Written and Developed by Des Bishop
Off Broadway, New One Man Show
Runs through 3.29.14
Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street
by Shani R. Friedman on 3.15.15
Des Bishop in Des Bishop: Made In China. Photo by Pat Comer.
BOTTOM LINE: The Irish-American comedian and television star brings his hilarious China travelogue to our side of the pond for a limited engagement.
Your first question as Bishop opens the show singing House of Pain’s “Jump Around” in Chinese is probably, what would compel an Irish guy to tackle one of the most difficult languages on the planet, followed by, damn, he’s pretty impressive! After traveling to China in 2004 for a holiday with his Chinese friend christened “Seamus,” Bishop decided to learn enough Mandarin so that he could go back and perform comedy. Having conquered Gaelic, which opened him up to an audience of 60,000, he decided that the next time he mastered a language “I was going all out – 1.4 billion!”
Your next question might be, why does this Irish guy sound like he’s from one borough over? Born in London but raised in Flushing, Bishop developed a drinking problem as a teenager and was kicked out of school. His mother had the “genius idea” to send her son to boarding school in Ireland. He’s recently moved back to Queens.
Bishop got his chance two years ago as he filmed show Breaking China for Irish television while he lived with two families in Beijing and immersed himself. Just as Seamus had been given a new name, Bishop's Chinese family gave him one that translated to “massive ocean of a life.” As he explained with a mini tutorial, there are four tones in Chinese and if you say them wrong, you say entirely different words. When you speak part of his name – Bi – using the first tone, as he did mistakenly for months when introducing himself, he was actually saying “pussy.” It wasn’t until a French guy at his university clued him in that he understood he’d been saying he was a “vast ocean of a cunt.”
Bishop quickly discovered the benefits and drawbacks of being a white man of a certain age in China where the people are, according to Bishop, blunt as a matter of course, and politically incorrect at times. In the locker room in Ireland, he always wore underwear under his towel, but in China, letting it all hang out, he was told, “You very big!” and realized “I was the King!” However, when he went on a popular dating show called Take Me Out, the ladies were not so receptive. Unmarried women in their late 20s are far less desirable and in Bishop’s case, pushing 40, many thought he was gay (including a Chinese guy at our show who boldly called out the question). When he appeared on the program, his hair, which he’d been dying brown courtesy of shipments of Just for Men from his mother, was more silver/gray due to a late arrival of a package. One of the contestants told him on air “even though you are very old, you are very cool uncle.” That apparently means something slightly better there. Later, when he got on the big dating show (seen by 40 million), one woman told him she wouldn’t give him a vote because she was worried her children wouldn’t be Chinese. Bishop’s unspoken response: “I’m worried our kids would turn out racist, so we’re even!” He wound up winning.
Bishop doesn't get overly political, but he did mention that while shooting his documentary, the government assigned him a censor. The censor told him that he couldn’t bring up the three Ts: Tibet, Tiananmen and Taiwan. As he talked about Seamus walking around the Square, an image of Mao appeared behind him on stage and Bishop remarked, “That fat bastard messed it up for everyone.”
Although Bishop’s show is funny and profane, he does allow for a moving moment as he describes and shows footage of him meeting some older Chinese men who perform a type of singing that will likely die out with them since their children and grandchildren aren’t interested in learning the craft. He said that when they didn’t have props they would just bang on anything, and when it was Bishop’s turn to sing – which he did after sitting with the group’s leader at his freezing home for three hours to study – he did the same, enthusiastically hitting his seat repeatedly. He returned the man’s kindness by teaching him to sing an Irish song, which was both comical and lovely to watch.
The main downside of this production, for me, is its short run time. As Bishop joked, when an Irish woman he’d riffed with told him it was an hour earlier than it was, “she’s trying to get an extra hour out of me!” The show is paced really well, but I could have easily and happily listened to Bishop for another hour, even without an Irish brogue.
(Des Bishop: Made In China, plays at the Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow Street, through March 29, 2015. Performances are Mondays at 7:30PM; Fridays at 9:30PM; Saturdays at 5PM and 9:30PM; and Sundays at 5PM. Tickets are $20-$45. To purchase tickets visit smarttix.com or call 212-868-4444.)