Tag Archives: 8 Out of 10 Cats

John Ryan – “Most comedy is about the self-indulgent egos of the performers.”

Comedian John Ryan appeared in this blog a couple of times in 2014. The first time, he talked about scripting Teletubbies and getting awarded a Royal Society for Public Health Special Commendation for contributions to the field of Arts and Health Equalities.

In the second, he said: “People ask me why I’m not as big as Michael McIntyre and I say I’m just too normal.”

Recently, he contacted me about his new online radio show Reading The Signs. His pitch was: “It is on two sister stations: Men’s Radio Station and Women’s Radio Station. It is the world’s first and only comedy and mental health radio and social media show going out on YouTube, Twitter, FacebookLive and Soundcloud as well as over 40 stations worldwide as part of the deluxe radio network.”

So we talked via Skype…


ME: You’ve not taken a conventional comedy career path…

JOHN RYAN: Well, ten years ago I decided, rather than pursue that elusive dream of being on 8 Out of 10 Cats and Mock The Week, I thought I would use my academic background. So I got into ten years of community care work and pursued that avenue. And this is the next step.

ME: You do stuff for about five NHS regions around the country.

JOHN RYAN: Yes.

ME: But you are still a comedian.

JOHN RYAN: Essentially, yeah. Up until the Covid lockdown, I was still doing cabaret on cruise ships and doing all the clubs up and down the UK.

ME: So, if you had to put your primary ‘job’ on your passport, what would your profession be?

JOHN RYAN: (PAUSE) Memory maker. (A LONG LAUGH) I suppose I would put down Entertainer, really.

ME: Reading The Signs is…?

JOHN RYAN: Every week, I get a comedian on and we talk about comedy: how they got into it, why they did, gig experiences… but also how they stay resilient, especially through the last 18 months.

At the best of times, comics are ‘fragile’. So having no live work for the last 18 months meant having no constant validation from audiences, no ‘love’ and no money. It’s a combination cocktail for disaster and I’m interested in how they have survived. If THEY can do it, then the average Joe in the street can maybe learn stuff from them.

ME: It started online a couple of weeks ago…

John Ryan – well-being training and mental health training

JOHN RYAN: Every Monday at 7 o’clock.

There is a company called WJ who do all the road markings on the motorways and schools and places and they sponsor me. They have been using me for the last three or four years to go into their teams and do well-being training, mental health training and corporate comedy shows.

The idea of Reading The Signs was to show there’s more to comedy as a vehicle than just standing in front of an audience, trying to get on that comedy industry rat race. And it’s trying to show there’s more to comedians than people who go on stage and make you laugh. Last week my guest was Ria Lina.

Traditionally I’ve just done men’s health and men’s mental well-being. But this is more about the resilience of comics.

Just cos you don’t appear on 8 Out of 10 Cats don’t mean you can’t make a good living. I’ve travelled the world. It is possible to make a GOOD living from a comedy career even though nobody knows you. I live in (he mentions a very up-market area of London).

ME: So it is possible to monetise comedy without being on TV?

“When everyone was trying to get on the train…”

JOHN  RYAN: When everyone was trying to get on the train with the Off The Kerb and Avalon agencies, I targeted the NHS and BUPA and, when auditions and castings came up, I got onto the cruise ships and the military gigs and the corporate circuit. My thing was not about doing comedy as a vanity project. I was raised in Hackney and…

ME: Hackney is a bit Yuppie…

JOHN RYAN: I grew up there before people ate avocados for breakfast.

I’m from a very multi-cultural, working class background. I brought that work ethic into my comedy career. I would say: “You need a compere, I’ll do that… You need a headline act, I’ll do that… You need a musical act, I’ll do that…”

Most comedy is about the self-indulgent egos of the performers. But Reading The Signs is actually about getting below the surface and seeing what makes people do comedy. So, if there’s anyone out there suffering from depression or anxiety or mental un-wellness, they can see that most comics have got some kind of ‘block’ that stops them being able to interact ‘normally’ or in a ‘usual’ manner.

“I’m not preachy… I’m not a clinician…”

It’s not preachy. I’m not telling people to hug trees. I’m not a clinician. I’m not a consultant. I’m just a bloke who has managed to stay sane in this world. Here are some of the things that work for me – and here’s some of the things that work for my friends. And they are people who are not part of the mainstream society.

One of the things about mental health is that, when you suffer, you’re excluded from mainstream society.

ME: You got interested in mental health because of family things?

JOHN RYAN: Yes. My mother suffered from clinical depression all her life and, as a child, I used to sit with her on her dark days and just read loads of books which meant I developed an amazing thirst for knowledge.

Both my parents were barely literate, but I managed to get a Masters Degree plus two other degrees. And it was all because of what I picked up as a little child: the quest for knowledge; the drive to know Why is that like that?

ME: A Masters Degree in what?

JOHN RYAN: In Health and Social Policy.

ME: And the other two degrees?

JOHN RYAN: One in Social Science. The other in Trade Union & Labour Studies.

ME: What? Why?

“The quest for knowledge… to know Why is that like that?

JOHN RYAN: It was hobbies.

My first degree was because I wanted to get out of Hackney and change my friendship circle.

But the others I did as hobbies. I also have an NVQ in Gardening… I just like learning.

ME: Is your life going to dramatically change when the Covid lockdown finally ends?

JOHN RYAN: I have a reluctance to travel now. In the year up to lockdown, I did 64 flights.

ME: Any change to your on-stage style because of lockdown? Zoom gigs are very difficult for comedians – no feedback; no laughter.

JOHN RYAN: Well, I think comedy is like sex. It’s always better if there’s someone else doing it with you and they’re near you and enjoying it. But my comedy was never necessarily funny stories. It’s basically just sheer force of persona. So Zoom suited me. I’ve come to terms with Zoom.

ME: Have you lost part of the urge to step on a live stage?

JOHN RYAN: No. I did a live gig last week and loved it. The audience was very receptive and really willing. But I think we have to embrace the fact things have changed.

I’ve been talking to someone about doing a little theatre tour in the autumn and what we will do is sell tickets for a live audience but also stream it online.

ME: Any other projects?

JOHN RYAN: I’ve written a kids’ book – me and my mate have written it. It will be published next month. 

ME: The title?

JOHN RYAN: A Mission Most Fowl.

ME: I smell chickens.

JOHN RYAN: It’s basically four anthropomorphic creatures in a post-Apocalyptic future… Mankind has gone… There are some genetically-modified animals living in a cave where all Man’s technology was. Some baddie ducks want to capture the cave and take over the planet.

ME: For what age kids?

JOHN RYAN: 11 upwards. Publishing a book was on my tick list of things I wanted to do.

ME: Anything un-ticked?

JOHN RYAN: To be in a musical.

ME: That’s not impossible.

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Why “Peep Show” led one American in Los Angeles to love British comedy

The current image on Naomi’s Twitter page

The current public  image displayed on Naomi’s Twitter page

I have had a Twitter account – @thejohnfleming – since March 2009 but, honestly, I have never got the hang of it. Nonetheless, people follow me – only 2,026 at the moment, but every little helps.

Naomi Rohatyn started to follow me last week. Her profile says: “Wildly unsuccessful comedy writer in LA. Aspiring to become wildly unsuccessful comedy writer in London.”

I thought this was fairly interesting as most comedy writers in London seem to aspire to be writers in Los Angeles.

Brandon Burkhart with Naomi with The Pun Dumpster site

Brandon Burkhart with Naomi with The Pun Dumpster site

But just as interesting was the fact she runs a Tumblr website called Pun Dumpster.

It is just a series of pictures of PhotoShopped graffiti on large waste containers.

So, obviously, I FaceTimed her in Los Angeles this morning.

“You like British comedy?” I asked.

Naomi via FaceTime from Los Angeles this morning

Naomi spoke via FaceTime from Los Angeles this morning

“I think the real obsession for me,” she explained, “started a couple of years ago with Peep Show. I think people of my generation in America grew up watching Monty Python… AbFab was on in the 1990s and even The Young Ones played here I think on Comedy Central in the 1990s.

“A couple of years ago I was just tootling around on Hulu and found Peep Show and now I’m obssesed. There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t think about it. So then I became obsessed by everything David Mitchell and Robert Webb did and Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong have ever done and followed the threads. I could follow David Mitchell round all day and listen to his brilliance.”

“You know he’s taken now?” I asked. “He married Victoria Coren.”

“Yes. I hadn’t really been aware of her before. The only panel shows I’d watched were a fair amount of QI because, of course, Stephen Fry is brilliant, but then I sought out Victoria Coren’s panel show and she’s very funny and witty and… this is so embarrassing… I wanna pretend I have fine taste, but.. I was watching 8 Out of 10 Cats and she had this great riff on Goldfinger. David Mitchell and Victoria Coren are perfect for each other.”

There is a clip of Peep Show on YouTube.

“Where do you see all this stuff?” I asked. “On PBS?”

“All on my computer,” said Naomi. “On YouTube or Hulu or Netflix. All the panel shows have been on YouTube.”

“Have you got BBC America?” I asked.

“I don’t have cable. I just watch everything online.”

“Why UK stuff?” I asked.

“Part of why I love British comedy so much,” explained Naomi, “is what I perceive as bleakness in the British soul; a way of looking at the world with a knowing smirk. So much of British comedy starts from the premise that life is basically a series of humiliations and disappointments – whereas American humour is perhaps still uplifting at its core – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just doesn’t have the same gaping ennui, which is something I just love about British comedy.

Naomi Rohatyn

Naomi insists Americans hold no sole patent on stupidity

“I think we do political satire and social satire really well, but there’s still something missing – a different approach to the human experience. In scripted shows, we still tend to default to things that are ultimately uplifting or protagonists that are either utterly likeable or a a clear anti-hero – they’re not just flawed fuck-ups.

“There is also that stereotype – for a good reason – that British humour is wittier and more intelligent than some American stuff. That has a foundation in truth, though it’s not because Americans hold the sole patent on stupidity and ignorance. But I do think there’s a strange cultural rejection here for anything perceived as intellectual.

“Even if you look at something like (the British TV show) The Thick of It and (its US re-make) Veep. I feel Veep is smooth peanut butter as opposed to the chunky original.”

There is a BBC trailer for The Thick of It on YouTube.

“We do have this weird proto-populist rejection of anything that is too intelligent. In The Big Bang Theory – even though they’re supposed to be super-intelligent – it’s low-brow humour.

“When I watch Peep Show it is so grim and vérité, but then they make allusions to Stalingrad and I feel that would come off as somehow so elitist here or people simply wouldn’t get the references. It’s not part of discourse here except in academia. And there’s not such a culture of self-deprecation here as there is in Britain.”

“You’re a writer or stand-up or both?” I asked.

“I would say 90% writer and 10% performer. What I mostly am is a dork.”

“And you write for…?” I asked.

“Yeaahhh…” said Naomi. “We are still working on that.”

“What did you study at college?” I asked.

“Critical Social Thought,” replied Naomi. “Probably the subject least applicable to any actual career. It was the liberaliest arts degree one could get. Our joke was it made you even less employable than an English Major.

Naomi Rohatyn_selfie2

When she moved to LA, Naomi worked on the devil’s testicles

“When I first moved to Los Angeles (from San Diego) I started at the very bottom rung of the entertainment industry, production assisting on many horrible TV reality shows which are woven of the devil’s testicles. I did a lot of random crewing – art department, sound department, post production stuff. Then the 14-hour days started getting to me and I wasn’t writing enough, so I took a day job at a law school for a couple of years and I’ve gone in a straight downward trajectory and now I walk dogs for cash in hand to support my writing habit.

“I feel like now I have goodish contacts here in LA: a lot of friends many of whom do have representation and are legitimate, functioning, employable human beings.”

“What are you writing at the moment?” I asked.

“I’m working on a satirical travel book. A satirical guide to Britain for American travellers. All utterly worthless information – a satire on those Rough Guides.”

“Have far back does your British comedy knowledge go?” I asked. “Do you know British acts like Morecambe and Wise?”

“Yes. This was why Peep Show was such a great gateway drug because it got me into the history of the double act. That’s something we don’t have as much of.”

“Off the top of my head,” I said, “I have to think back to Burns & Allen.”

There is a clip of George Burns and Gracie Allen on YouTube.

“We had Nichols & May,” said Naomi.

“But, in the UK,” I said, “they were not really known as a double act. They were a film director and a writer and, in fact, sadly, Elaine May was not much known here.”

“That’s too bad,” said Naomi.

“Indeed it is,” I said.

“There’s Key & Peele today,” said Naomi, “but double acts seem more of a tradition in British comedy.”

There is a clip of Key & Peele on YouTube.

“I suppose there is a British tradition,” I said. “Reeves & Mortimer, Little & Large, Cannon & Ball… Do you know Tommy Cooper who, in Britain, is really the comedians’ comedian?”

“I don’t know him.”

“You wouldn’t want to live in Britain, though,” I said. “Living in Los Angeles has some advantages. For example, there is sunshine.”

“It is wasted on me,” said Naomi. “I don’t care about the weather, I don’t care about the beach. I can’t swim very well, I don’t surf, I don’t need sunshine. To me, rainy, cold, foggy miserable, dark, damp, grey Britain is perfect because it gives me an excuse to hate everyone and be in a coffee shop writing.”

“You should move to Glasgow,” I said. “You will love the weather and the fact you hate humanity will be much appreciated. If you go round being aggressive, you will fit in perfectly. In fact, if you like bleakness in the British soul… I think Scottish humour is much more dark and dour and straight-faced than English humour – Scotch & Wry or Rikki Fulton or Rab C.Nesbitt.”

“I’ve seen Frankie Boyle on the panel shows,” said Naomi, “but most of my concept of Scottish comedy – or Scottish life in general – is English comedians slagging it off – drug addicts and reprobates and fried Mars bars.”

“That is not comedy,” I said. “That is social realism and reportage.”

There is a clip from Rab C.Nesbitt on YouTube.

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