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Iranian Comedian Tries The U.S., Again


Omid Djalili is a British actor and comedian of Iranian descent. American audiences may know him from his role as a sidekick on a short-lived TV show "Whoopi," or from his small parts in major Hollywood movies like "The Mummy" and "Gladiator."

OMID DJALILI: I've actually became a kind of Arab scumbag specialist.

RATH: But just as he was starting to really make a name for himself here, complete with a half-hour special on HBO, he went back to Britain. He's just recently returned for a few shows in the U.S. before embarking on his U.K. tour in the spring. I asked him about his unusual path.

DJALILI: I've always been uncomfortable making it in a different country before you've made it in your own country. Those of us who are given those half-hours - myself, Louis C.K., there were a lot of very, very good people - Caroline Rhea - their careers went on and did great, but I went back to Britain because I had my TV show there. They gave me something called the "Omid Djalili Show," and that kind of preoccupied me.

RATH: I wonder if you can describe the show a little bit, because you play Iranian characters and British characters. It's kind of a whole - it's a wide range.

DJALILI: You can't really compare that kind of thing with any show. But I think the nearest show you might have had here was the "Dave Chappelle Show," which is on Comedy Central, which is stand-up, sketches, little items here and there. My English side really loves the royal family, and my Iranian side hates me for this. It doesn't (unintelligible) always chips in if I ever meet royalty. I met Prince Charles recently. I said, Your Royal Highness, it's a real absolute honor to perform for you, you dirty, filthy Western imperialist.


RATH: Something interesting about the success of your program is that similar thing happened - I think it was probably about 10 years ago in Britain - no, actually more like 15 years ago. There was a British - BBC program called "Goodness Gracious Me"...

DJALILI: Yes. I know those guys.

RATH: ...which was Indians.


RATH: And I thought about - I thought at the time, well, there's no way that this'll hit a wider audience because they're making fun of very specific things about Indians that only Indians will get. And it was a huge success.

DJALILI: Yeah. Huge success. Yes.

RATH: And similarly, with your program, you're making fun of, I think, very particular Iranian characters at times...


RATH: ...but it resonates with people.

DJALILI: I think there was a niche in the market because, you know, the more multicultural we've become. And certainly in British culture, as I'm sure it's the same with American culture, we warm to cultures where people can make fun of themselves. I couldn't abide by all my Iranian brethren. When somebody say: We're from Persia. No, we're not Iranian. We're from Persia. As if that makes a big difference. And people say: Oh, you're from Persia. Oh, you mean next to Assyria, Mesopotamia and Thrace.


DJALILI: What a noble race. I mean, we speak like a Persian cat. Yes, a sweet Persian cat, yes. There's no Iranian cat. No, Iranian cat? There's a bomb under the body warmer.


DJALILI: With what happened with awful things in the - with terrorism, there was a lot of mistrust. So there was a lot of, I suppose, reciprocity towards a Middle Eastern person who can maybe be a bridge between East and West. You can tell I'm a very, very British person, but I've kept my roots quite strong. I still speak Farsi. I find Arabs hilarious. Like whenever you go on YouTube and watch some of the greatest soccer players, like Lionel Messi scoring a goal, the Arab commentaries, they say (foreign language spoken).

And the translation is they say Messi is a stealer of arts. He is the creator of solutions. Messi has the eye of the griffin. If Messi was a pre-existent soul made manifest in this life as the return of Jesus Christ is the football boots. I tell you, if Messi was gay, I look the other way. (Foreign language spoken) They're very passionate.

RATH: All of a sudden, American sportscasters seem very, very bland.


RATH: I'm amazed you could do that. I'm curious - you mentioned Dave Chappelle.


RATH: And you know how he left his program, walked away from it. And I'm wondering if you've felt the same feeling that caused him to walk away, which is that - I mean, you do these Iranian characters and it's on a show in Britain and Dave Chappelle got uncomfortable because he was doing these black characters and he felt the white audience was laughing a little bit too hard and maybe at the expense.

DJALILI: Yeah. That's always a consideration. It's a very, very thin line. I don't just worry about, you know, upsetting the Iranians. I also worry about the Baha'i community. I'm a Baha'i. I'm not a Muslim. I'm Baha'i. And the Baha'i faith is such a sweet faith. You know, the Baha'i's are so sweet that even hippies in San Francisco mug the Baha'i's regularly.


DJALILI: You know, that's how sweet they are. But I've got to be careful not to upset my Baha'i friends as well. So it is - there's a high pressure. But for you - you need to have certain principles. And for me, it's always to remain authentic, remain to my true to my own comedy voice. And if you do that, then you'll be fine.

RATH: Have you - has there been any kind of a negative reaction, though, from the Iranian community in Britain or elsewhere?

DJALILI: I suppose Iranians have pushed me of being some kind of acceptable face. Because even when 9/11 happened, even my own neighbors - they knew me, they liked me - they started looking at me suspiciously. I didn't go anywhere. A lot of my gigs were cancelled. And I actually thought my career was over.

RATH: Wow.

DJALILI: It was very strange. And I had just won an award, the Time Out magazine comedy award. And what they do, they put you up in a big West End theater and everybody was going nuts. People were giving their tickets back. And I felt I had to make a stand. I said: I'm making a stand here, you know? I know that a lot of Indian guys have been beaten, some Sikh guys have been killed. So I'm going to make a stand to do a comedy show here for you tonight. And there was a big round of applause. And I said: I want you all to know my real name is Sven. I'm from Gothenburg in Sweden. I got nothing to do with those creeps.

So that was - and the laugh, I remember. It was just - it's a very basic joke, but just the laugh of relief was extraordinary. Then I thought, OK, we're back on track. It's too soon to laugh too much, but we can try and make sense of it through comedy. And I'm not saying you can ever make fun of suffering. That's completely wrong. But I think now we're ready to have - we have Middle Eastern comedians now and they're very much embraced by the American community. And I hope that what we say has some depth and has some value.

RATH: Omid Djalili, pleasure talking with you.

DJALILI: Thank you very much. It's been really good. I have - I really hope that people embrace me to the bosom of America. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.