Des Bishop on his split: 'She would have had to drop everything - I could support her, but she couldn't support me'
It's been a heady few months for Des Bishop - he lost a relationship, gained some dance moves, and marked 20 years of performing. Having recently turned 40, he takes stock, and talks about alcoholism, intimacy and dodging a demanding would-be mother-in-law.
The first time I meet Des Bishop, just a few days have passed since he was eliminated from Dancing With the Stars, leaving it with just one Des to spare.
It wasn't quite a Brexit or American-election-level jolt, but it seemed a bit unexpected, at least to those under the impression that DWTS is about the dancing. Because Des has made a career out of learning new things, but in a funny way. He had attacked dancing with the same hilarious gusto he devoted to the Irish language or Chinese, and he was one of the best of the celebrity dancers.
And if DWTS isn't about the dancing, surely it's just a ballot on how innately light-entertaining the performers are, and, sorry everyone else, but just look at Des. He bared his chest. He was even gurning and doing hostage eyes during the breaks, like a nervous Eurovision contestant. He went all out with those cape-whipping moves. He seems to have really cared about the result - as evidenced by his Trump-like fulminating about alleged electoral dodginess. The voting got a bit "weird", he was quoted as saying a few days before we meet. And, without minimising the seriousness of that, you couldn't help wondering if there was more at stake for him than mere money.
"Well, I didn't take it as a referendum on my popularity as a performer," he tells me in a firm tone, adding that certain people's entourages got a little overexcited. "There was campaigning going on - there are posters up in Kilkenny."
Was it an unironic sort of thing to do for a person whose stock-in-trade is sly humour? "Other comedians have done it - Jeff Ross, the roastmaster, did it in the States. He told me to do it. Street cred just loses meaning when you hit 40, because you realise that all of the worrying you did about other people's opinion is bullshit. The reaction to the show was great, and it brought an energy to my stand-up that I noticed straight away."
Of course, it's always helpful, as someone who makes their living in the public eye, to have essentially starred in the biggest entertainment programme in television at that moment, I offer. "Well, big is all relative," he says. "It changes over time. When we did In The Name Of The Fada we got 600,000 [viewers]." So put that in your pipe, Teresa Mannion.
In fairness, DWTS could hardly register as more than a blip in Bishop's career, even if he had won the whole thing. His constituency is bigger than one programme's viewers. He's been doing comedy for exactly 20 years last month, and the years have been good to him, not least to his enviably intact hairline.
While other comedians have openly raged about how woeful RTE is at comedy (David McSavage); gone away to ply their trade elsewhere (Dermot Morgan, Brendan O'Carroll, Dara O Briain); or struggled to find any sort of televisual niche (everyone else), Des has basically always been on television. People have grown up watching him. From working low-wage jobs, to learning Irish, to learning Chinese, he's carved out a curious niche of educational comedy - the hilarious mishaps of a fish out of water. It's brilliant in a sense, because 'educational' is the perfect way to sell comedy to people with no sense of humour (RTE mandarins) and then Des could be all funny on the sly for the normal people.
It's also cheap - he was basically doing the year in China for free, he says (but he did get a now-ex girlfriend out of it - which we'll get to). And despite his light-entertainment tendencies and chat-show ubiquity, he can be edgy - he's tackled things like abortion and 'period sex' in his stand-up. He can do quippy news commentary - he recently brought a Daily Show-type programme called This is Ireland to RTE2. He's just dark enough for the kids and cuddly enough for the mammies; while we speak, a mammy type comes up to him and does his famous bit about the "immersion", while he smiles indulgently. And yet, despite his popularity, there was also always a sense that you either loved him or you hated him.
That might be partly because Des's comedy also taps into a very Irish obsession: how the rest of the world views us. His good looks and his big 'Noo Yawk' accent instantly marked him apart, and in his early years he delivered frantic soliloquies on the differences between the two cultures. What stuck in some people's craw, however, was that the punchline was usually done in a roared culchie or Dub accent, which seemed perilously close to an outsider laughing at us; our egos couldn't handle it.
Eventually the snarking about this perception got to Des, too. "I started to hear that shit after Work Experience. I pulled back from it [the Irish-American jokes] and I'll always regret that. You should never listen to critics, even the good ones. It all came after I was successful; before that, nobody fuckin' cared."
His Americanness seems such a defining part of his stage persona that you half wonder if he didn't secretly grow up in Foxrock and just affect the Yank accent after ODing on Friends episodes. But he really did grow up in a suburb of Queens called Flushing Meadows. His father is English, and his mother Irish. It was a fairly middle-class upbringing, which seems to jar a little with his working-class accent, and he says fellow New Yorkers tease him for it.
At school, he was bullied by the son of gangster John Gotti, but thankfully it didn't permanently damage Des's face, which, even then, was his fortune. He was a child model, and spent his days travelling in and out of Manhattan to the Ford Modelling agency, he tells me. So, I wonder, was the teenage alcoholism he's written about kind of a 'Drew Barrymore child star gone wrong' thing? And did it reach our embarrassingly high Irish standards of alcoholism?
"It had nothing at all to do with modelling," he says. "There's a presumption, by people who don't know me, that I had an American idea of what alcoholism is, but that's not true," he tells me, gamely citing examples of puking out the back of Mass, wetting the bed and violently attacking a friend of his. His father, who was himself an alcoholic, took the young Des to an AA meeting once. "And they went around the room and literally everything I heard, except, like, 'I beat my wife or left my kids', I related to." In tandem with all of this, he was "flunking" school, he adds. All a bit worrying at the time, to be sure, but you can't help feeling it doesn't exactly sound like he was Amy Winehouse, either.
Still, something had to be done. To set him straight, it was decided that he should be sent away across the Atlantic to boarding school in Wexford, although he ended up doing his Leaving Cert in Blackrock College. After that, determinedly, zealously sober, he went to UCC and tried his hand at stand-up. Growing up, he'd always felt he'd be a performer, but the first time he stood on stage he felt he was "going to shit myself - not the figure of speech, the actual thing".
He felt the fear and did it anyway, and he was almost instantly rewarded. It was the early 1990s and Irish comedy was about to take off, with the likes of Tommy Tiernan and Ed Byrne making names for themselves, and the Laughter Lounge becoming the first of Dublin's full-time comedy clubs. Bishop did a series of gigs leading up to a night at the Gaiety - which he calls "a type of coming-out party," where he met other ingenues of the era - he shared the bill with Deirdre O'Kane. "I moved up to Dublin for the summer of 1997 and just plugged into the whole thing."
He seems very disciplined and ambitious - the years in Connemara and China would daunt lesser mortals - but perhaps even more key to his success was his willingness to harness so much of his life for his act. After dealing with testicular cancer, for instance, he'd lost a ball, but gained a funny show - the only twinge of vulnerability coming when the very odd idiot in the crowd teases him about it (Hecklers are nearly always men, he later tells me, because men equate being funny with being top dog). His comedy show, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond, about his father Mike's frustrated ambitions as a performer - that Dad had auditioned for James Bond and nearly got the role, before being passed over for George Lazenby - won him rave reviews in the UK and further afield. An eponymous documentary followed Des as he developed the stand-up show, and also chronicled Mike's failing health and impending death. When his father died during the stand-up tour, it left Des wondering if he was "naive" to be dealing with his grief in public. Still, he was glad he made the TV programme. "It was a performance from him; he's acting, no question. But we are so happy we did it. My mother still tells me we are lucky we got that while he was alive."
As you might expect, his combination of comedy and good looks made him very popular with women and, he tells me, comedy groupies are a thing, and, although he doesn't partake, "every comedian I know has found it easy to get women and they wouldn't if they weren't comedians". He has never settled down, although he was engaged when he was 31, something he still thinks about from time to time. "If I had done that, I'd definitely have kids now, and if my last relationship had worked out, I wouldn't be living in Ireland."
Speaking of which, what happened with his recent ex, a Chinese lady in her 20s whom he met on a dating gameshow there - his whole life is light entertainment. They were together a couple of years and marriage had been discussed. Given that he's now turned 40, did he not see a chance at a somewhat belated happy ever after? "Let's call a spade a spade," he begins. "She would've had to drop everything, because I could support her but she couldn't support me. It was one of those things - we still love each other, but with travel and visas and everything it just became very difficult."
This specific issue came up during a tense conversation with the girl's mother. "The first thing she said was, 'What's your plan?' So I gave her my bullshit plan, where we were going to live, what we were going to do and so forth. And she was like, 'Yes, but when are you buying an apartment in Beijing?' And I was like: 'I already have apartments in Dublin, London and New York. I don't need one in Beijing, but, I mean, I'll lie to you if you want'." The end was in sight.
"It's quite interesting breaking up with someone in Chinese," he recalls. "I was telling her, 'I don't really know what to say', but I meant it quite literally; I was like, 'I just don't have the words, so I'm just going to have to leave it there'. She started wishing me well. I could tell that was the Chinese way of doing things. To a degree, I had emotionally moved on by that stage; maybe she had too. I had tried to go to China before and she was too busy to hang out." He can get infatuated with girls and he's spoken about having intimacy issues, but later he tells me, "I've had less of a problem with sex than I have with, say, affection". So he can feel suffocated in relationships? "Yeah."
But, at least, you think, if all else fails there must be a pile of money to snuggle at night. Three apartments in three countries sounds decidedly wealthy, but he mildly protests the idea that he's loaded. "I've done alright but, like a lot of people, I made those recession mistakes. I lost loads on bank shares. It wasn't all my money, but it was a hit. I bought two houses in Rialto in 2005. Don't get me wrong, I'm ok. I haven't made more money than my professional friends; it seemed 10 years ago like that was going to be the case, but no."
And so the graft continues - he's going to Dundalk the day after we meet for another gig - but he still loves mining himself for humour. He takes what gleams and he returns to what made him: emulating his heroes, hurling himself into cultural comparisons and turning out shows that, like a breakfast cereal fortified with vitamins, give the necessary sugar rush while being ostensibly nutritious.
And, so, while 40 is a milestone, it's also a fairly typical year for Des. He's been getting tips from Chris Rock, a hero of his whom he met recently, for his new show. He's toying with the idea of learning Arabic for a TV series. And his new stand-up features a whole piece about whether this former altar boy would even bring his children up with religion. Would the Chinese-ex-nearly-mother-in-law approve? "Well, they don't really have religion," he smiles, before enunciating the Chinese word for Communism. "But at this stage, I don't have to worry about that."
Des Bishop performs at the Tullamore Court Hotel on March 22; the Glenroyal Hotel, Maynooth, on March 23; and at Dublin's Vicar Street on March 24. Tickets from Ticketmaster. For more tour dates, see desbishop.net
Photographed at 37 Dawson St, D2, tel: (01) 902-2908, or see 37dawsonstreet.ie
Photograph by David Conachy
Sunday Indo Life Magazine