While most of us were plowing through instant mashed potatoes and canned cranberry sauce on Turkey Day, British-Iranian comic Omid Djalili was invited to spend Thanksgiving at UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson's house in New York.
“I knew him from my days in the former Czechoslovakia,” Djalili says on the phone from New York during a brief stand-up tour. “I lived in the Czechoslovakia for five years. I had a wonderful time. Thanksgiving is marvelous. The turkey was magnificent. I even did some research into what Thanksgiving actually is. I didn't know that, back in the 1600s, the settlers were starving and it was the Native Americans who helped them out. So you're giving thanks to the Native Americans. Of course, the Native Americans know it as If We Had Known Better Day. I think that's too edgy to say.”
Djalili knows a little something about edgy. Though he once called himself “the guy who brought you ethnic comedy in a nice, mainstream way,” Djalili, who is Baha'i, has made a living skewering racial stereotypes and religion in his mostly Muslim-versus-whitey humor. In the UK, he's an institution. In the U.S. — despite attempting a Hollywood career for ten years — he's relatively unknown. That's about to change. In an event organized by the Levantine Center, Rainn Wilson will introduce Djalili in his first performance in L.A. tonight at the Wadsworth Theater.
“It's just a test to see if people think I'm a relevant voice from the UK,” Djalili says.
Djalili started doing stand-up in the early '90s and appeared at the Edinburgh Festival in skits like “Short, Fat Kebob Shop Owner's Son” and “The Arab and The Jew.” For two years he had his own BBC1 variety series, which hilariously poked fun of stock Middle Eastern characters like the jihadist, kebob shop owner and mini cab driver; the Sex and the City parody “Sheiks in the City” comes to mind. (“Was the sex about oil wells or being well-oiled?”) He played Fagin in Oliver! on the West End, and this year, Djalili returned to Edinburgh to play Red in a stage version of The Shawshank Redemption. In 2010, after years of minor parts in movies like The Mummy and Gladiator, Djalili starred in first feature film, The Infidel, about a British Muslim who discovers he was born Jewish.
It was those early Edinburgh performances that caught the attention of two Hollywood writers, who developed an NBC pilot for Djalili in the role of an Iranian professor. “Then the tanks rolled in Iraq around March 2003 before we shot the pilot,” Djalili says. “They thought maybe it wasn't good timing to have your own show.” Soon after, however, Djalili became a regular on NBC's Whoopi. After that series ended, he filmed an HBO stand-up special in 2005 in New York, and had more offers for his own TV show, though those deals stalled as well.
“That was a really great experience,” Djalili says. “I got to work with the force that is Whoopi Goldberg. I got to learn how an American sitcom works: 16 writers, clockwork. It was a real learning curve.”
Djalili would get another shot at crossover success when he was cast as one of Paul Reiser's best friends in 2011's The Paul Reiser Show, but it ran for only two episodes.
“Paul Reiser is one of the funniest people I've spent time with,” Djalili says. “I remember he put his arm around me in his $18 million dollar house and said to me, 'This show has got to be funny 'cause I need to pay the bills. You're a big part of that.' And I said, 'So you want me to be funny so you can keep the house?' And he looked at me and said, 'Would ya?'”
Djalili's relationship with L.A. runs deeper than a couple of short-lived sitcoms. He first visited here at 16 and jokes that he's “related to 37 percent of the population” of the Persian community (the largest outside Iran), which, in the era of Shahs of Sunset, will no doubt give Djalili fodder for material.
“I have a lot of family,” Djalili says. “When the Iranian Revolution happened, most of the academics and intellectuals went to Europe, and all the business community went straight to L.A. So a lot of them are very entrepreneurial. My impression is that they're all doing well. They all live in nice houses. All the women are dressed to the nines every time I've seen them. They've all had nose jobs and face lifts. Everybody seems very, very rich and successful. I'd like to hear about an Iranian doing badly, for once.”
To his contemporaries, especially among the Axis of Evil group, Djalili has become what he calls a sort of “father figure.” “There was a boom of Middle Eastern stand-up comics around 2001-2002, people like Maz Jobrani, Ahmed Ahmed,” says Djalili. “I like all those guys…I think we were all kind of doing it at the same time. But I was just lucky enough to have the first breakout and was brought over to America.”
The comic's return to stand-up in America comes nearly a decade after his HBO special. So what took so long?
“I thought it was more important to focus on my home turf first,” Djalili says. “What's brought me back is that I now feel that that's happened. I kind of have the backing of my people. So now I've been jettisoned over here. Comedy is a bit like the mafia. You need to have backing.”
And what's changed about his comedy in the following years that saw the Arab Spring and the deaths of Saddam, Bid Laden and Gaddafi?
“I've become less pressurized to comment on everything that's Iranian in the news,” Djalili says. “I felt before that I had to be a bridge between east and west. Now, I'm not so bothered by that. I talk about the things that affect me: relationships, equality between men and women, the impact of celebrity on society, the impact of celebrity on my own life, getting older. These are universal things that affect me that have nothing to do with politics. It's become more personable.”