Lorenzo got a chance to interview actor, writer, TikTok star and all around entertainer Ryan Ken about their comedic inspirations and how they work to make the comedy landscape more inclusive for people from all walks of life.
How long have you been doing performance art for?
So my background is actually as a violinist and so I’ve done performance for most of my life. I played violin for over 20 years, but I recently started seriously studying acting for the past two years. I moved to the Detroit area for a job and had some free time. I’d always been curious about it, but too nervous to take the class. But I moved to a new place, didn’t know anybody, and I was like. “You know, maybe this is the place to dip my toe in it.” But actually starting acting was part of how I was healing my relationship to being a creative performer again.
Oh, wow. A violinist for 22 years.
Yeah, and it was part of my life for a long time. It was how everybody knew me. I got to a place where I was burned out with it. I took a break from performing for about five years. And so acting is actually me starting to reconnect with my identity as a performer.
When you started your acting career, did you jump into more dramatic roles and comedy came later? Or was that all at the same time?
Well, it was mostly just me taking classes. That was a lot of what it was. And so it was some introductory acting techniques and some training. But usually what we wound up doing as a part of class were dramatic roles, which were fun. Those are the things that I gravitated towards the most. But I wasn’t getting a lot of opportunities to do comedic acting, and I was really curious about it.
And so when COVID happened and I had finally worked up the nerve to audition. Theater and other acting opportunities were shut down because of the pandemic. And so I was like. “Well, you know, maybe I’ll record some videos, make my friends laugh and try some things out that I’ve not gotten to do in class.” Comedy as a part of what I did as an acting performance started with me trying some things out that I hadn’t gotten to do. Trying to make my friends laugh.
Wow, that’s really cool. Who are three comedians and inspire your work?
That’s really interesting. I would say a lot of the comedic influences I’m most moved by are less, so comedians per se, and more so comedic actors. So the people I can geek out about and talk about nonstop, Julia Louis Dreyfus. I think she is an incredible comedic actress who a lot of what she does kind of inspires how I’ve approached characters. Which is even when it’s comedy, you play the circumstances just as real as you would a drama or real as you would anything else. And it allows people to laugh at the cosmic joke of it.
So it’s, yes, you get the jokes, but you’re also like watching someone in real circumstances. You just get a deeper sort of connection to that humor. Also Erika Alexander, I think as Maxine and Living Single gave one of the most incredible comedic performances of all time. I could talk all day until I’m blue in the face about that.
But I learned so much, even from rewatching Living Single about her commitment, even to physical humor. How much she can convey when there’s not dialogue. She really influences me. This might sound like a cop-out. I’m inspired by a lot of the comedic actors I see online. And so people like Vinny, people like Meg Stalter. These are the people who really kind of influence and kind of build my confidence for what I can do.
I see them experimenting with things that sometimes they’re a little strange or a little unusual. It helps give me the courage to try some of that out, too. Danielle Pinnock. And Lynita Frederick of #books have been huge inspirations for me for a long time. These are also some of the people who inspire me, but I’m also really excited to hopefully work with at some point.
So usually when I interview comedians for people, people do comedy they go straight to- myself included- they’ll go straight to the big three. The Eddie Murphy’s, the Chris Rocks, the Bernie Macs. You’re the first comedian I’ve talked to who specifically highlighted female comedic actors.
Yeah. I think for me, part of what’s been interesting is like my relationship, even to the word comedian. I very much embarked on this with the intention of being an actor. And so a lot of what I was doing were acting exercises that were using comedy. And so they’re definitely comedic. They’re definitely funny. I definitely have had opportunities to do stand up and joke that kind of way. But I’m much more kind of identified as an actor and writer. And so a lot of my comedic influences for that work are usually other acts.
If you could rewrite one sitcom you watched growing up, what would it be?
Honestly, so many. And I don’t say this disparagingly, but I have, I grew up watching a ton of sitcoms. I was really early on shaped by sitcoms and watching sitcoms with my family. This millennial nostalgia thing is real and it’s being marketed to us. So there’s the opportunity to rewatch a lot of these shows and some of them are still funny. They’re still really good ensemble work.
There was kind of that Renaissance of Black sitcoms and the 90s and early 00s. And they still hold up. Jackie Harry is just as funny at every scene in Sister, Sister as she was when you first watched. When you rewatch them now, I’ve had a lot of experiences of realizing how many of my self-esteem issues and issues with insecurity and how I perceived myself were because of the kinds of jokes that were told on the series.
I see how often fat jokes were a default in some of my absolute favorite shows. Like I’m hesitant to put any in particular, and this is not necessarily me singling out a particular show because I think I could pick this or pick dozens of them. It’s just one of the examples that immediately comes to mind. Even in Moesha, which was one of my favorite shows, there were so many fat jokes for Countess Vaughn. I think about how, when I was a kid, a lot of my understanding of my relationship to my body was from, yes, the things that my peers said, yes to things that relatives said. But also the things that adults put out into the world at the time that I was a child as a creative person.
A lot of rewatching these things and thinking about these things actually really informed how I approached the things that I put out into the world. They will inevitably be very timestamped for this moment. There’ll be jokes that won’t make sense a year or two from now. But what I try my best to do is to think that if somebody were to ever revisit this, they would not experience themselves as the joke or their identity as the joke.
A lot of characters in your videos they punch up at more privileged individuals. For example, the Blind Side video where you’re like the white woman is talking to the black kid is picked up out the hood and like dusted off and like, you know, got a college scholarship. or the the straight male comedian, which is my favorite. So as a gender nonconforming individual, what is your opinion on the changing landscape of comedy and who gets to say what, and for what reason?
I always have really unsatisfactory answers to these questions in large part because I’m trying to parse out to what extent something has meaningfully changed. It’s been mediated by technology and how something has meaningfully changed, simply because people might have access to a group of people outside of their fan base.
I think sometimes what happens in this frustration about what you can and cannot say, I think has a lot to do with people misunderstanding that social media is not the same as an audience that came to see you. And a lot of what’s happening for folks is that for comedy that has been traditionally sort of aimed at punching down, maybe not even entirely, but like a key component of it is punching down or making fun of the marginalized group, or sometimes just conjuring the image of a marginalized person itself is the joke.
It’s not the experience that those people have ever really had large swarms of those people in their audiences. And so now they’re having to encounter that, if your joke is that “isn’t that funny that trans people are alive,” that on Twitter, there are actually going to be trans people who are interacting with that opinion. And so for me, I understand that it might feel like a challenge for other people, but when my compass is to make fun of things that are making life harder for marginalized people, I don’t find that it’s as much of a struggle.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t considerations that I make. I sometimes joke that I lowkey have a council of advisers who sometimes I’ll send my videos ahead of time and be like, “Is the target of this clear? Is the target of this clearly aimed at the powerful person and not the person with less power?” So those are the kinds of questions that I asked about the clarity of this, but for me, I like, I haven’t been struggling as much. I’ve seen a lot of other comedians and comedic actors who are not. And so sometimes I’m less interested in the opinions of people who are already successful talking about how hard it is to say offensive things. When there’s a whole crop of talent. That seems to be flourishing in this environment, having really interesting things to say and comment on.
It’s not that hard. Like, the girls aren’t working. Y’all acting like you ain’t never worked minimum wage girl, come on.
Very that! It’s just it’s for me, it’s like, that is the more interesting question. I say this also being fully aware that I have more attention on me than I ever anticipated ever having. And because of that, because I am a human being with limitations and shortcomings, I will misstep. And I know that to be true if I have not already. I’m clear about is that if I am corrected, I will do what needs to be done in order to improve that about my work. To improve that about how I show up to the world and engage with different groups of people. So for me, correction is not a frightening thing.
There were disabled people who reached out to me directly and said. “You know, your videos don’t have captions. That is a barrier for us because we want to laugh with you.” One of the things my friends and I talked about was that it’s an incredible act of trust. I think reflective of how they saw my work, that they would even expect that I would respond positively to it.
I saw that as such a profound honor and just an awareness of like, “oh yeah, it’s not much harder to do this.” This makes it so that other people can engage. Now even the caption has become a site of additional jokes and playing and seeing what the wordplay looks like. Criticism enriched my work. And so I just don’t view it the same way that I think a lot of people do.
Yeah, it’s how you learn. It’s how you grow as an artist.
Yeah. And I mean, my background is a violinist. I’m used to standing in front of a studio for an hour. getting critiqued and a lot of what that practice gave me, sometimes it takes a long time for artists to realize this. And it took me a long time, even in my music training, is that a criticism of your work is not necessarily a criticism of who you are. The better you are able to distinguish between the two, the safer you’ll be and the better your work will be.
What’s the wildest connection you’ve made through Tik-Tok?
It’s all happened so fast and it’s all been so surreal that like, it’s hard to take in. There was one day that I posted a selfie looking gloomy like one does. I got a notification that Barry Jenkins liked the photo.
Yeah. I was sitting here like, “The Academy Award-winning director of one of my favorite films of which I have a copy of the script, liked my little ‘Monday sucks, but don’t I look cute’ photo. This, this is like, I am aware that this kind of attention can be fleeting and could go away any moment, and so I’m attached to who I am with or without it. But that was like surreal. And the other thing that is wild to me too is how international and global the engagement is sometimes with my work and how people in Nigeria, people in South Africa, people in London, people all over the world find some connection to me like playing around in one bad Party City wig.
That’s been incredible. I often say that everything I was supposed to feel in church, I feel while acting. That sense of connection to other people. An imagined circumstance in my living room with bad TikTok green screen can remind someone of their parents or another relationship that just feels somewhat like, forgive me for being woo woo, feels somewhat like a spiritual practice. And that is a lot of what guides me in this work. Acting has allowed me to become a better person.
The opportunity to use your body, to articulate things that maybe you don’t agree with, or someone who has experienced the world differently from you. Has a different relationship to everything you could possibly imagine. But you use your full body to tell that story because you never really play that other person. You just play yourself under different circumstances. That is so profoundly humbling. So much so that it has allowed me to have a better relationship with my brother. To understand his perspective of things and understand that my perspective is just one of many. That kind of connection that this art form brings to me. If all of this goes away tomorrow, I’m still going to be doing this because that’s what it means to me. *laughs*
If you’d like to read about some of the other Black creators we’ve featured recently check out our Black History Month series, starting here.