Des Bishop is 40 years young: 'I wanted children in my twenties, it just never happened'
Comedy’s wild child is getting older and he’s not happy about it. Des Bishop talks going grey, having kids and dating a Chinese girl
Published 27/12/2015 | 02:30
On November 12 this year Des Bishop reached the age of 40. Weeks later, on a winter evening in Dublin city, he is still preoccupied by this nail on the calendar. His reason is surprising in a comedian who has always gone out of his way to be different: "It seems a little old to not be married and have kids."
Des was engaged when he was 33, and this is the single thing he will not discuss over two hours of sprawling conversation. Jet lag, since he flew in from New York this morning, is on our side.
Hungry, he drinks a pot of coffee and eats white scones slathered with clotted cream and jam. "Little wee scownes," he says in one of the twee Irish accents that have driven fans wild over 20 years on the scene; then switches back to that cops n' robbers slur he never lost: "D'you waw one?"
Born to Irish-American parents in Queens, New York City, Des has lived in Ireland since he was 14. Something we must appreciate about him, his accent - a thick, creamy brogue one might have thought belonged only to the most delinquent movie villains. Those excised consonants ("motha" for mother, "yeas" for years), that way of packing four words into one; like when he asks me my age: "Wholdayou?"
He's been back in New York caring for his mother, Eileen, who has lung cancer, the same condition his father, Mike died from nearly five years ago. Life has been "all over the place", says Des. His mum has had hip surgery after a fall but she's recovering well and he is hopeful. Christmas will be "pretty low-key", spent in her new apartment, where Des and his two younger brothers will help their mum "adjust, and put an immediate memory in there."
But let's get back to ageing alone. Does the storied jokester really want kids? "I've always been a broody guy. I wanted to have children from my early 20s, it just didn't happen." These days, he says: "I get tired even thinking about starting. That's the one thing, when you're older, you don't have the same energy."
It is sometimes hard to know when he's joking or not. He suggests a few scenarios which would exempt him from parenting right now yet still guarantee him a child - a call from some girl from his teenage years telling him he has a son, meeting a woman who has a child.
"But yeah, I guess I'll have kids. Because I've had to nurture two parents through illness, there's also a part of me that thinks, you don't want to be on your own when you're old, you want to have people around. So it's a selfish reason. It's innate, part of who we are. But if it didn't happen I wouldn't feel like my life is worthless."
Another matter he is coming to terms with is his hair - see his current Irish tour, Grey Matters. On The Late Late Show he recently bemoaned the greying process: "We apologise for the inconvenience, this head is currently under renovation." He has quipped long and hard about the double standard in Ireland which encourages women to die their hair and laughs at men for doing same.
"As a man, I think, we're the lucky ones. If not being able to dye our hair is one of the odd social rules we have to deal with, it pales in significance to all the odd social rules women have to do with."
What, to Des, are the oddest of those rules?
"High heels. I think the torture of high heels is unnecessary, personally."
Next: "It's unfortunate there's so much make-up worn, particularly amongst young people in Ireland." (This one, he grants, "shows my age.")
And his greatest gripe: depilation.
"I have issues with the eradication of body hair and pubic hair. That is something that has evolved in my lifetime. Some people say it comes from porn, some people say it's a trend. I don't like that, 'ugh!'. That 'ugh' is not a fact, that evolved. It wasn't a problem before, it's not a problem in China for example."
Des has got this Chinese thing going on. He has always been attracted to the country. The village he grew up in, Flushing, Queens, has a Chinatown, and he has followed kung fu movies since he was a boy. In this Dublin hotel today, when a group of Chinese bankers start setting up a conference, he grows giddy, declaiming in a twist of pique: "Why wasn't I asked to do the entertainment?"
It began in Waterford. In 2004, when he shot The Des Bishop Work Experience to see what it would be like to be a minimum wage worker in Ireland, he became friendly with Leo, a Chinese Abrakebabra worker. Leo was soon doing the door on the International Comedy Club, then Des went to visit him in China. A couple of years ago Des set up his life in Bejing - even going on a Chinese dating programme. After just two months he and Leo opened a comedy club, and he did to the Chinese what he did to us when he hit the Gaeltacht. He learned the language and gigged in Mandarin, telling the Chinese what they are really like - all documented in his current DVD release Made in China. And in that comedy club, he met an actress, Xuan Xuan (pronounced: Shoon Shoon).
He and Xuan Xuan (25), have been seeing each other since July 2014. In fact, he's messaging her at our table. "It's very difficult ... It's a complicated relationship," he says. He shifts into his trademark objectification of his own life and the people in it for the purpose of fun. "Eventually I will write a book about dating a Chinese girl. There's a lot to learn. There's a lot more people involved when you're dating a Chinese girl than a Western girl." He mentions Confucius the prophet before breaking it down for us Catholic-style: "If we were to think about the Ten Commandments, the Chinese version, the number one commandment would be honouring your mother and your father. There's huge social responsibility towards looking after your parents. And also obeying them." This is irrational, Des says, because China was cut off from the world until 1976, and the young people are worlds apart from their sheltered parents. Has he managed to win over Xuan Xuan's parents?
They haven't met. "A foreigner with a job they don't quite understand, who is 15 years older than your daughter, would not be in the ideal husband category for a Chinese motha."
But Xuan Xuan and he are well matched. She liked the Guinness when she came here. In Bejing, they go out to eat, to the movies, and walk around parks.
Getting back to more general female analysis, he mourns the world's obsession with pictures - which translates, in Des's universe of multiplying followers on Instagram and the like, to a tendency for people to show off their new filler lips, or boast about Botox. "There's something healthy in not being ashamed saying you're getting cosmetic enhancements. But that acceptance of your image being very important I don't think is that healthy. It's unfortunate that a lot of it comes from the Kardashians. They're really not good role models, these people."
He continues, "Mainstream society has really embraced the concept of putting your face in public. With that comes an added pressure on how you look, and an increased significance of how important it is to look good. Sadly, looking good has so much power now, it can be important, you can monetise it, get ahead because of it."
This fine speech collapses. "Don't get me wrong, I love looking at hot girls and everything, I mean I am no saint. Anyone who knows me knows I am no saint..."
He trails off in a way that could only make you want to know more.
Had you just fallen to Earth, you might be surprised to learn Des is a comedian, not a retired footballer modelling underwear, or the face of a new fragrance campaign. The camera loves him - in fact, he reveals that he was on the books of the prestigious Ford model agency as a child. Even jet-lagged in jeans, he seems too clean-cut for comedy, and simply too good looking. Those aquiline features, the speckled tan. The grey hair that is so perfect it looks dyed grey. How is his relationship with his looks?
"I was not that aware of my looks until I started doing comedy. Then a lot of people pointed out, you're good-looking, that's going to work well. A lot of that s*** came from other people saying it to me as some sort of career advantage..." So has a celebrity bod worked against his favour?
"It gives some people an opportunity to dismiss you. They'll try to suggest that your success has something to do with how you look."
This is a topic he will give some weight and consideration to. "I'm not happy about getting older, but I'm more comfortable with how I look now than when I was younger. I'm not in denial. I'm a lot happier with the 'aged' me. I think grey suits."
Des Bishop comes from a "vain" family in which looks had an "inflated importance". His father, Mike, was an actor and model before he began working for Burberry (as Des explored in a hit documentary and subsequent book, My Father Was Nearly James Bond.) His mother is a "looks snob".
"I think I probably care more than the average Irish comedian." It was important to look good in their house growing up. "My dad always said, 'You better watch what you eat, you'll be like a house.' Comments about not putting on weight. Very, very uncomfortable with zits."
But another thing they had was they were funny. "We're all funny. We're very much a joke-around, insult-each other family." He puts this down to a winning combination: "My father was a ham and my mother is like really argumentative."
Indeed, Des was the cause of some of those arguments, when he "flunked" freshman year and found himself in summer school. A cousin stepped in and proposed boarding school in Ireland, and six weeks later 14-year-old Des was walking through Shannon Airport into a country that was "old-fashioned", "innocent" and "bloody damp".
He was sent to St Peter's College in Wexford, "The epicentre of the Ferns Report," he says, referring to a 2005 report into clerical abuse. At least one of his teachers was implicated in the report. "There was a lot of old Irish things there. Catholicism, treating people with disdain, negative attitudes towards sex, towards women." Des was different to the other boys. "I'd already lost my virginity at 14 and started drinking, smoking weed."
When his Leaving Cert failed to impress, a well-appointed relative got him a place in Blackrock College where he could repeat - "that was a major step-up in class. It was an incredible privilege" - and at this most gilded of fee-paying south Dublin rugby schools he began to fit in. He led the cheerleaders, and even went out on the rugby pitch, playing for the Senior Seconds, and once, for the Senior Cup Team, as a prop forward against St Michaels - but someone hit him in that pretty jaw of his and he was out.
Then first year at University College Cork, studying History and English, was a "wash out". He gave up alcohol at 19 and hasn't touched a drop since. His drinking was "so chaotic, and so troublesome", he cannot imagine what his life would be like had he not given up. "If I was drinking, I'd either be dead or in jail."
Then came his real "party years". He joined the UCC drama society, and therefore can claim to have starred next to Cillian Murphy in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness, playing "McIlwaine, the angry Ulsterman". One night Frank Twomey, a former Bosco presenter, was hosting a comedy night at Gorby's nightclub in Cork and encouraged Des to try it out. He was told he had talent.
A month later he headed to the Comedy Cellar in the International Bar in Dublin and "absolutely smashed it." It was the spring of 1997 and he was 21. The country had produced a new litter of comedians in the mid-1990s, with Father Ted on the telly, and acts like Tommy Tiernan, Dylan Moran and The Nualas coming up. Blazing with self-assurance, Des got up at the BBC New Comedy Awards in the Gaiety Theatre with his eye on the prize. Brendan O'Connor heckled him and, Des believes, put him off his stride. He lost.
Des sees life through a prism of absurdity and comic possibility, and is given to constantly defending this position. He puts his private life on stage and sometimes, the area between Des public and Des private becomes all too grey. When asked, for instance, what he meant when he said on The Late Late Show that he thinks about ex-girlfriends during sex: "It was just a jowke. It's so easy to take jowkes and turn them into scandal." Joking aside, would Des be fine with the reverse - a woman fantasising while she is with him?
"Oh they need it," he says. "Women are much more complicated. I mean physiologically, sexually, none of them are the same. So it's really important for women to fantasise, because they know what they like… I think men are simpler to please."
He seems every bit the young gun of his 'party years' when he continues, "I definitely think American women are a little more open about sex. Sweeping generalisation: it's generally harder to get an Irish girl to tell you what she's into… So that can be tough because at the end of the day, the more open you are about that s***, the better it is for everybody. I just hope people are not afraid to be open about what's enjoyable." Under his breath: "My motto when it comes to relationships is what you don't know does not hurt you. That's ideal."
Without alcohol in his life, what about other addictions? "Comedy is an addiction. Performance is an addiction." He's fond of exercising. He doesn't cook. He bought his house in Dublin's Rialto in 2007 and six years later when he leased it to tenants (Chinese), they complimented him on his sparkling clean oven. It had never been used. If he was to cook, he says dejectedly, "I would boil pasta and put some Dolmio in it. I'm not like a home guy." The comedy lifestyle has taught him to live anywhere: Dublin, London, Manhattan, Bejing, Melbourne. Sporty Des loves the ocean. "Playing beach volleyball is my happiest."
A man on the move, it's not even Des's habit to sit down at a desk and write, preferring to do a free gig and bounce new material from a stage. When he does write it's punched out on his phone, which is thin and silver and a little flash, like him.
At 40, Des appears to have Zen-mastered a kind of equilibrium. He teaches me a new phrase: to die. This is what happens to a comedian when their show bombs. "All comedians die sometimes. Nobody laughs. Feels like s***." He has "semi-died" in Manhattan recently, a scene he has not yet cracked.
"But on the flip side, sometimes you have these awesome shows and you think you're a genius. A s*** crowd does not mean you're s***, and a great crowd does not mean you're great."
His philosophy for keeping on is not bad. "Everybody dies sometimes. Dying now is a different feeling. You just get used to it. It's never a great feeling, but it's not a big deal."
How about dying for real? Has hitting another decade made him more aware of his mortality? "I don't have a big problem with my mortality. I'm totally cool with it," he says. "You'd be silly not to have a little bit of fear of what's on the other side. I'm pretty sure it's just lights out. So this is all we've got."
Seeing a parent die has taught him a few things, like to give good care to our older people. "Western society, we're so bloody afraid of death. We don't really respect the elderly like we used to. There's still this gruelling 'Oh, Jesus' about looking after older people. We cherish marriage, having children instead."
And it's taught him to be practical about the dying of the light. "It doesn't matter how good your poems are, you gotta f****** organise your s***!"
'Grey Matters' tours Ireland nationwide, reopening on January 14 at Birr Theatre, Offaly.
'Des Bishop: Made in China' is in stores now. See desbishop.net
Photography by Patrick Bolger