Omid Djalili at Ealing Comedy Festival

Image above: Omid Djalili 

Stand-up, TV, film / Comic, writer, actor, activist

Omid Djalili will be taking part in Ealing Comedy Festival this year on Thursday 27 July. It’s a great line-up: Omid DjaliliChris McCausland, Nina Conti, Jeff Innocent, Tiffany Stevenson and Boothby Graffoe.

I rang him to talk to him about it and Googled him before I rang, as you do, just to find out what he had been doing of late. Quite a lot, it turned out. I spoke to him on the day The Telegraph published a horrifying piece he had written in support of the women of Iran, commemorating the execution of ten Bahá’í women in Shiraz, hanged in June 1983 on the charge of refusing to renounce their religious beliefs.

‘I am in awe of their courage’ he wrote. ‘The struggle for women’s rights in Iran is older than many may think. I am proud to stand with them.’

In the past few weeks he has been promoting his new Channel 4 TV comedy-drama, The Change; he has performed at Ipswich’s new monthly comedy club, ‘Tractor and Kebab’, which he initiated after moving to Suffolk three years ago; and he has been performing in benefit gigs for the Turkey / Syria earthquake.

Image above: Omid Djalili at the Royal Variety Performance 2022

Caught speeding for getting caught short

The Metro reported in June that he was one of the last people to have made the late Queen Elizabeth laugh in public. Oh, and he has also been splashed in the Evening Standard for having been caught speeding when he was desperate for the loo after getting caught in traffic.

Where to start? Inevitably it was the speeding. He is a comedian after all, and there is nothing quite like a good toilet joke.

He had sat in traffic for half an hour because of an accident. Getting increasingly desperate, he turned into a side road and belted along it at more than twice the 20mph speed limit in search of public toilets. The police were very understanding apparently.

“I said you’ve got to let me go, I’m about to piss my pants.”

They processed his fine quickly, but I am here to tell you he did not make it as far as the public toilets.

“We were all having a laugh. I dashed off. I got out the car and literally went behind some dustbins behind someone’s house. But it just goes to show, no matter how desperate you are, you can’t just break the law.”

Image above: Omid Djalili as the slave trader in Gladiator who sells Maximus to Oliver Reed’s Proximo

Is there anything too serious to joke about?

Glad we got that settled. It is not what I intended to start with. I have not yet seen him live but his face is very familiar from TV comedy shows, from hosting the Royal Variety Performance and from loads of small parts in films and TV dramas.

His parents are Iranian, and though he was born in London he has made a good living from playing stroppy Middle Eastern men of indiscriminate nationality: The Mummy – Warden Gad Hassan (Egyptian?), The World Is Not Enough – “Second oil pipe attendant” (Azerbaijani?), Gladiator – Slave Trader (Mediterranean / Byzantine?), Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again – Customs officer (Greek) …

His first foray into comedy, or at least the first significant success of his stand-up comedy career, was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1995 with the Short, Fat, Kebab Shop Owner’s Son, followed by The Arab and the Jew with Jewish comedian Ivor Dembima in 1996.

His Iranian heritage is important to him, but it has also become part of his shtick:

“The Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to chair the 2023 United Nations Human Rights Council Social Forum in November. It’s a bit like making Hitler the new Chief Rabbi.”

Is there anything that he considers too terrible to joke about?

“Yes there is”, he says. “The state of affairs in Iran is too serious to joke about really.”

He tries to keep his serious work as an activist separate from his comedy routines. Laughing at deeply serious issues can bring issues to people’s attention and “shift the narrative”, but it can also devalue them. So he puts in the odd joke, but he is not one of those comics who thrives on getting a laugh out of awful things happening, he tells me.

The execution of the ten women he wrote about in The Telegraph was ‘one of the most heinous acts it has ever committed – from a preposterously large number to choose from.

‘One after the other, the women were forced to watch each other hang, supposedly to give a final opportunity to recant their faith and save their own lives. Each of them refused. The oldest was Ezzat, 57, who was hanged with her daughter, aged 23. Ezzat’s husband had been executed two days earlier.’

Omid’s family are of the Bahá’í faith. You can read the article here, if you are prepared to pay to read it:

The Iranian’s state’s brutal murder of Bahá’í women must not be forgotten

Image above: Omid Djalili at the Royal Variety Performance 2022

One of the last people to make Queen Elizabeth laugh in public

He was planning to make a joke about the British Government’s policy of deporting illegal immigrants to Rwanda when he hosted the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Horse Show Spectacular in front of Her Majesty the late Queen Elizabeth II, in the persona of a herald, but it was cut at the last moment by ITV.

Princess Anne saw him performing it the previous night and apparently told the Queen about it, so when it was cut from the script she asked about it. The gag was that he was begging her not to send him to Rwanda.

He did, however, make the Queen laugh, and was possibly the last to do so in public, as the performance was in May and she died on 8 September.

“It was a great moment,” he told me. “The night had gone really well but I think the elephant in the room was that she had missed the state opening of parliament. So I thanked her for coming to the performance and choosing us over the state opening of parliament. I said: ‘You did the right thing,’ and she made the clip go viral by lifting up her left arm [in acknowledgement].

“It was a real honour to be asked to do it.”

Image above: The Change, Channel 4

The Change – “the most unusual, original and funny show of the past few years”

He has been doing the rounds in the past few weeks promoting the Channel 4 comedy drama The Change, the first episode of which aired on 21 June. About a woman who is going through menopause (he plays her husband), it is written by Bridget Christie, who he says is not as well-known as she should be, as she is quite humble.

The Change is: “really unusual and very moving – by far and away the most unusual, original and funny show of the past few years,” he says.

Omid’s style of comedy is joyful.

“If I have ever offended anyone it was never intentional. Mine is more the Tasmanian Devil kind of comedy.”

Images above: Boothby Graffoe; Simon Randall

Simon Randall – “A west London comedy hero”

He is especially pleased to be sharing the stage with Boothby Graffoe at the Ealing Comedy Festival, as he is one of his oldest friends in comedy and they make each other laugh a lot, though he agrees the entire line-up is: “Stunning. It’s a fantastic line-up. It will be a great night.”

The comedy festival is run by Simon Randall, who runs Headliners comedy club in the Boston Room of George IV in Chiswick.

“Anyone who knows Simon knows he is a west London hero” says Omid. “He has been putting on comedy in west London for about 30 years, giving work to a lot of comics. This is his way of showcasing his favourite acts and our way of saying thank you to him, so when I was offered it and found I was free, I jumped at it.”

The Chiswick Calendar Freebie

We have two tickets to give away to the Ealing Comedy Festival on Thursday 27 July. Just answer the following question and email your answer to info@thechiswickcalendar.co.uk. We will make a random selection from all the correct answers we recieve by midnight on Wednesday (5 July 2023) and let you know if you’ve won.

Question: Who wrote Channel 4’s comedy drama The Change?

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