Thursday, September 25, 2008

In Conversation with comedian Des Bishop

Des Bishop

By Benito Di Fonzo
Sydney Morning Herald, September 18, 2008

A former altar boy is one of Ireland's most controversial - and constructive - comedians.

"GHETTO tourist is the term I prefer," says comedian Des Bishop when reminded of accusations in the Irish press of being a "ghetto voyeur". It was his 2005 TV series Joy In The Hood, in which he mentored aspiring comedians in poor housing projects, that provoked such comment.

"When you decide to do a project like that there's a couple of things you expect, and one is some journalist is going to say that you're being exploitative, a ghetto voyeur, and you just take that on the chin because you go 'OK, fine'," he says. "But even if that was true it doesn't change the fact that perhaps some of these people will get something out of it."

As it happens, Bishop says at least two of his former mentees are working full time as comedians. Not that that's stopped the controversy in his adopted homeland. The 32-year-old was born the US but has lived in Ireland since he was expelled from school in New York at 14.

"Things have gotten so crazy [in Ireland] that if I say something out of line, it can end up on the front page of a tabloid, even though I didn't really say something out of line."

Bishop's supposed controversy stems from his comedy that often explores social issues such as alcoholism, the plight of the underclass and migrant workers, even Bishop's own battle with testicular cancer. How long after diagnosis does one start thinking of jokes about testicular cancer?

"What happened was very soon after I had it some of the tabloid papers decided to print stories about me having testicular cancer including an enormous front-page headline. I went to the Irish Cancer Society and said I have no interest in publicity about my illness. However, if you can guide any of this in a way that's positive for you guys I would be a hell of a lot happier. As a result of working with them I wrote a [humorous] piece for The Sunday Independent, and that was only within a couple of weeks, and it was in writing that piece that the largest majority of the material came out."

Although punters are always handy with more suggestions. "You'll say something like 'balls' to people and they'll go 'don't you mean 'ball'?"

With his accent swaying between New Yorker and Dubliner depending upon the topic - Catholicism bringing out the Irish, social change the American, Bishop is infamous in Ireland for telling audiences what they don't want to hear and admits he has always been drawn to somewhat dark social themes.

"The positive side of that is that when you can make them funny it helps other people to engage with things that sometimes they don't engage with, but that's the high ideal, in reality people are just laughing, which is fine by me as well."

Bishop believes comedy can bring about social change and remain entertaining.

"I think comedy can work in that way. Like, I did a TV show in Ireland about living on minimum wage [in the fast-food industry]. That did genuinely cause people to look at the way they behave when they're drunk. It was really just people looking and going, 'Oh, my god, is that what [we're] like at two in the morning? Is that the way we treat foreign workers?' "

Bishop himself is a teetotaller. "I stopped drinking at 19 but that wasn't because I went to too many chippers at two in the morning and abused staff. I was just a bad drinker."

The former altar boy also mines his Catholic upbringing for humour. Why does it appear that there is a disproportionate number of comics, and alcoholics, among lapsed Catholics?

"I think there's a lot of shame that goes with Catholicism," he says. "Particularly around sex, but even around expressing yourself and being who you want to be. If you've been shamed on a load of those things it's natural that when you get a voice you're going to want to, like, f---ing liberate those things."


September 23-25, Gaelic Club, Surry Hills, 1300 438 849, $32.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

A Piece of Fonzo-Journalism from the Past

I've been asked to be part of Herding Kites, the 10 year Anthology of The National Young Writers' Festival in Newcastle. I will have the piece I first performed in Newcastle many years ago, "Case Management" in the anthology, as well as performing it at a launch tomorrow night. While remembering those days I found the report I wrote for Revolver magazine in 2001. It's not so bad as I remember, so here it is.

The 2oo1 National Young Writers’ Festival.
by Benito Di Fonzo.

(Originally Published in ‘Revolver’ 8th Oct. 2oo1.)

The ‘National Young Writers’ Festival’ (NYWF) has given the former steel town of Newcastle a fine local tradition. That of writers from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Ballarat, Brisbane and all points in between swilling beer, bourbon and hash cookies as fast as they can scam them, whilst their ‘compoetriates’ rant black rivers of cynicism or blow Utopian hope-bubbles from the stage and street. It’s a great feeling for a two-bit wordsmith like myself, trying to cash in on everything from ethnic stereotyping to performance poetry, to find that all over Australia there are like minded merry pranksters.

At times it feels as if, for one week a year, Newcastle becomes Newtown by the sea, with a healthy dose of Fitzroy and St Kilda thrown in. Electro-ferals and day-glow turntablists share the town with bad-shirted poets, hip-hopping revolutionaries, confused short film makers, pissed street press, and the just plain ‘lost.’ This is because NYWF falls under the umbrella of the ‘This Is Not Art’ Festival, which also includes ‘The National Student Media Conference, ‘’ Sound Summit,’ and ‘Electrofringe.’

Aside from the odd interview for 2SER’s ‘Poetic Off-Licence’ (6pm Tues), I had earned my free bed by volunteering to MC the Saturday Night Cabaret Spectacular. Or something like that. As far as I knew the rest of the weekend could be devoted to ‘finding myself’ as it were. However, NYWF is a strange animal. A kind of drug fucked octopus in a vat of Kent Old. Hence, no sooner had I found Newcastle, found my Hotel, found my old muso buddy Philasophigas, found the Hunter Hotel, and found a likely seminar to attend, than that strange beast’s tentacles sprung maliciously out in the form of Australia’s most violent poet - Melbourne’s Phil Doyle.

Phil Doyle earned his reputation when he pulled a Bowie knife at the first NYWF. At the time it made the papers and got the event some free publicity. Phil Doyle handed me an article he had published in ‘Overland’ criticising NYWF, with particular venom pointed at “the Sydney poets” who were accused of committing what is considered a grave crime in Melbourne. We had made poetry entertaining. I was to defend the charge. Luckily, Philasophigas had bought half a bottle of bourbon off a guy in the street whilst asking directions to the nearest chemist. He left me with the bottle as he was off to see something ‘electrofringy.’ I poured myself a little poets’ courage, studied the article, and vehemently defended the charges. Sydney poets entertaining? Ludicrous!

There were a lot of other laid back yet informative events to attend between drinks. Highlights included Linda Jaivan talking about how to write sexy text, AJ Rochester on comedy writing, and of course the afore mentioned Cabaret night. For the sake of the Melburnians I tried not to be overly entertaining. In the end, failure is it’s own reward.

Of course, come Sunday the brutal reality of being in Newcastle on Grand Final night hit us like a bad simile. The afternoon went eerily quiet as several poets followed local boy and organiser Marcus Westbury’s advice and donned blue and red clothing. There was a sigh of relief when the local team won their little football game.

As a writer, I probably learnt more about humanity on that night than at any seminar, as I wandered through a cross between a kind of footy-yob Reclaim The Streets, and the Star Hotel riots.

“This is what football’s about” said one delirious Novocastrian as he passed me a beer in the street before climbing a traffic light so as to jump into a mosh pit of locals from the roof of the Great Northern Hotel. Now that, I thought, is art.