Born in London to Iranian parents, Omid Djalili first found success on the comedy circuit in the 90s. He has since become one of the most recognisable comics in the UK. He’s appeared in films such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Sex and the City and had his own BBC television programme. Last year, he starred in a production of Fiddler on the Roof in Chichester. Before he returns with stand-up show Shmuck for a Night, he tells EDWIN GILSON about sending up Donald Trump and why comedians are “damaged people”

You recently performed a scene from Fiddler on the Roof for The Queen when she visited Chichester. How was that?

It was an extraordinary day. When I came out to do the song If I Were A Rich Man, I got a cheer and round of applause like when Brad Pitt did his cameo on Friends. Apparently The Queen turned to [CFT director] Daniel Evans and said “he’s very good, isn’t he?” I tweeted that afterwards.

Then we all went for lunch. We sat with the Queen’s equerry who was a wonderful gentleman. We had to eat quickly because we were aware people wanted to see her outside. Then she was off, waving to the people. I’ve started watching The Crown recently which has made me appreciate what she does.

You pride yourself on keeping your show topical. It must be changing a lot with the current rate of world events?

Yes, I’ve had to make massive cuts – probably half the show. I had whole big parts about Sean Spicer which are all gone now. I’ve filled it up with stuff about Trump’s mental state. To me, the suggestion that Donald Trump might have mental problems is a bit like suggesting that David Attenborough has an interest in wildlife. There is also stuff about the protests in Iran – for six days there were real questions about who started them and where it’s come from. It’s all about trying to keep it relevant.

Obviously the US president is fair game to poke fun at. But as a comedian do you ever worry it’s like shooting fish in a barrel in that everyone is doing the same?

Well, another way of looking at it is that some news stories are never really understood. When people said the Trump vote was like Brexit, not everyone got that comparison. But now you realise that even Trump was shocked at becoming President and that he had absolutely no plan for presidency. So now people say, “I didn’t get why Trump is America’s Brexit then, but I do now.” There are so many stories of people around the world who absolutely no have clue what they are doing, but they solider on regardless.

You mentioned the protests in Iran earlier. Have you always talked about your Iranian heritage in stand-up?

I dropped it for a while but I bought some of it back. In these difficult times, where people aren’t very sensitive to race and culture, and with the rise of the right-wing, some people think Britishness is just kicking people out. At the end of the day, it’s how you see life. We live on one planet. I would hate to think I can’t go somewhere because a group of people say “we don’t want fat British Iranians here.”

Apparently you sometimes dance in this show. Why?

I reward the audience if they laugh at something silly. Iranian humour is very silly and absurd, but not in the way that Brits see absurd, which is Ross Noble and The League of Gentlemen. I celebrate that – if an audience gets that brand of Iranian humour I reward them with dancing.

What does the “shmuck” in the title represent?

The “shmuck” thing is a whole new style. Political comedians have traditionally been dressed in jeans and t-shirts with a pint of beer. There’s a lot of talking and explaining with very few jokes. I’m trying to do it in a more subtle way, where you wouldn’t even think I’m a satirist. I’m fooling everyone, including the broadsheet newspapers. They say, “he’s not a satirist, he’s not serious” and I love that. I really wanted to hoodwink the reviewers. One journalist said, “he does all these gags and then you realise he’s not serious at all.” I thought, “a comedian not being serious? What’s the world come to?”

Do you think you were more overtly shocking in the early stages of your career before settling into this more subtle style?

I’m always just guided by what makes me laugh. I’m a 52 year-old man and not everything I think is funny will work. The Argus has given me two five-star reviews but not everyone gets it. If a reviewer said “I didn’t like that bit” am I going to change that? No, screw him. I’m old enough to stick to my guns. If I had a raft of one-star reviews I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s all about the audience. I was in the film Gladiator and I was affected by Oliver Reed telling Russell Crowe “win the crowd and you’ll win your freedom.”

This far into your career how do you avoid complacency and stay motivated?

Well, the reason we are comedians is because we are damaged people. We’re very sensitive to humiliation and one of the reasons we got into comedy is to have the validation of a big crowd laughing at everything we say. We’re driven by our own mental illness but we’re also alive. If people say “you’re so sensitive to your situation, you’re so depressed”, I think “good, I’m, alive.”

Do you have any more films roles lined up?

I’m in Disney’s The Nutcracker [out in November]. It’s funny because we were told not to talk about the film. But whenever somebody really high-profile mentions it, like Miranda Hart, it’s in the papers the next day. Jack Whitehall mentioned it in passing and it was all over the papers and he got ticked off by Disney for it. They said they needed to keep the Disney mystique and it was important nobody knew who was in it.

I have mentioned it about 30 times and not a single person has picked it up. My role is bigger than all of those people’s, but has anybody picked up on it? No, because they don’t care. I’m not on television right now so it’s not news. It doesn’t worry me – celebrity doesn’t mean anything to me.

Omid Djalili
Chichester Festival Theatre, January 15 and 20, 8pm. For tickets and more information visit or call 01243 781312