Chinese Comedy and #MeToo: An Interview with Comedian Des Bishop

27 March 2018

American-Irish comedian Des Bishop has been enormously successful performing stand-up, creating multiple documentaries, and appearing on TV around the globe. This year he’s bringing his new show Egorithm to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and we got to hear a bit about it as well as his experiences performing comedy in China and what he might be doing next.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Tell us a bit about Egorithm.

It’s just a stand-up show, really, there’s no running theme behind it. But the show touches on the modern world we’re living in, the algorithms we live by. It’s actually very timely because Mark Zuckerberg has just come out saying things exactly like that; it’s weird how much these people can control our thinking. It’s just about the narcissism of the modern age, our obsession with social media. That’s what inspired the title but it’s not the running theme of the show.

So you’re not one to base your show around a theme?

I have actually done that in the past. I did a show about my dad, I did a show about my time in China. But the last two shows I’ve deliberately not done that. It’s fun to just have the freedom to talk about whatever and just do stand-up.

You’ve also done a lot of TV work. You made Breaking China for RTE in Ireland, and that was about your time in China as well. You spent eighteen months there working on that?

I actually spent two years in China, but the second year was just my own personal decision to stay; it wasn’t part of the show. That was all a challenge of learning the language to do stand-up. But really I just wanted to do a show about China. I was very curious about it, and I wanted to make something that was a bit more fun and about the Chinese people, Chinese culture, and Chinese humour rather than what we always hear, like “China is taking over the world… China has a terrible government… China is full of pollution.” I wanted to do something different to the ‘normal’ very negative spin we get about it in the Western media.

And what sort of conclusions did you come to? Particularly with regard to comedy, is there a massive difference in the humour or the way jokes are told?

There are aspects of what Chinese people do to make you laugh that would be quite different to our humour just based on the language. It’s quite a different type of language. However, when I told my same stories in Chinese to Chinese audiences, they would laugh just as much. There was a very positive reaction from the Chinese audiences, particularly the younger audiences, to the more freestyle kind of stand-up I was doing. That was pretty fresh to them because in the past Chinese humour has tended to be more character based and exaggerated.

When I did my show here in 2014, it was quite hard to get Chinese audiences to come. But the ones that did, they really appreciated hearing humour about their country, their culture, their quirky mannerisms. The stereotype of Chinese people perhaps being more serious or not laughing as much, that’s just not understanding their culture because of the communication barrier. But Chinese people do have a good sense of humour and they do like to laugh!

And have you done much stand-up around Australia?

I’ve done all the major cities. I’m going to Brisbane now in a couple of hours, I’ve done the comedy festival there. I’ve done Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney. I haven’t done the comedy roadshow though so I haven’t done any of the rural stuff. I’ve done Canberra though, which was, you know… that was fine.

On a similar note, what can we be expecting in the coming months and years? Will there be more stuff like your trip to China?

If I was going to try a project like that again it would definitely be Arabic. I’ve been actively trying to get an Arabic version of that going. I haven’t succeeded yet, but it took me five years to get the Chinese project off the ground, so I haven’t given up hope.

Having said that, I just recently moved back to New York, so I’ve mostly been hustling there. So at the same time as trying to get the Arabic project going I’m also doing the more traditional American stand-up route for the time being. Alternately I might end up back in Ireland doing something there, so it’s all a bit up in the air.

And will you be doing your show in Melbourne for the full month of the festival?

Yeah I am doing the full month. I actually wrote the description for the show online months ago, and in it I talk about the male defensiveness to feminism, and the funny thing is that it was written before #MeToo or the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Now everybody expects me to be coming out with some big spot on #MeToo, but I find it very difficult to joke about that. Particularly as a man in his 40s I feel like nobody is dying to hear my opinion. It’s kind of funny that I’ve got a description of my show which doesn’t really reflect what it’s about. That’s the pitfall of describing your show months in advance and having a cultural revolution happen in the meantime!


Des Bishop is performing as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

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