“Bonjour, Beast!” Ryan Ken calls in the beginning of one of their viral TikTok videos set in the world of “Beauty and the Beast” after the beast is turned human.
“Adam? Adam,” their character continues. “You should be patient with me, I’ve known you a long time as Beast. This is all very new.”
They then make a series of inappropriate comments, including “wax or laser?”
Yes, the video is the sequel Disney never gave us, but it’s also a subtle interrogation of intrusive conversations about gender. This format is Ken’s signature. Ken, who uses they/them pronouns, will make you laugh and think at the same time — then, when you’re done laughing, you’re going to think some more.
“If you strip away the jokes, the dialogue often is not funny,” Ken, 29, told HuffPost of their sketches. “Sometimes the delivery is funny, or there might be a joke in it, but ... what I like about comedy is that you can have an involuntary response and then you have to intellectualize, rather than intellectualize first. You have to really ask yourself why you find something funny. And so it’s kind of a pill in peanut butter sort of philosophy.”
Ken’s sketches have gotten millions of views since they began sharing videos on TikTok, Instagram and Twitter in late 2020. The sketches were initially an outlet for Ken’s pandemic-induced anxiety and only meant for their friends’ consumption. Ken, a classically trained violinist with a background in performing arts, said they’ve always had an affinity for comedy but didn’t have many opportunities to flex that muscle until they began creating their own content.
“The primary motivation was to make my friends laugh, and I was writing about the things that I cared about, that’s how they overlapped,” said Ken, who went to graduate school in Chicago and now lives in Detroit. “I’ve always been kind of a funny person, but when I was in acting classes, I was getting in all these really dramatic, heavy scenes — which I enjoyed, but I wasn’t having a lot of opportunities to do comedy. And so the videos were a way to test out some things, to really take a risk and experiment with some things that I had not gotten to do. I had never gotten to do accents before. I’d never gotten to do this kind of character work.”
Their content ranges from sketches about voter suppression feeling like a never-ending track meet for Black folks; COVID-19 refusing to interrupt maskless diners; and ghosts trolling people in scary movies. Shortly after Netflix’s “Malcolm and Marie” premiered in February, Ken put out a video cataloguing what the couple’s neighbors’ might have said as the two argued all night. Ken racked up tens of millions of views with that sketch (including from Tina Knowles-Lawson), which skyrocketed them into viral fame. They have since received virtual applause from Lizzo and Barry Jenkins.
Hollywood has taken notice of Ken’s comedic chops, too. The fame has allowed them to meet and work with artists they admired, and has led to some writing and acting opportunities — which they can’t yet disclose because “child, these Hollywood contracts are the scariest shit I’ve ever seen.” Ken said the common denominator on this journey has been Black people in the industry looking out for them and affirming their work.
But for Ken, fame and attention aren’t the main drivers. Instead, the fact that so many marginalized folks see themselves reflected in their content motivates them — especially because these groups are often the target, not the intended audience, for comedians.
“I’m honored that disabled people come to my content and enjoy it. I’m honored that trans and queer people come to my content and enjoy it, and they can laugh and they can see themselves. And the joke is not that their image or their likeness has been conjured. They were thought about, they were considered, and I want them to laugh too.”
Ken said that some of the funniest people who help them make sense of the world are Black, queer, trans and disabled people “who intimately understand the nature of power.”
They said that portraying characters whose values and beliefs are completely different than theirs has been an eye-opening and healing experience, too. Ken, who is originally from South Carolina, said that the feeling of connection that they were supposed to get while attending church growing up is now something they feel while performing.
“You never truly play somebody else. You play yourself under different circumstances,” they said. “And so the experience of sometimes articulating something that might be the antithesis of what you believe, or opposite of what you experience, or something that feels unimaginable, to have your body feel that and experiencing that, is really humbling. And you realize that so much of the wonderful things that people are capable of, and so many of even the horrible things that people are capable of, you are also capable of because it’s human.”
This is why their approach is sometimes less pointed and more generalized when discussing societal ills.
Powerful public figures — like politicians — don’t get the same treatment. Ken gives them all the smoke. Take their video “73 Questions with Mitch McConnell.” Ken-as-McConnell answers several questions about his life, and shares a little anecdote about a soul-collecting competition he has with Satan.
“I think the experience of having a marginalized identity is that we often have to know intimately what the powerful structures and powerful people are, how they think, how they feel, how they move, largely because our safety depends on it,” they said.
Ken said part of what motivates them is that they no longer feel an obligation to lie about this knowledge. “We have to know what it is, and so part of calling a spade a spade is just a refusal to pretend as though I don’t see it,” they continued. “To pretend as though I don’t recognize that what motivates voter suppression is racial hostility; to pretend as though I don’t notice that a lot of what motivates homophobia and queerphobia and transphobia is about straight people and cis people’s own bondage that those systems have produced for them — and so it’s a decision to tell the truth about what I’m seeing.”
Ken, who credits much of what they know about the craft to their education in the Midwest, is making room for opportunities in new places and stepping through doors opened by their viral acting. They dream of telling stories of their own choosing through playwriting, TV and film — ideally someday with Issa Rae.
In the meantime, they’ll continue honing their craft and sharing their sketches. Until the world sees what’s unfolding for Ken, they are proud of themself for the community they’ve been able to cultivate through their acting thus far.
“What I really take joy and pleasure in is that so many of the people who gravitate toward my work are people who are relieved to have a space where they can participate in the joke, and they themselves are not the joke,” Ken said. “I’m aware that all of this attention is fleeting, it could go away for a moment. But if I got to be the joy carrier for just this moment, for people who often experience that, it would be one of the greatest things to happen in my life.”