August 14, 2014 / 2:24 PM / 5 years ago

Irish-American Bishop learns Chinese to break down comedy walls

(Reuters) - An Irish-American stand-up comedian has dramatically increased the size of his potential audience by learning to perform his act in Mandarin Chinese.

Des Bishop, 38, left his home in Dublin and moved to China in 2013 for a year to immerse himself in the language spoken by almost 15 percent of the world’s population.

The result is “Made in China,” a stand-up show in English that Bishop is currently performing to packed houses at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, where he says he can now enjoy “democracy, milk and sarcasm”.

Bishop told Reuters that his interest in China came from “a childhood obsession with kung fu movies”.

“The people are hospitable and great fun, and I thought this would be a great format to tell the story of modern China to the world,” he said in a telephone interview from Edinburgh.

He dedicated himself full-time for a year to studying the language and spoke as little English as possible. His biggest problem was the tonal pronunciation, especially when he began performing.

“In conversation you can repeat yourself, but onstage you have one chance and then the joke is gone,” Bishop said.

It took 8-1/2 months to get to the first gig, but since then he has performed extensively in Mandarin. 


British actor and comic Eddie Izzard has already blazed a trail for multilingual comedy in Europe. After previously performing in French, he is in the process of taking his Force Majeure tour to audiences in German, Spanish, Russian and Arabic - all languages he didn’t actually speak, until made his mind up to prove comedy has no borders.

Bishop, who moved to Ireland from New York as a teenager, made his name as a comic by holding a mirror up to the Irish way of life. In 2007, he learned Gaelic, still spoken in parts of Ireland, though the potential audience is very much smaller than the one he hopes to embrace through Mandarin.

Bishop said the handful of pioneering Chinese comics who concentrate on straight stand-up rather than character-based comedy have quickly become hot property, despite the bureaucratic hurdles.

“To do an official live performance in China you have to apply to the censor and submit the material beforehand, so you’re basically told what you can and can’t say,” Bishop said.

“But all performers do under-the-radar gigs, small places, small crowds, and everyone turns a blind eye.”

Bishop hopes to share his experiences in China - from working as a waiter to encountering disbelief that he was unmarried at 38 - with Western as well as Chinese audiences.

“They (the Chinese diaspora) are more open, and when I’m in a jam for a word, I can use the English word. They understand that, and I can almost achieve the rhythm that I have when I speak English,” he said.

“The stuff in English about China has also been a great success. I’ve been really overwhelmed by how interested people are in seeing a different take on China.”

Editing by Ayla Jean Yackley; Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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