Des Bishop Interview

Des Bishop Made In China Interview

Following the brilliant shows In The Name Of The Fada and My Dad Was Nearly James Bond, Irish-American comedian, Des Bishop, is back with Made In China, taking his audience through his journey of China and the hilarious events along the way. We caught some time with the man himself straight after a gig at Melbourne Comedy Festival, to discuss China, Australia, Ireland and family.

Hi Des, how are you?
I literally just finished a gig.

Awesome, how did it go?
It was good, great! We’re up and running now so can’t complain.

How has Melbourne been treating you?
Melbourne is great. I love Australia and the Melbourne Comedy Festival is great. I feel almost guilty that this is my job.

You’ve done a few shows now of Made In China; what’s the stand-up about?
I hate to say that it’s a travelogue, but it is basically some stories about my time in China and some jokes about learning Chinese. The jokes about learning Chinese are very much entry level stuff. It would be the equivalent of a comedian taking a statistic and then making a joke about the statistic. I take some basic things about learning Chinese and then I make some jokes that are accessible to the audience and then I have some footage about various funny encounters I had, the main one being that I was on the Chinese version of Take Me Out.

You were on the Chinese version of Take Me Out?!
Yeah, after 12 months of learning Chinese.

Oh my God, what was that like?
It was great. I actually have a closing joke, and I forgot to tell it tonight and you’ve just reminded me! [Laughs]

What is it? Tell us now!
The closing joke is that nobody picked me and then the girl that I picked said, “You’re really nice and you’re really handsome, but my mother is only six years older than you!” [Laughs]

Oh no!
Yeah, and then I said “Is your mother hot?” but she didn’t get it…

Haha! That’s amazing.
Yeah, it’s just a fun journey through China and it’s not the usual Western fair about the problems with China and the government – I’m not denying all those things exist, but that stuff is well covered – this is just much more about everyday life for Chinese people. I lived there for a year with a Chinese family, but there’s only so much someone that’s never been to China can take in about China, so I’m very selective in terms of the subject matter that I cover. I cover the pressure on Chinese people to get married and the language, and then I also mess around a little bit with stereotypes and what’s acceptable to say and what’s not acceptable, because there’s a huge difference between what Chinese people find offensive and what Chinese people born abroad find offensive, because they’re two entirely different experiences. Chinese people are confident within themselves as Chinese people, because we think about them as an ethnic group amongst us, whereas they just see themselves as Chinese!

So did you achieve being able to do a show in Mandarin? Are you fluent now?
Well, I do shows all the time in Chinese, actually doing Take Me Out in Chinese is a lot tougher than doing stand-up in Chinese! You can find it online if you’re bored – just Google it, there’s a couple of different versions floating around. I definitely achieved a goal, but in terms of the series the actually goal turned out to not be that important. I did it and that’s great, but the journey to get there was much more important. Even the jokes that I do in Chinese aren’t the jokes that I do about China in English, because they don’t really make sense. If I was to do the stuff I do for Western people to the Chinese people they’re like “come on man, you don’t need to tell us about this, this is our home!” It’s a bit different and plays around a lot with pop culture in China and you’d need to be in China to understand.

So how is Made In China going down with the audience in Melbourne?
I had a bit of a run in Ireland which helped me to figure out what’s funny, but also in Melbourne I get a lot of Irish people at my shows anyway, so I’m yet to tap into the group that I really want, which is Chinese people living in Australia, but the small amount that have come absolutely love it! They think it’s great, they don’t have a huge amount of irreverence humour about China and they’re very open to it because China is a very complex place. But so far, so good. I picked a small venue because I wasn’t sure about the subject matter, which is great because there’s not pressure with ticket sales, however, the crowds are mostly Irish. I’m very much looking forward to playing to Australians and hopefully some Chinese people living in Austraia. And of course, some British people too! It’s not that I don’t like playing to Irish people, but it is a bit strange when you’re at a gig in Melbourne and you might as well be in Dublin!

Talking of Ireland, you did something similar for In The Name Of The Fada, where you tried to learn Irish in order to do an entire stand-up in Gaelic…
Yeah, it was the inspiration for this series. I had an interest in China that goes way back, but I wasn’t particularly interested in doing a TV show about it. After I finished the Irish documentary in 2008, I was reading up the Beijing Olympics and there was a huge interest in China and it hit me one day that this would be a really great way to tell the story of modern China.

Is there something about breaking down communication barriers that inspires you or does it just produce a lot of laughs along the way?
The language thing is much more about getting people understanding and there has to be a motivation to get that understanding. In the case of the Irish language, it was about understanding Irish culture, because in Ireland the Irish language is as much a cultural issue as Shakespeare to people studying English in a British university. It’s a huge part and controversial because people are forced to learn it and some people don’t want to. In terms of China, I thought there was an appetite for the life and times of China, for people to learn a bit more, and the best way to get an understanding is to learn the language. It was really about using that journey to find something unique and offer something different. The language is not so much about finding laughs, but being able to connect with things you’d never see unless you put on the new pair of sunglasses that is the Chinese language: you can start to see things in a slightly different shade.

There must be enough pressure to just do a stand-up, but you go one further by challenging yourself. How do you know whether it will pay off or is that just a risk you take?
With the Chinese one it was definitely a risk. You put a year of your life into China and will people give a shit? There were many times in China – I was loving it – but there was a little part of me going, “My God, will anyone give a shit?” I guess documentary filmmaking, people take those risks all the time. Because I’m a stand-up comedian, I can take a little bit of the risk away by having the ability to spin the story, but you can never be 100 per cent sure.

You’re no stranger to Melbourne International Comedy Festival, or any comedy festival for that matter; how do they compare to national tours? How do you pass the time when you’re not on stage?
In Melbourne it’s really easy to pass the time, because it’s just an exercise wonderland here, there’s a great atmosphere and I run and swim a lot. If we have a day off, I go away, usually with Jason Byrne, the Irish comedian. For me, Australia is ideal, not to mention the café culture is the best in the world. I don’t drink, so for me, waking up in the morning and having two of the best lattes you’ll ever have and a bowl of muesli in a Melbourne café with the paper and writing some notes, is just bliss to me. Any time at Melbourne Comedy Festival is the easiest thing I could do, in fact it might be the happiest that I am, it completely suits my lifestyle. In Edinburgh it’s similar because I have a couple of go-to spots, so for me, comedy festivals are ideal because I’m always travelling, so it stops me in one place for a month, so I’m able to have somewhat of a normal life!

Wasn’t it at Edinburgh Fringe Festival where you brought your Dad on stage?
Yeah, in 2010, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond.

It was one of the most eye-opening projects of yours. Was it hard to get so personal?
Yeah, I guess it was hard, but at the same time, it made what we were going through easier. There was nothing we could do, my Dad was dying, that was a fact. Obviously I didn’t have to do a show and it’s not the normal thing you do when your Dad is dying, but it was exceptional circumstances, he wanted to do it and the story made sense. It made the process of heading towards losing my Father a lot more fun. A lot of people think about the time when their Father was dying and the pain, whereas we think about this amazing journey that we had, how much fun it was and all the family being in Edinburgh. That was an amazing experience.

And you will always have that on tape.
Yeah, it’s weird. I don’t know if I’ve fully grieved because I’ve sort of immortalized my Father in that moment. Sometimes I don’t even feel like I’ve completed the cycle because there’s this time and this documentary, it’s like his life never ended because it ended with such a bang. I do think that the fact that it was so exciting and the documentary came out four days before he died, maybe I missed the sadness of losing him. You can’t second-guess your life. It happens the way that it happens, and that’s that.

You describe your Irish-American background a lot. Has that influenced your route to comedy?
We made fun of each other a lot in our house, we ripped the piss out of my Dad at dinner and I think that’s very Irish behavior – well it’s a little bit British too. Every now and then I’ll get a journalist that will say, “it was too earnest”, it’s very British and Irish that to have feeling and emotion is cheap, everything tends to be a bit sarcastic and overly witty. We had that in our house, there wasn’t a lot of letting an emotional moment be as a loving family, it was always a joke. It makes it easy to get on stage and talk about life’s experiences in a funny way.

What’s next for you after Made In China? Will you challenge yourself with something else?
I’m staying in China for another year. I’m doing Edinburgh and I’ll pop down to Ireland once or twice. I just want to continue doing stand-up in Chinese and get better at it. I don’t have a long-term plan after that. Actually a play that I wrote in Ireland years ago, they’re going to commission it to make it into a series, but that’s not my plan, that just jumped at me literally two weeks ago! But my plan, the one that I’m in charge of, is just continuing to do stand-up in comedy in China and see what comes of that.

Excellent! Thanks for your time, Des, and enjoy the rest of your time in Melbourne!