai performance, which sticks in the memory for quite different reasons. “It was an outdoor gig and on my right they kept the food station open while I was telling jokes. People were getting food throughout and not paying attention. Who would? The food was so good! I had to stop the show because I was so overpowered by the smell and I was so hungry. I went and ate with them.”
A mention of his latest venture, ITV quiz show The Winning Combination coming out this month, ferried the conversation onto the general television landscape. We concluded diversification across media has maintained Djalili’s success, but were less certain performers solely relying on TV was now a sustainable career option.
“Who watches anything anymore?” came the rhetorical musing. “I did something for Prince Charles’ 70th birthday. About a million people watched it on TV but the YouTube clip of my bit has already got 2.3 million views. You don’t know who’s watching what.”
So, with those streaming numbers does this signal Djalili branching out even further and becoming an influencer?
“Ha! This is how little influence I have. I thought I’d put my 2015 show online for free. I gave out a link on Twitter. At the same time a friend of mine in America, Justin Baldoni, posted a picture of himself with his top off saying ‘hey guys Jane The Virgin is back.’ Immediately he had like 6,000 re-Tweets. I gave it an hour. He then had 20,000 re-Tweets. I had zero re-Tweets and one comment saying: ‘Free? I’d rather kill myself.’ Which ironically I re-Tweeted and it got 800 likes.”
During the first UK lockdown you did a drive-in stand-up gig. Is that the future of England’s comedy nights?
“You know it’s going bad when a guy gets out of his car, attaches a hose pipe to the exhaust, gets in and turns the engine on. It’s the most elaborate heckle I’ve ever seen. In all seriousness a comedian feeds off the laughs they get. If you can’t hear that, there’s no point.”
Omid Djalili is performing at Dubai Opera on November 7. Tickets start from Dh195 available at dubaiopera.com