Omid Djalili: The comedian and actor on how a bizarre night in the theatre prompted him to take up comedy

Omid decided to go into acting even after failing to get into drama school but quickly decided to become a comedian

The first day I went on stage as an actor I realised I was more cut out to be a comedian.

After failing to get into drama school when I left university, I’d decided to give acting a go anyway.

I was 23 years old and appearing in my second-ever play – Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story – at a tiny fringe theatre above a pub in London. It was a big night for me – it was going to be my launch into the world of serious acting.

The one-act play is quite ‘heavy’: it’s about two men who meet on a park bench in New York’s Central Park, and it explores themes of loneliness and isolation.

The opening scene has my character Jerry walk on stage, look at the guy on the bench, then back away and exit stage right before returning to speak to him. It was meant to be a scene full of suspense.

But as soon as I walked on, the audience began tittering, and I assumed – wrongly – that there must be something going on behind me. Then, as I walked off stage, I got the biggest laugh I’d ever had in my life and even a round of applause.

I waited for the laughter to die down, but when I reappeared an ironic cheer went up and someone called out, ‘Hooray, he’s back again!’

This set the tone for the rest of the evening. Everything serious was greeted by gales of laughter – right to the end when my character is stabbed and dies on stage. The audience roared their appreciation but then stayed in their seats, as if waiting for a punchline.

My mother Parvaneh (who sadly passed away in 1995, before I found fame) was sitting in the front row, and fearing that I was hurt she walked over to see if I was alright. ‘Are you really dead?’ she asked.

‘No,’ I hissed back, ‘I’m alright – go away!’ She then turned around to the audience and announced, ‘Don’t worry everybody, he’s alright!’ – cue more howls of laughter. To cap it all, one guy called over to me on the way out and said, ‘Well done, mate – that’s the funniest thing I’ve seen all year!’

Omid as a young actor before trading in his career for a life as a comedian 

Omid as a young actor before trading in his career for a life as a comedian

My career in serious acting died that night, and the director promptly did a runner, thinking I was a jinx! I still don’t quite know why I’d had everyone in stitches. I suppose the audience must have seen something naturally funny in me.

Then again, perhaps I was just rubbish! However, I soon got to wondering if I wasn’t more cut out to be a comedian. And over the coming weeks I took every chance I got to develop my comic persona at parties and family gatherings, and several months later I did my first stand-up gig.

Looking back, it was a pivotal night in my career – and my life. I obviously wasn’t meant to be a serious actor – and while I’ve had the odd straight part here and there since, I’m first and foremost a comedian. If I’d stuck at being a serious actor I’d probably be looking forward to bit parts in Christmas pantos.

Omid Djalili’s memoir, Hopeful, is out now. For details of his current tour visit omidnoagenda.com.

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