Mom's the word for comedian Des Bishop in new show Mia Mamma
David Roy chats to Irish American comedian Des Bishop about his powerful new show Mia Mamma which deals with the life and death of his late mother – as well as death itself
PEOPLE deal with grief in different ways. For comedian Des Bishop, the loss of his mother Eileen last March became a catalyst for the Irish American's new stand-up show in which he discusses the impact of her death on their family, her difficult upbringing and their often strained mother-son relationship.
Currently on tour around Ireland, Mia Mamma finds the New York-born funnyman mining comedy from tragedy in a poignant yet frequently hilarious manner that's testament to this veteran stand-up's writing skills.
However, Queens-born Bishop (44) also shared his very much unscripted thoughts and feelings with fans on the very day that his 77-year-old cancer-survivor mum finally succumbed to the cumulative effects of multiple illnesses while in hospice care at the family home in New York: he chose to immortalise his emotionally raw state of mind on an episode of his podcast The Shift, a 'sex and relationships'-based show co-hosted by Katie Boyle – a decision he does not regret.
"I recorded one that night and I did another one five days later on The Des Bishop Podcast," the Dublin-based comedian recalls of documenting his own feelings during that grief-stricken period.
"I mean, it's weird," he admits, "but then again, I'm in the world of being public about things, so I'm definitely glad that I did it. I'll have that for a lifetime now. I listened back to it recently and realised that I'd actually already forgotten some of the stuff that I said."
As for Mia Mamma, that has its roots in the first dates of an Australian tour Bishop embarked upon the week after his mother's death – a series of shows booked months beforehand, during which he unexpectedly found himself opening up to the crowds about what he was going through.
"The great thing about comedy is that you can be immediate with it," explains Bishop, whose mother was a life-long catastrophiser deeply affected by the stress of spending years looking after her alcoholic Irish emigrant parents from Co Cork and Co Antrim.
"You can have an incident on the train and talk about it that night, or you can tell a few jokes about the fact that your mom just died. I did that in Australia. I got on stage and just vomited out about 40 minutes on what just happened with my mom."
While he describes the very first Aussie date as being "helpful" in terms of helping him come to terms with her death, the comic quickly decided to "back off" from such sensitive material during the rest of his shows down under.
"After a couple of days, I realised that I had about 20 minutes of stuff about my mom dying and some funny stories about the funeral and I put everything else [about her] to the back burner.
"I just thought, 'I'll park this for another time, but a show about my mom's death will happen in the future'."
Having previously immortalised his father with 2010's My Dad Was Nearly James Bond, a show in which Bishop documented the impact of Mike Bishop's diagnosis with terminal lung cancer while also celebrating his colourful life – including how the model/actor was once in the running to replace Sean Connery as 007 – it's only fitting that Bishop's mother should also now have her own dedicated show, especially as she effectively set his comedy career in motion.
It was Eileen who decided to ship the alcoholic 14-year-old Des off to relatives in Ireland in 1990 after he flunked out of school (partially as a result of being bullied) and Bishop's affectionately delivered fish-out-water observations on the differences between Irish and American culture formed the backbone of his breakthrough stand-up sets in the early 2000s, prior to him gaining national prominence via RTÉ hit The Des Bishop Work Experience which followed him going undercover in a variety of low-paying jobs.
"It was a lot easier to do the show about my dad," admits Bishop, whose previous stand-up tours have included the Irish language-centric In The Name of The Fada and the Chinese language and culture based Breaking China.
"This one is a little bit more emotionally draining, but I think it's worth it. I mean, I would have preferred my mother not to die, but that day was always gonna come and I'm happy to be talking about it."
As mentioned, Bishop and his mother didn't always have the easiest relationship – but as the comic explains, they were always upfront about their problems with each other.
"We discussed it a lot," he tells me. "All the cards were on the table by the time she had gone and it was a long journey of various different stages of our relationship.
"My mother is like a product of a really traumatic childhood and also I guess the product of her generation too, where everything was falling on the woman. In a way, hers was really the last generation where motherhood wasn't a like 'a job' the way they talk about it now.
"I try to be as honest as I can about my mother's weird stuff; her control, her anxiety and a kind of coldness where love was expressed through actions rather than affection. In Ireland especially, I think there's a real appetite for those kind of jokes because I think a lot of people of my generation and perhaps before can really see themselves in that kind of relationship."
Bishop also finds humour in the universality of the 'death experience', though he also deliberately comments upon how grief can be contrastingly personal.
"It's quite easy to be funny about death because lots of people have experienced it in a similar way," he reasons.
"Their parents will get some sort of diagnosis that lets them know they're gonna die and then they'll go through all the different stages of preparing for that. So there's a lot of stuff about funerals and the 'admin' of death and preparing and awkward questions like, 'Where do you want us to spread your ashes?'
"Whereas grief is dependent on the relationship that you had, the type of person that you are, the culture that you live in, how old you are, how big your family is and so many different things – it's not really like this universal journey: grief is very personal, and I deal with that at the ends of the show which is deliberately not as funny."
Bishop adds: "I finish with a bit more honesty about my mother's journey, like at the end. It's not so much a warning, because she had a good life, but it is a reminder to people that one day it will be too late – so if you are hanging on to too much control, or resentment or you're not allowing yourself to be honest about some of your flaws, there will come a day when you won't be able to make those amends.
"You don't want to be left with any regrets, you know?"
:: Des Bishop's Mia Mamma tour dates include Townhall in Westport tonight, Project Arts Theatre in Dublin from March 23 to April 4 and Belfast's Elmwood Hall on November 21. See Desbishop.net for tickets and full tour dates