'In stand-up terms, it's a killer finish'
Des Bishop’s new show is based on the life of his father, who has lung cancer – but, rather than being a coping or avoidance method, the comedian says it is a legacy
CAN THERE be a greater challenge for a comedian than getting a room full of strangers to laugh in the face of death? There are not too many people who would suggest there is much comic material to be mined from terminal illness, but for Des Bishop, the question is no longer a theoretical one – it is exactly what he aims to do with his deeply personal new show, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond.
Even for a comic who has displayed a continuous desire to stretch himself and his material – whether that involves making documentaries about learning Irish or working with marginalised communities – this show is a departure, both for himself and for his audience.
“The show is all about my dad,” says Bishop, jetlagged after returning from his family in New York, but still engaging, still full of focused energy. He has been back in the US a lot more in recent months – late last year, his father Michael was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. For many, that would be a cause for private sorrow, but the storyteller in Bishop can’t avoid, or wouldn’t let himself avoid, confronting it in public.
“The show will play almost like a funny documentary, a funny story about a real life, and how illness affects the relationship between a father and a son, how it affects the dynamic in a family, loads of things. It’s me trying to make sense of the most profound moment anybody has in their lifetime – one of their parents heading towards death.”
If these are weighty issues for a comedian to deal with, it seems Bishop feels compelled both to find the humour in the situation, and to compose a fitting tribute to his father.
“I’ve wanted to tell his story since even before he got sick. He was raised in Midleton, then lived in England most of his younger life. He was a physical fitness instructor, but then broke his back on a trampoline and had to find a new job. Somebody suggested he become a model – he was a very good-looking guy – and then acting became his ambition. He had bit parts in Day of the Triffids, Zulu,just bit parts. He was asked to audition for James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, because he was in the same modelling agency as George Lazenby [the Australian model who won the part].
“But he didn’t get it, and he never kicked off as an actor. By 1976, I’d been born, and my parents were living in the States, but he figured it wasn’t stable enough being an actor and model, so he became a retail manager. All throughout our lives, we thought it was really cool that he was in those movies, but he had a lot of regrets, that he had this life and it no longer was.
“I always wanted to tell the story about the contrast between his regrets about not living the fantasy life of an actor and how he gave up that life to raise us in a stable way. That is so much more heroic than any nonsensical James Bond, fickle celebrity thing, which is so meaningless. I wanted to contrast those things.” He pauses. “The heroics of fatherhood. That show I always wanted to tell.”
The process has been made possible by his father’s full involvement – the material Bishop premiered and honed on a lengthy tour of Australia earlier in the year has evolved into a family project. “I don’t think it’s doable any other way,” he says. “My dad is involved in this, he’s a co-writer on the show. It’s only doable because it’s a project we’re doing together; it’s not doable after he dies, it won’t be funny then, because it will be just sad. I’ll be sad. There’s something uplifting about doing a project together, there’s something uplifting about what you learn as a result of your parents being ill, there are loads of strange positives.”
Alongside the My Dad Was Nearly James Bondtour, which opens in Edinburgh for a month-long run before touring here in November, is a documentary, currently being made by film-maker Pat Comer, who worked with Bishop on In the Name of the Fada, the series about Bishop moving to Connemara for a year to learn Irish.
“It’s like a legacy. For a guy who had regrets about giving up his performance, his final act is a big f***ing performance. It’s his life, it’s his life on screen, and it’s a worthy story. That’s flattering, as well as frightening. Pat has a great relationship with my parents, they trust him a lot, but my dad’s a ham, he doesn’t mind giving the access.
“For the documentary, Edinburgh is the focus point. You get a lot of space to do unique things in Edinburgh. The pressure to be funny all the time is different. Conall Morrison from the Abbey is having a creative input, because it’s more dramatic than other shows, and we have a lot of footage and photographs to work into it. It’s definitely the show I’ve put most work into. I’m quite stressed about it.”
Are the show and documentary a type of coping mechanism for the Bishop family? “It certainly counteracts the negativity, all we’re thinking about is the show. But that’s not the purpose of it, we didn’t set out to design a coping mechanism, it wasn’t a conscious decision. It is a great distraction – I have to admit, it’s nice to have this focus point to head towards. The show developed when I was in Australia for three months – I didn’t have a choice, really, because it was the only thing on my mind. When you’re doing a show about your dad, you feel a connection, because every night you’re sharing those stories. I guess that was a way of dealing with it.”
There’s also support from an unlikely source. “Dad’s oncologists love it. With stage-four lung cancer, at best you can buy time, but what’s the point of buying time if you can’t use it? You don’t go through all that bullshit of chemo if you can’t do something meaningful, and what can be more meaningful than doing something with your family? For the oncologists, this is perfect – there’s a purpose to their work, he’s not just watching the World Cup.”
Will people pay to be entertained by a discussion about the prospect of losing a parent, about coping with the regrets that accumulate over the course of a lifetime, or the difficult sacrifices of parenthood?
In Bishop’s assured hands, they probably will – this is a comedian, after all, who, despite making his name as the cocky American who pokes fun at Irish idiosyncrasies, has never shirked away from dealing with difficult, personal issues, whether involving his own testicular cancer or alcoholism.
“The testicular cancer is maybe what allows me to do this show,” he says. “It gives me some sort of a hint of comedic authority on dealing with the issue. I use one of the old testicular cancer jokes to let the audience know how the show is going to go. We’re going to laugh at this stuff.”
The material previewed at recent performances at comedy festivals in Kilkenny and the Iveagh Gardens reveals a delicate balance between the hilarious and the touching – often simultaneously. Bishop’s sincere, honest delivery leaves no room for the mawkish.
“Leave nothing unsaid,” he tells the audience. “That’s the best advice.” Leaving nothing unsaid, it turns out, can be as funny as it is life-affirming – especially when there are heavy doses of morphine involved.
“Everybody goes through something like this,” he says, explaining where the humour lies. “Most people will have an expectation of loss, and the awareness of the loss of your parents being imminent. And most comedy thrives on familiarity, and if sex and everyday life and so on can be funny, why can’t these things like loss and death be funny? These are shared experiences that, once pointed out, people will think ‘I never thought of it that way, even though I experienced it that way.’ We make jokes about strife between men and women all the time, about divorce, and that’s also sad, that’s equally about loss. Why can’t we find the humour in death?”
Listening to Bishop talk about his father – passionate, thoughtful, realistic – you realise that finding the humour in terminal illness isn’t a means of avoidance or a mere coping mechanism. In truth, it sounds like a rather noble way of looking at both life and death.
“We’ve articulated it in the sense that stand-up comedy is all about how you open and how you close,” Bishop says.
“If you look at my dad’s life in terms of a stand-up comedy gig, all the regrets in the middle are irrelevant, because this is a f***ing strong finish. In stand-up terms, this is a killer finish.”