Katherine Ryan: ‘I definitely felt shame as a single mother, the way people word things’

The Canadian stand-up on ‘laddish’ comedy culture, her Irish dad and flipping stereotypes in new series The Duchess

Katherine Ryan’s new Netflix series The Duchess is a none-too-distant cousin of Catastrophe or Motherland, both co-written by Sharon Horgan. Photograph: Oliver Upton/Netflix

Katherine Ryan’s new Netflix series The Duchess is a none-too-distant cousin of Catastrophe or Motherland, both co-written by Sharon Horgan. Photograph: Oliver Upton/Netflix

 

With a father from Cork, it stands to reason that Katherine Ryan’s stand-up comedy leans towards the ballsy and salty. It has led to many in her adopted home city of London referring to her as the “new Joan Rivers” – something she, understandably, has had absolutely no problem with.

“I get it,” she says in a Canadian accent undented by years living in the UK. “From a young age, I took a real ‘I am whatever you say I am’ approach. I wasn’t precious about it. I guess it’s the accent really, because I’m nothing like Joan Rivers. Although I am very, very glamorous onstage.”

Some fans are likely to disagree. Ryan shares a quick wit, an unabashed partiality for cosmetic surgery and a gimlet-eyed comedic sensibility with the grande dame of putdowns.

Because my Dad is from Cork, I grew up visiting Ireland all the time, and it was my first introduction to boybands

After delivering two stand-up specials to Netflix, Ryan’s debut comedy series for the streaming giants, The Duchess, is likely to see her compared to other greats. Much like Sharon Horgan, Lena Dunham and Tig Notaro, Ryan has created, written and starred in a comedy loosely based on her own life.

Tonally, The Duchess is a none-too-distant cousin of Catastrophe and Motherland, both co-written by Horgan. In it, Ryan plays Katherine, a “fashionably disruptive single mom” to her daughter Olive. Katherine is figure of glamour and mild suspicion at the school gate, but she and Olive rub along perfectly well as a tight unit.

At 37, she decides that she might like to have another child, using the sperm of her ex, an Irish former boybander, played with laconic charm by Peaky Blinders star Rory Keenan. Despite the fact that he is the absolute worst (“always the last one off the stool”) and they can barely tolerate each other, Katherine reckons that a sibling for Olive might well be worth his involvement.

“I’ve heard of many women doing that,” Ryan notes. “If I may say, it’s a tale as old as time. Women in marriages, and maybe some men, they have one foot out the door, like, ‘I’ll have my baby and then I’ll go’, including my own mother.”

On making the character of her ex a fictional Irish boyband member, she notes: “Because my Dad is from Cork, I grew up visiting Ireland all the time, and it was my first introduction to boybands. When I moved to the UK in the mid-2000s, they reigned supreme, and we didn’t have that same culture in Canada.

“Rory embraced that – he has the rich dramatic stage acting history, but the fact that he was willing to do comedy and was so good at it, I was almost annoyed.”

The character of Katherine is a heightened version of Ryan, who herself has an 11-year-old daughter, Violet, with an unnamed ex. More than anything, she wanted to relay her experiences of single motherhood.

In The Duchess Katherine is a heightened version of Ryan, who herself has an 11-year-old daughter, Violet. Photograph: Simon Ridgway/Netflix
In The Duchess Katherine is a heightened version of Ryan, who herself has an 11-year-old daughter, Violet. Photograph: Simon Ridgway/Netflix

“I do have very strong feelings about some of my own personal experiences about the way single mothers are portrayed, that doesn’t exactly lend itself to [stand-up at] the Apollo,” Ryan notes. “I definitely felt shame early on as a single mother, the way people word things. They automatically assume that the man left you. There’s this notion of failure that is attached to the woman, that she is the one unable to make the relationship work.

“We for some reason are seen as the puppeteers of these men, as though the women are the quiet engineers of their husband’s destinies. A lot of the women who make you feel bad are fearful and hiding their own relationship problems with judgment, and that’s directed to you.”

In The Duchess, Katherine often keeps potential paramours at a distance, including Evan, her boyfriend of two years who she refuses steadfastly to commit to. “I loved the idea of a man sort of playing the stereotypical ‘female’ role. I’ve seen so many films where the woman is all, ‘please can we spend time together? Please can we get married?’ I really wanted to flip that one.”

Much like her fictional alter ego, Ryan notes that Violet came first; romance followed at a distant second.

“I definitely kept a lot of my relationships at arm’s length, and sometimes that was for the best,” she reflects. “I didn’t want anyone to get too close to Violet. We had lots of friends and stand-up comedian friends, but no one lived with us, often to the detriment of the other people in the relationship. People like to feel needed, and I was very, ‘we don’t need you’. In retrospect, I did the right thing.”

I told him, ‘you should come to England for a week’, and we were married a few months later

Unlike her televisual namesake, Ryan will not be seeking donor sperm from any exes in order to have a second child. In 2018, Ryan rekindled her relationship with her high school boyfriend, Bobby Kootstra. After a few months of dating again, the two married in Copenhagen in a civil partnership ceremony. It’s an interesting footnote to a relationship that happened 20 years ago, I tell her.

“Yeah, is it interesting, or is it really sad?” she replies laconically. “He was my boyfriend and I really did love him, and I always thought, ‘maybe I loved him that much because he was my first boyfriend’.”

In The Duchess, Katherine Ryan wanted to relay her experiences of single motherhood. Photograph: Simon Ridgway/Netflix
In The Duchess, Katherine Ryan wanted to relay her experiences of single motherhood. Photograph: Simon Ridgway/Netflix

In 2018, Ryan returned to her native Canada to film an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? and, at the behest of her little sister, went out one night to the pub.

“So Bobby came in, and my sister and I thought it would be funny for me to shag him,” she recalls. “I hadn’t shagged him in 20 years, and I thought my friends from high school would get a good laugh out of it. Like, I’d get on the WhatsApp group in the morning, and it’ll be hilarious, a lovely romp through memory lane. And he was up for it.”

The morning after the night before, Ryan “chucked him out” of her mother’s house, and arrived at work at 6am for filming. “I mean, I don’t have one-night stands. Ever. But he was so sweet, and he messaged me right away,” she recalls. “I told him, ‘you should come to England for a week’, and we were married a few months later.

“I mean, I had no intentions of doing that – he just really felt like home. There was no reason not to marry him. There was no impulse to keep him at arm’s length. He didn’t ever demand time away from my daughter or demand attention. He was just so chill.”

Violet, Ryan notes, is a dream to parent. “It’s really weird – my daughter is never a problem, and has always been lovely with me,” she notes. “I genuinely felt overwhelmed by other things like work or men, but my daughter has always been very cool.

“I have very clear boundaries for Violet, even though I’m a very lenient parent. She doesn’t have social media and can’t participate in some of the things that her friends do, which annoys her. She is not allowed to speak disrespectfully to me, or she will be sleeping in an empty room on a bare mattress. I don’t mess around with that.

“I mean, I wasn’t the most respectful teenager, but I just don’t have to worry about her. She’s like a Martian that way.”

Growing up in Sarnia, Ontario, Ryan left home at 18 to study city planning, and funded her college years by doing occasional stand-up. Her main paid gig, however, was working as a waitress at the restaurant chain Hooters, primarily known for hiring young, sexy waitresses. (The job brought her to the UK, where  she helped to open the UK’s first branch in Nottingham.)

From the stories I’ve been told, it sounds like the circuit [in Ireland] is especially laddish and exclusionary

A self-confessed “alpha female” on stage, the comedian has occasionally come up against the sharp end of sexism in stand-up.

“When I started out in Canada, I was never sexually assaulted and I never experienced this flagrant abuse, but there was an undertone of rape culture, with women and their bodies being the punchline,” she recalls. “I accepted that for a long time. I dated a comedian who would, in a room full of people, talk about my body in a way that just wasn’t true, about how having a baby had made my body explode. I will show anyone, I am stunning down there. But I accepted that, and would go on stage myself, knowing that the audience had just laughed about me. I would go on to tell jokes at my own expense.”

Along with everyone else, Ryan watched as a number of allegations of sexual misconduct and sexism within the Irish and British comedy industries came to light on Twitter earlier this year. As #IBelieveHer trended, a disturbing picture of misogyny and abuse of power within the industry came to light.

“From the stories I’ve been told, it sounds like the circuit [in Ireland] is especially laddish and exclusionary,” Ryan observes. “My personal experience of the stand-up circuit was that it was worse at the lower levels, coming in.

“I was never targeted, but I do believe these women,” Ryan adds. “We don’t need to cancel anyone, but it’s about evolution and listening and learning, and audiences have a responsibility to do that too. The good news is that most comedians I’ve worked with are lovely, wonderful progressive people.”

More than once, Ryan has come up against a specific type of heckler during her routines.

“I mean, sometimes people try and have banter in the way they’re trying to interpret what you’re saying, and that can sometimes be a little insulting,” Ryan notes. “What I get, more often than not, is ‘wow, you’re actually a very warm person. We didn’t know you could be warm’. Often that comes from people I work with, like employers in TV. I guess people see me on stage and think if a woman acts like that, she must be nasty or mean. It’s funny to be described as ‘very warm’. I mean, Jimmy Carr is one of my very best friends – he’s very warm. But no one really cares whether Jimmy Carr is warm as a person or not, do they?”

The Duchess is now streaming on Netflix Ireland

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