Canadian comic Katherine Ryan is renowned for her acerbic put-downs of the rich and famous, and her near-ubiquitous TV presence.
She spoke to Jay Richardson about the art of the celebrity roast, winning people over to her comedy style, and how being a cash-strapped single mother was the making of her career.
“Sara Pascoe! Get down from there! Sara Pascoe! Stop licking that cake, it’s weird!”
Katherine Ryan is trying to illustrate the problem of disciplining a cat named after a fellow comedian.
The (male) kitten was given its moniker by Ryan’s six-year-old daughter.
“After her favourite comedian, which is very hurtful,” the Canadian laments, affecting wounded pride. “But I’m not the boss of this house, that’s how it goes.”
A fiercely accomplished and acclaimed stand-up, blending scathing celebrity comment with personal storytelling, Ryan has become an established fixture on shiny floor showpieces like Live at the Apollo.
Appearing on panel shows such as Mock The Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats, presenting the BBC Two reality show Hair, she’s also had a number of acting roles in sitcoms like Episodes, Badults and Campus.
Despite being ubiquitous on television since “really hammering the door down” in 2012, the London-based stand-up has continued to sustain a steady touring regime, while committing to another series as team captain on ITV2’s celebrity roast show Safeword; joining Greg Davies and Alex Horne on Dave’s knockabout challenge Taskmaster; and appearing in Dane Baptiste’s forthcoming BBC Three sitcom Sunny D.
Since her early stand-up, when she experienced “a lot of resistance” to her preoccupation with celebrity, “because I was told it was too niche”, Ryan has reaffirmed her belief that “you can only do you”.
When she’s asked about the Greek debt crisis on a panel show she doesn’t panic, and just makes her answer analogous with Kerry Katona.
Still, her pithy remarks aren’t merely gratuitous swipes.
“The UK wouldn’t be so engrossed in reality TV or celebrity culture if they didn’t hold up a mirror to us, if they didn’t touch on greater themes.
“It’s really a way for me to talk about ageism and sexism. If you work hard and do something in an authentic voice, eventually enough people come round to it.”
The 32-year-old is adamant that her drive doesn’t derive from overcoming two bouts of skin cancer in her early twenties, despite having “quite a big chunk of my leg, for want of a better term”, removed.
“My family were worried but I was so young and foolish, I didn’t really understand the gravity of it. It never shook me at all.”
As far as she can remember, Ryan has always been “careful not to play into any expected narrative that doesn’t apply to me”.
Parroting a hypothetical interviewer, she ponders:
“‘Is being a female comic really hard?’ Well, no, for me it’s not. I’m very even.”
And in fact, contrary to received wisdom, becoming an immigrant single mother in London has been the impetus for her success.
“The only thing that was really difficult was when Violet was really small. And I was really poor and faced going back to my office job full-time after maternity leave.”
Photo: Idil Sukan
Juggling that with a developing comedy career was, she says, an “impossible conundrum”.
“I just decided I was really going to have a go at comedy. Because it meant I could stay at home with Violet during the day.
“Then some gigs I could bring her, others I’d get a babysitter or her dad could watch her as I worked. I was very matter-of-fact. This is what I have to do or we starve to death. And I was literally starving to death. I looked incredible!”
Even so, despite the joking:
“We were really, really poor. I would sometimes eat just enough in the day to be able to breastfeed. Looking back, it’s funny now. It was really scary and difficult and I was so stupid.
“But I actually thought, ‘Well, I better just become a successful comedian I guess’.”
To describe Ryan as thick-skinned doesn’t seem accurate or sensitive in light of her cancer diagnoses. But she does seem comfortable in herself.
She passionately argues that the American ‘roast’ tradition, of insulting a celebrity guest to their face, appropriated by Safeword, is affectionate.
— Katherine Ryan (@Kathbum) April 24, 2016
“Someone having to go through your complete professional history then taking the time to craft jokes about you. It’s not tabloid, it’s a great honour. And I’m really careful about how I write my jokes, they aren’t done to upset anyone.
“Again, I think people are now coming round to my way of doing things. So I’m fine when people do the same to me on the show. Funny’s funny. And if it’s about my life, that’s fine.”
Having sworn off dating another comedian again after a negative experience, she’s been seeing American stand-up Alex Edelman.
“It was difficult,” she admits. “I was in a relationship for a really long time that was really bad and when I finally got out of it, I was mortified I was ever in it.
“So I wasn’t going to date another comic. But then I met one I respected. Perhaps I got the wrong idea of how comedians are.
“He is really funny, really kind and he lives half the year in another country. So all those things are quite good.”
[Main image: Idil Sukan]
Katherine Ryan tours the UK from next month:
May 18: Chelmsford, Civic Theatre
May 19: Peterborough, The Cresset
May 20: Birmingham Town Hall
May 21: London, Apollo Hammersmith
June 16: Preston, Charter Theatre