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I TALK TO Katherine Ryan

"It was a real adjustment for me because I'd become so accustomed to being on my own."

With two successful Netflix stand-up specials under her belt, the only logical next step for comedian Katherine Ryan was a scripted comedy and that's exactly what her next project, The Duchess is.

Set in London, Katherine plays a fashionably disruptive single mom whose powerful and problematic choices we follow across the series.

Her daughter is her greatest love but as she thinks about having a second child with Olive's father, former boyband member Shep, played by Rory Keenan, can two wrongs ever make a right? The series also stars Michelle DeSwarte and Steen Raskopoulos.

Not only does she star as the show's lead, but Katherine has also written and executive produced the series and I recently caught up with her over a Zoom call to discuss The Duchess' origins, the differences between sitcom and stand-up and the one scene she'll never watch.

Why does now feel like the right time to release The Duchess?

I think this show is very uplifting and just funny. It's back to the rom-coms and the comedies that I watched growing up which were just trying to be positive and funny. I think the world definitely doesn't need more drama at the minute. We just need to have a laugh.

Were you very keen to avoid the current trend of comedies which actually, you could argue, lean more towards drama?

I cannot handle drama. So Girls for me on HBO - all that time ago - was very important, it was a comedy but it was the most drama that I can handle. I cried watching Girls, I got angry watching Girls, I got invested and it's quite stressful for me to watch anything that's too dramatic.

I do admire a lot of the fusions of comedy and drama that I've seen. I love those shows. I think they're very important, meaningful, engaging - but I then get this hangover where I'm very upset for a few days.

How long has The Duchess been with you?

It takes a very long time doesn't it? (To get television made) I've always admired the careers of people like Tina Fey and Amy Schumer and I just love comedy, so whatever medium of comedy - whether that be film or print or stand-up or sketch or sitcoms - I just love learning a new skill and having a new opportunity.

I hadn't been thinking for years about this show specifically, it unfolded as I was writing it. But little ideas had been ruminating around for years which I think is what a lot of stand-ups do. You just take inspirations from your life, put them in your pocket and then you wait to find a place where they can be used.

Boybands have always been a keen interest of mine. I think there's a lot of gay culture in The Duchess - we use a lot of Robyn! When I first moved to the UK it was the noughties boom of girlbands and boybands which was so specific to UK culture.

We didn't really have that in Canada. We had NSYNC and Backstreet Boys but here it was a saturation - and I always thought, how interesting and how interesting to watch the way they evolve. The way their careers change and they become so eccentric. Pop culture was just one of my many areas of interest.

Is that where the character of Shep came from?

So I have been thinking about writing a Shep character for a very long time and as my relationship with Violet (Katherine's daughter) unfolded in my own life, I never felt like a mess. I always felt like a very empowered, satisfied, very blessed single mother. Who had this beautiful shape of a family.

Even in my stand-up I'm always really advocating for single mothers. I hate this idea that we're left high and dry and we're shameful and we're messy. I've always told this story but in different mediums.

So when was it that you decided you wanted to write a sitcom?

We pitched it in America to a few channels and two summers ago to Netflix, whilst I was filming The Fix in Los Angeles with Jimmy Carr. They asked me to write a pilot, so I wrote that. They asked for a couple of edits to the pilot and then they said yes.

I think I was also doing Glitter Room at the same time so it does take a while to find that free time to write. I wrote it all myself. We didn't have a writer's room or anything. It was just me, alone, in a wardrobe. Then I would come out of the wardrobe and present the scripts to production.

We partnered with Clerkenwell who do The End of the F***ing World and they're so accomplished with storytelling and drama so they were integral in keeping the story chugging along the right way. Otherwise it would have been a collection of dick jokes!

How have you found the discipline of writing a sitcom compared to stand-up?

I think stand-up are naturally good at structure because we forget that our stand-up shows do have structure. We know where the punchline has to go. We know where the beats are. We know when we want it to climax. We know what the closer should be.

It was Roisin Conaty who gave me a lot of confidence because she said "Don't let anybody think you don't know how to write a sitcom. If you know how to write tours and stand-up, you know how to write a sitcom."

The main difference is that a sitcom is very collaborative, there are lots of moving parts and a lot of notes. Whereas stand-up, everybody leaves you alone. You're just alone. And then you do the show and people either like it or they don't. So it was a real adjustment for me because I'd become so accustomed to being on my own.

The Duchess is also your first big acting role. What was that like?

I'm not acting very much in it, I'm just being the stage version of myself that I do all the time. Just a more provocative version of me. I don't actually yell at the moms at the school gates, but I want to! It's sort of a fantasy of me.

I just thought the secret to acting was to take a botox hiatus, so I didn't get any botox for a year before we started filming and I just figured that's what Olivia Colman and Judi Dench were doing this whole time. But it's actually a lot harder than that and I don't imagine that I'll be asked to do much more acting.

I think I've done a very Jerry Seinfeld trick of being sort of a version of myself and surrounding myself with very capable actors.

How involved were you in the casting?

I asked both Steen (Raskopoulos) and Michelle (DeSwarte) to come in and audition. I asked a few other bevs to come in and audition as well but I didn't have final say. It was collaborative. Everybody has to sign off so it wasn't up to me, but I was allowed some influence as an Executive Producer.

Obviously I had to have chemistry with them so I was really happy to see that Michelle, coming from a similar background to myself - I knew Michelle on the circuit a dozen years ago. We did Dirty Digest together. I love Michelle and I believe in her very much as a writer and an actress. I watch all her short films. She's so talented.

She'd been off in America for years and years not really working much in the UK and I thought, "What? Michelle's in the UK? We have to get Michelle." and she blew everyone away. She's great.

Writing for Netflix must be different, because all episodes arrive at once and most people watch an entire series in one go. Did you consider that when writing?

Yes. They have a very different brief and a very different rhythm to other channels. You don't have to have a specific length because there are no adverts and you don't have to leave every episode on a cliffhanger, thinking that the audience won't be tuning in for another week - because they can go straight in to the next one.

A lot of the feedback I've had to the trailer is that they think it's a film. And it is a film if you just watch it all at once.

How similar is your daughter in the show, Olive, to your real daughter, Violet?

They're not similar actually. Olive is like this ethereal, perfect encapsulation of how I feel about Violet. But I would never take example from Violet's real life. So they're different, but I always take a core theme that is true and then decorate it with fiction. Olive and Violet are as dissimilar as I am to my stage version of myself.

Have you watched the series back now? Are you happy with it?

I haven't seen all of it. I was meant to watch it for editing purposes, because I was involved in the edit - which is quite stressful because everything is a discussion. Everything! Every song, every choice.

All these meticulous discussions were quite stressful... and there's a sex scene that I will never watch as long as I live. So I haven't seen that. I will never be seeing that. And I will never be shooting another one.

It's difficult watching yourself. Am I proud of it? We'll see. That's my main answer. I do the best that I can all the time but I don't have control over whether people like it or not. I sort of secretly think they will.

I objectively think it's very good but I've done everything I can do, so I don't spend sleepless nights worrying about whether or not people are going to like it.

Would you like to do another series?

Of course. I think there's lots more to tell. I think Shep has been emboldened by the love of a good woman and I see True Say being back together on tour.

What's next for you? I know All That Glitters was recently announced...

Yeah. That has been filmed. We started filming and then we had to take a hiatus for the lockdown and then we got back, socially distanced and filmed the tail end of it. So it's now all in the bag.

And finally, what do you think about the future of live comedy?

I think comedy always finds a way. Especially in a recession, historically comedy has always flourished. I really do worry about some of my peers who do the circuit exclusively, because they're livelihoods have been decimated by this.

I always believe that there's a way back. Especially with comedy because we need a laugh! Especially now. It really is therapeutic for a whole load of people and we can't be replaced with machines.

The Duchess launches Friday 11th September on Netflix


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