As well as being the very first man on the Rapid Sessions, Des is also the first person featured I don’t personally know. I’ve met him, briefly, through friends but don’t have a story to pin to him.
Living in London for so many years, I also missed his stand up and regular TV gigs here. Meaning my first real DB exposure was via his podcast, the aptly named Des Bishop Podcast, which I mainlined for seven days straight once I stumbled across it, to catch up with the weekly drop. Each week – it’s a little less frequent now – he interviews a different comedian, relevant to where he happens to be on the globe. It really is gold, an Inside the Actors Studio vibe, but with comedians.
Des moved from Queens to Ireland in his mid-teens in 1990 and later studied at UCC. For his first Irish TV show, The Des Bishop Work Experience in 2004, he lived on minimum wage in a series of different jobs in Ireland. He went on to make Joy in the Hood (2006), where he taught stand-up comedy in disadvantaged areas of four major Irish cities. In 2007, Des decided to learn Irish from scratch, living with a family in the West of Ireland for 12 months and spawning TV series, In The Name of the Fada. That went on to win an IFTA for Best Television series that year and prompted a radical re-think on how to teach Irish in schools. Des wrote a memoir and stand-up show in 2010, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond, for which he was short-listed for an Irish Book of the Year Award, touring the show extensively thereafter. In 2013 he relocated to Beijing, China to learn Mandarin, simultaneously recording the show Breaking China, which aired on RTE in 2014; and Stand up for China a radio documentary he made for the BBC World Service. Beyond that Des has appeared on countless stand up shows and festivals around the world, from the Edinburgh Comedy Festival to Live at the Comedy Store (Comedy Central). He’s released five best-selling stand up DVD’s and managed to co-write two stage plays in his spare time.
Here he spills his guts on stress addiction, fitting into small spaces and kicking back on stage.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I wanted to be many different things when I was a kid including being a priest in the very early years. Not a bad job for a boy with the name of Bishop. I guess I liked the fact that they were up on stage at the big gig every weekend. For a long time I wanted to be a lawyer. My mother loved watching courtroom stuff on the TV so I was probably influenced by that. I always had a desire to perform in me but I don’t remember saying I wanted to be an actor. I know I had an internal desire but nothing too vocal. I did want to be a journalist as I began to mature though.
What or who were you most influenced by in your mid to late teens?
I was mostly influenced by alcohol and drugs. Originally alcohol took over and from the age of 14-17 it had a very negative effect on my life. I took drugs to try to stop the madness of the booze but it just made me worse and changed my taste in music. I got rid of the booze and drugs but I never lost the love of electro from the drug days. On a more serious note the biggest influence of my late teens would have to be Narcotics Anonymous. The last few months of my teens were spent in those rooms and it gave me a foundation that the rest of my life is built on.
When did you start taking yourself seriously?
Around the age of 21. Firstly I ended up with loads of responsibilities in NA. I also had been properly in love and lost that so I knew about heartbreak. Before I turned 22 I had spent the summer in Dublin and made money working professionally as a comic and performer. I started a college comedy night in the autumn of 1997 and was booking acts and making money (and mistakes). I felt like I was doing something real and of my own making and was probably the first time I felt like I was living my own life. I also stopped taking money from my parents for that final year in College so that independence helped me feel like I had entered the real world.
Did you have a mentor or someone who championed you along the way?
I didn’t really have a mentor but I was blessed with great networks of people. My college friends always joke that we were lucky with the timing that we all came together but I think likeminded people have a way of finding each other. Also I found another great network of comics at the International in Dublin. Both of those groups were integral in giving me belief in my abilities to be creative and to perform. If it wasn’t for the Drama Society in UCC I would never have known that I could perform so naturally. Nor would the NA member who pushed me into Stand Up know that I had a desire to be on the stage. That guy was a mentor to a degree but my time with him was very short.
How do people react when you tell them what you do?
Stand up comedy is one of those jobs, like perhaps a physical therapist, where people automatically want to ask you questions when they hear that’s what you do. I don’t get people telling me that they have a herniated disc but I do get people very curious about how it all works. People also like telling you jokes which can be very annoying. In saying all that, its nice to have a job that people find interesting. You do get a ton of respect from people because it has a reputation for being a very tough job.
In terms of how you work, what is your craft/graft/ instinct ratio?
I am a great grafter in terms of gigging and practicing on stage. I am a terrible worker when it comes to writing to any sort of a schedule. I really need a deadline to write material. Even with a deadline I can be lazy writing jokes. I usually begin tours with an under written script. The plus side to that is I have always found my most creative time is on stage so I like leaving space for the material to grow. When it comes to other types of writing that I need to do, I can be a great worker when someone sits me down and says we need to get this done now. But if it’s left up to me to write a screenplay, a play, a book or something other than stand up I could just as easy let it slide for a long time.
Do you believe in writer’s/ creative block?
I haven’t really thought about it much because stand-up is quite immediate. Life is always happening and it’s easy to see the funny side of things. If I was stuck coming up with stories or narratives I think I could see how I would be bereft of ideas for a while. I would assume that part of it is when you let the committee in your brain judge your ideas before you put pen to paper: that stifles creativity sometimes. I do have to force myself to just put a sentence on the page sometimes even though I think it’s dumb. Its amazing how often it opens a door to something. It’s a cliché but often the action of putting the pen on the page or the fingers on the keyboard is the key to creation in this regard. I often compare it to exercise. No matter how many times I’ve gone for a jog and come back feeling better, it’s just as easy for me to talk myself out of going for one on any given day. I do the same with writing. I have never felt worse after giving some work a go but I can so easily stop myself doing it.
What do you love most about your job?
Performing. Sometimes I find myself in the middle of a climactic moment in a show just noticing how much I love making people laugh and being the centre of attention. Without exaggeration I could say that it is almost a spiritual thing because it really is where I am most happy. Recently, during an exceptionally stressful time in my life, when my mother was sick and our family were killing each other, I remember being about to go on stage and saying to myself “Finally I get to relax!” For most people going on stage is the least relaxing thing in the world.
What do you find most challenging?
I definitely find the writing of things other than stand up comedy to be challenging. I have developed my performance skills so much more than I have developed the skills of narrative. I don’t enjoy that type of writing as much so it can be hard to motivate myself.
What is your super power?
I can fit in anywhere.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken, personal or professional?
I guess becoming a stand up comedian is a big risk but it never felt that way. Professionally, the biggest risk I took was moving to China to make that series for a very small budget. It was a project I really cared about but it didn’t make a hell of a lot of sense in terms of my career. It paid off in the sense that the 2 years I spent there helped me to broaden my goals about what I wanted to do but it was a financial risk that didn’t pay off because it didn’t make any money and also stopped me making money for 2 years.
What’s your biggest fail – professional or otherwise – and what did you learn?
I haven’t thought much about fails in terms of my career. The biggest fail in my life was not respecting the person I was in a relationship with for 9 years. Hindsight is 20/20 and all that but at the time I had no idea why I loved her. That’s another way of saying I was too stupid and selfish to trust that there was more to life than my stupid ego and desire. I can’t look back with regret because I was clueless at the time. I learned too many things from that to write in a paragraph and seeing as this is meant to be about creativity I will spare you the details. It did inspire my show Desfunctional though, which was an attempt at looking at the funny side of intimacy issues and fear of emotion.
What is your relationship with time and ‘time management’?
We have a bad relationship. Every day I push things to the last minute. I am perhaps a wee bit addicted to stress so that helps to feed the addiction. This shows up in other ways though too and can sometimes cost me money. So the relationship is bad and I don’t even have an excuse because I don’t have kids or a dog so I should have plenty of time. I waste most of my time waiting to do things I should have been doing while I was waiting.
What experience has most shaped who you are today?
Getting sober without a doubt.
What would you say to an 18 year old now, hoping to trace your career?
It’s a big world out there, don’t be afraid to try and make all of them laugh, you are much better than you think you are.
The Des Bishop Podcast is free to download on iTunes.