Katherine Ryan: ‘I want to get pregnant again – just so I can breastfeed on Mock the Week’

This single mother, standup comedian and panel show favourite has barely a minute to spare… but still found time to tell us about waitressing at Hooters, fighting sexism, dealing with death threats and her invincible self-belief

It’s a testament to her frantic schedule that comedian Katherine Ryan speaks to me on the phone as she’s grabbing a short holiday with her six-year-old daughter, Violet. I feel bad, crashing her break, but she seems used to it. As well as continuing to tour her show, Kathbum, Ryan features regularly on television panel shows such as QI, Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats and the comedy roast show, Safeword, where she’s team leader. She’s also an actor (Episodes), presenter (Hair) and columnist (writing on popular culture for NME).

It’s a list that could make you feel tired just reading it. Her personal life sounds just as busy: Ryan, who’s in a relationship, happily co-parents with her ex, Violet’s father, who lives nearby in London. Even the trip she’s on when I speak to her is going to have to be cut short to return to London for a job. “I’m a single mother,” says Ryan, matter-of-factly. “It’s silly to turn down work.

“I have a really different touring life to most comedians because I go home every night to do the school run in the morning. So I’m not in hotels or living it up. I also don’t drink very much. Sometimes I meet people, and if it’s a fan’s birthday, or I’ve spoken to them a bit on Twitter, I’ll say, ‘Come and meet me backstage in the interval, have a chat, get a photo.’ And they’re all excited: ‘Yeah, we’ll come backstage!’ And when they eventually get there they realise it’s a small dressing room with grapes. And I’m [Ryan’s voice flat-lines]: ‘Would you like a banana?’”

Ryan has been compared to everyone from Sarah Silverman to Joan Rivers, and her performing style ranges from deadpan and pithy (“I was so excited about Kate Middleton’s pregnancy – would she keep it?”) to observational (a past show, Glam Role Model, dealt with her experiences of being cheated on), to surrealist, and even physical (her piece on Beyoncé involves some impressive grinding).

Watch Katherine Ryan having ‘an acute case of the Beyoncés’.

In conversation, Ryan is witty but she’s not her stage persona – you feel as though you’re talking to a real (thoughtful, clever, friendly) person, rather than just witnessing a routine. She also seems a little eccentric. She marvels at how her daughter is “a little lady” who loves clothes like her friends (“By the time I was a teenager, I was going out in a dressing gown, I just didn’t care’). Towards the end of our conversation she has a coughing fit and fetches some water, only then revealing that she’s been conducting most of the interview lying down, with one of her dogs sprawled on top of her – which is a “first”, for me at least.

Ryan, 32, grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, a mid-sized Canadian town, next to a petro-chemical plant, as the eldest of three sisters, her parents divorcing when she was 15. Eight years ago she came to Britain with her then boyfriend, and never left. “My accent has softened. We don’t have a class system in Canada, certainly not the same as you Brits, but now I sound ‘posh-Canadian’, if that makes any sense?”

Of Irish descent, Ryan loves British culture and humour. Kathbum in part deals with a trip home, and she once joked that she wouldn’t move back to Canada unless she was terminally ill. Growing up, she felt that people didn’t understand her humour. “Satire was just not a thing in that town. I was seen as a little weirdo. But I was certain I wasn’t a weirdo. I knew who the weirdos were, and it wasn’t me!” Although Ryan was bullied, she says she wasn’t “affected” because her upbringing had instilled immense self-belief in her. “I was born with the confidence of an 89-year-old man. So it’s strange when people ask: what’s it like being a female comedian? It never occurred to me that I’d be limited as a woman, that I couldn’t be a scientist, a doctor or anything I wanted.”

Dress by Mary Katrantzou, available at Net-a-Porter; styling by Jennifer Michalski-Bray; hair and makeup by Fiona Eustace using Mac and Bobbi Brown.
Katherine Ryan’s dress by Mary Katrantzou, available at Net-a-Porter; styling by Jennifer Michalski-Bray; hair and makeup by Fiona Eustace using Mac and Bobbi Brown. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

She started doing standup while at Toronto University, where she studied city planning. Around the same time she discovered she had skin cancer, and a “golf ball-sized lump” was removed from her leg. It sounds terrifying but Ryan says she was too young to take it all in. “I just joked that it was free lipo.” She still has to have her moles regularly checked and removed, observing wryly, “If you’re prone to skin cancer, then living in the UK is the best thing you can do.”

While at university Ryan also worked at the Hooters restaurant chain as a waitress and helping to set up branches. “Some people think Hooters is a topless bar, which it’s not. But yeah, it’s sports on TV, beer and wings, girls dressed almost like cheerleaders.” Ryan thinks that many drinks-waitressing jobs are built around the same principle, and that Hooters is just more upfront about it. Working there made her more “ballsy” and less naive, particularly about sexuality. “At that age you can feel its power but you can’t harness it effectively – it’s like, ‘What is this?’”

She made lifelong friends with other undergraduate Hooters waitresses. “I went to two universities. I went to an academic university to be a city planner and I went to Hooters university where I had my sorority sisters and I realised the value of being entertaining and smart.”

Saying that, she understands the criticism of Hooters. “The business model is not aspirational! But it just turned out that a group of united smart women are always going to prevail in any given situation – even that one.”

Earlier in our conversation Ryan touched on an occupational hazard of being a female comedian – namely being repeatedly (and maddeningly?) asked what it’s like to be a female comedian? She delights in comedian Bec Hill’s quote: “It’s exactly like being a man, but you get asked this question.” There have been complaints that panel shows in particular are geared to a gladiatorial “male” style of comedy, though Ryan clearly flourishes in the format, which again she puts down to her natural self-confidence. “I don’t worry at all about butting in with the guys – having the words has never been a problem for me.”

While she was subject to some sexism in the early stages of her standup career (“Some drunk in the crowd shouting, ‘Get your tits out’), she says that, past a certain level, the industry no longer tolerates it. “Comedy, if anything, has presented me with countless examples of really great men, for my daughter as well. Whenever Violet sees me in a green room or a TV recording situation – because she comes quite often – she sees people like Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Dara Ó Briain, Alan Davis or Jack Dee treating me completely as an equal. I’ve never felt left out. They’re just such feminists, all of those men, they’re inclusive and supportive.”

At the same time, Ryan says she’s thrilled to be considered part of a new feminist-minded comedy wave, enthusing about the likes of Amy Schumer, Sara Pascoe and Sharon Horgan (“Catastrophe is one of the great British sitcoms already”). She also thinks that the all-male ban on some panel shows is a good idea. “All of us form an unconscious bias. So if you’re in hospital and your brain sees female nurses everywhere, as progressive as you are, neurologically your brain thinks that all nurses are female. So I think that, while it feels like tokenism, having at least one woman carves out a different unconscious bias for viewers.”

Ryan seems such a grafter that it surprises me when she says she wishes she could work harder. “If you love what you do, you want to go to an open mic to test new material; you want to rush home to your computer and write.” But she was shaken when she received death threats after doing a comedy routine referencing Filipinos (she says she only mentioned them because her brother-in-law is from the Philippines). “It was a wake-up call. People were not just directing it at me but at my whole family, and it was a very violent sexual anger.” Aren’t women in the public eye nearly always attacked in that way? “Yes, and I can be as feminist as you like but the fact remains that I’m smaller than most men. I’ve just had to accept that I’m vulnerable. An ‘alpha woman’ stood there, not singing, with a voice, with an opinion, rubs some people up the wrong way.”

She likes to do the kind of comedy that not only deconstructs popular culture (“I love you Brits – you always have new celebs on the horizon”) but also touches on the personal. “I like it when comedians are vulnerable and honest. Then you can hold up a mirror to your audience – people really want to see themselves in your show.”

The interview is drawing to a close. Far from being some tragic single-mother caricature, Ryan says she loves being with Violet in their “insular” family unit. “Though I do want to get pregnant again, just so I can breastfeed on Mock the Week. That’s my goal. How I’d love someone to shame me about breastfeeding. I feel so sorry for him already.”

She has no fear about getting older: “What else am I supposed to do – die? Even at 32 I have a lot more self-confidence than when I was 22. There are books I want to read, books I want to write, things I want to do, places I want to go. I can’t wait to be 62 and 82, I love getting older.”

Professionally, Ryan feels that her situation is perfect, telling me she wouldn’t want to swap places with someone like Schumer, with whom she shared a bill in Canada. “She’s amazing and so down to earth but the level of fame she has to handle is frightening. I love the anonymity and comfort of being a little bit known, on a small island. I don’t have the paps following me around, trying to get stories, and I have creative freedom of expression.” She laughs: “For many years I was the unwelcome surprise on a mixed bill, and now people come to see me on purpose – which is all I ever wanted.”

Katherine Ryan’s tour Kathbum starts on 14 April in Newcastle-upon-Tyne


Barbara Ellen

The GuardianTramp

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