With a Few Zings, Taking Comedy Across Borders
Published: November 14, 2003
DRESSED in gym sweats, Omid Djalili ushers a visitor into his single-guy-like cluttered suite in an East Side Manhattan hotel, where he's been staying for months while shooting episodes for NBC's new hit sitcom, "Whoopi." Mr. Djalili plays Nasim, an Iranian hotel handyman who is both the target and the trigger of zinging one-liners about Middle Easterners. But Mr. Djalili's wife and three children are back home in London, so he fills his lonely hours with a project: losing weight.
The euphoria of the newly abstemious does not brighten his face.
"My personal trainer calls me Whaleface and Blubberhead," grumbles Mr. Djalili, 38, a British-born Iranian stand-up comic. "He wants an intimate relationship with me." Yet Mr. Djalili's face, with its strong nose, pop-open black eyes and hint o' pleasure grin, looks more dolphin than whale. His stocky body moves with surprising agility, jiggle and joy — watch him leap into a furious belly dance — and suggests a human water bed.
So why volunteer for sadism and self-denial?
"I really wanted to take up the harp," sputters Mr. Djalili, who on the show affects a generic Middle Eastern accent, but in person has a British one, "but my wife, who is stuck home with dirty nappies, said, `The thought of you alone in your hotel suite, naked and in black socks playing the harp, offends me to the core!' "
Giving offense is something Mr. Djalili thinks hard about, especially in a post-9/11, Iraqi-war world. Portraying Nasim, he has been described as the first Middle Eastern principal character on an American sitcom. Some critics of the first episodes of "Whoopi," which is about a small Manhattan hotel run by Whoopi Goldberg's character and features a multiracial, multiethnic cast, were troubled by Nasim's lines like, "I haven't felt so oppressed since the ayatollah blew up my beach house."
In his own dazzling, subversive stand-up routines, Mr. Djalili, a fifth-generation practitioner of the Bahai faith, which preaches global humanitarianism, takes jabs at Western and Middle Eastern cultures. ("I am the only Iranian comedian . . . in the world!" he insists. "But that's three more than Germany.") Yet as Nasim, the beret-wearing, wisecracking immigrant who is Ms. Goldberg's comic foil and sidekick, he has considerably less leverage and independence.
"My lines upset me," says Mr. Djalili, who flops on his couch, hugging a pillow. "My character flits in and out saying one-liners about what we do in the Middle East: it was all terrorism, stoning and veils. The audience didn't buy it but they wanted so much to laugh. You could hear them trying — eh, eh, eh — it was like foreplay with no orgasm."
Mr. Djalili, an award-winning comic in Britain with a rapidly expanding résumé of Hollywood film roles that includes four features coming out in 2004, threatened to walk. "I went nose to nose with the writers and I think they were surprised," Mr. Djalili says. "They kept saying, `But dude! You're getting your check!' "
As the series unfolded, he threw in more of his own lines and improvisations. The handyman is becoming a poignant, hilarious romantic, at once naïve about American phenomena and a sizzling observer of them. Nasim, who is Persian, not Arabic, responds to an ignorant question with "Why don't you look it up in the towelhead dictionary?" He also quietly speaks for immigrants who flee political repression and reside in America, swallowing indignities, desperate to stay under the radar.
THAT same fear and pride about ethnic identity have been steeped into Mr. Djalili, who, coincidentally, also knows something of the experience of working at a struggling hotel. As a young boy in London, Mr. Djalili, whose father was a photographer for a Farsi-language magazine and whose mother was a dressmaker, lived buoyantly as an Iranian abroad, and would make extended visits to relatives in Iran. He moved comfortably within the multiracial British Bahai community.
But the Iranian revolution of 1979, in which Muslim fundamentalists overthrew the shah's regime, shattered his family. With daily images of black-bearded Iranian extremists being televised, the teenage Mr. Djalili felt ashamed and afraid to publicly proclaim his nationality; his father lost all business contacts, not least because of the violent persecution of Bahais by the fundamentalists.
Out of raw need, his parents turned their house into a nursing home and way station for paying, itinerant Iranians. His father became a chauffeur and translator, his mother a cook. Some of Mr. Djalili's earliest comic sketches were imitations of the guests, to lighten his family's heavy hearts.
In keeping with the Bahai celebration of global unity, Mr. Djalili has stepped lightly across international borders. He graduated from college in Northern Ireland and joined a touring experimental theater troupe based in Czechoslovakia — he speaks Slovak and understands Russian. In 1995, his wife and co-writer, Annabel Knight, pressed him to return to England and try stand-up comedy. With his novel viewpoint and bawdy, absurdist sensibility, he found success at a galloping pace. (In next year's film "Modigliani," he plays Picasso "in his porkadelic phase, which comes between the Rose and the Blue Periods," he says.)
And at his East Side hotel, he has a special following. Every Tuesday just before 8 p.m., the bellhops, concierge and doormen draw lots. The loser has to stand guard in the lobby. The others, who include immigrants from Jamaica, Ethiopia, Poland and Bosnia, gather around a TV, cheering for their favorite guest, who, on American television yet, dances and sasses on behalf of immigrants and hotel workers everywhere.
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