LONDON — Anglo-Iranian funnyman Omid Djalili’s introduction to U.S. auds was almost his last. While filming his HBO special “One Night Stand” last year, the 40-year-old comedian found the Gotham crowd in a fiery mood.
“I opened with this joke about how Iran showed its support for America after 9/11 when the mullahs removed the words ‘death to America’ from morning prayers for 48 hours,” explains Djalili.
“I must have gone too intense with the accent, because the audience forgot the setup and just saw this Middle Eastern guy onstage saying ‘death to America.’ They started chanting ‘U.S.A., U.S.A.’ I didn’t know what to do, so I just started belly dancing. It was fine in the end, but for 20 seconds I thought there was going to be a riot.”
It’s cross-cultural jokes like this that have established Djalili as one of Blighty’s biggest comedy draws. Born and raised in the U.K. to Iranian parents, he made a name for himself post-9/11 with one-man show “Behind Enemy Lines,” using laughter to debunk stereotypes about the Middle East and the so-called clash of civilizations.
He has just finished a sell-out tour of “No Agenda” across the U.K. and is prepping one-man series “The Omid Djalili Show” for the BBC.
Djalili’s show — a mix of skits and standup — is the first time the British pubcaster has commissioned a primetime comedy series with a Middle Eastern perspective.
“My viewpoint is a humanistic one. It’s for rational people who want the world to be a peaceful, global society,” Djalili says.
As well as the HBO special — the first given to a Brit since Eddie Izzard — Djalili starred in Whoopi Goldberg’s short-lived series “Whoopi” two seasons back, and has several upcoming roles in features.
The comedian will be seen in Warners’ comedy “Alien Autopsy” and provides a voice in DreamWorks Animation’s “Over the Hedge.”
Djalili’s skits, which riff on everything from mad mullahs to suicide bombers, have drawn comparisons to the work of Richard Pryor.
Not that Djalili is letting the praise go to his head.
“Whoopi told me I was representing a minority culture in the mainstream of American society in the same way Pryor was doing 25 years ago, although she did add that I wasn’t as funny as him,” quips Djalili.
Goldberg is not his only high-profile fan. Djalili was invited by the Emir of Qatar to perform a few months ago at a celeb-filled benefit for victims of the Asian tsunami. He even found himself trumping former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
“Clinton came onstage after me,” says Djalili. “He was praising me and saying how enriching an experience it was, but then added on a personal note that it was bad enough not being the president, but now he’d gone so far down the pecking order he had to follow an Iranian.”