Des Bishop

Irish-American comic has a dig at Newry, northern accents and the UDA

The Waterfront is packed to capacity for Des Bishop’s debut Belfast headline performance. He may lack a mainstream presence up north, but the Dublin-based comedian’s RTÉ Two programmes The Des Bishop Work Experience – in which he attempted to survive for one month on the Irish minimum wage – and Joy in the Hood, which featured him travelling around impoverished parts of Ireland mentoring the locals in stand-up comedy, are evidently essential viewing for at least 2,223 Ulster folk.

The Irish American was born in New York City in 1975, moving to Ireland 14 years later to attend boarding school in County Wexford. Dispatching him to the old country was Mrs Bishop’s idea of a sensible solution to her wayward son’s drinking problem – an amusing notion the funnyman riffs on repeatedly during the two-hour show.

Now sober, much of Bishop’s set is based around the peculiarities of Irish life, both real and imagined. Thus we get skits on love, money, sex and religion. Relating an incident at a gig in the loyalist Mount Vernon estate – staged as part of the Joy in the Hood series – Bishop recalls the uneasy irony of an Irish American Catholic cracking jokes in a Belfast bar frequented by UVF members. One gag about the UDA getting ‘two for the price of one’ if they were to bomb the club didn’t go down well at all, he says.

Casually attired in jeans and a t-shirt, the crop-haired, greying Bishop cuts an instantly likeable figure. Profanity is limited to a few well timed swears, with absurdism and witty observation comprising the majority of his routine. There’s a fair bit of ‘fish out of water’ material, such as when Bishop rues his teenage introductions to Irish flora. ‘What’s a nettle?’ he recalls asking after first being stung by the strange, alien plant. His boarding school mates told him to get a dock leaf. ‘What’s a dock leaf?!’

He also speaks of meeting a 16-year-old Irish girl who couldn’t believe the USA-born comic ‘knows us so well’. Bishop’s response: ‘Perhaps it's because I’ve been here two years longer than you.’ It’s a clever dig at both Irish ignorance and American arrogance. Bishop goes on to flag up the unique hostility the Irish have toward the American ‘have a nice day’ attitude. It's just not the way we do things!

Later, the tone turns dark as Bishop tells of attending St Peter’s College, where the paedophile priest Father Donal Collins taught. Father Collins greeted the 14-year-old Bishop on his first day with an explanation of the difference between the American and Irish meanings of the word ‘fanny’ – seemingly innocent then, wildly disturbing now.

How Bishop’s shtick will go down in London and Edinburgh might depend on how many Irish expats turn out, but the Belfast audience is right behind him. He even gets away with deriding Newry, saying he can ‘smell’ the Protestants in the room and mocking the Northern Irish accent – fairly accurately, it has to be said.

Andrew Johnston