Greenwich Comedy Festival: Omid Djalili etc

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

Omid Djalili is off on tour for the first time in three years, so where better to warm up than headlining a gig of, oh, just 1,800 people at the Greenwich Comedy Festival?

There are undoubtedly signs that this extended routine is still a little rough around the edges. More than once does he admit he was expecting a bigger laugh, usually when his thoughts don’t quite have enough clarity – especially a segment about Barack Obama that’s particularly convoluted or another about Osama Bin Laden being the chief exec of the Taliban that quickly runs out of what little steam it had.

However, the key themes are in place, if left deliberately ambiguous. The crux of the show seems to have been sparked by an incident on the set of Sex And The City 2 – so at least some comic inspiration came from that travesty – when director Michael Patrick King remonstrated with him for telegraphing his comedy too blatantly. Back in his Dubai hotel room, Djalili started thinking about his work, posed as a dilemma in typically trite Carrie Bradshaw style, which led to him questioning whether by doing jokes about ethnicity he’s inadvertently fuelling racism.

Not that such doubts really stop him; ethnicity is a shortcut to comedy he’s not going to abandon in a hurry. Should proof be needed of the comic power of stereotype, the crowd provided it. ‘Anyone in from Iran?’ Djalili asked early on – to be greeted with an enthusiastic ululation, a flash of the witty heckles for which the clubs around these parts were once renown.

So he has his cake and eats it. There are still plenty of gags about national and regional traits, and often damn funny ones at that, even if they now come with a caveat. When he gets laughs from repeating chants from the terraces about South Korean player Park Ji-Sung (which does seem a little like cheating), he then explains why it isn’t racist.

Hardcore Armenians and the rhythms of the Nigerian accent that are a godsend to comedy are hilariously exploited, while Djalili’s own dual British-Iranian personality provides a good angle to relay his Royal Variety Performance meeting with Prince Charles. It was cheapened by a very lazy line which, unfortunately, got one of the best laughs of the night.

That’s the thing with highfalutin ideas, people still like simple gags – and Djalili tries to play both sides of the line: socio-political ideas from a man bound by spangly showbiz sensibilities. For every gag about the Arab Spring, a Beyonce impression.

He quotes the Eleanor Roosevelt line that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people – and rather than striving for greatness, he uses the wisdom to engineer a three-pronged attack to appeal to everybody, whatever size their mind. I’d say it works: on some level there is something for everybody, although the corollary is that there are some bits that won’t be for you.

Djalili still has a dozen or so more intimate warm-ups to go before the tour proper starts next month. With the bumps ironed out and some more pace towards the end, it could well be a very good one.

Support tonight came from his old pal Boothby Graffoe, who has also only just returned to stand-up from a self-imposed hiatus – and here he seemed to be entertaining himself as much as the audience, persuading everyone to join in an atmospheric, if not specially funny, song and going on a few digressions as he imagines conversations with his anthropomorphic pets. Still, that’s part of his relaxed style and he’s got some cracking gags, usually derived from saying very silly things in a sensible way, as well as exercising an almost hypnotic command over the crowd.

Opener Andrew Lawrence was more forceful with his impassioned angry invectives, spitting out the fury we all wish we could when faced with dismal trains or moronic, mechanical, corporate-ordered questions when just trying to buy a coffee. It’s an outlet for common frustrations though the cipher of this ‘whiny, creepy’ fool – and he has the good sense to build up to them, after a few quirky, but still accessible, anecdotes.

Experienced compere Jarred Christmas held it all together, with his skilful way of acknowledging the sometimes naff conventions of his task, but getting us on board anyway thanks to his unpatronising, unshakably upbeat attitude. Most MCs would go for the kill when faced with a City worker in the front row, but as the economist doggedly prepares for his pasting, Christmas gees him up, encouraging him to be happy in his lot. With entertaining tales on ninja moves, arse cleavage and duvets, he proves himself one very merry Christmas.

Review date: 7 Sep 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett
Reviewed at: Old Royal Naval College

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