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Meet Ryan Cohen

Today we’d like to introduce you to Ryan Cohen.

Ryan, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I was born and raised in the Bay Area, which is an absurdly large part of my identity. I already miss the Oakland Raiders (no, I won’t stab you…probably). Pops was flippin’ houses, mom was raising my sister and me and occasionally working in offices and such. I was a very curious kid, obsessed with dinosaurs and space, ice hockey and Animorphs. I came up with some nutty crossover stories for my Spiderman and Batman action figures (Marvel and DC are still fighting over the rights). I had a nightlight until I was like nine years old; not because I was afraid of the dark, but because I would use it to read while I was supposed to be sleeping. If my parents came in, I’d hide the book under the covers and feign sleep. I thought I was slick. Dad, if you’re reading this (at some point you will be, but after that moment you won’t be, and this entire line of thought will be rendered irrelevant…time is weird like that), y’all knew my secret, didn’t you?

To be honest, a lot of my memories from childhood are shrouded in what I guess I’d call a “protective fog.” My mom died from breast cancer when I was nine, and I’ve apparently blocked a lot of stuff out from that time. Her passing hit me really hard — I was just old enough to grasp the finality of death, and I was a mama’s boy, so I was thoroughly devastated.

Now, I came out of the womb with one eyebrow raised and was a conspicuously skeptical toddler, so the conga line of priests and family members and friends who attempted to console me by saying, “Don’t worry, she’s in a better place now,” only made matters worse. I shut down emotionally; to tell the truth, I dealt with it mostly by reading books and watching TV shows and movies. It’s a bit of a cliche, but I was losing myself in fictional worlds so as to avoid dealing with the problems in my own world. OK, it’s a lot of a cliche…but cliches exist because they are grounded in truth, right? I particularly enjoyed reading fantasy and sci-fi; but when it came to TV, I was all about comedy.

I’ve spent my whole life trying to make people laugh. My love (need?) for comedy certainly ramped up after my mom died, but I was a pretty silly kid from the jump. I loved Weird Al and Rocko’s Modern Life. I remember watching the movie Friday with my dad when I was far too young to understand why Smokey was so enamored with weeds. I had a book filled with nothing but snake jokes (what kind of snake keeps its car cleanest? A windshield viper). I was the class clown; all that stereotypical funny guy stuff.

Fast forward to high school. I’m acting in skits, writing and hosting the school rallies, doing well in school, and I’ve finally figured out how to stop getting in trouble…except with my 9th-grade Spanish teacher. We had a bit of a love/hate relationship. One day, she decided to go around the room and say something nice about everyone. When she got to me, she said:

“If you weren’t a good person, you would make a really good con artist.”

I think I know what she meant; I was a BSer, and I could talk my way out of just about anything. A bit weird, but I guess it was a compliment?

Anyway, I went on to UC San Diego, where I entered as an engineering major and exited as a creative writing major. I always enjoyed math, but I knew that, deep down, what I always wanted was to tell stories, so I decided to pursue that. My poetry professor, a Pulitzer Prize winner, enjoyed my poetry and asked if I would tutor her lower division students; later, she rescinded the offer, telling me that my poetry was “too funny.” I chose to take that as a compliment as well.

So, after finishing college, studying abroad in Spain (and almost never coming back), and hanging out for a few extra years in San Diego, I made the trek to Los Angeles. I started writing and performing sketch comedy at the Pack Theater in Hollywood (my sketch team, Nightchurch, is starting our fourth year together, and we’re doing some really big things). I started doing improv (catch me at the Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica with my awesome team, Air Force Fun). Videos I’ve written or starred in have millions of views across multiple platforms.

Outside of sketch and improv, I’ve written three scripts that have placed in the second round of the Austin Film Festival, and I just finished writing a pilot for a television show that I’m hoping to send out soon. I am also a copywriter, SAT tutor, and when I need to, a substitute teacher. The hustle never ends out here!

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Nothing worth achieving is ever easy. Life always finds a way to throw curveballs at you, right? My dad told me his goal when he was 18 was to be worth $1 million by the time he was 40. He was well on his way toward achieving that when my mom got sick. Doctors gave her months to live, but my dad managed to keep her alive for far longer. Along the way, his coffers were quite literally emptied. He spent it all to keep her around for another day. So, needless to say, our lifestyle changed in more ways than one. But I know he’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

A few years ago, when I felt like I was finally starting to get some momentum, I shattered my ankle in a freak accident. All three bones. If I’m gonna do something, I’m doin’ it big, you know? I spent the next few months in pain, depressed, laid up on the couch, playing phone tag with insurance and the government At least I can take solace in the fact that, if I ever fall on REALLY hard times, I have a bunch of precious metal in my foot I can sell. Then I went back to work way earlier than I should have (yay capitalism!), and that took even more out of me. I still can’t run, and it still is an enormous source of discomfort and occasional pain; luckily, though, I’ve found other ways of exercising and keeping my mind right, which has been an IMMENSE help. But my injury set me back on my comedy journey significantly.

But life isn’t about the destination, it’s about the journey! At least, that’s what we gotta tell ourselves, ’cause trying to break into the TV industry is HARD. I mean, if it were easy, everybody would be doing it. The most important quality one can have when embarking on this journey is perseverance. It sometimes feels like treading water in the middle of the ocean; you know you’re plenty capable as a swimmer…but which way do you go? There is no clear path, no obvious answer. Do you float calmly on your back until a boat comes by, or do you put your blinders on and swim with powerful, deliberate strokes in an entirely arbitrary direction, hoping for the best? Meanwhile, beneath the surface, there is constant turmoil. But I don’t plan on giving up that easily.

I’ve been cut from teams, I’ve been in groups where it felt like no one thought I was funny/talented, I’ve dealt with rejection, financial issues, relationship issues, you name it. But I chose to be a starving artist, so I knew early on I had to learn to embrace the hunger pangs. Ultimately, though, I know how privileged I am to be able to CHOOSE to live a life like this; I’m able to eke out a living in Los Angeles trying to get paid to tell jokes. Even on the worst, most frustrating days, I try to keep that in mind and think about the fact that there are people out there who have it way harder than me, who work nine jobs they hate while getting paid poverty wages. Not everyone gets the opportunity to follow their dreams, so I consider myself an incredibly lucky person to get to be in this position. And perhaps, one day, those people will be entertained, encouraged, and uplifted by something I wrote, and that’ll be the catalyst that leads them to follow their own dreams.

We’d love to hear more about your work and what you are currently focused on. What else should we know?
Recently, I’ve realized that a lot of the writing I do centers around identity. As a Mexican-on-my-mom’s-side, white-looking guy with a Jewish last name (but the name is adoptive, so there’s no familial connection), raised primarily by a single father but in a huge family of strong Mexican women, I’ve struggled with identity my entire life. So, that’s primarily what I write — characters who maybe feel like they don’t belong. There’s something funny and interesting about that to me.

I also just find people generally fascinating, and I always try to understand why people make the choices they make. As an improviser, I find myself having the most fun trying to rationalize the irrational; even the most absurd thing can be justified if you understand the relationships between the characters! By that same token, I’ve learned that I gravitate towards TV shows where the comedy is grounded in relationships and love, so that’s what I try to portray through my work.

My sketch comedy team, Nightchurch, is a horror/cult/genre-based sketch team. We are the synthesis of the weird part of your brain. I wasn’t even a big fan of horror when I first joined the team, but now I love it, and I love that we’ve created such a unique voice and brand for ourselves. We’re on our 38th(!) show, and we keep growing and building an even bigger audience. I’m really excited about what the future holds for us.

As I mentioned before, I’ve written three different specs that have made it to the second round of the Austin Film Festival. I’m very proud of that. Of course, I’d love to win the whole thing, but I’ve also only submitted three times, so perhaps the fourth time is the charm!

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
The ball has to keep rolling, right?

My sketch team, Nightchurch, performs on the fourth Sunday of every month at 9:30 PM at The Pack Theater. Our March show is gonna be tremendous. There will be laughs, there will be tears, there will be screams. We always have a bit of everything.

My improv team, Air Force Fun, performs on the second and fourth Monday of every month at the Westside Comedy Theater. I don’t mean to brag, but we’re one of the most fun teams you’ll see in town. Come see us!

I’m finishing up my pilot, and I’m planning to submit it and shop it around to as many places as possible. After that, I’ll be…writing another pilot, because what’s better than one awesome pilot?

Other than that, I’ll be pretty much full-time trying to fight the urge to go vagabonding around the country in a van or something. At my core, I am an exceedingly simple person, and I love the outdoors and exploring this beautiful country, so the call of the wild is always present in the back of my mind. But right now, there’s only time enough for one dream. So maybe I’ll just tell that one to go off on its own and I’ll catch up with it later.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:

Mike Rose, Paul Au, Brittany Cohen

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