Having essentially achieved the American dream on this side of the pond, Katherine Ryan’s UK success is a tour de force. Her exploits have covered grand Beyoncé impersonations and satirising Nicki Minaj. On 22 June she’ll be adding comic relief to an evening of epic achievements and several sobering moments.
Both women in leadership positions and female comedians are often perceived as operating in a man’s world. How far would you agree with that statement?
When people say something is a man’s job or man’s role, I think what they mean is that it’s an alpha role and this is completely misinterpreted to mean that women can’t be alpha. Certainly in comedy, to stand in front of a room of people, and be the only one allowed to talk is very alpha. And I believe it does anger a certain type of man, that I’m not a comedy actor, I’m not a singer, I’m not doing a play – I’m delivering opinions of my own, and that is essentially super alpha.
I believe this is changing and little revolutions are happening all the time for women. This is a time where there’s been a huge boom in women in business and in comedy.
Do you still have people asking you if it’s hard to be a female comic? And what is your response to that question?
My dad was around when growing up but I was surrounded by a matriarchal community of women who taught me that I could be whatever I wanted to be. It never occurred to me that things might be harder as a woman. So people ask me that now, ‘what’s it like being a woman or is it harder being a woman in comedy?’ and I’m baffled by that question – how can I answer it?
I only know the experience I’ve had; I’ve never done it as a man. I have to be careful not to participate in any narrative that doesn’t apply to me because it hasn’t been hard for me is the truth. I’m just really lucky. I’ve been doing comedy 10 years and it doesn’t just happen overnight but I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to move forward in Britain.
When you’re a man and gigging, nobody asks you ‘where’s the baby?’. People will ask me ‘where’s your daughter?’ like I just abandoned her in the car. No. She’s at home with the nanny I pay handsomely to look after her when I work.
My daughter is six now and I was still with her dad when she was baby. It did come with challenges. I’ve had to be on night trains like the Caledonian express, to get back from Glasgow to London through the night, so that I can wake up in the morning and do school run with my daughter. And then you have to deal with being on tour on your period. Sometimes I look up to sky and think this is b******t. To be on the second day of your period on a sleeper train is just BS. There are no facilities.
There are also other things as mothers that men cannot do for us such as breastfeeding, and you find that some women are experiencing discrimination for that. Working with a small child and handling those challenges takes a master multi-tasker.
It definitely takes great strength that perhaps a certain type of man cannot comprehend or begin to understand. Aside these challenges, can you recall any overtly sexist incidents that have occurred?
Earlier on in my career, after I had auditioned for my first TV job , I got an email saying ‘we loved what you did but you can’t be part of the sketch show because you’re pregnant’. I thought wow––you can’t write that to someone in email. But I think in TV, you can get away with a lot more and pregnant women are more expensive to insure and so on. It’s interesting because it was a show with all women, but there was still discrimination.
There are many more examples of such incidents but something happened on a show recently and it really demonstrated why we need women, and more diversity in general for all areas of production from show writing, to direction and so on.
There was a challenge on the show which involved tying up a tie properly. I protested slightly that I was at a huge disadvantage because I don’t tie them or have a partner to tie one for. That was the first time I experienced what happens when you speak out and it doesn’t make the situation better. I felt embarrassed and guilty for having ruined for everyone because I had protested that the challenge wasn’t fair to me. I know it wasn’t a deliberate attempt on their part to discriminate, it just didn’t occur to them.
It’s a real double edged sword because you don’t want to be silent about something but as soon as you speak out, you feel guilty.
Women can feel like they may be putting their jobs in jeopardy if they speak out about something unpleasant at work, or even when it comes to asking for a pay rise. It takes a lot of confidence and self-assurance to face these issues head on. How have you fortified those qualities over the years?
The best lesson comedy has taught me is that it really doesn’t matter if it all goes wrong. That saying ‘this too shall pass’ is so true. You will have a bad night, die on a gig, nobody liked your material and then you walk out and moments later it doesn’t matter anymore. Those bad gigs teach you that it doesn’t matter if it goes wrong. You have another gig on the next night, and so on. I’ve also had some scandals in press and you feel world is crumbling when it all goes wrong.
The same is true with business deals and in the work place. Where something doesn’t go according to plan, or you’ve really messed up you have to shake it off and move forward.
So my advice for women is to take risks, be prepared to fall down and get back up. That’s the best thing comedy has taught and that’s where confidence comes from. I’m not terribly self-assured or really confident, I just don’t care if it goes wrong. All I can do is my best. You also need to have authentic voice in what you do. I can’t be the same comedian as Amy Schumer, or Bridgette Christie, or any others I admire. I can only speak from my authentic perspective and no body else can do that.
Clearly the UK has been receptive of your brand of comedy. And speaking of Amy Schumer, she mentioned on a panel that she thinks people hate women and don’t want to hear a woman talk for too long. Do you agree with the statement and have you experienced that comes close to proving that claim?
I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to move forward in Britain just because of the generation that I’m doing comedy in and people are interested in what I have to say.
I don’t think people hate women but there are certain people that absolutely hate women. There’s an online community of people who hate women without even realising it. It comes across in their language and in ‘rapy’ discourse – they don’t even know they’re doing it. So many guys on twitter will write aggressively sexual comments on posts and their profile pictures will be of them and their three-year-old daughter, captions saying ‘I love my wife and kids’. They’re idiots.
I think it’s usually a middle class white man, who is confused and angry that his gravy train is being infringed upon. He is angry that he has to share the privilege that he has enjoyed for many generations and will say things like “Affirmative action not fair to us”. However, I’m peaceful about the fact that those kind of people are an endangered species and we can kill them off by not having babies with them. If we band together and make sure we don’t sleep with any misogynistic men, hopefully their race will die out.
There are some women who hate women and those are often first to say don’t think women are funny. I think that’s an interesting and unfortunate place to come from.
You won the Funny Women awards a few years back and are hosting the First Women Awards this year. Do you think these awards that are specifically for women are still necessary?
I absolutely do and it’s more about community than giving special preference to a minority. I found from the Funny Women award that it is a great arena to meet and connect with like-minded women in industry. It was wonderful place for us to make friendships and to be inspired by other women that we admire and I’m sure First Women is the same: getting like-minded people from the industry together to support and cheer each other on.
Was that one of your proudest moments?
It’s cheesy but what I’m really proud of is the little woman that my daughter is growing up to be. We had a tough time in the beginning, being really poor and it was hard because I didn’t know how it would work out after splitting from her dad. I’m also proud of the relationship they have.
You can be a terrible person like I am in comedy sometimes, and I do all the naughty things like swearing, talking about sex and sometimes being nasty about celebrities. But then you see how calm, confident, peaceful and generous Violet (Ryan’s daughter) is, and all the good of you can come out in your children. It’s a proud feeling. I’m also proud of the way I’ve been able to balance home life and work as foreign person with no family in the UK.