At the age of 38, Chris Ryan stepped up to her first stand-up comedy gig in a Canberra bar – a prospect that most of us would find terrifying. But far from being fearful, Chris says that five minutes in the spotlight saved her.
By Kathy Sharpe
With a successful career in journalism and communications under her belt, Chris Ryan was busy raising two children in the suburbs with her partner Richard.
Her life looked idyllic – but something had been missing – until she stepped up to the microphone for Raw Comedy’s Canberra heat, in front of a “lovely, supportive crowd”.
“I am an enormously anxious person, I have so many fears, many of them ludicrous, but doing stand up isn’t one of them,” Chris Ryan said.
“Sending the kids to camp, now that terrifies me. People who put their kids into ballet and offer to sew costumes, now that’s scary.
“I felt very alive, happy and calm, I knew I’d done the very best I could,” she said.
“When they called my name out to say I’d won I was deliriously excited. It was ridiculously rewarding. When I heard my name I walked up to the stage and I wasn’t meant to. So I just scurried back and sat down.”
Leading to that moment had been a lifetime of seeking out a stage for performance and expression. Chris spent most of her childhood in Hyderabad, India, where her father was an agricultural economist.
“Mum and dad were busy and my brother was at boarding school, so I was always looking for people to hang out with and get attention from.”
Returning to Canberra was a culture shock, and again, performing became her way of finding her place in the crowd.
“At highschool I realised I liked showing off. In year 10, I had the lead role in Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady.”
She also admits to an enduring competitive streak.
“I realise now I was a giant idiot. I liked the limelight, it wasn’t good enough to be in the chorus.
“It sounds like an awful thing to say because of course the chorus is wonderful, but really, why bother? Would you really run a race and say I want to come 75th?
“I like to win but I also like to pretend I don’t care about it.”
As a year 10 student at Canberra High she aspired to be a journalist, but didn’t get the marks.
“I grew up watching Jana Wendt and thinking, wouldn’t it be great to travel the world and write stories and have great hair?
“So I did an arts degree, honours in English at the ANU. It was strange. I remember going to tutorials and people discussing at length a poem about a bluebird or something, and I would just be rolling my eyes.”
A job in newspaper journalism on the south coast of NSW offered a chance to talk to normal people.
She returned to Canberra with her partner, setting up a communications business and starting her family. But there was something missing.
“There was always a need to express myself and be heard. Not to be clever, but it was just that I needed people to hear me. I wanted to be noticed.”
The move into comedy came after a difficult period in Chris’s life, where she was struggling with what she later found out was post natal depression.
“My personality didn’t handle new motherhood very well. I wasn’t satisfied. Or course now I just want to spend all my time with the kids, but when they were little and they couldn’t speak English I just found myself waiting for days to end,” she said.
“Largely I look back at that time as dark. I was very isolated. I was unreachable. I was very angry and distressed.”
The pressure of society’s expectations of motherhood were also weighing on her.
“Some of my comedy now is around competitive parenting. I went once to a mothers’ group to try and connect. We had to go round the circle and talk about the birth experience. This woman was saying how she had a water birth and it was so beautiful, and I just said, well, ‘I had all the drugs’.
“I’d lost everything about myself. I thought, I’ll never be the centre of anything again, I’m nothing.”
Which brings us, inevitably, to how she views the stereotype of the “sad clown”, the idea that behind every funny lady or funny man is a tortured soul.
“You know how all those uber people who eat the chia seeds ‘live in the moment’? Well I live in the moment and sometimes it’s horrendous. You feel so deeply, the highs and the lows. Most comedians are like that.”
She began to mix with other Canberra comics, and to present a weekly breakfast radio show on 2XX.
She has since performed at the Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney comedy festivals.
She said “dying” on stage is not something she’s experienced a lot, but enough to know she hates it.
“You know after the first joke how it’s going to go. You’ve got to hit them with a quick joke and get them on side immediately,” she said.
“It’s a conversation. I’m listening all the time to their laughter, to their response. It’s a relationship up there. Jokes take discipline.”
She said the stand up scene in Canberra is vibrant and the wider industry is attracting more women.
“Maybe some other mums think I’m a self indulgent git which is quite true, but a lot also seem quite happy I’m up there saying what they’d like to say but have too much good sense to say out loud,” she said.
People find it strange, because in fact people rarely indulge in the thing they love.
“I reckon it’s something I’m OK at and I know I love doing it. I’m not sure how I would go if it was all I did. I try to keep it in balance, to keep getting better, get more gigs. It’s a great opportunity and I’m really lucky to be doing it.”
Catch Chris as she MCs this year’s second Raw Comedy heat at the Civic Pub in Braddon, on Wednesday, February 8, ($15) or at the Ramshackle Fiasco at the Uni Pub on Friday February 24 ($20 – $22) Book for both gigs on trybooking.com