Interview: Omid Djalili – 'I'm embracing the schmuck in me to take on the big issues of our day'

Comedian and actor Omid Djalili has some sad news for his fans as he calls time on the crazy dancing. But as Brian Donaldson discovers, the mad japes are far from over

For those who still see Omid Djalili as a mainstream entertainer, armed with a number of silly voices and the occasionally cheesy punchline, it's time they witnessed a different side to his act. After all, last summer he was at the forefront of the project to have a reading of the entire Chilcot Report (all 2.6 million words of it) 'performed' at the Edinburgh Fringe. The final sentence was uttered by the 144th reader, 285 hours after it all began, but as well as the wealth of publicity it generated, Iraq Out & Loud also made an impact by going on to scoop the Panel Prize at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards.

As co-producer (alongside Bob Slayer), he is clearly proud to have received the award, but is equally as keen to spread the plaudits. 'The idea belongs to the collaborators,' he insists. 'In fact, the idea felt like it belonged to the comedy industry. Sometimes an idea really captures the zeitgeist; comedians are very adept at sensing when we're being fobbed off. So it was important to us that the readings were a simple, non-political, people-powered, public service.'

Having been central to such an important campaign, the inevitable next step is for him to ham it up once again. So, here he is back on our stages with a show entitled Schmuck for a Night. Isn't it time for the real Omid Djalili to stand up? 'I like the word "schmuck",' he insists. 'It means fool or buffoon. Really, you have to be a schmuck to do comedy in today's climate. I'm embracing the schmuck in me to take on the big issues of our day. Plus, it's a word that ends with "uck" which can only be a good thing.'

Those who witnessed the work-in-progress performances of the show earlier in the year suggested that he may have taken a foot off the pedal slightly to produce a less hectic show. Would he agree with that summary? 'Yes, I've become less frenetic,' he concurs. 'I used to dance every two minutes in between the stand-up. I can't even remember why I did that. It was mentioned to me that when I danced, audiences were laughing at me not with me. So it was either stop dancing or ban my manager from the gigs.' Sadly, for some Djalili admirers, his manager will be attending Schmuck for a Night whenever they so choose.

Physical larks and daft patter have been part of the Djalili schtick ever since he first appeared on our live stages in the mid-90s, but current affairs and identity politics have often underpinned the japes. In 1996, he performed a two-hander with Ivor Dembina called The Arab and the Jew while his 2002 Perrier-nominated show, Behind Enemy Lines, could barely help itself tackle 9/11 head-on.

With his new tour, Brexit, Daesh and the new US President will appear in some form or another, but he's quick to deny any simple pigeonholing of his views and attitudes. 'I think the show will change even while I'm on stage,' Djalili reckons. 'It'll be so current, sometimes audiences won't laugh until they get home and turn on the TV. I will say that I'm not party political, I have no party agenda. But I'll talk about what's going on around us, trying to contribute to the discourse. In fact, that's what the show should have been called: Schmuck Talks About What's Going On Around Him Trying to Contribute to the Discourse.' That's Omid Djalili for you: always playing the fool.

Omid Djalili: Schmuck for a Night, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, Sat 18 Feb; King's Theatre, Glasgow, Sun 18 Mar.

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