Think becoming a stand-up comedian is tough? Try doing it as a single mother. Katherine Ryan talks to Marie Claire about her journey from Hooters waitress to top comic, her brand-new tour and why married friends can be a financial drain
In the early days of her comedy career, someone told Katherine Ryan she should stop telling jokes about celebrity culture and dress a little less glamorously. If you’ve watched Ryan in action, most recently in her Netflix special Katherine Ryan: In Trouble, you’ll know she ignored this advice completely.
‘I love fashion, beauty and celebrity. The more people told me not to do these things, the more I knew there was a place for them. I think it’s really tribal to talk about celebrity stuff. It’s what women used to do in tribes, they would share information – “Those cherries are poison and, by the way, did you hear about Jane over there?”’
I’ve come to interview Ryan in her north London home and we’re sitting in the kitchen with her very own tribe: seven-year-old daughter Violet, who is busy Googling ways to save an ailing orchid that sits on the kitchen table, and three tiny dogs, Megan (a teacup Shih Tzu), Manny (a teacup Yorkie) and Dolly (a Tibetan Spaniel).
London has been Ryan’s home since she and Violet’s father moved here from her native Canada nine years ago. The pair split amicably when Violet was a baby, and after working in a small string of office-based roles, Ryan decided to make the stand-up comedy that she’d first started doing back in Toronto a full-time job.
Although she seems a resolutely glass-half-full type of person, the early days of gigging sound hard, rocking Violet to sleep in the green room before going out on stage, and carrying her home on the Tube afterwards (‘Yep, my arms got pretty buff,’ she says).
But the slog has more than paid off. Ryan is now the only comedian in the UK besides Jimmy Carr to have her own Netflix special, she’s an in-demand TV host (most recently with The Fake News Show and How’d You Get So Rich?), as well as a brilliantly droll panel-show regular on programmes like Mock The Week and 8 Out Of 10 Cats.
This autumn, Ryan is heading back on the road with a brand-new stand-up tour, called (in an appropriate middle finger to that original comics-shouldn’t-be-glamorous naysayer) Glitter Room. If the pair of sparkly Gucci heels sitting by her front door is anything to go by, she’s got the footwear covered.
You joke a lot about pop culture in your stand-up. Is there always a battle to keep it fresh?
‘I never write the show too early because I talk a lot about celebrities, probably less so in this show, but it’s still there. With Twitter now, we have this ecosystem where it blows up one day and it’s done. They used to say if your story’s in the Sunday papers two Sundays in a row, you’re in big trouble. Now you could do the worst thing ever, it blows up on social media one day and the next day it’s fine.’
Who is your biggest source of inspiration?
‘I love the Kardashians. I do think it’s a stretch to call them underdogs because they are very powerful and they have everything, but people say, “Oh, they’re famous for nothing, they do nothing,” and we know that’s not true. [I think] Kris Jenner is a visionary. You have to make some terrible compromises to find that level of success, so who knows what deals she brokered, but I love them.’
Does Violet ever come on tour with you?
‘She used to when she was a baby. I would read her stories while the support act was on. We’d bring a blanket and pillow and she’d fall asleep on the couch. Now we have a tour manager and a driver, so she can come on weekends, but I go home every night to do the school run in the morning, so that bit of touring is a little bit… The [male comedians] I know – and I hate to draw the comparison because they’re wonderful feminist men I really love – tend to go, “Why don’t you stay in a hotel?” like they do before their next gig. I feel like I don’t know any [male comedians] who come home every night to do the school run.’
Was there ever a point in the early days when you thought of quitting and doing a nine-to-five job instead?
‘I worked nine-to-five on a website called Fashion Monitor. I was the person ringing up going, “Hi, do you want to renew your subscription?” Then I got into account manager stuff. It just wasn’t suited to me, and it was also next to impossible to live in London on that salary because I was very junior. I’ve never forgotten how hard it is to be on a nine-to-five, every day, working for someone else.’
You worked as a waitress at Hooters when you were still living in Canada. What did you learn from that experience?
‘That you can turn anything into a matriarchy. It’s interesting with power and the pay gap. If you looked at the big picture, then at Hooters men were in charge of us and men probably earned more than us, but within our restaurant setting we were all-powerful. I also found the women there who had the most intelligence and the most chat made the most money, got the best shifts and were the most liked. Because I’m a product of my generation, I went into that job thinking that the best thing you could be is pretty.’
Was there a single moment when you realised you could make people laugh for a living?
‘No, I’m totally a comedian by accident and I’m not that funny in a group setting. I was never a class clown. I meet all kinds of people who go, “Jamie here, he should be a comedian, he’s funny.” But I’m like, that’s not the guy who ends up being a comedian. It’s actually that strange, weird, introspective person who has a funny way of looking at things. I was doing stand-up comedy [in Canada] just for fun, like a Zumba class. I never thought it would be my job. I come from quite an academic, traditional background. My parents were like, “You have to go to university, then you should do something technical.” I purposely chose a big city to go to university – Toronto – and that’s when I got into doing stand-up.’
You do a lot of TV panel shows. How do you find that jostling environment?
‘I love the panel-show format. There’s this whole conversation that it’s suited to men, but with stand-up comedy or a panel show it’s not really masculine, it’s alpha. I think the confusion is for so long we’ve equated masculinity with being alpha. You just have to be prepared to interrupt someone a little bit and raise your voice to get your joke in. Anyone can do that, man or woman.’
Besides the tour, what’s on the cards?
‘Well, I’m going to be single for ten years. I’m on a manbatical, [a term] coined by my friend Claire. In ten years, I’ll be the same age as, like, Louise Redknapp, who’s an absolute babe. And if I don’t have a boyfriend until I’m 75, that’ll be fine. I want to do up the house and I don’t need to get sign-off on wallpaper from anyone – it’s amazing. Are you married?’
‘A lot of my friends are married. I do think companionship is a lovely thing to have. My friend has this incredible partner who I call rent-a-husband, because I take him to some red-carpet things, or he changes the light bulbs. But we do have to hide Botox from him. I wanted to go with my friend to have Botox and she was like, “I can’t really. I’m not allowed.” So I was like, “I’ll pay for you and that can be your Christmas present.” So we go to have Botox, but then she rings me up going, “Oh, Steven’s asking what you got me for Christmas and I can’t tell him it was Botox, so you’re going to have to get me something else.” I’m like, “Why is your marriage costing me all this money?”’
We’re talking a lot about happiness in this issue. What are your tips for staying happy?
‘Never argue with an idiot, otherwise people won’t know which of you is the idiot; don’t try to make everyone see things from the same point of view as you – some people will never understand you and they don’t have to; you can design whatever life you want that makes you happy, so long as it’s not hurting anyone else. But most of all, I’ve found happiness in gratefulness. Back when I had just left Violet’s dad, things were really scary. I didn’t have any financial support and I had no idea how I was going to live as an immigrant single mum in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I was just covered in anxiety. But then I stripped everything back and thought about what I did have: I had my health, and my mental health (which so many people don’t have) and my daughter was healthy and happy. I decided to just start with that and build things up from there. When you live your life like that, flip things around and see what you do have, then I think you can always find happiness.’
Katherine Ryan is currently touring the UK with her new stand-up show, Glitter Room.
Your Face Or Mine series 2 premieres on Comedy Central on 4th October at 8pm.
Photographs by Carla Guler, styling by Jennifer Michalski-Bray