When Des Bishop’s father died earlier this year, the comedian decided to write a memoir about their relationship. Donal O’Donoghue meets him
'The best thing about cancer is time.’ That was to be the opening line in Des Bishop’s book about his late father. It’s not so much a comedian looking for the killer punchline or the positive spin, but someone who has learned how precious time is. In the end, Mike Bishop went gently into that good night: he had made his peace with his family and himself. “You know that time is short and that was the bonus that we got”, says Bishop. “We knew then that it was now or never in terms of being together and being present. That final day was as good as it could be and you have that experience for life. That is a very powerful moment, the moment of death.”
We meet on a Monday morning. Des Bishop spent the weekend playing to expatriate audiences in Madrid and Barcelona. Now he’s back home (he lives in Dublin’s Dolphin’s Barn with his brother Aidan) and it’s two days away from his biggest opening night ever: the launch of his book, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond.
Some readers may already be familiar with the 35-year-old’s voyage around his father. My Dad Was Nearly James Bond was a hugely successful stage show (co-written with his father, Mike, who had been recently diagnosed with cancer) and also an RTÉ documentary. That programme was broadcast last January, just eight days before Mike Bishop’s death. Now comes the book, a moving account of a complex father-son relationship that is also the story of a man who nearly was James Bond and became a father to three boys.
Bishop, who grew up in Queens in New York, describes himself as having been a hyperactive child. That hyperactivity has long since been subsumed by the personality of a stand-up comedian who has battled drugs and drink, survived testicular cancer and been clean and sober since July 15, 1995. Bishop made his name as a mouthy comic with Cork roots (Midleton, to be precise) who cracked wide and sometimes wise on the Irish condition. But he really became a household name with TV shows like The Des Bishop Work Experience (Des does minimum wage work), Joy in the Hood (Des brings stand-up to the working class) and In The Name of the Fada (Des learns Irish). So in the flesh you kind of know what to expect.
Bishop is tall, has a firm handshake and the corners of his mouth curl up as if he’s always on the brink of laughing. Occasionally he rubs his nose (“the exact same way that my dad used to do”) and his accent is broad New York burnished by 22 years of living in Ireland. When he gets excited – as he regularly does – he punctuates his conversation with expletives and his eyes light up. “You know I wrote this in five months”, he says. “There are certain things in this book that I would not have written because I have a better understanding of grief now. But I like the fact that it’s a book about the just-before and the just-after of death. It was written in the midst of intense raw emotion.”
The book naturally evolved from the stage show and TV programme but it is also about unfinished business. When Mike Bishop retired, he embarked on a memoir which he never completed. Now his eldest son has finished the job, complete with extracts from the original memoir. “I had put in a proposal to do a book like this years ago”, he says. “Years before he got sick I wanted to champion my father’s survival and the James Bond thing was just a gimmick.”
If Des Bishop wrote the book to make sense of his father’s life, it has also given him some understanding of his own. “Deep down inside there’s this fear that if all I had in my career was to disappear, life would not be great”, he says. “So what was significant about going through this terminal illness with my father is that you truly realise that it is family that really matters. And the other thing, since my dad died, is that I really want to have kids. In the end, all that mattered to my dad was his wife and children. None of the other stuff really mattered.”
Mike Bishop died on the morning of February 4 at his home in Queens. His wife Eileen and his three sons (Des, Michael John and Aidan) were with him. The atmosphere was peaceful, almost serene. In the days before, Eileen Bishop slept in a bed adjacent to her husband’s and the three boys lay wrapped in duvets on the floor. They chatted about the way things were, the boys said that they would look after their mom and they said it was OK for their father to go. In those final hours, Des would affectionately rub his dad’s head, repeatedly telling him that he was a good person. “His death was ideal really”, he says. “The fact is that we had this year and a half of amazing time and then when he was done, he was done. He didn’t have to hold on. His family was around and it was great.”
Des grew up in the blue-collar neighbourhood of Flushing, the eldest of the three Bishop boys. While he has inherited many of his father’s tics and mannerisms, beneath the skin, Bishop believes that he’s more like his mother, Eileen. “Like her, I’m more confrontational”, he says. “I’m like my dad in that I’m a performer. My father was very cautious about his opinions and didn’t like making people uncomfortable. He was also very image-conscious but my mother was too. In fact, when I started getting pimples, she’d come in at night-time when I was sleeping and wash my face in the bed so I wouldn’t get any more pimples.”
On the day that Ireland beat Romania in the 1990 World Cup, Bishop was expelled from school for unruly behaviour. He was 14 years old and was already binge-drinking. His mother, who knew the telltale signs from her own family, quietly took him to one side to tell her eldest that he was an alcoholic. Her solution was to send him to the land of her ancestors, Ireland. In his stage routines – and in this book – Bishop jokes about the absurdity of sending a kid with a drink people to a nation riddled with alcoholism. “My mother thought that I was f**ked and that Ireland was a safer place for me then”, he says. “In the long term, I think she was right.”
In more immediate ways, however, it was a trip from the frying pan into the fire. School was St Peter’s Secondary School Wexford, where Bishop suffered alcohol-induced black-outs, stole from his classmates and, on one terrible occasion, beat up his best friend in a bout of drunken violence. “I included that story about my friend in the book because I realised, ‘Holy s**t, I’m only 17 but I have a genuine problem’. Then in the summer of my 18th year I called AA, knowing that I was f**ked. There was no great dramatic moment, no major epiphany. Then I had a very quick but intense journey with drugs. While booze caused me the most drama, drugs caused the most internal anguish. By the age of 19, I was alone. I was taking drugs on my own, drinking on my own. I was a binger.”
Des Bishop had his last drink on July 15, 1995. In his book he writes that Alcoholics Anonymous helped to bring him closer to his father. “AA gives you a language”, he says. “It gives you a way of interacting with each other that would have been different to before. It encourages much more honesty between individuals and it encourages you to have closer relationships with men. So my dad and I had that in common. But my father also stopped being this non-presence in my life. I was being a responsible adult and he was becoming an engaged father. When you got down to brass tacks, we suddenly had a relationship where there had been none. It was then that he shared his childhood with me.”
Mike Bishop had a tough childhood. At the age of 15, over a period of five months, he was violently beaten by his mother, who was subsequently arrested and incarcerated in a mental hospital where she had a lobotomy. Her son was sent to a foster home. Des describes his father as a man plagued by what could or should have been. Does he see any of this in himself? “I’d like to think that I’m more aware of it and I challenge it more than my dad did”, he says. “That might be down to the fact that I stopped drinking a lot earlier than he did, it might be down to the fact that I’m more content with what I have achieved or it might be down to the fact that I had a lot better opportunities than he had. I got a better understanding of my dad but in the end he was still this really complex person. In the end, despite all the truth and honesty of illness and death, he was one thing to our mother and he was another thing to us.”
Since February, Des Bishop has been busy with the memoir and his stand-up. He reckons that he hasn’t had the space yet in which to grieve for his father. “Oh yeah, I’ve cried plenty”, he says and adds that he has been in regular contact with his mother, who now lives by herself in Queens. When he describes the loss of his father as cruel but uplifting, he sounds like a man who has had to face his own demons in AA and NA meetings. “Those final few days with my dad are still a massive presence in my life”, he says. “The other stuff is like a lovely nostalgia. It’s only now that the finality and reality is hitting me. But the memories do fade, life does go on and in the end it’s just my mother and us that’s left with the loss. You have no choice but to carry on.”