20 February 2006

The stand-up who's sending up Ulster

Belfast Telegraph

'Joy in the hood', a reality comedy show, has taken RTÉ by storm. In it, Irish-American comedian Des Bishop and his production team discover new comedians in some of the most notorious neighbourhoods in Ireland. In just a couple of weeks, they help them create a routine and put on a rollicking gig in a local venue. The last episode of the show - filmed in the Bogside in Derry - airs tonight at 9.30 on RTETWO. Deborah Dundas spoke to Bishop about the show, living in the 'hood and Northern Ireland humour

20 February 2006

Have you heard the one about the Irishman, the loyalist, the republican and the comedian? They all got together, made people laugh, and saved the world with jokes. Okay, maybe they didn't save the world. Broke down a few barriers, built a few bridges, is more like it. But that's not a bad start.

It goes like this. Des Bishop, a middle class Irish-American now living in Dublin, has a certain fascination for working class neighbourhoods. He goes to live in some of the most notorious places in Ireland, north and south.

Each time, for a couple of weeks, he becomes part of the community. But he's got an agenda: his real aim is to put on a comedy show. He puts out a call for auditions, chooses four local people he thinks can do stand-up, sets up a bunch of workshops to help them develop a routine, and then puts on a show.

To make it even more exciting, he tapes the whole process, and develops a six-part series to air on television. It's part reality show, part documentary - a way to showcase the area and to show how issues on the street work their way into comedy.

In his private life, Bishop has done a lot of voluntary work over the years, including working with addicts in Mountjoy prison. He has also often lived in "really bad neighbourhoods" and been attracted to them.

So is his show about giving working class people a voice?

"I don't think it's about 'hear us'," says Bishop. "These days comedy has become a middle class enclave. It was originally a working class enclave, but then middle class comedians became mainstream. I'm one of them, but on the flip side I wanted to go back to working class. I wanted people to use a more modern, alternative storytelling style. I wanted them to make people laugh with anecdotes about their life. It's more real."

Alternative storytelling is tough to do. Just ask Paddy Taylor, one of the four comedians picked for their promise in the Bogside area of Derry.

"You look at everything and you analyse it and break it down, asking why, why, why. It's something I do all the time now, looking at different scenarios, and how to work them into a sketch. I thought stand-up was standing and telling jokes, but it's alternative comedy. It's more interesting and more dangerous. It can go one way or another; go down a storm or like a lead balloon."

The 29-year-old bus driver answered the call for auditions after he saw an ad in the newspaper. "It's changed me a bit," he says of the whole experience.

He thought the workshops were difficult, and that the initial experience of building trust was hard. Not because Bishop was an outsider (Bishop himself points out he's an Irish-American with strong ties to the nationalist/Catholic community) but in order to work together and feel comfortable in the group.

Bishop also found it hard building trust - within the community. "Some people in the community got the impression we were trying to make a sectarian documentary," says Bishop. "We spent a week-and-a-half trying to gain trust." He also says that, because the Bogside is so small, the call for auditions went beyond the strict borders of his chosen community.

As a result, says Bishop, "It became about looking at Derry and the people's identification with a history of what they feel was serious discrimination, violence and intimidation by the British Army. They're proud of their history and I learned a lot about Derry, but I didn't get as connected to that community as some others."

But the payoff was there for Taylor. The gig Bishop and gang set up at St Eugene's Parish Hall in the Bogside boasted an audience of 300 - and Taylor left them crying for more. Bishop has since continued to support Taylor in his burgeoning comedy career.

"He has a lot of faith in me," Taylor says. "It's great encouragement; it makes me feel like there must something there. He's given me the confidence to do this."

Doing stand-up is edgy, says Bishop, like living in a rougher part of town. You never know what's going to happen, but there are strong characters and issues that are ripe for the picking by comedic brains - drug addiction, alcoholism, unemployment, deprivation, neglect, bad planning, single mothers, lack of support networks ...

And he believes there's a widespread audience for it. "Everybody's curious about the bad neighbourhood in their town, but they don't know anything about it," he says.

He also points out that there tends to be a strong sense of community in working class neighbourhoods; something the middle class has lost.

That's certainly true of Belfast's Mount Vernon, a staunchly loyalist area recently highlighted in newspaper headlines about crime, riots and racism, not about how the community is getting together - with an Irish-American in their midst - to laugh at themselves.

Bishop says: "We wanted to do something in a loyalist community more than anything. You never see them on RTE unless they're throwing s***. Nobody ever saw them laughing. I wanted to learn about them; I was curious."

That unfortunate perception is something of which the Mount Vernon community is well aware, so they jumped at the chance to be a part of Bishop's series.

"We're not the community the papers are making us out to be," says Heather Rafferty, a voluntary worker at Community House in Mount Vernon and one of the key organisers of Bishop's stay. "We had been classed as the kids of Mount Vernon doing racial things."

Alan Quail (51) is a reluctant comedian who answered the call for auditions as a favour and ended up being one of the chosen four, and going through the whole process.

"It was unbelievably hard trying to get a concept and elaborate on it and make people laugh," he says. "There are lots of subjects but you need something that relates to the people you're talking to. Because I come from Mount Vernon and we get lots of negative publicity, I picked the idea of people being angry about the papers and took it from there."

Quail gives a sample of some of the jokes he came up with - black, as Bishop suggested, but very funny. "Did you hear the reports about the bomb-making factory down the road? Bomb-making factory! They didn't offer me a job."

The gig was at The Grove - a notorious loyalist drinking hole.

"We gave Des and the crew an insight into the people in the estate," says Quail, "that we're everyday people, just like in Catholic areas. We're all in the same boat.

"If we want to move forward at all in this culture, that's the way we've got to go ... making people laugh."

Both Quail and Taylor point out that the experience increased their confidence: if a professional like Bishop thought they were talented, then they must be.

Confidence building was, indeed, part of the point of the whole exercise, not just for individuals, but for communities as a whole.

"The main problem in these areas is a lack of confidence and belief. People don't believe they're worth s*** so they never even want to achieve anything. It doesn't even enter their minds," says Bishop.

But when a show goes on television and they're "doing their thing and getting a bit of pride that it was done", that's what it's all about.

So did Bishop find comedy different in the north? He thinks that people are into sectarian comedy, particularly the middle class.

He says: "There's a new belief that the middle class is above sectarianism, but they're not. They need to stop being worried about that fact. Sectarian comedy will stop when there's no more need to joke about it."

And what's Bishop's favourite Ulster joke? The one about Ian Paisley being in a coma for 20 years. When he wakes up, there's a crowd around him.

One of the people says: "Doc, we've got good news and bad news."

"What's the good news?" (said in an Ian Paisley voice).

"The good news is Linfield won the All-Ireland Trophy."

"And the bad news?" (that voice again).

"The score was 114 to 110."

Knock, knock, who's there?

Name: Bishop, Des Bishop.

Profession: Stand-up comedian, filmmaker.

Age: Thirty. Born in America, but has lived in the Republic of Ireland since he was 14. Came to Ireland to go to boarding school in Co Wexford after being kicked out of school in the United States.

Education: Boarding school at St Peter's College, Wexford, followed by studying English and History at Uuniversity College Cork.

Professional Highlights: Founded the International Comedy Club in 1998; 2003 - released his DVD, Des Bishop Live at Vicar Street; invited to perform at all of the world's most prestigious comedy festivals in 2005 - Kilkenny, Aspen, Edinburgh and Montreal.

Current Project: 'Joy in the Hood', a television series which looks at making comedy in six notorious communities in Ireland, north and south. The two Northern Ireland communities were Mount Vernon in Belfast and the Bogside in Derry.

Concept: Go into the communities, where Bishop and his production crew audition for four potential comedians. The winners participate in workshops to develop and refine their comedy routines, culminating in a live stand-up show in a local venue.

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