Talking to Omid Djalili About Returning to America, Taking Standup Seriously, and International Comedy

British comedian Omid Djalili may be a familiar face to many Americans, but his standup hasn’t been seen in the US in quite awhile. His last performance here was in 2005, when he taped a half-hour One Night Stand for HBO in 2005. He also appeared on Whoopi Goldberg’s 2003-2004 sitcom Whoopi and the short lived 2010 The Paul Reiser Show, and he’s equally well-known for his dramatic work, starring 2010’s The Infidel and in a production of The Shawshank Redemption at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer.

Now, he’s returning to the US, with dates in the New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I got the chance to speak with him over the phone recently about returning to address some unfinished business, why he used to not take comedy seriously, and why it’s liberating to perform for people who don’t know him.

You haven’t done standup in the US in almost 10 years, is that right?

Yeah, I did it while I was still doing the Whoopi Goldberg show. I did the Aspen Comedy Festival, and then I did a short run in New York in 2004, which HBO came to see, then I got a deal with HBO. I did an HBO special and then – you know, human beings are either conscious or unconscious. I wasn’t really a conscious human being. I just kind of did the HBO special; I never even watched it. I just went back to England. In one of the press releases, we didn’t even write that I did an HBO special, and I’m only the second person ever from Great Britain to star in an HBO special. Eddie Izzard’s the only other one. I completely forgot. And I was doing them with great people, like Louis C.K. was doing his first HBO special. Patrice O’Neal, rest in peace, did his. Jim Norton. There’s a whole bunch of really great people. And I just went back to England. I never really paid much attention to it. It’s very bizarre, and it’s only hit me in the last the year that this is crazy.

So when some people saw me at the Edinburgh Festival and said, “Hey, would you like to do some gigs in New York?” I thought, ‘Yeah, I have some unfinished business.’ It’s nuts. Who does an HBO special and then leaves the country and doesn’t even refer to it? I didn’t even talk about it. It just seems so dumb that I never even bought it up in conversation. I just did it and left. I split. On the English Comedy Central, they played it, and I caught the last two minutes, and I was like, “Oh my God, did I do that?” And I think one of the reasons why was because HBO sent me some photographs of the night, and I just looked really overweight. I thought, “No, no, I’m not having this.” And I put it out of my mind. I know I’m overweight, but I’m not that fat. And that was it. In my mind, I was just cut off and I’ve never mentioned it until now. And that was 2005, so that was the last gig.

And I’ll tell you another reason why, is because during the taping, I think I did a suicide-bombing joke. I think the joke was, “There are now suicide bomber schools. How does that even work? ‘Where’s your bag? I left it on the bus. Well done, house point.’” And I think there was a chant of “USA, USA,” and it kind of became like a them-and-me. I always remember that as the joke that backfired, and I had 700 people chanting “USA.” So probably that’s another reason why I’ve blocked it out of my mind. I don’t think it went particularly badly. We did two shows. I think the second show was better. The first show I made some terrible mistakes. When I showed up I didn’t even do warm-ups. I went on stage and just did it. That’s how dumb I was. That’s how monumentally stupid I was. Because comedy was something I never really took that seriously. I never took standup comedy seriously until the last couple of years.

You’ve been doing standup for a long time. Why did you only start taking it seriously recently?

I just used to make people laugh at weddings and gatherings. I used to come to LA, actually. I’m kind of related to like 37% of the LA Iranian population. I kind of know everyone, and I used to come in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I was always entertaining people, but it was only in the mid ‘90s, I think it was a combination of my wife and some cousins who just said, “You should do this.” I went up there, and I didn’t realize that 999 people try it and fail. It’s like the one sperm that gets to the egg gets through. Before I knew it, I was a headline act; I didn’t know what a headline act was. They said, “Dude, you’re a headline act after a year.” I didn’t know. I just went up there, and I had a gaggle of stories, and I couldn’t believe people actually paid me for this. I think when 9/11 happened, I thought that was an interesting thing, so then I took standup seriously there, because I thought, I must be some kind of bridge between East and West and maybe people can understand something through me.

To be honest, it’s only recently that I went to see three American standups in London. It was Chris Rock, then it was Jerry Seinfeld, then it was Louis C.K.. And the three of them were so good that they reignited my love for standup. There’s very few people in Britain – you’ve got people like Eddie Izzard and Bill Bailey, they’re the people who are really entertaining and educating and elevating, and they really make it fun. They really inspire me. And also Colin Quinn; I saw Colin Quinn’s shows, Long Story Short and Unconstitutional. He really got me interested in it again. He’s one of the few comics I knew from back in the day, when he was doing Tough Crowd. I was guest on it about 10 years ago.

That’s funny, I just did a long piece about Tough Crowd this summer. I forgot you were a guest on it.

I was like a rabbit in the headlights. I had no idea what was going on. I think Patrice was having a go at Jim Norton, and me and Graham Norton, we were like rabbits in headlights. “These guys are nuts, what’s going on?” We hardly said a word. But I was doing Whoopi at the same time, and that was the show I used to watch every night. That’s the thing that kept me still in love with standup comedy. So even when I was in New York shooting Whoopi, I was going up and doing stuff at the Comedy Cellar and Gotham. I was still keeping my hand in it because those were the guys that kept me interested.

So coming back to New York now, which, to me, is the center of all the great comedy. Because of course, being Whoopi Goldberg, she introduced me to Robin Williams, all those great comics that we only dream of. It kind of rubbed off, being around great people. Because of that, I’ve always recognized great standup, but I’ve never really been a great standup. But now I’m focusing on that. Now that’s what I want to do. I’ve just had a little light bulb moment this year. People have said, you should be doing this around the world, but I never thought my stuff was international. So it’s a real test to see if people like it here. If anything, I’ve got all my cousins coming to see me. They’ll enjoy it. At the very least I’ve got that.

That’s interesting. The first thing I knew you from was The Infidel, but I feel like at that point you always referred to as a comedian.

I think that’s how I was presented, yes. I was still doing comedy. I’d done a tour – but I toured with three other guys. One was a support act and the other two were my tour manager and technical manager. And we had such a great time, it was like a party. The four of us were like the four amigos just traveling around having a good time. I never took myself that seriously. But then again, it was standup comedy that got me a deal in the first place. I got a deal with NBC to do my own show. I was actually working on my show. There were two guys called Mike Martino and Peter Tolan who were writing a sitcom pilot for me. And then the troops rolled into Iraq in 2003, and they said, “Maybe we shouldn’t really do a sitcom with a Middle Eastern guy. Then let’s put you together with Whoopi Goldberg.” And then Whoopi took me on her show. If you were watching Tough Crowd, were you not watching Whoopi?

I didn’t watch it, actually.

It’s amazing how people forget. That show, after the first 15 episodes, it was nominated for a People’s Choice Award and it lost really narrowly, by like two percent, to Two and a Half Men. That was in its first season as well. And then we did nine more episodes and then they moved us around and the show just got canceled in the end. We were all surprised because it was doing well in the ratings. There was never a DVD made, I think there are some episodes online, but it wasn’t a bad show. It was actually a really good show. I’ll be defending the show when I come, actually. I’ve got a little three-minute segment on the show. But I think it’s amazing how fickle American television is. But that deal I had was from standup comedy. That’s how I was known and introduced to America. And then I did the Whoopi show for a year, then I did the HBO special, and then I didn’t come back for six years until I did The Paul Reiser Show in 2010, which again, only lasted two episodes.

How have you found your experiences in American TV? 

I loved it. I’ve always got on with Americans in general, maybe it’s because I was raised with Americans. I’ve been coming to America since 1982 seeing cousins and friends. As soon I was old enough to fly, I came over. I like the work ethic, and I like the people. I loved Whoopi Goldberg, I thought she was a force of nature. Same with Paul Reiser. I loved the writer he worked with, Jonathan Shapiro. I loved the other actors, one of whom is actually going to be with me in LA, Andy Daly. He’s opening for me. He’s someone I find very funny; he really makes me laugh. And Rainn Wilson’s going to introduce me there, as well. It’s very cool.

That’s interesting. When comics go from the UK to Hollywood, it seems like some hate it and some seem to really click. 

Oh no, I loved it. I’ve always loved it. I’ve always had a great time. My only problem is I eat too much. The craft services you have on the sets here are too good. I train for three or four months and then put all the weight back on in a week. It’s the best catering in the world. But I loved it. I had no problem at all.

And you’ve been touring internationally recently?

I’ve been invited to places like Dubai. All these comedy festivals have invited me. Over the last five years, I think I’ve been to 10 or 11 countries doing it. And again, that because it’s a community, it’s just a chance to see each other. The last one was the Galway Comedy Festival. And that was really fun. That’s probably where the penny dropped. I really enjoyed doing it.

Do you find that you change or tailor your material as you go international?

I think you do, you tailor it. A lot of hack comedians will just say, “Hey, we’re in New York. What about those idiots in Pittsburgh or in Boston?” That’s a hacky way of doing it. In Galway, I ran it by somebody, and they were like, “Good luck with that. If you do that, they’ll throw you out.” We used to do Irish jokes. In England, we did Irish jokes, but then I realized, the Brits were at war with the Irish terrorists. They politically made the Irish person their figure of fun. So they made lots of jokes like, “How do you burn an Irishman’s ear? You call him up while he’s ironing.” And all these dumb jokes. Then I realized that actually all those jokes were Irish jokes about the Irish. The Irish had created them about themselves. So I told the audience this at Galway, “It’s all your own fault that people think you’re dumb and stupid, it’s all your own fault. It’s a bit like the potato famine was your own fault.” And they reacted, and I said, “What? You’re by the sea, and nobody thought to look out to the ocean, because, you know there’s lots of fish in the sea. ‘Ah, no. If there’s no potatoes, I’m not having fish without the chips.’” And they went nuts. They loved it.

So if you find some small comment about them which no one would dare say. I learned that from Whoopi. Say what people are thinking but would never dare to say. If you just have the balls to say it, it’s funny. If you can hit on some minor truth. It was only afterwards someone told me that joke doesn’t work because the Brits also stopped the Irish from fishing, and I went, “Oh okay, I’m sorry.” So I wasn’t fully informed, but people do like comedians to offend. I think it was George Carlin who said, “If you’re not offending a little bit, you’re not really doing your job as comedian.” If I come to New York and LA, if I can find something specific about the city or the culture of the country which people have not really thought about. Chris Rock had the most wondering opening line from a foreign comic. He said, “People like to drink so much in England, they actually think darts is a sport.” That was his opening line. It immediately told the crowd, “Okay, you’ve come over here. You knows something about us, let’s listen to you.” I’m not promising an opening line, but maybe to pick on some things that maybe an American couldn’t do possibly. It’s not about tailoring what you do, because that’s something you have to do anyway. I can’t come with a whole bunch of English references. I’ve got to either throw the joke away or find some transposition that could possibly work. But even then that’s a hacky way of going around it. You’ve got to try to keep it. It’s not just about doing the joke. It’s ‘Will the joke even transfer for the people of New York or DC?’ It’s a tricky one, just one that needs a bit of thought.

Do you find it a challenge to come to a country where you might not have the fanbase you have in the UK at this point in your career? 

I mean, the three comics I mentioned — Seinfeld, Louis C.K., and Chris Rock — they came over, everybody knew them. Everybody was a fan, and I think they were treated pretty much like an American crowd. They were treated like heroes over here. Now, I’m quite the opposite. Nobody knows me. Even if I’ve got millions of hits on YouTube and all that stuff over here, it’s all Brits, very few Americans. It’s interesting. Nobody really knows me. I think it’s liberating. I think it’s liberating that they’re going to see something where they have no preconceptions.

I have a feeling it will either really stress me or it will relax me. It’s not easy: if I go out here, there’s like 3000 people who have all seen my standup before. If I repeat a joke, some people go, “Oh, I’ve heard that before.” I’m looking forward to it because I think I’ll be a bit more liberated.

 Omid Djalili is playing the Gramercy Theatre in New York City on Friday, November 29 and the Warner Theatre in Washington DC on Saturday, November 30. More tour dates can be found on Omid’s website.

Elise Czajkowski is an Associate Editor at Splitsider and occasional tweeter.

Talking to Omid Djalili About Returning to America, […]