Des Bishop knows a thing or two about adjusting to new cultures. Born in Queens, he moved to Ireland in his teens and became a comedy star there. Part of his fame came from his willingness to jump into unfamiliar territory while the TV cameras rolled — he worked minimum-wage jobs and learned to perform stand-up in Gaelic. His latest project topped them all.
Bishop, who plays the Wilbur Saturday night, is back in his native Queens neighborhood of Flushing after spending the better part of two years living in China. There he learned to speak Mandarin to be able to write and perform stand-up for Chinese audiences. This was captured for Irish television for the series “Breaking China.”
It was a strange idea, Bishop admits — a New-York-born Irish comic whose main connection to China was a love of kung fu movies, trying to make Chinese audiences laugh. Even he wasn’t sure he’d be able to pull it off. “At first, everybody was like, first of all, the humor’s different and there’s no stand-up comedy here and they don’t even know what you’re going to do,” Bishop says. “We think you might be able to learn Chinese fairly quick, but what you’re trying to do will be impossible for loads of reasons. To their surprise and my surprise, it was not difficult at all to make people laugh.”
It was helpful that Bishop didn’t go to China and translate the act he was already doing. He wrote new material, in Chinese, based on his experiences. And he was conscious of his limitations as a speaker. “I mean, you’re not going to be writing puns, you’re not going to be writing one-liners,” he says. “You’re not going to be doing mastery-of-language jokes. But what you can do is, you can do funny stories, and you can play to your strengths. Language-difficulty humor is easy to find when you’re in the midst of language difficulty.”
A bigger problem was that Chinese censors go to some comedy shows. Bishop says controversial news topics aren’t general fodder for Chinese comedians. But there were some more underground shows where the fear of a censor would relax. Bishop wrote a rap song about the common wisdom that Chinese news never changes – the government is great, the people are happy, and the West is a mess.
“The joke is, when you’re learning Chinese the best program to watch is the news, because it’s the same every day,” Bishop says. “One of these gigs we knew that the censor was coming so I didn’t do that joke. But, on the flip side, eventually I put it on the Chinese Internet and it’s never been taken down. Anything remotely controversial does get taken down. So you just don’t know what is too far and what isn’t.”
Bishop originally planned to stay for just one year, but was so immersed in the Chinese comedy scene he decided to stay for another. When his second visa was up, in February, he was eager to get back to playing for English-speaking audiences. But he’s still working on developing a Chinese comedy scene, he’s just doing it now in Queens. “I’m hoping to develop regular nights of comedy and food in Flushing,” he says. “Most of the shows would be in English, with Chinese shows when I get the comedians over.”
The show at the Wilbur won’t focus exclusively on Bishop’s time in China, but until his live “Made in China” show is released on DVD, it’s the best way to hear about it. “I have a few jokes to explain my strange identity as a kid from Queens that ends up in Ireland, well before I ended up in China,” he says. “It’ll be a mix of things.”
At Wilbur Theatre, Saturday,at 9:45 p.m. Tickets $25, 866-448-7849, www.thewilbur.comNick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.