We caught up with the queen of comedy Katherine Ryan for an exclusive interview on her start in comedy and how she personalises material for corporate events.
Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
In conversation with Katherine Ryan
When did you realise you could make a career out of your comedy?
I did not enter the world of stand-up comedy thinking that it would be my career, I just did it for a laugh. Just the same as any woman might go to a knitting class or a cookery workshop or a spin class. I just thought ‘oh there's a comedy club right next to the Hooters where I waitress, I'll go do stand-up there.’
I was always saying things in a corporate waitressing environment and at Hooters specifically, you're meant to be very subservient and very like non-threatening type of lovely cheerleader, and I had that type of smart mouth that was not welcome there. And I thought well I don't want to be that way; I want to be like one of these soft gentle women that have happy lives so I will exorcise my demons at this comedy club and then I can return to Hooters and become the beautiful 25 year old woman that I want to be.
It didn’t work out that way I just spent more and more time in the comedy club.
Were you interested in comedy as a child?
I always really valued comedy growing up in my house. I think that my parents, though they had really regular jobs; my dad has an engineering company and my mum is a computer systems analyst consultant, they’re funny people. But there are loads of funny people that I meet now who have very mainstream jobs.
I would get out of trouble at home by being funny. If I could make my mum laugh, then I could bully my sister a little bit. I knew my mum would be getting me in trouble but kind of laughing but that was not the environment when I went to school.
If I said anything that was provocative at school, and I wasn't doing it on purpose, I genuinely was not, my sense of humour or whatever it was unbridled at age 10. It was just different. When a kid's different they're not embraced by the school community. So, my parents would put me in other performing things to get me onstage but make me sort of shut up a little bit at the same time.
So, I did dance; I did tap, jazz, ballet, lyrical, acro. I did gymnastics, I took piano lessons, I sang, I did musical theatre, I did a lot of things. I was a very busy child, really academic too - you'd never know it. I seem like really thick now; Hooters did that to me, I blame Hooters for undoing the good work of the Canadian education system.
I just think that everything should be laugh, I really think ‘what is the point if you're being too earnest or too serious about something’, I've always just wanted to sing and dance and have a laugh.
As a Canadian, how did British audiences first react to you?
When I first started performing stand-up comedy in the UK, certainly I could tell that my accent was special, that there was something about my presence, the way I speak was funny to British people straightaway. And I thought ‘well that's weird’, because I had never experienced that trust in Canada, and you do get quite the opposite. Especially 14 years ago it would be like ‘well sorry there's a woman coming on stage’ and quips about how you should be stripping or whatever. So that's not a great amount of trust to enter a stage to.
The first gigs I did in the UK were in Shoreditch in London at the Comedy Café and I found I had a much warmer reception straightaway. And I could tell that, whilst I was considered maybe alternative in Canada, I wasn't considered alternative in the UK because everyone was kind of alternative. There are all these different, certainly in Shoreditch, quirky types of comedians.
I met my good friend Sara Pascoe at that gig. I could just tell; someone else on the gig was doing jokes about Henry the eighth and I didn't even know who that was, it was definitely a more literary, alternative experience and I loved it.
As a female celebrity, do you feel a responsibility to champion certain causes?
As a famous celebrity comedian, I do think that if you're given a platform, big or small, whatever it is, there are meaningful changes that you can do and I do believe, unfortunately, in a number of ethical causes. It would be so much easier if I didn't, but I think you don't have to be outwardly a political comedian to have some agenda and political values.
I do speak up for different causes that I believe in all the time, like female body dysmorphia, that type of thing and that's because I know that there are a lot of teenage girls who reach out to me. Social media is a beautiful tool actually, because comedy is a conversation, it's not meant to be a one-sided conversation all the time when you're just watching telly.
I love hearing from the people who come to my shows and I know that a lot of those people will be trans youth, LGBT community, young teenage girls so I really try to be a voice for issues that affect that fanbase. But equally if there's something going on for like men's mental health, suicide prevention, testicular cancer, those types of things.
People think I hate men just because I don't keep one in my house. I absolutely dislike toxic masculinity that limits men and what they're able to do in their lives. I want to help men, I know about the suicide rates, I know about men's mental health and how important it is for our entire society.
So, I listen, and I try to be reactive and proactive about that kind of thing. I could be doing it all day every day and let it overshadow the comedy; you could be retweeting every charity all day. There's a lot going on so it's good to be mindful and vigilant and vocal about the things that matter to the people who follow you.
Even if I'm just kidding some silly joke about gender disparity in the LGBT community. What might seem just like a silly joke onstage normalizes something like being gay, normalizes something like a young girl having bullying happen to her at school or body issues; she'll hear that and it could just sound silly but be like ‘oh wait, you know what oh I never thought about it that way.’ And it could actually do some good, even this much good. I do care.
Has being sharp-tongued about celebrities ever led to backlash?
I'm very sharp-tongued towards celebrities and they deserve it. They are awful, evil, trash, garbage people. And I think celebrities, I could be wrong; I trust that celebrities are in on the joke and when a comedian punches up at a celebrity, I think that's absolutely fair play. But then again, I'm the type of person, I love comedy roasts, I work with Jimmy Carr a lot, we do Roast Battle on Comedy Central. I find a well worded roast to be quite an honour.
So, there are celebrities that I have lampooned before, Cheryl Cole for example. I don't wish any specific harm should come upon Cheryl Cole. What I'm really lampooning when I talk about Cheryl Cole and some of her brushes with the law, all I'm talking about really is us as the culture, as the consumer excusing poor behaviour because someone is the most beautiful woman in the world. So that's like the meta-narrative of what I talk about when I say like ‘Oh Cheryl Cole absolutely gorgeous like a baby.’ I talk about Cheryl Cole, I'm not trying to hurt Cheryl Cole, I'm using it as this commonality, someone that we all know in common so that we can have a greater conversation about someone else.
It's tricky because people say if you're a feminist then you should not criticise Taylor Swift. Well, being a feminist means that I believe in equal rights, it doesn't mean that one should never criticise another woman's actions.
It is a minefield, but I love celebrity culture. I think it's very relaxing. I watch it; I watch the Kardashians. I'm into it for the meta-narrative; there are some big themes in there, big themes and I'm unapologetic about that and I think, I hope that they know it's coming from a place of love.
What’s the biggest challenge with corporate bookings?
I used to work in an office when I first came to the UK and I loved being part of the sales team and we would go out to the big awards at the end of the year or the big treat. We'd do a Christmas party, it was a corporate event and I would watch the performers; we'd have acrobats, we'd have comedians, we'd have whatever and so I know from that point of view how special those nights were. It was really lovely to be able to go out with the whole team and celebrate your achievements, your professional achievements throughout the year.
So, one really important thing for me when doing any corporate is never, ever, ever to disparage the people who are there to celebrate what they've achieved. I would never disparage a sponsor; I would never disparage this young girl who's just won like upstart salesperson of the year. Never would I take away from that moment and I get quite wrapped up in it too because I miss being part of a team and I love delivering good news, and exponentially more bad news because people don't win. But I love saying ‘the winner is’, I get really into it.
I don't think it's a challenge, but it is something that's quite important to me, is to always be mindful that it's their night and they can do whatever they want. If they want to stay and take selfies, if they wish for me to record a voicemail for their aunt, those are things that I like to do because I used to be them, and I would be them again.
I'd probably get fired quite quickly - I'm not good at sales.
How do you choose your material for a corporate show?
Doing a corporate set is a lot different from being on tour because we have toured at least six or seven different narrative shows in our career, I think usually, or I have. And some of that, in an hour or an hour and a half, is a journey and that is not the appropriate material for a corporate. I don't like to go too blue or too meaningful. I like to take the most family friendly, high-octane bits from all my tours that I know work standalone on their own. Those people are not here for a massive narrative; I just try to do jokes that are inclusive, and everybody says, ‘oh well don't be too mean, Katherine’, I'm never mean.
I've never, ever, ever mean at a corporate event and I certainly don’t want to alienate anybody and certainly not alienate any sponsor. So, if I for example happened to have a bit about Marmite, which I don't, you wouldn't want to pull that bit out at the like annual Marmite festival.
It does happen. I have slagged off marathons, just because it's an evil thing to say, slag off marathons, everybody loves a marathon they’re for charity it's a wonderful thing. So, I slag it off and there was one corporate where I slagged off marathons and they had just done this big thing; one of their workers had done a massive marathon because someone in his family was ill with something. It was the wrong time to slag off marathons.
So, I've learned just try to be positive, be fun, talk about things that are not too new, not going to alienate anyone, not too political, just because they're there to have a nice time, you don't really want to learn anything.
But marathons really need to stop.
Can you gain the same reactions from corporate events as your own tour?
For me corporate gigs are really, always a mixed bag, really, really different and I never take it personally. Some corporate awards, they're super polite and they watch you and they're silent like they're seeing an opera or a theatre show and they're not really sure if they can laugh as uproariously as they might if they were in a comedy club or if they come to see you on purpose on tour. They're next to their boss or they're next to someone from work that they are having an affair with, I don't know what goes on in your offices. But a lot of them have not come to see you on purpose, they don't know who you are, they don't like you, they do know who you are.
You're never, ever, ever going to please everyone and often people are chatty, they've had a drink, or they have their own agenda - they were talking, they're not paying attention, sometimes they're paying too close, quiet attention it's a mixed bag.
It's always different and I just think if you can hold the attention of the room pretty well throughout most of it then it's fine. It's fine with me if people want to have a little chat in that corner or if they're not the same exact reaction that I would expect from a tour show. I really don't mind because it's not my night, it is their night. As long as they're not like ‘gasp’ and all filing out then I've had a wonderful time.
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