The Arts

A distinctive comedic partnership: Omid Djalili and Annabel Knight

In Brief: 

One of the freshest new faces to hit British comedy in years, Omid Djalili was recently chosen as the "Best Comic" of 1996 on London Weekend TV. That, after a string of good reviews for a series of one- and two-man shows, is evidence that his distinctive approach to multicultural humor is winning over British audiences.

One of the shows which has received some of the best reviews is a one-man play created by Mr. Djalili's wife, Ms. Annabel Knight. "A Strange Bit of History" won the "Most Outstanding New Work" award at the Edinburgh Festival in 1994 and it showcases their distinctive partnership.

LONDON - Driving back home to Hounslow after a recent 20-minute stand-up performance at the Bearcat Comedy Club here, Omid Djalili was rather hard on himself.

"It didn't take the roof off," he said with disappointment in his voice over the reaction to his first major appearance at the Bearcat, one of London's better venues for up-and-coming comedians. "I misjudged the audience. The first time I was here, the crowd was more middle class, and so I used longer jokes again tonight. But this audience was not up for it. Actually, I have gaggy stuff I could have used."

In fact, the 31-year-old comedian's act generated many good laughs. His skillful and provocative portrayal of the colliding multicultural identities of British society, combined with the witty telling of a few long shaggy dog stories, produced quite a few sustained outbreaks - not to mention a fair number of explosive guffaws from some club regulars in the back of the 160-seat hall.

More importantly, the club's managers were well pleased, saying afterwards that they would invite him back on a regular basis - a sign of success in London's hardscrabble comedy world.

"He's very good," said James Dunnett, the Bearcat's director. "He's got good control of the crowd. And in his genre, he's on his own. He's definitely moving in the right direction."

Things look very bright for Mr. Djalili, one of the freshest new faces to hit British comedy in years. In July, he was chosen as the "Best Comic" of 1996 on "The Big, Big Talent Show," a popular television program on the national channel ITV that offers a showcase for new stars. That award came after a string of good reviews for a series of one- and two-man shows starring Mr. Djalili on London's "fringe" stage and at the prestigious Edinburgh "Fringe" Festival.

One of the shows, in fact, which has received some of the best reviews is a one-man play created by Mr. Djalili's wife, Ms. Annabel Knight, herself an actress. That show, entitled "A Strange Bit of History," won the "Most Outstanding New Work" award at Edinburgh in 1994 and has gone on to a superb reception in London.

"A Strange Bit of History" is experimental in style, with Mr. Djalili playing more than a dozen different characters, ranging from a nineteenth century Egyptian camel driver to a modern-day deadbeat poet from Liverpool. The story dramatizes some of the events surrounding the early days of the Bahá'í Faith, when some 20,000 early followers were put to death in the mid-1800s by religious authorities in an effort to destroy the new faith.

Last January, What's On magazine reviewer Douglas McPherson described a production of the play at the Riverside Studios this way: "In a performance of amazing energy and skill, Djalili builds up a picture of these events by jumping quickly from skin to skin of those on the ground at the time . . . That the result is both enthralling and sidesplittingly funny is due to the pace of Djalili's acting and his knack for accents and facial expressions. He portrays all nationalities and both sexes with complete ease, and is never less than watchable."

The successes of Mr. Djalili are as much about the talents of Ms. Knight and the distinctive partnership they have formed both at home and in the theater as about his own talent. It was Ms. Knight, for example, who urged him to switch from straight acting to comedy. And she continues to be the main director of his comic material, even as she stays home to raise their two young children.

"Omid is a very good actor, no doubt about it," said Ms. Knight. "But I think his talent actually lies with comedy. And it took a while for him to acknowledge that. He somehow at first felt it had less status."

A Distinctive Comic Approach

Today, Mr. Djalili works very hard at being funny. His self-critique of his performance at the Bearcat reveals how high his standards are - and just how much effort he puts into being funny, a task he now takes more as a mission in life than a mere mode of employment.

"For me, comedy is not just about making people laugh. My agenda is to educate and elevate. And that's the most difficult thing to do. Because it is easy to make people laugh by swearing or telling off-color jokes." 

-- Omid Djalili

"For me, comedy is not just about making people laugh," said Mr. Djalili. "My agenda is to educate and elevate. And that's the most difficult thing to do. Because it is easy to make people laugh by swearing or telling off-color jokes."

Indeed, one of the things that sets his comic act apart is that he uses no sexual references or foul language in his act - two staples of the current comedy regime in much of the Western world.

nstead, Mr. Djalili relies on his training as an actor and his own experiences growing up as the son of Iranian immigrants - not to mention the material written by Ms. Knight, which has its own distinctively offbeat genius.

"When you are really crying with laughter, that is almost a spiritual experience," he said. "You are taken outside yourself. You are released and uplifted by it and you are made happy, and that is comedy at the highest level."

Mr. Djalili believes he got his comic sensibility from his father, Ahmad Djalili, a journalist and photographer from Iran who settled in London in 1957 and never left. His father worked at various times as a foreign correspondent for Kayhan, one of Iran's top newspapers, and also as a photographer and translator for the Iranian embassy. Then, after the 1979 Iranian revolution, because of the official campaign of persecution against the Bahá'í community by Iranian authorities, the elder Mr. Djalili could no longer work for the Iranian government and so he began to operate a medical hostel for Iranians staying in England for treatment. And as a Persian host, the father revealed his talents as a born performer. "We had an endless series of guests in our home as I was growing up," said Mr. Djalili, who was born and raised in London. "My father was always telling jokes, always entertaining. And so I grew up in this atmosphere, in a household that, though based in London, was a microcosm of Iran, with all sorts of characters from all classes of society coming through our house." Another early influence was secondary school. Mr. Djalili attended Holland Park, a unique, experimental multicultural school in the heart of London. "There were people from 44 different countries at the school when I attended," he said, explaining that he probably developed his faculty for imitating various accents there - a talent that he has since honed into a cornerstone of his act. He studied English and theater at the University of Ulster, graduating in 1988. Returning to London, he applied to 16 different drama schools - and was rejected by all of them. "I think they felt I was too individualistic in my approach," he said. Typical for a struggling actor, Mr. Djalili supported himself with odd jobs such as selling sandwiches, delivering typewriters and hawking cookbooks door-to-door until he began to win parts in London's "fringe" theater district. Gradually, he became known for his ability to portray any number of ethnic characters, from Italian to Latin American, and he even won a few small movie roles. In 1989, he met Ms. Knight at the wedding of a mutual friend. Both Bah&accute;'ís, they found many points of common interest and attraction and were married in 1992. And it was shortly after they married, while working together in a number of experimental productions in the Czech Republic, that the seeds for Ms. Knight's award-winning play, "A Strange Bit of History," were sown. The pair had gone to Eastern Europe as part of a cross-cultural exchange effort, taking advantage of the new openness after the fall of Communism there. They became involved with the Brno-based Center for Experimental Theater, where some of Vaclav Havel's first plays were produced, and then began touring the country, giving performances and doing drama workshops. By late 1993, they had become quite well-known in the Czech Republic - and Ms. Knight had become pregnant. They were invited to travel to Scotland, to perform at the Edinburgh Festival. They decided that they needed something fresh for Edinburgh, which offers a singular chance for hundreds of theater companies from all over the world to showcase new work and talent, and Ms. Knight, knowing she would be unable to perform because of her pregnancy, decided to write a one-man play for her husband. The award-winning result is unique for its down-to-earth approach to a rather lofty theme: the pursuit of truth in the face of intense religious persecution. Through an odd combination of characters - including a surprisingly introspective Iranian executioner whose duty it was to kill early Bahá'ís - the play both entertains and inspires. Since its debut in Edinburgh, the play has won rave reviews and sellout crowds on London's fringe circuit.

An On-going Partnership

The couple now have two children, three-year-old Isabella and one-year-old Louis, and Mr. Djalili and Ms. Knight both feel strongly that it is important for at least one parent to raise the children in their early years, when basic moral character is formed. Because it is his career that is now taking off, she currently spends most of her time with the children.

Yet theirs is nevertheless a true partnership, inasmuch as Ms. Knight continues to write and give direction and shape to much of Mr. Djalili's material.

"In the early days, when we were working out Strange Bit of History, we worked from midnight to five a.m. every night, because that was the only time we could be sure the baby would sleep," said Mr. Djalili. "And during that time, we built a kind of wavelength. It is pure communication. We can be absolutely honest with each other. It is almost the perfect working relationship," he said.

"We developed a real shorthand in our language," added Ms. Knight. "I think maybe you don't realize you have that until you start to work with other people, which can seem quite laborious because of there is so much explaining to do. But with Omid, we can communicate quite quickly."

Today, Ms. Knight helps Mr. Djalili give shape and focus to his material. "If a gag gets a laugh but it lowers my status as a comic or is crude," he said, "Annabel will let me know. And I have absolute trust that she is right."

Their day-to-day life together, also, is a key source of material. "Things that are truly funny seem to come from very ordinary events," said Ms. Knight. "Anytime anything funny happens, we say, 'Oh, that would be a good bit for a sketch.' And then we work to develop it."

From Clubs to Schools

Having a stable home life is certainly another thing that sets Mr. Djalili apart from many of the hundreds of young comedians who are currently competing on the club circuit. The lifestyle is one that is much more accommodating for single men who relish a late-night atmosphere spiked with single women and single-malt liquors.

But it is his ethnicity - and his willingness to make jokes relating to it - that remains his most distinctive point at present. While ethnic comedy has long had a crossover following in the United States, it has not yet reached a universal audience in the United Kingdom.

"He's a rare commodity," said Nigel Klarfeld, head of Bound and Gagged, a comedy management agency, and Mr. Djalili's agent on the club circuit. "There are no other Iranian comedians - full stop - here or anywhere. And there are really no other Middle Easterners or even Greeks working as comedians in London.

"Yet his humor is completely accessible - it doesn't matter what country you are coming from," said Klarfeld, who is an agent for some 110 comedians in all. "His strength is that he is both an actor and a comedian. It means he can be a bit more diverse in his approach."

The day after his appearance at the Bearcat, Mr. Djalili learned he was being sought by the producers of a new television show to do several original comedy sketches for a pilot. If the pilot show is successful, his agents said, it could turn into a regular venue for him.

Despite these and other signs of success, Mr. Djalili is intent on keeping his feet on the ground. One way he approaches this is by doing such things as speaking to school children about his work and about multiculturalism.

he morning after his appearance at the Bearcat, for example, he addressed a class of 12- and 13-year-olds at Walford High School in a predominantly Asian area of West London. Facing a diverse group of rather sophisticated students, Mr. Djalili handled them as well or better than the group of middle-class office workers he'd confronted the night before.

He started by telling a story - a true one that he also frequently tells in his comedy routines - about how his mother once tried to haggle over an order of hamburgers at McDonald's restaurant, using the story to comically illustrate the funny things that can happen when different cultures clash.

"'How much will that be?'" he mimics his mother as saying, speaking in a strong Iranian accent

"'Two pounds,'" he says, as the clerk.

"'I give you one pound,'" he blurts, again in his mother's accent, comically conveying her expectation to bargain over the price of the burgers.

The joke received much laughter, setting the stage for Mr. Djalili to raise a broader issue. "The point I try to make with my comedy," he said, "is that whatever culture you are - whether West Indian, Pakistani, Indian, Irish, or British - you should try to share that and help people understand it. One should always respect another person's culture and help them be themselves."

"Each one of you is like a 'mine rich in gems.' You need to encourage each other and you need to share your culture with each other."

-- Omid Djalili to high school students

"A lot of people feel good about themselves only if they put someone else down," he continued. "But what you probably don't realize is how powerful you are. Each one of you is like a 'mine rich in gems.' You need to encourage each other and you need to share your culture with each other."