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Katherine Ryan Made a Sitcom for Families With ‘Funny Shapes’


LONDON — 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: “No. We don’t want to do this.”

The Canadian comedian was filming “The Duchess,” 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.

“That is the day I learned the difference between a standup and an actor,” she said. She realized that she might tell jokes about sex, but “I don’t act them out.’”

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.)

The sex scene in “The Duchess” wasn’t her only first. She had also never played a lead role, written a sitcom script or fielded notes from producers. “I’d be like ‘ew’” when receiving the feedback, she said, though she added that “the notes did move it in the right direction.”

Sitting at her kitchen table in a northern London suburb, Ryan acknowledged that some viewers might confuse the Katherine on “The Duchess” with her. “It’s an extension of my stage persona, but it’s not my actual life,” she said. “I decorate everything with fiction.”

Ryan was a single mother for a decade, an experience that she drew on in her standup, especially her 2019 Netflix special, “Glitter Room,” which was the genesis of “The Duchess.” That routine included some reflections on the patronizing sympathy she sometimes received. But despite this, she said, “I just loved being a single mom.”

Her character in “The Duchess” is also raising a daughter, Olive. The fictional child’s father is a former boy-band singer who lives off the grid on a canal boat — which, Ryan stressed, her ex does not. Olive is highly proper, with an upper-class British accent (think Maggie Smith) that contrasts with Katherine’s Canadian staccato and love of obscenities. It’s a far cry from how Ryan’s real-life daughter, Violet, talks.

Ryan said that comedy was funniest when it includes specific, not general, experiences. And one that shaped “The Duchess” was when she wondered aloud to her therapist whether it was time to have a “normal family,” before realizing that, statistically, being a single mother was not unusual.

“There’s so many of us, and still there’s this cloud of shame,” Ryan said. She wanted to make a show that celebrated these “funny shapes of families,” like her own.

Katherine and Olive are so close that they often sleep in the same bed, and Katherine’s 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, “Could you please make her have my baby?”

Conventional rom-com gender roles are flipped, and no matter how commitment-phobic and mindlessly cruel Katherine is, Evan just can’t seem to let her go. “It’s always more fun to be a bit of a villain,” 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 daughter’s face — “Sorry gal, I #thirst alone,” reads the caption for one, in which Ryan wears a bikini.

She was born and raised in Sarnia, a small town in Ontario: a “terrible, awful place,” as she describes it in her 2017 Netflix special, “In Trouble.”

“I’ve always known who to be since the day I was born,” she said, adding that she also realized very young that it would not involve living with men who were “emotionally abusive alcoholics” as many women in her family did.

Her parents split up when she was 15. “It was so exhausting to me that they just couldn’t get along,” said Ryan, who became their de facto mediator.

In some ways, she said, she wrote “The Duchess” for herself, bringing to life her own fantasy of how her own mother and father might have acted. Olive’s parents might be terrible people, but they try to put their child first.

Ryan called comedy a great “Trojan horse,” because it can be a way of talking about challenging social issues “in an accessible way that doesn’t make people feel attacked.” With “In Trouble,” 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, “Telling Everybody Everything,” and for the first episode she discussed a recent miscarriage and argued — seriously — that lost pregnancies should be more widely talked about.

Aisling Bea, the comedian and creator of the TV series “This Way Up,” said in an email exchange that “When Katherine says that she does not care what people think, she means it,” adding, “The only comparison is maybe Joan Rivers.”

Spending a recent afternoon at Ryan’s home was like entering a comfortable, classy pastel-toned world. Three tiny dogs — the smallest called Cardi Wee — 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.

“The Duchess” shares this aesthetic. Katherine’s outfits, put together by the stylist Jennifer Michalski-Bray, are opulent and colorful, somewhere between a little girl’s dressing up fantasy and a runway look.

“I love wearing clothes that confuse and anger men,” Ryan said. “I really love it.”

Katherine wears long tulle skirts, sequins, pussy-bow blouses and lots of beaded headbands, all of them by luxury designers.

“We wanted the clothes to be aspirational and fashion forward,” Michalski-Bray said in a telephone interview. The show’s producers initially didn’t understand the outfits’ 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 “seems like a frivolous thing to some people, maybe, but it isn’t.”

“I’m so tired of seeing mothers represented as messy,” she added. “Our children are not these cumbersome drags.”

Netflix hasn’t signed on for a second season of “The Duchess,” Ryan said, but she has already started writing it. And she is certain of one thing: She won’t be including any sex scenes for herself.

“I’ll never do it again,” she said. “Full stop. Nope.”

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