Acclaimed Irish American comedian Des Bishop will play a series of new shows in Manhattan in March. The native New Yorker first made it big in Ireland as a stand-up, and his series of award winning documentaries have helped make him an international star. Currently in China before his new shows, he tells Cahir O'Doherty about the life-changing moments that helped make his career.
Think of China and three words will come instantly to mind: cooking, conformity and communism. But what most people don't expect is its complexity – or its modernity. Just ask Irish American funnyman Des Bishop.
Next month Bishop is set to return to New York with a new stand-up show about his recent experiences there called "Made in China," which will play a three-week engagement at the Barrow Street Theatre. A hilarious inside look at Chinese culture, the show played to sold-out audiences at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and received rave reviews. Performances will run March 9-29.
Bishop's most ardent fans already know that he's a bit of a brain box. He's as happy reading a three volume history of Ireland or Asia as he is making an audience laugh uproariously. But he keeps that quietly academic aspect under his hat, although the results are increasingly evident.
In just eight months not only did Bishop, 39, succeed in learning a formidably challenging language, he also landed a hosting job at a busy restaurant, started a comedy club and ended up looking for love in a Beijing trade fair for lonely hearts before finding himself on a television dating show seen by over 40 million viewers. Not bad, eh?
Talking to the Irish Voice from Beijing, the gifted New York-born comic admits he first fell under the spell of Asia as a teen growing up in Flushing, Queens. If you were a five boroughs kid in the 1980s, your Saturday afternoons were spent watching Kung Fu films on Channel 5.
Bishop loved them. He also loved rap music. At no point did he imagine these twin obsessions would become an important part of his future.
While he was a teenager his neighborhood was rapidly becoming the city's real Chinatown, so it was impossible not to notice the contribution Asia was making to the life of the city. But that was in his New York past.
Years later in Ireland and the U.K. he became a highly successful comedian and TV personality, so what would make him swap this very comfortable life for an uncertain one in China where he could not even speak the language?
“It wasn't that I wanted to set myself another big challenge,” Bishop says. “It was more a case of one thing leads to another. The quick version is that I met some Chinese guys who became my friends while filming my show "The Des Bishop Work Experience" in 2003. I visited China with them in 2004. So I had a desire to learn their language because I was around them all the time.”
Returning to his accelerating career in Ireland, Bishop filmed "In The Name of the Fada," a documentary about his quest to become fluent in Irish (he did). His intention was to become so proficient he would perform his stand-up in Irish, and he was a sensation.
“When that ended it was accompanied by the breakup of my engagement (to model Jenny Lee Masterson). I thought, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do with my life?’ That's when I thought learning a language to do a comedy show would be a great way to learn about China. It was 2008, the Olympics were coming up in Beijing, the economy was roaring, everyone was talking about the place.”
Learning Chinese would make a good premise for a show, he also realized. “My job was to come up with ideas that I thought people would be interested in so I pitched this Chinese journey and got the go ahead.”
"Des Bishop: Breaking China" aired on Irish TV last year as a six part series that was part riotous comedy, part reality show and part absorbing travel documentary. Bishop’s to-camera insights managed to convey his interest in, frustration with and admiration for the most populous country in the world.
There was a lot to get used to. “Parents getting involved in their children's romantic matches is very common here,” he explains. “In the smaller cities here once a girl is 27 she's considered a leftover woman. There's a little bit of a stigma.
“The Chinese care a little bit about face. It's a losing face situation. So parents start going to these parks on certain days of the week and advertise their kids. It's not arranged marriage, it's literally that they're trying to set you up for dates.
“Since I've made the series I've learned that when there's a successful match it's amazing how fast they get married. It would be a sweeping generalization to say all relationships here are like this, but in my experience of China people look at the practicalities and put a lot more importance on them than we would.”
People will discuss your job and decide if it's good enough; they will tell you if you fall short because you don't have your own apartment. “All these kinds of cold things are discussed in a very up front way in China, which in one way I actually kind of like. But sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong.”
Bishop asked a Chinese girl he was seeing if she would visit New York with him for a month. “She said yes but in her mind if she decided to do this it would mean she would be emigrating and we would be together forever,” he says. “Either this is forever or it’s not. There's no casual let's visit New York.”
The emphasis on family, honoring your elders and your parents, goes all the way back to Confucius he says. It’s not a commandment. It's more than that. It's a lynchpin of Chinese culture, Bishop says.
“There's something kind of nice about their loyalty to their parents. They feel that they can't just disappear when parents get older. They get very uncomfortable at the idea of not being near to them,” Bishop says.
“Even though I prefer that thought of freedom there is something comforting in the fact that they consider that nucleus to be the most important thing. It influenced me in terms of what matters and what doesn't.”
When "Made in China" comes to New York you'll learn about some of the challenges that Bishop set the Chinese too. Barbers were confounded by his western hair and were uncertain how to cut it. Chinese dating styles and attitudes complicated his efforts to find a girlfriend (and so did racism). Bishop pulls no punches in his show, but he clearly loves his adopted country.
It just so happens that the life-altering moment that made his career involved his close Chinese friends as they worked together in Dublin. He didn't know it at the time, but it would help shape the rest of his decade.
“It all comes back to meeting my Chinese friend Leo in Abrakebabra (the fast food kebab shop in Dublin) when I was working on 'The Des Bishop Work Experience' show,” Bishop explains. “My life changed the day that show came out on TV. The concept of overnight success is bulls*** because I was doing comedy shows for years. But the show went out that night and the next day everyone was staring at me in the street.”
"Made in China" will run at the Barrow Street Theatre from March 9-29. For tickets call 212-868-4444.