Friday, September 3, 2010

The BC Q&A: Des Bishop

When you speak to Des Bishop, the accent is a bit hard to place. It sounds American at the core, a bit of New York, the result of his Queens upbringing. But there’s at least a touch of Irish in there, not surprising, since he has spent the past 20 years in Ireland, where he is a celebrated comedian and television personality and runs a comedy club in Dublin.

Fitting, then that he says some people think the particular stew of speech makes him sound a bit Bostonian. Bishop is back in town Saturday at the Wilbur, a few years after his first appearance at the Boston Comedy Festival. He’s coming on the heels of a successful run of his one-man show, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond, in Edinburgh. It’s a fun but serious show, he notes, dealing with his father’s acting and modeling career, and a battle with cancer the family is still fighting.

I spoke with Bishop earlier this week from his home in Dublin where he was getting ready to leave for Boston.

What brings you back to Boston?

What happened was, I did some one-off gigs in New York leading up to going to Australia. And I thought, I’m always getting e-mails about doing a show in Boston, I want to do a show in Boston. I was going to do the Burren pub in Somerville. Because I actually had been to Boston once in 2008 but it was for a documentary about the Irish language, and I did a little gig at the Burren.

So I was going to do a gig at the Burren, but then I thought, might as well do a theater. An agent I knew in New York suggested the Wilbur, and we booked it in. It was all on a bit of a whim. But then, of course, I went to Australia and I’m just back from Edinburgh and all of a sudden, wham-o. I’m going to Boston tomorrow.

Do you have fond memories of coming to Boston?

Yeah, I love it. To be honest, I’m kind of annoyed at myself for not doing it more. I just wish I’d gone on a more regular basis because I think an Irish-American kid from Queens who lives in Ireland has a lot of things to say to people from Boston. Obviously the whole Irish-American upbringing is a common upbringing in Boston. Even though I was brought up in New York, I think there are a lot of similarities. A lot of people think my Queens accent actually sounds like I’m from Boston.

Then you have that added extra thing of so many Irish people from Ireland that live in Boston. So you throw all those things together, it’s probably a city in the world I should be in more often.

You don’t get the Boston versus New York argument?

I don’t care about that. I’m not competitive with Boston. Plus I’m a Mets fan, and I know that there’s a bit of bad blood over 1986. It’s really a Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, and I hate the Yankees as much as Boston fans do, so I can identify.

Are you doing a lot of the Irish press here?

I did The Emigrant. I must admit, I was a bit late getting on top of it. That was just because I was in Edinburgh doing a new show that I’ve written, and it kind of took off. It kind of went a whole lot better than I was expecting. The whole thing kind of took off and it became sort of all-consuming.

Is that the new one about your father and him almost being James Bond –

Exactly, yeah. All that stuff. So when I booked this in, I didn’t realize that that was all going to take off as well. There’s a part of me that would love to just take that show to Boston, but I haven’t really booked it in that way and I haven’t really organized the technical stuff that goes with it.

So this is going to be a straight stand-up show and not the one-man show that you’ve been touring with?

Well, first of all, it’s not really fair to do that to people who come. As much as I would have loved to have done that show, because it went amazing… It is stand-up, but it has some moments that are not really funny, deliberately. And I think that’s fine for people who paid to see that particular show, but I don’t think it’s fair on the audience if they’ve come in expecting a certain thing and then you give them something else.

But this is going to be a great stand-up show. There’s stuff from that show that will be in it. A good 50 percent of it, to be honest. But it won’t have the sort of through-message of the show that I did in Edinburgh, which was quite powerful, but can be a little bit emotional at times.

How often have you been doing that show?

I just did 30 shows of it with only one night off over the month of August. I did an early version of it in Australia, but then that’s it. I’m doing an Irish tour of it from the end of October. I hope to do a run of it in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Chicago but at a later date when I have some backing in the U.S. I had some people in Edinburgh inquire about it that want to get involved, but I’ve just got to figure out who’s the real deal and who’s not and try to do it properly. You can just get lost in the mix in the United States. It’s just massive.

What is the through-line? I know it has to do with your father and your family.

My dad has lung cancer, so that was the motivation behind it. But her was also an actor and a model before I was born. It was kind of a story I always wanted to tell. Because he did legitimately have an audition on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It was a cute enough story that I wanted to tell it for a long time, in relation to what he did as an actor before I was born.

But it has a new impetus now because he’s not going to be around that much longer. There’s a lot of stuff in the show about his regrets about giving up acting. As a result of learning so much about my father and about families in general from him being sick, there’s also a sort of liberation about how a lot of those regrets are quite ridiculous when you consider what you’ve achieved as a father as opposed to what you feel you didn’t achieve as an actor.

It’s all about what you learn and how liberating, strangely liberating, terminal illness is for a family. So it’s a serious enough story but it’s funny all the way through. It’s hard to describe. In its description, it’s quite serious but actually in its performance it’s quite uplifting. Because unfortunately, we’re all going to have to face death. That’s an unfortunate constant in all our lives. And we are experiencing the road to my dad’s last few days in quite a fun, enriching, and uplifting way.

I try to tell that in a really humorous way and it’s gone down really well. I use a lot of pictures from our lives. It’s quite nostalgic. People’s family lives are quite nostalgic and they’re not as unique as people would like to think. There’s a lot of identification in [the details of] our lives, so people have responded pretty strongly to the show.

Has he seen it yet?

Oh, well that was the great secret in Edinburgh. He got onstage with me 18 nights in a row at the end. Because it’s all about him sacrificing his dream to give us a stable life, so the ultimate gift to a man who’s made that sacrifice is to let him live his dreams and get him back onstage, at least for one more standing ovation, which is what he got 18 nights in a row.

Did he perform anything?

Oh yeah. We had a little bit of banter, nothing major. But he had a few lines. He had the closing line of the show. He had the last word.

It’s too bad you couldn’t recreate scenes from Her Majesty’s Secret Service to show them how it would have been so much better.

You’ve made an assumption that perhaps I have already done. We did a little, probably illegal without any rights, we did a little green screen stuff with Her Majesty’s Secret Service. So the end of the show, it’s very fun, because it’s all about giving my dad that one final performance. But we did do some stuff on Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Would it had been different for him, do you think, if George Lazenby hadn’t been one and done after that?

Well it certainly helped my cause in terms of the show. Because there’s a lot of humor in the fact that it was Lazenby’s Bond that he didn’t get. His performance wasn’t as bad as it has been remembered. But unfortunately he had the tougher act to follow in Sean Connery. And also, his accent wasn’t ideal. And also, he happened to be in the James Bond where they were quite experimental, in terms of Bond’s vulnerability, which was very experimental in terms of the late 1960s. I guess nowadays when they’re experimental with Daniel Craig, it’s more understandable. But society was probably still a bit misogynistic back then.

So there’s loads of reasons why Lazenby’s performance will be remembered as it was. I say in the show that people think my dad was lucky because Lazenby was the worst James Bond, but my father thinks of it more critically and thinks, [if] Lazenby was the worst James Bond, I was worse than the worst James Bond. So it’s hard to know whether that was good or bad that it was Lazenby’s Bond that h didn’t get.

Is it hard to do this show and then go out and do an hour of stand-up and not fall into the show?

The version I did in Australia was less intense, so I have an hour of stand-up that still uses the fact that my dad is ill as a sort of center point without it being too sort of one-man-showy. What I did in Edinburgh, I pulled back on some of the stand-uppy routines that are in it. But when I’m not doing that show, I expand the stand-uppy bits and I pull back on the storytelling bits. But it still sort of tiptoes around the fact that my dad is sick.

I still have a lot of good stand-up about illness, about nostalgia, and about the very humorous realization that you become the parent of your parents when your parents get ill. And there’s a lot to learn when that happens. It’s pretty light-hearted, the concept of that role reversal. It’s a pretty central premise of a lot of stand-up, sort of like, I became a dad and I learned all these things, I got married and I learned all these things. So now it’s like, now I’m looking after my parents, I’ve learned all these things. There’s nothing groundbreaking about that, actually. It just seems groundbreaking because it has to do with terminal illness.

The things that don’t have to do with that, is it harder to break those into the flow?

No, not at all. I would consider that to be my strong point, or the place where I thrive. In fact, it seems a strange thing to say it’s a crutch but I almost have a crutch of using the concept of serious subject matter as the thing that motivates me. It helps me if I think the thing that’s driving my stand-up is stuff that people are uncomfortable talking about. That’s where I become comfortable.

That’s where the better laughs are. You look at someone like Richard Pryor—

Richard Pryor, man, that’s my motivation. The strange thing about Edinburgh is that all the comics started coming to see my show. I wouldn’t have been that type of guy before, the guy that comics would go see. So it’s very flattering. But two of them, on two separate occasions, said they felt it was like Richard Pryor. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I’m like Richard Pryor, but it’s a lovely compliment to get, when the guy that you like the most is seen in your stuff.

He’s the touchstone for that vulnerable bravado, that confessional type humor, where you can’t believe somebody’s saying something this personal onstage.

But it’s the stuff I get the most out of, because stand-up can be so flippant. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good joke, but there is something great about taking a piece of that person away with you. Because it seems to be more useful in life. Don’t get me wrong, I love political humor, too. That has its own uses. I love good, witty play on words. That’s very entertaining. But I come from a life where I stopped drinking at 19, I had testicular cancer at 24. The parts of my life that have been the most enriching have been the parts where I had to be honest with myself. I like when I see somebody onstage being honest, because I feel that I’m getting something a little more out of it than just the laugh. You can take away somebody’s unique experience, you can take away the fact that they’ve shared a bit of themselves. There’s something to learn from that.

I’d assume there’s a fear that comes along with that, that if you’re a career comedian, wondering, is my life always going to be interesting enough to comment about.

Yeah, I guess. But the point is that you’re still living, so life is always throwing things up. And of course, I wasn’t into this in the early part of my career. So I’m sure there will be other things that may float my boat in the future as well.

I guess those fears are always eased by two things. One, you’re always growing. You’re always doing things that you’ll find interesting. And also, the things that drive you creatively are always evolving, too. So in ten years time, I may actually be very motivated by something completely new in terms of humor. But then I might be motivated by the fact that I don’t want to be funny anymore and I want to explore these things in a new way, maybe by writing a piece of drama. You just never know.

So there’s no point in being afraid. I’ve been doing stand-up since 1997 and there were so many different times in life where I thought I’d exhausted the things that motivate me. And I couldn’t be any happier with the show that I’ve just written. In fact, it’s the most satisfying thing that I’ve ever done. So five years ago when I thought, shit, what am I going to talk about now? It seems like a wasted fear, really, you know?

Having spent the first part of your life in New York and the rest of it in Ireland, and touring so frequently, do you ever feel settled?

Well at the moment, no. With my dad being sick, I’ve spent so much time in New York. More time than I have since I was 14 years old. Which has sort of unsettled me again because I guess for the first time in a long time I actually thought, god, I could live in the States. I just hadn’t spent long enough to feel I could do that. So that really unsettled me because my life is based in Ireland. A time like this would do that to you anyway. Four years ago, I would have said, I’m Irish now, despite the fact that my accent is very American. Ireland is my life.

What comes with that, I would assume, is an outsider’s perspective no matter where you go.

Yeah. And I think that’s what happened in Edinburgh. John Bishop, who’s a very successful Liverpudlian comedian who recently broke huge in the U.K. out of nowhere, he actually said that very thing to me. Because I’m going to tour this show in the U.K., and he was saying, it’s about time that you made that move, because even though it’s always been the outsiders view in Ireland, you have an equal outsider’s view in the U.K., and you should exploit that.

And I guess it’s the same when I go to the States, because even though I’m from New York, I have 20 years in Ireland living away. Bill Clinton wasn’t even president when I left. George Bush was president. The first Iraq war hadn’t happened when I left. America has completely changed. I have that whole experience. The boom of the Clinton years, 9/11, the recession – all of those things have happened. So I have a sort of European perspective on that. Even in America, I have an outsider’s view.

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