Katherine Ryan on Building an Hour of Standup, UK-Style
Comedian Katherine Ryan is technically Canadian, but comedically British. She started comedy in Toronto as a more casual, post-Hooters shift pastime, before moving to the UK and really buckling down on her act. “I’m a British comic, I suppose. Even though I’m Canadian, I developed over here.” Ryan has become a recognizable face in British comedy entertainment, due largely in part to her appearances on popular panel shows like Mock the Week and 8 Out of 10 Cats. Ryan just released a brand new special, In Trouble, globally on Netflix. The global release is noteworthy, as it marks her as the only other UK comedian besides Jimmy Carr to get a worldwide push. I called Katherine at her place in London to discuss In Trouble, her obsession with Brazilian butt lifts, and how to build an hour, UK-style.
What time is it there?
8:30. I just irresponsibly gave my daughter a bath and put her in bed. She should have been in bed 45 minutes ago.
Are you heading out to a show tonight?
No show tonight. I’m filming a lot this week. I’m doing a new show for Comedy Central with Jimmy Carr. We have a new series, a show called Your Face or Mine? We have a lot of daytime work, which is unusual for a comedian. I feel like I have a real job.
What is the premise of the show?
It was already a popular show in the UK in the early 2000s. It’s a little bit of a comeback for Comedy Central. It’s more of a roasty thing this time. We bring a couple on who are dating and assist them in judging each other’s looks. They decide who is the best looking through a series of formatted games. They win money for every answer the audience agrees with, so they have to be honest. Sometimes they quarrel. It’s the only show that doesn’t care if you have a personality or not.
It’s definitely in your wheelhouse since you’ve become known for your take on pop culture and celebrity. You’ve done several talking head/panel type shows in the UK.
Yeah, the UK has a wide variety of comedy shows and formats. Sometimes it’s strictly political, other times it’s pop culture, news-based, or about the World Cup, which is something I really have to study hard for. In the beginning, people said that I did too much pop culture. “It’s so niche, Katherine. Nobody cares about that. Don’t talk about that.” But it’s a thing that was always in my periphery. I unapologetically watch a lot of TV. I’ve always loved reality TV, but for the right reasons, I think. I like to watch how they are produced and cast, how the celebrity’s team navigates them through the world of being a superstar. I’ve always loved that stuff. All of a sudden, people have decided that it’s layered, has many themes, and that it’s okay if I talk about it.
You recently created a little bit of a stir with a picture that I believe was intended as a prank, but people actually took very seriously. It was a picture of you with a Brazilian butt lift gone wrong. Was that to promote a show?
We did a one-off show in reaction to what’s happening in the political sphere right now. The show was called Fake News. It’s from the same production company that does Have I Got News for You, which is a really successful, satirical, political news show. It was to highlight not just lies in the media, but the strategic, planted industry of creating fake news. They tasked each of us with creating a fake news story. I didn’t want to put that picture out at all. I would have rather not tweeted it. I hated tweeting it because it made me feel uncomfortable that I was lying, but they wanted each of us to create fake news and talk about it later on the show. You can only do what you know and I’ve been obsessed with this Snapchat account called The Real Dr. Miami. He performs BBLs, Brazilian butt lifts, basically all day, everyday on Snapchat. They’re very graphic and I watch them all the time. It’s my new fascination. I think that beauty standards are always evolving. They have to keep changing so that we’re always feeling bad about ourselves and spending money. Boobs are not in anymore. Everybody knows it’s the bum. I knew it was the sort of story that would be like, “Oh, how dare this British celebrity woman who can’t attain these beauty standards actually do something that extreme. Of course because it’s her shame it went wrong and got botched.” I knew the British press would just love to report a botched surgery. It went further than I wanted it to. I got a call from my dad saying, “What have you done?” Now it’s on the internet forever, which means I can go get a BBL now. Double jeopardy.
In the US most comics work on their next album or special 5, 10, 15 minutes at a time, taking it in pieces from room-to-room and on the road until they get their hour. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like a lot of British comics build their hour one hour at a time, like a one-person show. If that’s the case, is it a product of Edinburgh Fringe?
Yeah. My favorite comedians here go to Edinburgh every year with a new show, workshop it, tour it throughout the year, and then throw it away and start fresh, which is terrifying. I do that every other year, but in the last three years I’ve done it every year. It’s very difficult to generate that much material. We’re lucky that we have the Edinburgh Festival to push us to that, otherwise it would be really easy to just do your club set for a little while and maybe write when something comes to you. But there’s this panic that everyone gets in June or July before Edinburgh, this, “I’ve got to get my show together and develop it there.” Nobody has a show July 31st, but somehow when the pressure is on, everyone figures it out.
I was curious about something in your special. The announcer brings you on by saying that you are a strong black woman, which is something that you also reference during your set. Given the current political climate, I could see a statement like that generating a lot of shit thrown your way. Are UK audiences a little more comfortable with the subject of race and playing with those roles?
I don’t know if I would have said that on my first or second tour, but what it really is is a callback to a really popular routine I had over here about Beyonce and how I idolized her when I was younger. I had this whole bit about Destiny’s Child and how when they were young they had really adult routines, adult songs, and were really sexy, but for some reason it was allowed. But when white pop stars like Britney or Christina did the same thing they were slut shamed and all of these horrible things happened to them. I would watch that as a teenager and say, “Why? What’s the difference?” I said that all I wanted to be when I grew up was a strong, powerful, beautiful, black woman, but that I was feeling like it was never going to happen for me. Those women carried themselves with such power that they taught me that sexuality doesn’t have to be a liability. So if you don’t know the joke in context and you see some woman walking out onstage saying, “I’m a strong, powerful, black woman…” Anybody that knows my catalog, which I don’t expect Americans to know, will know that it’s a callback. I respect black women so much. To me, being a black woman is being a woman-woman because it’s two layers of unfair obstacles that they’ve overcome. That’s why I view them as being so powerful.
I’m glad we talked about it because I would hate for someone who doesn’t know your earlier work to see your special and then write a blog post called “Is This UK Comedy’s Rachel Dolezal?”
Oh no. I’m glad we talked about it too.