Richard Ryder has had a surprising career. The Toronto native started out like a lot of queer kids do: as a tormented public-school underdog. But it’s been a long time since elementary school.
Now, in addition to regular appearances on Toronto’s 103.9 Proud FM and OUTtv, Ryder is also a successful standup comedian – not the easiest vocation at the best of times, and maybe not what you’d expect from a six-foot-four self-professed bear. But Ryder, who comes to Absolute Comedy Ottawa in April, is all about defying expectations.
“I didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a comic,” explains Ryder, who started out doing improv. “I didn’t want to be a gay comic who was too gay.” Fearful of alienating his audience, Ryder stayed away from gay material in his early work. “I just felt like, I’m gay. I don’t need to say it.” But as he began to do more shows for the queer community, he began to reconsider his ambiguity. A show one night at Tallulah’s Cabaret in Toronto sealed the deal. “I got this very obvious sense from the audience that they just weren’t buying it from me, and I got offstage and I realized that either they thought I was straight or thought I was closeted, one of the two. I just got this vibe. And I realized that I have to be gay in front of a gay audience. It’s the point.”
As he began to do more gay material, Ryder realized that he wasn’t altering who he was or misrepresenting himself. “I was just . . . not somebody other than me, just gay me. I started addressing gayer aspects of my life in my act, and again, I wasn’t inventing stuff or changing my thing, I just changed my focus.” Stories from his personal life – like a joke about his mother planning to have a gay child by naming him Dick Ryder – soon found their way into his standup. “It was an interesting lesson for me because I never felt closeted, but I was, kind of. I was playing it safe is what I was doing.”
Once he embraced his gayer persona, Ryder was pleasantly surprised by audience reactions. Both queer and straight audiences liked him, and he struck a chord with the women in the crowd. “I’ll go onstage the way I look, which is six-foot-four, 300 pounds, tattoos, and I can see the women crossing their arms, and they’re like, ‘Ugh, another misogynistic prick who’s gonna tell jokes at my expense.’” But as soon as it becomes clear he’s gay, the reception changes. “They blush and they giggle, and they know I’m not gonna pick on them,” Ryder explains.
In addition to doing standup, Ryder has developed a drag persona, Wilma Fingerdoo, who reviews RuPaul’s Drag Race each week for OUTtv. He performs Wilma only from the shoulders up and with a full beard, which he calls “bear drag” – 30 percent drag, 70 percent bear. Performing Wilma is something Ryder has come to enjoy. “As long as people stare in my general direction, I’ll do whatever the hell they want,” he says.
While Toronto remains his home base, Ottawa is one of Ryder’s favourite cities to visit when he’s touring (that his birthday happens to fall during his week of shows doesn’t hurt, either). He also loves performing at Absolute Comedy. “The audiences there are so lovely,” he says. “I’ve never had a bad show in Ottawa.”
Richard Ryder performs at Absolute Comedy
Tues, April 2-Sun, April 7
Tues, April 2-Sun, April 7
For reservations, call Absolute Comedy at 613-233-8000