The Canadian comedian Katherine Ryan, who lives in London, used her experiences as a single mother to create âThe Duchessâ for Netflix.
LONDON â When Katherine Ryan was onset last year to shoot her first sex scene, she wanted to run away. Her whole body, she remembered recently, was telling her: âNo. We donât want to do this.â
The Canadian comedian was filming âThe Duchess,â a Netflix sitcom she had also written and executive produced, which premieres Friday. After weighing the cost of postponing the shoot to another day, her mind convinced her body, she said. She shot the scene.
âThat is the day I learned the difference between a standup and an actor,â she said. She realized that she might tell jokes about sex, but âI donât act them out.ââ
Ryan, 37, moved to London in 2008 and is now a familiar face on British television, known for a comedy style that is both merciless and confessional. She is a regular guest on several popular panel shows, in which comedians compete in news-based quizzes, often as the only woman. She is also the only female comedian based in Britain to be offered a Netflix special. (She has recorded two.)
Recently, a British magazine called her the âqueen of comedy,â and The Times of London asked, âIs Katherine Ryan the funniest woman onscreen?â
The sex scene in âThe Duchessâ wasnât her only first. She had also never played a lead role, written a sitcom script or fielded notes from producers. âIâd be like âewââ when receiving the feedback, she said, though she added that âthe notes did move it in the right direction.â
Sitting at her kitchen table in a northern London suburb, Ryan acknowledged that some viewers might confuse the Katherine on âThe Duchessâ with her. âItâs an extension of my stage persona, but itâs not my actual life,â she said. âI decorate everything with fiction.â
Ryan was a single mother for a decade, an experience that she drew on in her standup, especially her 2019 Netflix special, âGlitter Room,â which was the genesis of âThe Duchess.â That routine included some reflections on the patronizing sympathy she sometimes received. But despite this, she said, âI just loved being a single mom.â
Her character in âThe Duchessâ is also raising a daughter, Olive. The fictional childâs father is a former boy-band singer who lives off the grid on a canal boat â which, Ryan stressed, her ex does not. Olive is highly proper, with an upper-class British accent (think Maggie Smith) that contrasts with Katherineâs Canadian staccato and love of obscenities. Itâs a far cry from how Ryanâs real-life daughter, Violet, talks.
Ryan said that comedy was funniest when it includes specific, not general, experiences. And one that shaped âThe Duchessâ was when she wondered aloud to her therapist whether it was time to have a ânormal family,â before realizing that, statistically, being a single mother was not unusual.
âThereâs so many of us, and still thereâs this cloud of shame,â Ryan said. She wanted to make a show that celebrated these âfunny shapes of families,â like her own.
Katherine and Olive are so close that they often sleep in the same bed, and Katherineâs eager new boyfriend, Evan (Steen Raskopoulos), wants to be let into the family. When Katherine decides that she wants another baby, instead of having one with Evan, she visits a fertility clinic with Olive, who asks the doctor, âCould you please make her have my baby?â
Conventional rom-com gender roles are flipped, and no matter how commitment-phobic and mindlessly cruel Katherine is, Evan just canât seem to let her go. âItâs always more fun to be a bit of a villain,â Ryan said.
Perhaps because Ryan tells stories about her life for a living, she maintains some rigid boundaries between her public and the private spheres. When she posts a picture of Violet, 11, on Instagram, she always covers her daughterâs face â âSorry gal, I #thirst alone,â reads the caption for one, in which Ryan wears a bikini.
She was born and raised in Sarnia, a small town in Ontario: a âterrible, awful place,â as she describes it in her 2017 Netflix special, âIn Trouble.â
âIâve always known who to be since the day I was born,â she said, adding that she also realized very young that it would not involve living with men who were âemotionally abusive alcoholicsâ as many women in her family did.
Her parents split up when she was 15. âIt was so exhausting to me that they just couldnât get along,â said Ryan, who became their de facto mediator.
In some ways, she said, she wrote âThe Duchessâ for herself, bringing to life her own fantasy of how her own mother and father might have acted. Oliveâs parents might be terrible people, but they try to put their child first.
Ryan called comedy a great âTrojan horse,â because it can be a way of talking about challenging social issues âin an accessible way that doesnât make people feel attacked.â With âIn Trouble,â for example, she dissected the power structures that prevented the women who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault from coming forward for decades.
In April she started a podcast, âTelling Everybody Everything,â and for the first episode she discussed a recent miscarriage and argued â seriously â that lost pregnancies should be more widely talked about.
Aisling Bea, the comedian and creator of the TV series âThis Way Up,â said in an email exchange that âWhen Katherine says that she does not care what people think, she means it,â adding, âThe only comparison is maybe Joan Rivers.â
Spending a recent afternoon at Ryanâs home was like entering a comfortable, classy pastel-toned world. Three tiny dogs â the smallest called Cardi Wee â followed Ryan from room to room, and her daughter made the occasional appearance, at one point carrying a hamster in a handbag. Ryan got married last year, and during the visit her husband, Bobby Kootstra, returned from a golf game and padded around the house, which is outfitted with jeweled chandeliers, pink velvet furniture and plenty of scented candles.
âThe Duchessâ shares this aesthetic. Katherineâs outfits, put together by the stylist Jennifer Michalski-Bray, are opulent and colorful, somewhere between a little girlâs dressing up fantasy and a runway look.
Katherine wears long tulle skirts, sequins, pussy-bow blouses and lots of beaded headbands, all of them by luxury designers.
âWe wanted the clothes to be aspirational and fashion forward,â Michalski-Bray said in a telephone interview. The showâs producers initially didnât understand the outfitsâ importance for the voice of the show, she added, but she and Ryan brought them around.
Ryan said that the meticulous way Katherine presents herself âseems like a frivolous thing to some people, maybe, but it isnât.â
âIâm so tired of seeing mothers represented as messy,â she added. âOur children are not these cumbersome drags.â
Netflix hasnât signed on for a second season of âThe Duchess,â Ryan said, but she has already started writing it. And she is certain of one thing: She wonât be including any sex scenes for herself.
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