The last time I interviewed Des Bishop, eight years ago, he told me that his parents had him late in life.
is father was 39, his mother 35. Late starters by the standards of the time. And now, here he is, at the ripe old age of 47, with a new wife who is 16 years younger than him and keen to start a family.
If Bishop were to become a father now, his own father will look positively youthful by comparison.
“If I could do it all again, I probably would have had a kid in my 20s,” he tells me, speaking on a Zoom call from his home in New York. “As you get older, you realise life is shorter than you think.”
If there is ever a review of decisions made by Gen X-ers, he adds, delaying having children will be one of the things that “we’ll discover was probably a bad idea”.
“And I only say that as somebody who probably thinks you’re going to need the energy for kids – because when you think about delaying kids, you don’t think about lower back pain and the need for naps.
“When you’re 25, you’re like: ‘I don’t want to have a kid. I want to go out!’ And then you get to an age like I am now, where you don’t want to go out anymore. But you’re also like: ‘I don’t want to have a kid either, because I’m too f**king tired, man.’”
Des had reached a stage over the last few years where he’d accepted the fact he might not ever be a father.
He could have lived with that idea. But then he met Hannah Berner, a fellow comedian who he married in New York earlier this year after a whirlwind romance that kicked off during lockdown. And now everything looks different.
Hannah is keen to have a family, and her new husband is on board with that idea.
“She wants to have a kid. So I’m probably going to have a kid. But she is not in a rush as her career is going great. She’s 31. She’s got a bit of time. So, when she decides…”
If it happens, it’ll be a golden opportunity for his friends to exact revenge. For years, he says, they’ve grappled with the sleepless nights and worries of parenthood, while Des enjoyed being footloose and fancy-free.
Video of the Day
“A lot of my friends have had kids and they’re 10, 11, 12, older. Some of the kids are even going to college. My friends always envied my freedom and now they are soon going to be f**king free – and I’m going to be stuck with kids. They are going to get their revenge on me!”
Like her new husband, Hannah Berner is also a comedian of note. She’s one of this year’s ‘New Faces of Comedy’ in Montreal. Her two podcasts, Giggly Squad and Berning in Hell, have racked up over 20 million downloads.
Des describes his wife’s comedy as the observations and the trials and tribulations of a millennial woman.
“Hannah is doing very well and Joanne McNally, who I also care about a lot, is doing very well too. Look at the hordes of women who are going out to see them.
“What’s going on there? You’re looking at a seriously underserved collection of people that didn’t get comedy entertainment. Irreverent stand-up. Irreverent podcasts talking about female-focused issues,” he says. “They f**king can’t get enough of it because they never got enough of it.
“It’s funny. You can complain about the internet, but you must love the internet now because it bypasses the gatekeepers that back in the day insisted women-focused shows be on before 6pm. I can see it so much with Hannah and Joanne and their version of observational comedy.”
He believes this generation of women under 40 “love having voices coming at them that they can identify with”.
“I don’t want to speak out of my ass, but it is amazing to see the demand for these female points of view. It’s fun to watch Hannah doing that.”
Bishop is honest enough to admit that he is not a great person for his wife to bounce ideas off, “because sometimes I don’t know what’s funny about it”.
“And you know what’s so funny?” he says. “People always used to say: ‘Women aren’t funny.’” Attending his wife’s shows where the audience is mostly women, he realises she is talking about “stuff on stage that doesn’t resonate with me. But she’s talking about things that are resonating so hard with these women. They are busting laughing, because of their shared experience.”
I think how women must have had to force themselves to laugh
Watching her onstage brought about a moment of clarity for him. Male comedians, like himself, had been centre stage for so long. But what if they were actually making jokes that half their audience (the female half) didn’t find particularly funny?
“Often women had to sit through so many of us talking about stuff that resonated with us,” he reflects. “I think how women must have had to force themselves to laugh. I do feel that a lot of that has to do with a male-dominated society.”
He’s glad that things are changing and hopes society can “rip the Band-Aid off and be more familiar with the trials and tribulations of a woman of the ages of 20, 30, 40 and 50.”
“And I’m not saying that I don’t find anything that Hannah says funny,” he corrects himself. “I was bringing it up more in the context of we never took account of the fact that we were not giving women enough of the experiences they want to laugh at.”
Des Bishop was born and raised in the neighbourhood of Flushing, in Queens, New York. The son of Irish-American parents, he was sent to boarding school in Ireland at the age of 14 – first at St Peter’s College in Wexford, and later Blackrock College – before going on to study history at UCC.
He first made a name for himself on the stand-up circuit here when he started performing at Dublin’s Comedy Cellar in the 1990s.
By 2004, he had his own RTÉ show, The Des Bishop Work Experience; in 2017 he took part in RTÉ’s Dancing with the Stars. Throughout it all he has continued to tour; Mia Mamma, the stand-up show he wrote about the death of his mother, returns to Dublin for shows in January and April.
His career has seen him spend long stints in Ireland, China and now the States, where Bishop and Berner – and their dog – divide their time between an apartment in New York City and a place in Westhampton, an upmarket coastal resort a few hour’s from Manhattan.
The locals debate whether Westhampton is really part of the famously exclusive Hamptons, or just outside it.
“But I don’t really care. Some people are very funny about what is officially the Hamptons,” says Des. “I’m only out here in the Hamptons this week because we fostered a dog, and the dog – great dog – ended up being a little bit destructive and energetic for our apartment in Manhattan.
“So I’ve been driving in and out every day – doing comedy spots at night in the city, and then driving back out here – so the dog is comfortable.
“This was not the plan. This was Hannah’s idea to give a dog a break from the shelter. Great dog, but too much dog for an apartment in Manhattan.”
I try to avoid anything overtly divisive in my stand-up, because I’m not in the mood for the energy that comes from that
Des is enjoying life in America but says that it is difficult not to spot how divisive things can feel there. Recent political events and then the pandemic have frequently made for difficult conversational terrain, even among friends and family.
“During the peak Trump years, I had people in my extended family who were sympathetic to Trump. We wouldn’t talk about Trump,” he says.
“I have a first cousin who I’m very close with. He’s an anti-vaxxer. He loves Trump. He loves 9/11 truther arguments and conspiracy theories. We’ve a great relationship. I just don’t get into that s**t with him. I make fun of him a little bit, and he makes fun of me.
“There are other parts of America where it’s hard to avoid the heat of politics.”
When Bishop plays outside of the main eastern cities in America, he does not perform material about vaccines or Trump.
“I try to avoid anything overtly divisive in my stand-up, because I’m not in the mood for the energy that comes from that. Saying there is no God in Texas, you will not win.”
What does he mean by that? Does he think that saying such a thing could be dangerous for a comedian in America?
“My concern would be more that some people have very emotional reactions.
I don’t do it because sometimes people get very upset. They can’t let it go and they heckle. Or they just create an atmosphere in the room.
“Some comics – particularly older male comics – have started to shift a little to the right. I can laugh at their jokes that are not my politics but are still funny. I’m not going to get emotionally upset. I’m not going to get into a position where I feel I need to shout, or can’t enjoy the show because this guy has made a joke that doesn’t align with what I believe in.”
Calling people out is the antithesis of inclusivity
Does cancel culture make comedy more difficult for straight white middle-aged men?
“You can’t argue that there hasn’t been very positive change that has come from aspects of calling-out culture. It has been very effective.”
And it doesn’t make it more difficult to be funny, he believes. “I don’t want to say it’s less of an issue than people think. But it’s not as much of a presence as people think.
“I’ll tell you why people think it’s more of a presence. It’s the media – and particularly social media – that thrives on these very hot stories. It’s because you get a lot of engagement for a couple of days on a hot topic, and more often than not there is a lack of context.”
He posted a clip on his Instagram from a TedTalk where US academic Loretta J Ross said that instead of a calling-out culture, we should have a calling-in culture. She argued that it’s counterproductive to attack people for minor transgressions.
“Because all you do is alienate people and create more divisiveness, despite the fact that you say you want more inclusivity,” says Des. “Calling people out is the antithesis of inclusivity.”
“Here’s why I don’t like complaining about cancel culture,” he elaborates. “Every now and then I can see what you might consider people being hard done by, when they’re taken out of context.
“However, most complaints about cancel culture come from people who don’t want to take accountability, who are not happy with positive change, and who’d prefer things to remain the way they are. And I don’t align myself with them.
“The reason I say it doesn’t make it harder to be funny is it just enters you into the arena of pointless online discourse. That’s mostly nonsense discussions about nothing, done over and over again,” he says.
“Most human beings don’t live in a very rigid world – whether it’s right-wing or left-wing, woke or anti-woke. They don’t live within the rigid confines that some people profess. That is a fantasy. But sadly it’s a fantasy a lot of people like indulging in – this sense of: ‘I am perfect, and this person has transgressed – so we’re going to jump on them.’
“Out there, in the real world, most people don’t actually care. They don’t want to get too wrapped up in that.
“When they go to a comedy club, they just want to laugh.
“The only time it seems like you can’t joke about anything anymore is when some clip gets taken out of context online, and runs the gauntlet of the social media reaction.”
What’s the big takeaway from this?
“That cancel culture in stand-up comedy is a bigger issue on social media and in the media than it is in actual fact. The Comedy Cellar in New York makes you put your phone in an envelope for that very reason. They don’t want clips taken out of context.
“Everybody has their agendas online. But people aren’t that stifled in comedy.”
In his 2011 book, My Father Was Nearly James Bond, Bishop described his dad as a man haunted by life’s what-could-have-beens (in 1969, Des’s dad auditioned for the part in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, only to lose out to a certain George Lazenby).
Did that subconsciously feed into Des’s own ambition and drive in life?
“It’s hard to say. I mean, I sort of fell into comedy when I was 21 and I loved it. I was clean and sober then. When my dad was modelling and acting, he was an alcoholic without much awareness of what he wanted from life.
“We have had very different entertainment industry experiences. I was able to put my addictive personality into my work. His got in the way of his work.
“But we kids were lucky because when we came along he just put everything into giving us a good life. That’s why I wrote the book. To honour that.”
He remembers 27 years ago going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with his late father in New York. He has been sober ever since.
Growing up in Queens as part of an Irish-American family, Des was raised to believe in a united Ireland and that the British army should not be in Northern Ireland.
“We were republican growing up. That’s the Irish-American way,” he says. When he does comedy shows in Belfast, he always does the joke: “Oh, the Belfast people love me because they know where the [IRA] money [for guns] was coming from.”
But when he moved to Ireland to attend school, and later on learning history at college, he realised his views of the political situation in Ireland were over-simplistic.
“I came to understand that it was a lot more complicated than just ‘Brits Out’.
“But I was raised in a kind of ‘Brits Out’ atmosphere. We marched for Co Down in the Saint Patrick’s Day parade. We were surrounded by a lot of nationalist and republican propaganda. That was the atmosphere I was raised in.”
When the family house in New York was being sold in 2015, he was up in the attic clearing stuff out. He found some artefacts from his youth, one of which was a drum.
I feel at this stage of the game that I’d be happy if Sinn Féin had a shot
“I guess one of the marching bands used to keep stuff in our house. I can’t remember if the drum said either ‘Brits Out’ or ‘26+6=One’. But there was some very overt nationalist propaganda. We also had wood carvings from Long Kesh with the cell block number on it.
“So that was my childhood, that’s what I was raised in. I’m not saying my mother was right or wrong.”
He adds that because he has a degree in Irish history he doesn’t have the same “simplistic, romantic republican notions that I had as a child”.
However he would like to see Mary Lou McDonald as taoiseach and her party in government. “I feel at this stage of the game that I’d be happy if Sinn Féin had a shot. I think they’re a legitimate political party.”
He is not, however, an advocate of a united Ireland at this present time.
“I feel a race to that right now would not be smart. I would worry about the violence. When you live in America, you can see what divisiveness brings and how close it can get to violence,” he says.
“The North has only had a few decades of no violence. I’m not naive enough to think diehard loyalists are ever going to accept a united Ireland would be good for them.
“But, and this might be my naive nationalism, but I’d like to think that you could end up in a situation where quite a large majority of people up there – of every religious persuasion, or lack of religion for that matter – would think that it’s better for everybody to have a united Ireland.
“I do believe that Ireland as an island would be a much stronger economic and cultural entity. It could punch even more above its weight than it does already.
“I would love a 32-county Ireland, with two major cities like Dublin and Belfast – and an All-Ireland soccer team. It would be better for everybody, but I understand that I don’t have the shackles of a unionist or loyalist identity. I don’t have a sense of that being defeated.
“I have so much sympathy with what loyalism would have to sacrifice to accept that, but that short-term sense of defeat – which it wouldn’t be, but I know some would take it as that – would be taken over by a sense of success, and also by a realisation of the lack of difference.
“There is not that much difference, other than flags and colours of buses. You don’t want to get condescending, but you realise that so much of what you are holding on to is irrelevant symbolism.
“But then again, this irrelevant symbolism has caused wars for centuries. So, I understand it’s complicated…”
On a broader level, he describes himself as a European social democrat. “I believe in good public services. A good return on the taxes you pay. The American healthcare system is a disaster. It hasn’t been looked after, not like the Irish public health system has been.
“Just to make sure that I have basic coverage over here, I pay $650 a month on healthcare, because I’m spending more time here. Years ago, I’d never bother with American healthcare because I was in Ireland most of the time. I’d just get travel insurance when I was coming back here.”
With Christmas around the corner, Bishop and Berner are looking forward to their first festive season together as a married couple.
Des’s earliest Christmas memory is “waking up and coming down to so much cool stuff under the tree”. He smiles at the memory. “Also, waking my parents up at 5am with excitement.” This time of year is hard since the death of his parents (his father Michael died in February 2011, and his mother Eileen in March 2019.) “Obviously if Hannah and I have kids, that’ll bring the magic back,” he muses.
Christmas tends to be a massive booze fest. Does he ever find it difficult around the festive season, given he stopped drinking in 1995?
“The Christmas booze fest is really an Irish thing.” he says. “Even though I’ve been in Ireland since 1990, I haven’t spent many Christmases there. Anytime I have been there, I loved it. I swam in the Forty Foot and had dinner with my cousins, the Gibneys, in Blackrock. The booze thing never bothered me.”
The newlyweds will spend Christmas Eve with Hannah’s family in Shelter Island in New York state.
“The Italian-American side of her clan traditionally consider that night to be the bigger celebration,” he explains. “Then on Christmas Day we will join my cousins, who I’ve always celebrated with since
I have memory.
“And this may surprise some people in Ireland, but I usually do a gig at the Comedy Cellar later that night. New York doesn’t shut down at all. The show goes on.”
Des Bishop brings his stand-up show ‘Mia Mamma’ to Dublin’s 3Olympia Theatre on April 19. Tickets from ticketmaster.ie
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/theatre-arts/comedy/des-bishop-my-wife-wants-to-have-a-kid-so-im-probably-going-to-have-a-kid-42225889.html Des Bishop: ‘My wife wants to have a kid. So I’m probably going to have a kid’