Omid Djalili: ‘Netflix doesn’t consider me a relevant comedian’

Stand-up comedian and actor Omid Djalili
Stand-up comedian and actor Omid Djalili - Andrew Crowley

Two things of note happened with Omid Djalili’s recent tour, Good Times. The first was that a show in Market Drayton, Shropshire, not previously known as a hotbed of political tensions, had to be cancelled due to security threats. The reason? Djalili had tweeted a call for a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza. “I just thought, do you know what, enough people have died already,” he says. Unfortunately, some people considered this to be “equivalent to supporting Hamas. Some people said, ‘Omid, we love you, but we’re coming to the theatre to educate you.’” Unwilling to find out precisely what form this ‘education’ might take, the theatre called off the gig.

Djalili took this in his stride. He also had threats after 9/11 – a British-Iranian, he isn’t Muslim but a lot of people seemed to think he was (not for nothing did he call an early stand-up show Short Fat Kebab Shop Owner’s Son).

The second thing of note, about which he feels more strongly, was that Netflix turned Good Times down. “It was too hot for Netflix,” he says. “There were always issues with certain things and some of the issues are unfair.” Like what? Ageism, he claims. But also that Netflix considers him to be “not a relevant comedian right now”. When he asked them what constitutes “relevant” at the moment he was told, “anything black and transgender”. And he has no problem with that, but he doesn’t think it should stop there.

At a time when events in the Middle East are dominating the news, he finds this astounding. “[They say] ‘We’re trying to get everyone’ and yet I don’t see hardly anybody who is Middle Eastern, Iranian. They don’t give us a voice,” he says. “I’m very strong about this because I don’t think they’ve got it right. I think the mainstream does want to know, they do want to hear it.”

So Djalili has taken a different tack and is streaming the show online instead. The gig, which was recorded before a sell-out audience at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire just before Christmas, will be available to watch online on March 20. He enjoyed performing for his hometown crowd, although for the past couple of years he has lived in Ipswich, taking advantage of the stamp duty holiday during Covid-19 to buy a nice old house. He enthuses about the Suffolk landscape, but also can’t resist a gag about the adult superstore on the A12.

The celebrated stand-up's The Good Times Tour will be available to watch online on March 20
The celebrated stand-up's The Good Times Tour will be available to watch online on March 20

Djalili’s good-natured naughtiness has always won big laughs and made him one of Britain’s most likeable comedians in a 30-year career spanning stand-up, television appearances, and acting roles in blockbusters like Gladiator, The Mummy and Pirates of the Caribbean. In recent years, the comedy in his live shows has become more long-form and thoughtful. The Market Drayton incident might have caused a more retiring sort to steer clear of controversial subjects for a bit. But that’s not Djalili’s style. Instead, he’s energetically planning his next tour, called Namaste, in which Israel-Gaza will be one of the main topics of discussion.

Won’t it be tricky to tread a line between supporters of each side? “Yes, it’s tricky,” he concedes, without a trace of anxiety. “But I am of an age where I have ceased to care.”

That age is 58, and Djalili is discovering, with some glee, that he is regarded as an elder statesman in all sorts of places. Like Stamford Bridge, where he’s a season ticket holder. He had a word with some younger Chelsea fans who were abusing rival supporters. “They said, ‘It’s all banter.’ I said, ‘It’s not banter, I bring my son here and I don’t want him to hear it.’” They’ve behaved ever since. “If you’re older and you tell people to shut up, they listen!” he says. “I think it’s important that we have the confidence to stand up.”

Djalili was born and raised in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the son of Iranian parents from the Baháʼí Faith (which he also practises) who settled in London in 1958. In his early shows, he used to wrongfoot the audience by coming on with a thick Middle Eastern accent then dropping it midway through. He doesn’t do it now but still loves putting on different voices, as when he mimics the middle class Chelsea fans who told him after his Stamford Bridge intervention: “Thank you sooo much. We’ve been tolerating this nonsense for 10 years!”

Tolerance is a theme of the Namaste tour, named after the respectful Hindu greeting. “It’s me trying to bring sense to a world that’s gone out of control and is making me angry every single day,” he says. “I am so affected and yet I have to try and use stand-up comedy as a platform to see things through a hopeful lens. We’re not going to do the whole show about Israel-Palestine but I don’t skirt around it. There’s a good 20-minute section about it. Not jokes – material. I have boundaries where I don’t make fun of people’s suffering.

“I’ve heard some terrible jokes about Israel-Palestine. It can only come from a place of pure Palestinian hatred and pure anti-Semitism,” he says. “You see these movements within Israel – Jewish mothers and Palestinian mothers working together. Why is it always extremism that comes in to mess things up?”

Last month, at a Soho Theatre gig by the comedian Paul Currie, an audience-member was subjected to verbal abuse after being singled out for not standing to applaud the Palestinian flag. The audience member turned out to be Jewish Israeli. Djalili doesn’t want any tribalism at his shows, and his political comedy is not of the hectoring kind. “Everyone says, ‘pick a side’. And I say, ‘I have picked a side. I stand on the side of love, peace, justice and humanity, and I think that’s what most British people have done.’”

The threat of being cancelled does not faze Djalili. “I was actually cancelled after 9/11 just for existing,” he says. He had won the 2001 Time Out comedy award, and was booked to play a gig on September 13. “I rang my manager and said, ‘That gig, I presume they’re not going ahead?’ He said, ‘They are, but they don’t want you.’ This is before the days of cancel culture. I was taken off TV shows, panel shows…”

David Baddiel and Omid Djalili
David Baddiel and Omid Djalili - Dave Hogan/Getty Images

Whoopi Goldberg hired him to appear in her eponymous US sitcom in 2003, and told him to keep going with the stand-up. He did, but his act changed. “When 9/11 happened, I thought, I’m being called politically to do something. I never really took stand-up seriously because I was doing films. I thought my life was going to be playing smaller roles in big projects, like Gladiator. But after 9/11 I focused more on the stand-up because I thought that was a more important thing to do.”

He has long campaigned against injustices in Iran, and that gives him perspective which he will bring to the tour. “It needs an older head like me, who is Middle Eastern, to say, ‘This is what’s going on.’” Then he laughs: “My kids say, ‘When did you become an authority on this? Who the hell do you think you are?!’”

Djalili’s fans include the King – he was booked for Charles’s 60th birthday party – and he is a popular figure on the comedy circuit. For his appearance on Kate Garraway’s Life Stories last year, fellow comedians were queuing up to pay affectionate tribute, including David Baddiel. The pair are friends despite Baddiel’s belief – asserted in his book, Jews Don’t Count – that non-Jewish actors should not play Jewish roles.

“The main point of the book is that anti-Semitism is the lesser of all the racisms because Jews are viewed as white, rich and privileged. I think that is correct. Some other thing he said, I don’t particularly agree with, which is that if a non-Jewish person plays a Jewish character, it’s called Jewface, and you would never have a white character play a black character,” Djalili says.

Omid Djalili as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, 2017
Omid Djalili as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, 2017 - Johan Persson

“But I got five-star reviews in the Jewish Chronicle for playing Tevye [in Fiddler on the Roof], and in one of the reviews it said it had finally put to bed the idea that only a Jewish person should play this role. I was Fagin in the West End. So in a sense I felt he was wrong. Now people would go back and think of that amazing show, ‘Oh, but it was wrong, because he wasn’t Jewish’?”

Besides, he says, he feels close to Jews because the Baháʼí shrines are in Haifa, Israel. “And I’m of the Semitic race. Semitic people are Arabs and Jews, that’s a fact. In mannerisms, when you go to Israel, they’re not that different.” So would he take those same roles now, given the ‘Jewface’ argument? “I would think twice because I don’t want to cause a stir, I don’t want people to have a go at me. But I do think that I would have every right to play them because I’m Semitic.”

Djalili is currently mulling over an offer to appear in an RSC production next year. He failed to get into 16 drama schools but clearly that hasn’t held him back. He recently made a film for Prime Video called Deep Cover, reuniting him with Orlando Bloom 20 years after they appeared in The Calcium Kid.

Bloom’s starry love life had passed him by. “Everyone was talking about his wife and I said, ‘Who are you married to?’ He said, ‘Oh, you wouldn’t know her.’ I said, ‘But who is it?’ because I kept hearing the name Katy.’ He said, ‘It’s Katy Perry.’ I said, ‘You’re married to Katy Perry?!’ And I didn’t realise she was there, wearing no make-up.”

Despite his Hollywood success, Djalili is just as proud of his appearances on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, “which was a show I used to listen to and never imagined for a second I would be included. But I’m very thankful to a Jewish person, [writer and comedian] Barry Cryer, who made sure I was on the regulars list because he said, ‘This show is so white, we need someone like Omid.’ Just to be involved in that brand is a huge honour.”

He worries, with the recent bankruptcy of the Just For Laughs comedy festival in Montreal, about opportunities for new stand-ups. “That was the main thing that propelled my career and hundreds of careers. “Now I think all that’s left is Edinburgh and people starting their own YouTube Channel or TikTok. I see a lot of comedians now turning to that and it’s a shame – I’m forced to do it a bit but I don’t really want to do it. The live medium is the most exciting thing.”

He was nominated for the Perrier Award at Edinburgh in 2002. “I visited Edinburgh this year and it was not as packed as it normally is. Maybe there’s not enough in the news, not enough television coverage, not enough sponsorship. They used to put a lot of money into it.”

Comedy seems more fraught now than it ever was. What if someone is offended by his new material? “They have the right to be upset. I think it’s really important to be strong in your comedy convictions,” he says. He runs some of his jokes past his three adult children, who tell him when they think he’s being inappropriate, but he doesn’t give them the last word: “I’m 58,” he says firmly, “and I’m going to go with what makes me laugh.”

Omid Djalili, Namaste, is on tour from October. His Good Times Tour Special will be streamed as a live event on DRIIFT on March 20;