Interview: Des Bishop


Before going on stage in the Astra Hall last week, Des Bishop took some time out to talk harrowing shows, middle class Ireland and tackling Chinese with Aoife Valentine

Des Bishop has made his name in comedy by knowing Irish people better than they know themselves. It is perhaps for this reason that his thick Queen’s accent is so startling in conversation. For someone who has so famously immersed himself in Irish life since he moved here from New York at the age of 14, it is somewhat bizarre that his accent has not really gained a hint of an Irish tilt. It’s not completely unreasonable to assume that his American accent is a little exaggerated on stage, to add comedic value to his sets which are based so heavily in observing Irish society. If anything though, his American accent is even stronger off-stage.

It’s difficult to know where to start with Bishop. Though he began his career as just a stand-up comedian, he has since done everything from television and film, to writing a book, to scaling the iTunes charts, to being one of the most well-known ambassadors for the Irish language in the country. With his accent taking me by surprise, cultural crossovers and hybrid identities quickly presents itself as we discuss how Bishop views his ‘Irishness’.

Earlier this year, Irish beauty blog ran their annual ‘50 Fine Things’ poll to find the 50 hottest Irish men of the year. They quickly established that football rules don’t apply, stating that Bishop, along with the likes of Dermot O’Leary and Aidan Quinn, weren’t eligible as the official rules stated candidates “must be Irish”. This small addition to the T&Cs didn’t go down too well with Bishop, who complained via Twitter about his exclusion. Bishop explained: “It was the second year in a row where they distinctly, directly list me as a non-Irish person. I couldn’t care less about the competition, but I was a little offended at being told I’m not Irish. I hate that, actually… They changed it. I just don’t like being told I’m not Irish. I hate that.”

The rules were amended to include a Bishop clause, given the efforts made by Bishop to “become more Irish than the Irish themselves” as well as speaking the language better than most of the people born on the island. This was probably a reasonable exception, given Bishop’s passion for our native tongue. It is a passion borne out of an inquisitiveness which built when he was in school. “I had a curiosity about Irish because I was exempt from Irish at school, but I went to school here so I just had this feeling that one day I might learn Irish. Then when I was making the work experience show, I was chatting with the director about how I always wanted to learn Irish and we had this thing where it was like, wouldn’t it be interesting to go to the Gaeltacht and it took years for it to happen after that, but the idea was kind of borne out of my own curiosity but then my own awareness that I was now able to make television shows, so the two things came together.”

Learning Irish and then broadcasting In the Name of the Fada documenting his journey through the Gaeltacht to sitting the Irish Leaving Cert paper, is how Bishop now finds himself now touring Irish Universities. “Why I started doing [college gigs] was; a lot of teachers show In the Name of the Fada and I did a Fresher’s gig last year and I was really taken aback that that generation of people engaged with me on In the Name of the Fada. It was like ‘Wow, this is a whole other group of people who see me a bit differently’ so I was into it. They’re good fun, the college gigs. I get a weird kick out of how much of a generation gap there is. Basically these people who are watching me tonight are a different generation to me and I can’t believe that’s happened so that’s an indulgence, but also it makes me feel young.”

Bishop may be acutely aware of the age gap between himself and his audience, given how long it has been since he graced lecture theatres as a student himself. It was, however, while he was in UCC that his comedy career began. “I was in the drama society. I did a few gigs, but the following year was my final year in UCC. I ran, with a few people from a brand new comedy society, we ran some shows. With the guys that I had met over the summer in Dublin, because I had moved up to Dublin, I brought down Tommy Tiernan, Joe Rooney, Ardal O’Hanlon. I got everybody down that I had met, they did me the favour and that’s where I got my proper experience.”

Having just turned 37 this week, Bishop’s college days are well behind him. Maybe Bishop was inspired by his college experience when he decided to call his show Des Bishop Likes To Bang; though it seems he isn’t overly bothered by his disappearing youth as he devotes several minutes of the show to talking about the perils of buying hair dye to cover greys for men and how it should be more acceptable. The show, however, has changed somewhat from what it first started out as. Having seen a rough Edinburgh preview show in the Twisted Pepper early this summer, I was curious to find out whether the show had ever properly come together.

In late July, almost to be expected of a preview show, Bishop wasn’t quite sure of most of his jokes or in what order he should tell them. The presence of his niece in the front row seemed to shake him further, as he was conscious of leaving out those jokes that would be inappropriate for her young ears. Just to pile on a little more pressure at the first of four preview shows, this was the first time he had taken to the stage with his harpist and sound engineer. They hadn’t even had a chance to sound-check together, and instead just did it on-stage, as the show was happening.

A little improvisation however, didn’t spoil the premise of the show. Having been given a set of electronic drums as a present, Bishop worked them in to create “a comedy show with a bit of rhythm in it.” Speaking about everything from the Irish hip hop scene to middle class Ireland to period sex, Bishop easily combined his ‘normal’ stand up with segments with some drums, and others with some hip-hop harp-playing by Christiane O’Mahony. Bishop commented on that preview, saying: “That show was the first time the three of us were on stage together ever. The second one that night was actually much smoother even by the second show. I mean, thank god. We were sound-checking live [at the first]. The second show, even from that point of view, was a little bit more organised. It was fun that night.”

However after a number of shows in Edinburgh, Bishop started to slowly phase out the drumming aspect, that the show was originally based around. He explained: “Originally it was like a drumming thing and it worked out that way. By the time we got to Edinburgh, it was like a lot of electronic drums, some sound effects, some music, some normal stand up. It’s not because that show wasn’t good, but I got a bit bored with it. I started to phase out the drumming but I still have a couple of numbers in the show… I fucking tied myself up in knots with it, which actually turned out to be more formulaic than I wanted. I actually wanted freedom and the drumming; I had to actually commit to doing more work on the drums than I expected which was almost kind of like a distraction, an unnecessary one in the end. I figured it out in the end but it took me a little longer to figure out than I wanted.”

The show is noticeably a lot more free and light-hearted than his previous show,  My Dad Was Nearly James Bond, which centred on the story of his father, who was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and has since passed away. Though Bishop is no stranger to talking about difficult subjects in his comedy, having previously done material on his own testicular cancer, it seemed the full weight of this didn’t hit him until he had completed the entire run of shows. He described the experience of continuing to do the same show even after his father had passed away as a way to still feel connected to him, however once that ended there was “another level of loss” as then he really, truly had to let go.

How easy then, is it to move on and deal with much lighter subject matter? Such a vast contrast between the shows must have caused some strain on him. He explained: “I guess it was difficult. It’s easier to do a show like this. It just took me a while to feel comfortable doing normal ass jokes again but once I got into the groove, I realised that doing that show was actually quite difficult but I didn’t notice it at the time because I was consumed by it. That was pretty draining, but I didn’t notice until it was done. Now it’s just great to be able to do whatever, [to have] the freedom.”

However, his new show is not all froth. He was keen to get down to some nitty gritty stuff, beyond how much he likes the ride, even if he wasn’t going to touch on anything as emotionally gruelling as his previous show. As the drums were phased out more and more, it made room for more time to be devoted to the subject of alcohol abuse. Bishop once struggled with alcohol addiction, but has been sober for a number of years now. Though he has previously been a little shy to talk about it, it is something which he now feels is extremely important to get out in the open.

He explained why: “I’ve skirted around the issue in the past on stage sometimes but I’ve always had an opinion that Irish people drink too much and that society is too tolerant of drunkenness. For a few years I thought about maybe doing something with it and then when I started to see all the chatter I thought: “I think I have an interesting way of talking about this that isn’t typical kind of prime time documentary girl-in-a-short-skirt-puking, friend-behind-her-holding-her-hair-back, usual sort of “This is Ireland. We’re disgusting”. I felt I had a bit of a different take on it and also hopefully the confidence to talk about my opinions and other people’s opinions on what’s driving it, rather than the usual ‘booze is too cheap’, ‘people are drinking at home’; maybe get into what’s been driving it along. That’s only the reasons that it’s increased lately, but what’s been driving it that it’s been a problem for hundreds of years. I’m kind of trying to look at it from that point of view.”

Given his focus on Irish people’s drinking habits, was that segment of the show difficult to translate for a Scottish audience during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival? “There’s a big thing in Scotland. They wanted to bring in minimum pricing and then the EU said it was anti-competitive, because they were lobbied by the alcohol companies, which is exactly what happened, so it was relevant enough there; particularly because I focus a lot on wine drinking as one of the strange developments that has added to the increase in alcohol consumption. That’s definitely a British and Irish middle class phenomenon. It’s not just an Irish phenomenon, it’s a middle class thing, which actually goes down well in Edinburgh because it’s quite middle class.”

Following on from the show, Bishop is now working on a television series with RTÉ on Ireland’s relationship with alcohol. He says: “I’m really enjoying doing that material and it’s just taking more and more space and there literally wasn’t enough time in a show. Should be out in like, February or something. It’s commissioned but the transmission date is unknown.”

This isn’t Bishop’s first television series, nor will it be his last. As soon as filming is complete and this run of shows is over, he is planning on “fucking off to China” where he’ll be working on another series, quite similar to In the Name of the Fada, which will centre on him immersing himself in Chinese culture, and trying to learn the language.

Seemingly the Gaeltacht wasn’t enough of a culture shock, and he can’t get enough of different languages. Whether he’ll feel the same connection to China as he did for our little island is questionable however. Perhaps all we can judge that by is how much controversy he causes among the Chinese beauty bloggers, once he’s mastered their native tongue.

Des Bishop is currently touring Ireland with his show Des Bishop Likes to Bang.