An overnight comedy success after nine years work

Comedian Chris Ryan was as surprised as anyone to find herself nominated for best newcomer at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival – then again, she’s been doing comedy for 9 years and life for 48.

If you told 30-something me – a sleep-deprived new Mum – that in just over a decade I would get a Best Newcomer win and nomination at the Sydney and Melbourne comedy festivals respectively, I would have laughed. I mean, good one! There I was, the saddest, angriest and most hopeless I’d felt in my life, out of my depth, suffering a three-year undiagnosed bout of post-natal depression – of course the starkest contrast would be to become a comedian. Well played.

Back then, the closest I came to that dream was to write drunken notes to myself and to a funny friend saying we should try stand-up comedy one day, only to fall asleep, forget about it and grind through another day of anxious parenting. The image of a grey-haired mum at 47 considered a newcomer in a field as offbeat and exciting as comedy brings to mind the unlikelihood of old dogs learning new tricks.

I didn’t know what comedy was back then, really (some would say I still don’t), apart from what I saw on the Australian galas on TV. Watching Fiona O’Loughlin deliver comedy about being a mum who was not winning at life resonated so strongly I think it was the first flicker of hope for me that there may be something to be redeemed from my identity, such as it had become.

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I always wanted to do comedy but I never felt like I had enough darkness or something to say until I had kids. Even though they are the best kids. Post-natal depression made me a comedian. Sort of. My family have enabled my comedy from the start and continue to do so, not just by providing the backdrop and impetus to start, but by supporting me financially and emotionally to continue when it would be better for them if I had a well-paid desk job close to home.

Someone once told me that creativity loves a deadline and I think that’s what made me start, entering the local heat of the 2012 RAW Comedy competition. Until then, I had no idea there was a comedy scene in Canberra and watched my first Australian live comedy show at Civic Pub Comedy Club, the longest running comedy room in town, now 11 years old. That night I saw a local comedian, Tom Gibson, who was so outstanding that I couldn’t believe he wasn’t already on TV. He and a few others would become mentors and my greatest supporters in comedy outside of my own family for the first few years along with a fellow mum, Eddy Nelson, who became one of my best friends upon first meeting her. I saw some other acts that convinced me to try comedy not by how good they were, but because I thought I could do better. I was hooked.

It took 6 years before I’d start getting regular interstate gigs. I went to open mics to develop five-minute sets from flat to ok, to funny and started building up content aiming for my first 10 minutes then 20 then festival show hour. I started running performance rooms and MCing in Canberra to get stage time and to build the local scene.

I remember thinking I had made it when I got my first ‘corporate’ gig (meaning, paid better but usually fairly heinous and soul destroying). I had to do three 10-minute sets at the three different sites of a burrito chain across town in one day. Doing stand up to disinterested punters in the food court of the Canberra Centre at lunchtime with a broken microphone marked the lowest point in my comedy career to date. But also, the best kind of story to share backstage. No-one in Australian comedy likes a success story, they trade solely in tales of spectacular, painful failure. That’s where the laughs are. I still get excited, though, about it all and I’m probably too earnest and grateful for comedy.

I always wanted to do comedy but I never felt like I had enough darkness or something to say until I had kids.

There are days where you question your sanity for pursuing this poorly paid, self-indulgent and seemingly frivolous pursuit as an adult, certainly as a parent. There’s a reason there are not many mums starting comedy later in life – if they have spare time, they not going to waste it trying to make strangers laugh at their personal flaws and pet hates.

I’d watch the comedians I had become a fan of on the Australian scene, incredulous that the world didn’t know yet about people like Luke Heggie, arguably the most insightful, brilliant and hardest working comedian getting about. I listened to the advice from masters like Mandy Nolan, who runs her comedy empire from the unlikely small town of Mullumbimby, NSW and whose comedy can transfix a crowd in seconds like a cult leader. From Urzilla Carlson who responded to my request for advice with: ‘Show up on time, be polite and sober and remember this is the best job in the world.’ Or Ireland’s David O’Doherty who wrote: ‘Do what you think is funny, not what other comedians think is funny.’

When the Sydney Comedy Festival awarded me Best Newcomer in 2019, I got drunk and lugged a heavy backpack along deserted streets from The Factory Theatre in Marrickville to the Heggie family’s couch in Coogee between 2am and 6am. All the while telling myself that I had had it too easy, that I probably didn’t deserve this and at least by doing this walk I was suffering for my art (what a wanker!). I think when you enjoy doing something and find it challenging, it hardly ever feels like too much work. But it’s still early days for me so don’t quote me.

Probably the most exciting thing for me about all this was receiving a screenshot of a snapchat conversation my 17-year-old son had with one of his mates earlier this month when I was on TV for the first time. In a private chat with a mate, son had posted “Mum’s on telly!” over a screenshot of me. The mate replied: “Girlboss”.

Son takes a photo of his face, deadpan watching TV, with “Chris Ryan is a Girlboss” written on screen and sends it to me.

I will be accepting no further reviews at this time, thank you.

Chris Ryan performs her show Big Hair, Big Dreams at Perth Comedy Festival Friday 7 May at the Regal Theatre Chorus Room and Sydney Comedy Festival 12-16 May at the Factory Theatre, Marrickville.

Chris Ryan
About the Author
Chris Ryan is a former journalist, current comedian and recovering mum. In 2019 she was awarded Best Newcomer at the Sydney Comedy Festival and in 2021 she was nominated for Best Newcomer at Melbourne International Comedy Festival.