AFTER spending a year in China to learn Mandarin and perform an entire stand-up routine in the language, Irish comedian Des Bishop returns to Melbourne to recount his experience as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Chrisella Sentena caught up with the comedian.
When you think of an Irish comedian, associating China with said comedian would be just about the last thing you would take away from him.
But Des Bishop, who makes a comeback at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this autumn, is unique in that he spent a whole year in China learning Mandarin in an attempt to perform stand-up comedy in the lounge of the Chinese mainland.
His show at this year’s festival, Made in China, recounts his experience abroad in China.
“[It’s] just an interesting journey about China, my year in China, language, and cultural difference and humour. I will chuck in a small bit about democracy and stereotypes and of course a bit about driving. You must after spending a year in China.”
Though primarily based in Ireland, the American-born comedian had in the past, gone to Ireland for a year to stock up on Irish vocabulary to do several shows in pubs in the traditional Irish tongue – all of which is documented on his show, In the Name of the Fada.
In an attempt to challenge himself, the comedian travelled halfway across the world with the intention of performing a full out stand-up comedy gig completely in Mandarin to a native Chinese audience.
And a challenge he got. Despite the frustrating complexity of Mandarin, Bishop admits that there was a beautiful quality about it while he was picking it up.
“Chinese reveals itself slowly. And every layer of the onion that gets peeled away reveals an even deeper and richer aspect of the characters and the way they are put together. But as every layer is peeled away, you realise how much more you have to learn and you do really begin to cry.”
The complexity of the language did not put him off doing a good show though. He commented that the novelty of the stand-up comedy concept in China had complemented well with his simple Chinese.
Chinese youths, especially, loved the characteristic openness of the genre and were vastly entertained by this and his take on their culture.
“[A] funny story is a funny story, especially when it relates to the culture that means something to the people hearing it. Also, there’s an energy and an openness in western stand-up performance that I think the young generation of Chinese are really engaged by.
Learning a language is an important way to understand a culture in greater depth, Bishop believes. In in an attempt to understand the Chinese language better, he made interesting observations on Chinese culture which he used for his stand-up gigs.
“I came to the conclusion that the ever increasing awareness of China on the global stage had failed to help people understand what China was really like – particularly Chinese people.”
Comedy and laughter, was an excellent way to bridge this, thought Bishop.
“Laughter being the universal language is a fitting cliché but I also say that if China is going to take over the world, we better learn to make them laugh.”
In his trademark style, Bishop managed to mash sensitive issues and humour with his personality. He advised future comedians who use personal experience as a source of humour that it is possible to be funny, even when it feels as if your audience isn’t receptive as of the moment.
“You can find the funny if you persevere and when you do it is very rewarding for the audience. You still, however, have the responsibility to entertain when you are in the stand-up arena.”
After a whirlwind of a year in the orient, Bishop reckoned it was time for him to slow down. With a whole camera crew documenting the entirety of his trip, it’s no wonder why he has decided to put a pause on year-long, language learning trips.
“The time it takes is too much of a commitment. I can’t keep escaping into alternative lives. I need to do things like cultivate meaningful relationships and stop playing peekaboo with other people’s lives.”
Nonetheless, Bishop remains upbeat about his trip to MICF this year. With a new set of materials drawing from cultural differences and stereotypes, Bishop’s show, Made in China, looks set to be a hilarious cultural exchange.
Des Bishop will perform alternately between Melbourne Town Hall and Victoria Hotel from March 27 until April 20. For more information on his Made in China shows, visit his event page at the official Melbourne International Comedy Festival website.