As I was watching videos of Shawn Ryan singing, I wondered why he hasn’t become the next Michael Bublé. Yes, he sings that well—and the comedic genius he brings to his act makes it even more intriguing.
Shawn Ryan will be performing his show Mistle-Ho, with the Kelly Park Band, at the Purple Room on Saturday, Dec. 1.
During a recent phone interview, Ryan discussed how the madness of combining vocal jazz with comedy came to be.
“I actually was a theater major in school,” Ryan explained. “I went to the American Academy in New York and studied acting, and right out of college, I got my first professional job in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The contract ended two or three months early, and I was paid for the entire contract, and I thought ‘What do I do now?’ There was a cabaret contest in San Francisco at a club that is no longer. They awarded 10 prizes in various categories, and I won ‘Best Singer,’ and my musical director—who I’ve worked with for 20 years now, Kelly Park—ended up winning ‘Best Composer.’
“We were supposed to go on this little cabaret tour in clubs, and these people were going to foot the bill for it. We waited six months, and the company went bankrupt. It wasn’t possible for them to send us all over the world. Kelly said, ‘If you can book the club in San Francisco, I can do all the charts for you, and we can do a two act show.’ That’s how I got started.
“My part of the deal was booking the club, and Kelly had an old Victorian house that he was trying to flip and sell. He made a deal with me where I painted the interior of the house, and he’d write the charts. I would be painting, and we’d be listening to cassette tapes of people like Mel Torme and people I really admired and wanted to emulate. He wrote the whole show. That was in 1998 or 1999 at the Plush Room in San Francisco, and we got a residency there doing a Sunday show for years.”
After taking the show on the road, they got their first big break in front of a national audience.
“In 2005, we got discovered by America’s Got Talent after they came to our Los Angeles show—and they put us on the air immediately. They told us it was an audition, but it turned out that it wasn’t,” Ryan said. “It sort of exploded from there. I was actually content being an actor for the rest of my life and not doing any professional singing. I’m a true bass baritone, which doesn’t exist anymore in the theater world; it’s all mostly high tenor.”
There were downsides to the TV show—including some over-dramatizations by producers and the fact that Ryan was outed, something he was not expecting
“It was really interesting, because they knew I was a gay performer, because they had come to see me in the Gardenia in Los Angeles, and I’ve always been open onstage. I don’t think there was ever a choice for me not to,” Ryan said. “It didn’t make sense for me to deny it. … But in America’s Got Talent, they never discussed with me that they were going to bring it up on air.
“I escaped that with very few scrapes and bruises. There were people on that show with me who saw their careers totally change, for better or worse. My husband had worked in reality TV for years before I was on America’s Got Talent, so I heard the stories when he came home. I was clear to the producers that I was probably not going to be the best story, because I grew up in a family that was super-positive, and my mom is a motivational speaker. We didn’t know the words ‘can’t,’ ‘won’t,’ ‘no’ and ‘shouldn’t.’ I wasn’t their cup of tea from the beginning. They look for stories and how they can sensationalize something.”
Ryan still acts, often appearing as the gay BFF or the murderer on shows such as Bones and The Mentalist. He laughed when I brought up the stereotypical roles he’s played.
“About five years ago, I was in an acting class, and the teacher said if you haven’t gotten to play something you want, or you’re being stereotyped, write that role for yourself,” he said. “I wrote a short film called Charlie that got bought by Amazon and shown on Amazon Prime, and they loved it. It was something so different that I wrote for myself and is a completely different character than I’ve played before. With that sense of freedom and the project came opportunities to play so many different roles now; it really did open up the doors.
“But still, on network TV, the roles my agent calls me about are: ‘You’re going to be the gay best friend.’ Of course I am! I’ve studied that role for years!”
Ryan’s holiday-themed comedy/music show should be a hoot.
“This tour is all in support of our new album, Shawn Ryan Live! It’s a two-disc live album that we recorded back in September. One disc is completely holiday, and we call that Mistle-Ho—twisted takes on all of the classic holiday tunes.
“Some of them, we don’t even have to do twist. We do a take on Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney,’ and I didn’t change one word. With a gay boy singing it, it changes the meaning completely!”
Shawn Ryan will be performing Mistle-Ho with the Kelly Park Band at 6 p.m. (dinner with show at 8 p.m.), Saturday, Dec. 1, at Michael Holmes’ Purple Room, 1900 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25-$30 plus dinner. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-4422, or visit www.purpleroompalmsprings.com.