In the opening scene of her new Netflix sitcom The Duchess, Katherine Ryan, playing a fictionalised version of herself, confronts the parent of a bully at the school gates. Wearing a sweater with “World’s smallest pussy” emblazoned on it, she threatens to “fuck your man” unless the bourgeois mother sorts out her wayward child. It’s parenting advice you probably won’t find on Mumsnet, but then by-the-book isn’t really Ryan’s style.
Whether it’s using her sharp wit to call out negative perceptions of single parenthood or demolishing panellists as team captain on 8 Out Of 10 Cats, or even ruling the NME Awards with an iron microphone, she’s a force of nature. To the extent that when people meet her IRL, they’re surprised that she’s so friendly. “People are afraid of women unless you can describe them like a duvet,” she says. “Warm and comfortable.”
When we meet, via Zoom from her London home, Ryan’s wearing one of her character’s trademark tiaras – the effect is a bit like The Queen’s Speech, although Her Maj would probably never refer to a misbehaving child as “a tasteless ditch pig” (as Ryan does in episode one of The Duchess) – even though you might argue some of her Pizza Express-loving offspring deserve it. Off-camera, NME can hear the comedian’s beloved dogs – Cardi (named after Cardi B), Megan (Meg Ryan) and Dalai (the Dalai Lama) – barking. Her years of raising her own daughter, Violet, solo – some of the happiest of her life – proved the inspiration for the new Netflix comedy, but despite playing a heightened Larry David-style version of herself who explodes into scenes like an unpinned grenade, she doesn’t worry about people thinking she’s precisely like her “problematic” onscreen avatar.
“That happens with my stand-up as well,” she shrugs. “People say: did that exact event happen that way? And I always take creative license. The short answer is, I really don’t give a shit. As long as people enjoy it, I don’t care what they think of me. My stage persona is very different to who I am at home – it’s a fantasy. I would love to shout at the mums at the school gates and be a total narcissist and be glamorous all the time, but I’m not that way.”
“As long as people enjoy [my comedy], I don’t care what they think of me”
It’s this ironclad, no-fucks-given persona that has seen the 37-year-old become a formidably funny presence on gladiatorial panel shows like Mock the Week (which she quit over its “pedestal feminism” booking system for women) with her switch-blade punchlines – and image – earning her comparisons to the OG boss-comic Joan Rivers, whom she’s set to play in an upcoming episode of Sky’s Urban Myths. The Duchess is an extension of Ryan’s last Netflix stand-up special Glitter Room, where she stuck up for single mothers, often characterised as “resentful” or “messy” in the media.
“A lot of The Duchess is fictional, but my relationship with my daughter is one I cherish and celebrate,” says Ryan. “My career trajectory changed for the better when I became a mother and I loved being a single mother. It was one of the greatest joys in my life and it never prevented me from doing anything. So in all my creative work, I try and paint a picture of single parents having a very aspirational, powerful position in life because we are shamed so often.”
Growing up in her hometown of Sarnia, Ontario in Canada, Ryan says she wasn’t viewed as funny at school; merely “weird – and that was enough”. Her comedy prowess was evident when she worked at Hooters – where she quipped “Club sandwiches, not seals” on the specials board. Eventually, she turned to stand-up because she had “something to say” – a counterpoint to the prevailing “My ex girlfriend is a bitch” jokes. More than anything, Ryan saw: “A lot of the women in my family be silenced by expectations or just not fulfil their potential.” That wasn’t going to be her.
In 2007, she moved to the UK with her partner at the time, a stand-up comic trying to crack the business. Shortly after arriving, she discovered she was pregnant – and the relationship disintegrated. But she doesn’t just see it as the best thing that happened in her life personally, but also professionally, as she laser-focused on comedy, and found her tribe – including then-rising stand-ups Sara Pascoe and Joe Lycett.
“I just realised that I had probably let everybody down,” she reflects. “Because I was 25 and I had a baby in a foreign country and I was not that well-off – career-wise or financially. But there was no-way I was moving back to my hometown with my tail between my legs. And I knew that I had to grow up. I couldn’t just be like other 25-year-olds I knew. I had my daughter and I needed to make life amazing for her. And there were things that I would tolerate for myself that I just wouldn’t tolerate for her. Every moment that I spent working really counted. I would write when I was walking, pushing a pram, when she was napping – I really took my career more seriously because I didn’t have a choice anymore. I had to make it work almost to spite everyone.”
She and Violet’s father remain on good terms, unlike her character in The Duchess who’s vicious towards ex Shep, a venal former member of a Westlife-style boyband memorably summed up as the “last one to get up off the stool”. She based the pair’s sparring on her own parents’ toxic divorce when she was a teenager.
“Because of my parents’ animosity to each other, I learned to co-parent peacefully,” says Ryan. “My dad’s Irish so there’s a little bit of him in Shep. When they split, they became full-blown enemies – and still are to this day. That created a tumultuous sense of unease within me because I’m a lot of like my dad – and I’m a lot like mom. That was really hard because I thought those two parts of me were at war. When my mother looks at me, does she see my dad and vice-versa? I knew from age 15: ‘Jesus, if I’m ever co-parenting with someone, I’m just going to be nice’.”
“I’m vehemently against ‘cancel culture’”
In 2020, Ryan is at the top of her game: to the point where she could hold her own in the notoriously difficult and often thankless role of host of the NME Awards (she was once a columnist for this parish). When she helmed the Brixton knees-up in February, she became collaterally involved in a widely-reported controversy involving rapper Slowthai. Accepting the award for Hero of the Year (which he later asked to be redirected to Ryan instead), Slowthai made sexual comments to her and the situation escalated onstage. He later “unreservedly apologised” for his “shameful actions” on the night – which included a later altercation with a fan. After being taunted by the crowd, video footage showed Slowthai raising a glass threateningly above his head, before throwing it at a crowd member, jumping off stage and being held back by security. After the show, Ryan tweeted that he “didn’t make me uncomfortable” and faced her own backlash for refusing to condemn his lewd remarks. Multiple tweets accused her of normalising sexual harassment.
“It didn’t bother me but it was very difficult to watch as a feminist,” she tells NME, seven months on. “But I think unfortunately some of our worst enemies are other feminists. There is a group that direct a lot of criticism inward and they pick apart your feminism versus their feminism, whereas if we all united, we’d be in a better position. I had mostly women cross [at me] because I’d not denounced the events at the NME Awards.”
From her perspective, here’s what happened: “Both myself and Slowthai have very provocative stage personas. We were both in character. I was hosting what I know to be a very raucous, traditionally rock ‘n’ roll awards show. I love having a moment in the room. That’s what live music and comedy is all about. When that happened, I thought: ‘We can have some fun with this.’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s all it was – fun in the room. We were both evenly matched and doing a pantomime.”
The subsequent 24 hour aftermath, she remembers, was a time of “motherly concern” towards him and “regret” that she might have played a role in his career possibly imploding. “Because I’m vehemently against ‘cancel culture’ in most cases. We’re always looking to ruin someone’s career. To take the context and nuance out of the situation didn’t make sense to me. I wish it had just stayed as a great rock ‘n’ roll moment in the room – and I respect him as an artist and performer.”
“I wish [the Slowthai incident] had just stayed as a great rock ‘n’ roll moment in the room”
Ryan is no stranger to brushes with so-called ‘cancel culture’ herself – not that she worries. “I’m always aiming to protect vulnerable groups. From the start of my career, I was edgy, maybe shocking, but always with good intentions. If I didn’t hit that correct, which I’m sure I didn’t all the time and there’s always room for misinterpretation, then that’s fine. I’ve been admonished and criticised for a few jokes in the past, but I have no control over ‘cancel culture’ when it comes to work so I tend not to worry about things I can’t control, and I certainly don’t censor myself.”
What those eagerly attacking Ryan on Twitter couldn’t have known is that at the time of hosting the awards she was dealing with a miscarriage at 10 weeks, which she talked about tenderly on Laura Whitmore’ Castaway podcast in June. Importantly, she called for girls to be taught about it at school because for so many it remains a secret shame (“No matter how many times people tell you: ‘It’s just one of those things,’ you feel this shame,” she has said on her own podcast).
It’s something she refers to, unexpectedly, when asked about meeting her heroes. She pinpoints the moment she discovered Robyn (who soundtracks two pivotal scenes in The Duchess) and Taylor Swift were fans at NME awards at Brixton Academy. “It was the most surreal point of my life to date. It was such a weird time in my life because I was in the middle of having a month-long miscarriage, so that was dark for me” she says. “I was just completing The Duchess and then I had this personal life tragedy, so I was feeling very exposed – just generally. And then to have Robyn and Taylor Swift walk up and say nice things to me, it meant the world, because Robyn and that song mean so much to me. Whenever I hear the drop on ‘Dancing On My Own’, I’ll cry in my car.”
“Robyn means so much to me – Whenever I hear ‘Dancing On My Own’, I’ll cry in my car”
At this point, one of Ryan’s dogs starts yapping off-camera again, and we move onto more light-hearted conversation about pet pooches. The mutts in question are called Cardi and Megan, so obviously we asked about their namesakes (Messrs. B and Thee Stallion) – and the biggest music video of the year. What does Ryan think – is she in agreement with Russell Brand that ‘WAP (Wet Ass Pussy)’ panders to the patriarchy?
“First of all I don’t care what Russell Brand says any time, anywhere,” she laughs. “I feel ‘WAP’ is great because when women create art, there’s this expectation we are serving a political purpose. And the truth is, any woman with a voice is political by default because for so long we weren’t allowed one. However, sometimes we can create something for fun – the same way men create loads of things for fun and nobody tries to attach this meaningful, deep message or narrative.
“‘Wap’ is great – fuck off Russell Brand and let us dance around in a thong once in a while goddamit!”
“’WAP’ to me is first of all about women being sexually aroused – like since when do we care if women were wet or not? It’s always about like, violent fucking this, beat the pussy up all that, I like that they are lubricated. I feel very encouraged by that,” she adds. “It’s a mistake to read too much into every piece of art a woman creates – like fuck off [Russell] and let us dance around in a thong once in a while, goddammit!”
It’s a response that will no doubt have many of you jubilantly yelling ‘YASS queen!’ into your iPhone screen. Hers may not have been the smoothest ascension, but Katherine Ryan is most definitely comedy royalty – and she always wears the crown.
‘The Duchess’ is on Netflix from September 11