In 2010, comedian John Ryan was an NHS Regional Health and Social Care award winner in the Mental Health and Well Being category. In the same year, he got a Royal Society for Public Health Special Commendation for contributions to the field of Arts and Health Equalities. And, in 2011, he was a Best Short Documentary Award winner at the Scottish Mental Health and Arts Film Festival for a film he made about a women’s prison.
This year, the Irish Post reported that he was “chuffed to bits” to have his first research paper on mental health published in the Journal of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.
But John Ryan is not often mentioned by trendy comedy reviewers. Why?
“I think I’m a bit too laddish for them,” he told me. “A bit too working class. And I tend to play Jongleurs and the bigger clubs. I’ve done the Soho Theatre three or four times, but I earn my living doing this. I’ve not got aspirations to do a sitcom or Live at The Apollo on TV. I basically provide meat & two veg.
“I was a trade union chairman for ten years – UNISON, the public sector. I worked in a collective environment. And I worked in housing. I had three small kids under the age of 5 and worked 12-hour shifts. Two weeks of days; a week of nights. But I also used to write kids’ stories.
“Someone said: If you do stand-up, you’ll get a performing CV and you’ll be able to sell your kids’ stories. So I did my first gig and got my first writing contract three months later. That was on Teletubbies. And they gave me a job as an insert director. I bluffed my way in. Bluffed it, blagged it.
“When that finished, I carried on with my day job and the TV producers were trying to re-vamp another show of theirs called Brum about a little kid’s toy car. They offered me a six months contract writing on that – equivalent to a year’s salary where I was working. So I took that and took my pay-off from my day job – so I basically had 18-months salary and carried on doing stand-up.
“I was a Hackney Empire New Act of the Year finalist in 2000 with Russell Brand. Shappi Khorsandi came second. Paul Hickman won it. Russell Brand went on and done about 15 minutes of piss-poor Bill Hicks type act. Cole Parker got told off for getting stoned in the dressing room.
“In 2001 I did Leicester New Act of the Year. I was the runner-up. It was won by Miles Jupp. The other runner-up was Jimmy Carr. And John Bishop was not placed.
“A couple of years later, in 2003, I went to the Edinburgh Fringe with a show called John Ryan Isn’t Normal? My son had been in a school play. He was Joseph; a girl was Mary. He went to pick up the baby Jesus and, in a packed assembly hall, the girl says Give me the baby and my son says No, I’m giving him a cuddle. So the girl says Men don’t cuddle babies and by now the play has gone to pot. My boy says: Well, my dad’s a man and he cuddles me, and, in this full assembly hall, this little girl says, Well, your dad’s not normal.
“All the mums looked at me. It genuinely happened. So I wrote a whole hour show about it.
“I had an MA in Health & Social Policy. I had a degree in Social Administration. I had worked in Housing & Community Care. I had experience of working with vulnerable groups.
“When I did John Ryan Isn’t Normal? at the Edinburgh Fringe, a reviewer for Three Weeks magazine turned up pissed with his girlfriend, spent half the time snogging her and being an arse, so I told him to Fuck off out! and then wrote to Three Weeks saying: Look, don’t send idiots. I don’t think they like that.
“The following year, I did a show called Stupid Monkey, because I went to a party dressed as a monkey and got into an argument with a guy who was dressed as a carrot. We got into a physical fight and the ridiculousness of it – that me, a grown man with kids, was fighting a man dressed as a carrot – made me think Why aren’t we able to resolve our differences without fighting? So the show talked about Iraq, Israel, racism, homophobia and was called Stupid Monkey.”
“Had you got anything out of the John Ryan Isn’t Normal? show?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” said John. “I picked up a little award from some independent magazine that then folded and Geoff Rowe from the Leicester Comedy Festival asked if I’d be interested in talking about health in non-conventional venues.
“I also got asked to write a column for the Irish Post, because I’m from the Irish community. In the Irish community, if you get in the Irish Post, you’re like a superstar. I thought it would be fun for my mum.
“So, from that first Edinburgh Fringe, I got myself a weekly column and got involved in doing health projects: Hurt Until It Laughs. Then I did a tour round working men’s clubs and prisons, young offenders’ institutions, gay/lesbian centres, Islamic centres, Afro-Caribbean centres.
“And Geoff Rowe also asked me if I knew anything about mental health because there was a children’s charity called YoungMinds who were very keen to empower men to spend more time with their kids and to look at how kids behaved to see if there was any mental trouble there. So I wrote a show called Those Young Minds which allowed me to talk about my upbringing.
“My family were Scottish and Irish. I was a Cockney. My mum’s lot are from Coatbridge in Scotland. Her dad moved from Catholic Coatbridge to Longford in Ireland, where my mum was born. My dad’s family were all Travellers, from Longford. Middle of nowhere. Even Irish people don’t know where it is. Then my mum and dad moved to Hackney in London. So we went from the poorest part of Scotland to the poorest part of Ireland to Hackney. You can almost see a show writing itself, can’t you?
“I was always fighting and scrapping, cos that’s what we do.
“I came home from school one day, having been given the cane yet again and been told I was going to get expelled.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Pranks,” said John.
“What sort of pranks?” I asked.
“Well,” said John, “when I was eight, I hit a kid with a brick. He was called Paul Kennedy and we were the only two Irish families in the class.”
“He was a Protestant?” I asked.
“No, he was a Catholic, but he just thought he was better than me and we always used to fight. At school one day, he picked his nose, put it on me, we had a big argument, I threw a brick at him, knocked him out, blood came out of his nose and out of his ears.
“One of the girls in the class said: You’ve killed him!
“I had never felt so great in my life. It was a really empowering feeling. In my head, I was thinking: I’ve got a list of people I’m going to take out now.
“So I go to school the next day. He doesn’t come to school. None of the other kids will come near me in the playground – You killed Paul Kennedy! they tell me – and I went home and my sister said she was going to tell my mum and I was petrified.
“My mum came into my bedroom and said: I’m so ashamed. I’m really ashamed of what you done.
“And I think: Hang on. I’m not getting slapped.
“We are going to pray to Jesus, she tells me.
“I never liked the one on the cross. I always liked the little baby one. I was scared of the one on the cross. So I thought of little baby Jesus and we prayed.
“I go into school the next morning and Paul Kennedy isn’t there. Everyone tells me he is dead. I have killed him. I am still feeling alright.
“At playtime, he comes into class with a bandage on his head. This was a great, euphoric moment. I run up to give him a cuddle. He punches me in the face. I head-butt him. He goes back to hospital. I get suspended from school for the week.
“My mum says: What are we going to do with you? You’re going to go in to Daisy next door.
“Everyone in our block was either Irish or black. Except Daisy, who was this old white English woman. She didn’t have a TV. She made her own cheese in a handkerchief at the sink. She had long nails. She was really scary. She used to be a head teacher.
“So I went to her flat.
“First day. Go in. Go to the toilet. Sit down at the table. My sister had told me Daisy was going to kill me. But she gave me an apple and some milk. The wall was covered in books. She said: Pick a book, read it and not a peep out of you.
“I was petrified. I read the book. Then, after a couple of hours, I went home. This happened every day for a week.
“At the end of the week, Daisy came in to our kitchen. My mum asked: How’s he been? Daisy said: He’s been really quiet. He just reads. No trouble at all. Didn’t break anything. Didn’t steal anything. Not rude.
“My mum told me: If you keep misbehaving, you’ll go back in there again.
“And I was really upset, because I wanted to go back in there.
“In the 2005 show I wrote – Those Young Minds – I was able to look at things like Why did my behaviour change in Daisy’s? Was it because I was getting attention? Was it because I was being given something to do?
“I did that show in Edinburgh, but only for two days. I got a one-star review from Three Weeks.”
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