Des Bishop: interview

Des Bishop Des Bishop - © Ed Marshall
Posted: Tue Apr 19 2011

Des Bishop's latest show deals with his father's cancer. He tells Time Out how comedy can help us cope.

Comedy has more than its fair share of taboo subjects, but it takes a truly brave performer to tackle a topic as personal as family trauma with sincerity and warmth.

In August 2010, Irish-American stand-up Des Bishop received critical and public acclaim at the Edinburgh Fringe with 'My Dad Was Nearly James Bond', a triumph of a show celebrating the life of his father who, at the time, had been recently diagnosed with lung cancer. The hour was poignant and passionate, yet never overly nostalgic, and best of all, enormously funny throughout.

His dad, Michael, gave up an acting and modelling career to raise a family and spent much of his later life feeling he had underachieved. Bishop Jr's aim with the show was to celebrate his dad's successes and prove to his father that becoming a film star wasn't important. It also provided his dad with the opportunity to receive the adulation he had craved by joining his son on stage for the profoundly moving finale.

Since the festival, Michael Bishop has sadly died. His New York-raised son tells Time Out how performing the show now is still a much-needed connection to the man he most admired.

The show celebrates your father's life, but it also deals with some serious topics. Have you felt comfortable talking about your dad's illness so openly?
'When my dad got sick, funny things happened straight away. He said some funny shit pretty quickly. Him dealing with it in a humourous way made it easier to talk about. But just being open to discussing family, relationships and resentments from childhood with my father made me feel comfortable doing a show about the relationship between a father and son. I think it's a good thing to do, to be honest about stuff.'

How have you felt about performing the show since he died?
'There have been a few times on stage where I've thought: This is great, this is a great connection between us. At some stage I will have to let go, and that will probably add to the grief. But that's the shit you have to deal with.'

Have you noticed a change from your usual audience due to the subject matter?
'I've got a fairly big fanbase in Ireland, and when I look out into the crowd with this show I can tell they're different from my normal gigs. But what can you do? People grieve in different ways and cancer is very emotional for a lot of people. It's sold in a really emotional way. But the show's uplifting and it's entertaining. It's more entertaining if you've been through it, actually. Those people share that feeling of wanting to fight for someone you love.'

You talk in the show about becoming the 'parent of your parents' when you started looking after your dad. Did you feel ready for that kind of responsibility?
'I don't have a child, but I think when you become a father that's the moment where you realise you're an adult. That's what happened to me with my dad; it was the first time that true responsibility was thrust in my face. In hindsight, considering my dad had pneumonia for two weeks leading up to the diagnosis, I wasn't once concerned about him. Not once. It didn't even enter my mind that he had fucking lung cancer. What an idiot. He had every symptom that you could possibly imagine. And he was a smoker. I was completely oblivious as to what was going on at the time.'

Looking back, how have you felt about your father turning his back on an acting career?
'Towards the end of his life I could tell that despite all the challenges thrown at him, he still felt the important thing was to have succeeded as an actor. So I've only really felt disappointment bordering on resentment that he didn't come to terms with what he had achieved in life. Until the day he died he was heavily motivated by praise. We're performers, that's part of a performer's personality, whether they like to admit it or not. I wanted to invert the concept of what he thought was his failure into a success. I think the truth hit home when he came on stage and saw the audience applaud his life.'

How did he feel being on stage each night?
'He absolutely loved it. He was only supposed to be in Edinburgh for a week and a half, but he actually delayed chemo to stay an extra week. And he also loved being in the bar after the show, with people coming up to him genuinely full of praise. I'm glad the show could help him achieve that feeling. That was the ultimate bonus.'