New Interview: Katherine Ryan

Katherine Ryan

Katherine Ryan has been on the UK comedy circuit for a few years now but she is currently having a well-deserved surge in popularity. Panel show stints plus her Live at the Apollo appearance in which she sang the praises of Beyoncé's sex face have helped to bring her to the attention of a much bigger audience. It also helps that she is a much sharper comedian now than she was when she first emerged. Like Bridget Christie and Sara Pascoe she wants to talk onstage about the role of women in society but in a funny rather than a pious, worthy knit-your-own-muesli way. She will be addressing the issue and much more in her new show, Glam Role Model, which comes to the Soho Theatre from April 22...

BTJ: You are from Canada. How did you end up in the UK?

KR: I moved here in January 2008. I was really reluctant to come over, my dad was born in Ireland and I'd been going to Cork every year and stayed in nana's house. Everyone I knew was really old and boring. It was all fields and I thought London would be like that. I did not know a lot about the world, but my partner wanted to move to London and said it was the place to be if you want to do comedy and I'd just started. I got here and I was more inspired than I had ever been. People were speaking about Henry VIII and I'd say 'who is that?'. I was 24.

I have an Irish passport but I'm a British comic, everyone from my home town thinks I died. I'm from a place called Sarnia, It's not small, but small-minded, it's a blue collar petrochemical town, near the American border. My dad owns an engineering company and loved it, there was lots of playing in the snow and sun. I'm proud to be Canadian, but culturally and politically I knew nothing. Mum is of Irish descent too - I may have ben conceived there! I ended up in Crouch End and I'm so grateful my daughter has so much access to the world.

BTJ: I just read that Sarnia has been singled out as one of the worst places to move to in Canada, so you are staying here for good then?

KR: People ask me do I want to go to America? Why does everybody want to go to America? It's the most scary, evil republican backwards place in the world. Parts of America frighten me a lot. I'd rather have a career here, I want my daughter to grow up being British. I love Frankie Boyle, Stewart Francis (yes, I know he's Canadian), Milton Jones, Sarah Millican, it changes all the time. I'm really inspired by my peers. Joe Lycett, Aisling Bea, Sara Pascoe, Daniel Sloss, Bridget Christie, we all came up together through the open mic circuit.

BTJ: As you say in your set, you are a single, immigrant mum. How did that happen and how do you cope when on the road? 

KR: My partner and I split up soon after our daughter Violet was born. I was working really hard and really felt sometimes like a single mum. It can be really isolating and scary but we just grew apart. Maybe it's the way of a comedian to be very insular and selfish. I write my own material, I tour on my own, maybe I took the same approach to parenthood.

I had Violet when I was still doing open mics. When you have a child you instantly want them to be proud of you, so it was not a setback, it was more of a push to do more and to have more of a social conscience and be a role model to someone else. I feel a great responsibility to say something with comedy. She's really cool and it's not just me that thinks that. If I'm gigging outside London I often takes her.

BTJ: She has done some gigs herself too?

KR: She did a gig between Alan Davies and Jimmy Carr at a benefit recently at the Union Chapel in Islington. Violet is a big fan of Jimmy Carr. It's funny what they will allow on TV, 8 out of 10 Cats and Mock the Week are blocked and password protected but during the day she can watch This Morning that had a whole week on serial killers. I think it's so wonderful that comedy can appeal to everyone, it's never scary and it often teaches them something. She recently wrote her first joke – what are two things you never eat for breakfast? lunch and dinner. I'm not a stage mum, I treat her like a flatmate. 

BTJ: You've been involved in the obligatory comedy scandal haven't you?

KR: With the entire Philippines. They are very organised in their social media, which is a lovely thing because they have a sense of community and they share art and music, but also their misunderstanding of satire. It was a joke on Mock The Week about unlikely things to hear in a cosmetics commercial. The joke was "We don't test our products on animals, we test them on Philipino children instead." This was about cosmetics companies and I was sticking up for exploited child workers. I never want to hurt anyone. I have been told I'm not welcome so I don't think I'll be gigging there.

I've been relatively scandal-free, but comedy gets people angry too and that's why it is so cool, it shakes things up. 

BTJ: The Jenny Collier story has just happened. How did you feel about that?

KR: The subject of women in comedy is unavoidable, but it gets a bit tiring after a while to open a paper or go on a blog and see the headline "am I a person?" – that's how it feels. I feel I'm the bridge between three generations. My mother is recovering from the time when women were for decoration, who had to be pretty and thin. My mother's mother used to tie a string around her waist to help her stay thin, it was completely acceptable to marginalise a woman as a sex object. Then for me I'm in the middle. I worked in Hooters, the bar which has women in little skirts, and I'm the generation that the more I know and the more I learn about feminism the more I realise that women are treated as currency and not given a voice and rather than making me angry, which it could, I try to let it strengthen my voice. It's my responsibility to be a voice for the women who don't have one.

BTJ: How did you end up in Hooters?

KR: It's not a titty bar, it's all innocently packaged. I was like a pop star who wears very little and acts like a child. I didn't know any better but it was really useful to work there as you are given a license to be a little bit ballsy to engage with the customer. I learnt very quickly that the women who ran that restaurant were the strongest, cleverest, who had something to say and they valued a sense of humour. But I would never work in a place like that again. I became a corporate trainer and made a lot of friendships. I worked in the Toronto branch when I was 18 to pay my way through college where I studied urban planning. I helped to open the only UK branch in Nottingham.

Knowing what I know now I would not have participated in something that made women feel marginalised and like sex objects. I've written a comedy series that is not about Hooters, but is inspired by my time working in restaurants, the idea of really strong women running what appears to be a misogynist environment. I haven't always made the best choices in my life but I have certainly learnt from them. 

(As the interview ended Ryan mentioned that it was when she was working in Hooters that she was diagnosed with a form of skin cancer. She is now fully recovered but wonders if it would have been spotted so quickly if she had not been wearing the bar's skimpy uniform: "Hooters saved my life")

BTJ: So how did you go from Hooters to stand-up?

KR: When I was really small I wanted to be on Saturday Night Live. I think going back to that horrible subject of women in comedy I think people are not motivated to do something without role models and I think at that age I didn't see many women doing stand-up or none that I really felt a connection with. It's important to have a variety of women in those positions onstage and on panels shows. My daughter may never feel she relates to my voice but might be inspired by someone else. 

What happened with Jenny Collier resonates. I had a similar email from another booking agent. I needed to switch something and got an email back saying 'thank you for getting so so and to agree to do your day but if I do that I don't want my lineup to be too female heavy'. i think that was inflammatory to a lot of us, there are a lot of people who have chimed in. I think 99% of comedians male and female understand that a little bit of affirmative action is necessary. These things continue to happen and can be like a set-back. I was in a car after this happened and the gentleman driving me to the television channel said 'what do you do?' and I felt ashamed to answer the question, but I said 'I'm a comedian' and he said 'Oh that's interesting, what do you talk about? Clothes and animals?'  I tried not to engage. He was also quite racist! If you are one of the people who believes women aren't funny you are just as bad as that racist old man. 

To read more about Katherine Ryan click 'next' below on the right...

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