When Omid Djalili sets foot on the Dubai Opera stage this week, he will be full of gratitude. And who could blame him?
The British-Iranian comic has had six months of gigs cancelled because of the pandemic, but is fortunate enough to leave the UK just as the country enters a second national lockdown.
Speaking to The National before his show on Saturday, October 7, Djalili says he is raring to go.
“I haven’t really performed since March, so what the audience will see in Dubai is, first and foremost, a grateful man,” he says. “Every moment will be savoured. Every single joke and routine I will perform with absolute appreciation and gratitude to God. It will be an almost a religious experience.”
No laughing matter
That shift in perspective will also permeate Djalili’s material. While his work has always been laced with piercing insights on society and politics, he feels the pandemic has the potential to alter stand-up comedy as we know it.
He predicts cheap laughs will be replaced with more thoughtful and soulful content.
"The world has changed and, because of that, we as people have changed," he says. "I see this every day with the people I talk to. There are no more meaningless conversations. I mean, there is some chitchat, but people are getting to the point quicker. And that will change the way we do comedy."
This means Djalili will waste no time in getting to the heart of the matter. Where, previously, the opening minutes of his shows were spent warming up the crowd with rapid-fire puns, he plans to immediately delve into some of his learnings amid the pandemic.
One of which, he has discovered, is to keep busy. “For me, I realised that I needed to continue creating, whatever it is, I need to keep on with that,” he says.
This led Djalili to a realisation.
“I forgot that I actually had an Instagram account,” he says, chuckling. “It was actually created for me by a comedy club years ago and it had like 3,000 followers. So I thought, 'why don’t I take it over and create little videos that become like a diary of what I am doing?'”
Now with 16,000 followers, the account is home to some wonderfully eclectic posts, from quirky commentary on news events to a whimsical video in which Djalili pays tribute to his late father.
Working within the boundaries
That balance of hilarity and heart has always stood Djalili in good stead.
It gave him a diverse audience over a three-decade career with shows played in edgy clubs in New York and London, as well as headlining gala events attended by members of the British royal family.
Djalili dismisses the notion his material is safe. Just because his jokes are not racy, he says, doesn't mean they lack finesse and technique. He adds that working within established guidelines can also be rewarding.
“A lot of this has to do with the culture I am from. In Iran, particularly at the very beginning of the current regime, it was very difficult for filmmakers because they had very strict boundaries,” he says.
“But the interesting thing is that they learnt to work within that structure and produce some amazing work. They took their inspiration from classical music where composers like Bach and Bartok faced their own restrictions – like only being able to use a certain number of notes per octave – and they went on to create beautiful music.”
The time he was sacked from a Johnny Depp film
Then again, there are certain limits Djalili can't help but overstep, such as his experience working on Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
As a well-regarded screen and stage actor, Djalili built a solid Hollywood career with supporting roles in Gladiator (2000), Spy Game (2001) and 2018's Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
Not even the experience of working on outlandish productions such as 1999's The Mummy and the James Bond film The World is Not Enough could have prepared him for the ridiculousness of playing swashbuckling pirate Askay in the 2007 film.
“I got fired from that,” he said. “I was playing this role where I had a sword. The crew was looking for a simple sweeping camera shot but they kept stopping because I kept messing about. I was doing all these samurai moves. Then they took the sword away from me and gave me a gun. Then I pretended to be James Bond. Then I was taken off the set and was told to pack up my bags because my flight was in three hours. Just like that I was out ... I am quite proud of that experience, actually.”
Omid Djalili performs at Dubai Opera on Saturday, November 7 at 8pm. Tickets from Dh195. For details, visit dubaiopera.com