Q&A: Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan on their ‘brutally honest’ rom-com ‘Catastrophe’
Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney aren’t a couple, but they play one on TV -- well, actually, on Amazon.
The duo created, wrote and star in “Catastrophe,” a romantic comedy (of sorts) that debuts today on the streaming service. Horgan plays Sharon, an Irish teacher living in London whose week-long fling with Rob, an American ad man in town for work, evolves into a more permanent arrangement when she winds up pregnant.
Though it’s hardly an unexpected turn of events -- as Sharon tells a stunned Rob, “We had sex, like, 25 times in a week and you wore a condom maybe twice” -- the pregnancy and other complications, including a case of “pre-cancer” and the terrifying possibility that they might be in love, turn their lives upside down. (Hence the title.)
Their real-life partnership began in far less dramatic fashion: Horgan and Delaney met on Twitter, where he is something of a superstar (1.1 million followers and counting). As the creator of several critically adored but short-lived comedies including “Pulling,” a raunchy, cringe-inducing cult favorite about three single women in London, Horgan had an impassioned following of her own.
They eventually met up in real life and decided they wanted to collaborate on a series drawing from their own experiences as spouses (each is happily married) and parents (Delaney has three children including a newborn; Horgan has two).
“Catastrophe,” which earned glowing notices when it premiered this year in the U.K., arrives at a moment of crisis for the romantic comedy, which has fallen on hard times in film and television. Delaney and Horgan recently spoke with The Times about their approach to the genre.
Can you explain where the idea for the series came from?
Horgan: We just thought we should write about the stuff that we know. I know it’s really boring to say that, but it is true. We liked the idea of drawing from our own lives. I got pregnant very quickly when I was with my boyfriend, who’s now my husband, and we just had to decide to be together and make it work. With Rob being American and me being Irish, it felt like a nice organic root into their relationship, him sort of being on a work trip from the states and us having a fling. It felt like a good start for, I guess you could call it, a sitcom.
Interesting. So the premise didn’t come first, it was more about figuring out what kind of story would make sense given your shared experiences?
Delaney: We are both very interested in our marriages and our parenting and the conflict between the two of those and career. Obviously both of us need to laugh and make other people laugh. We just had so much overlap in the things we wanted to talk about.
Horgan: It’s much better when two people just decide what it is they want to write and taking the idea to someone, rather than being pitched an idea or being advised this is the kind of thing that people are watching. Those don’t end up being very good. The things that end up being good are the things you really have a massive laugh writing and you really feel like you have to get them out, and things that are true tend to be funnier.
Delaney: It’s so hard to get a show made. You might as well talk about exactly what you want to talk about. It’s probably not going to work out anyway, so why not have it not work out when it’s something you care about? When I fail, I want it to hurt.
There’s no shortage of television shows about relationships or parenting. Did you think something was missing from other portrayals?
Horgan: Quite often it’s rose-tinted or sweet. We wanted to make a brutally honest relationship comedy, and use comedy to talk about tricky things. If you can talk about tricky things and make people laugh you’re probably doing some kind of good. The stuff that we both really like is quite often like drama that happens to be funny rather than sitcom-type funny. Richard Linklater-style -- real, genuine conversation and relationships.
Delaney: The TV shows we most talked about while we were writing this were “True Detective,” “Happy Valley” and “Transparent.”
Horgan: We liked the idea of being ambitious for a comedy. Not necessarily going for comedy actors; most of them are drama actors. I’ve always thought that’s been a great secret to casting and it sort of paid off with this. We wanted to make a comedy that had good production values, the kind of stuff that usually only drama gets to do in the U.K. Going for some mega locations and spending some of the budget and regretting it later. We were watching “Transparent” and we were just really inspired by the care Jill Soloway took in every aspect.
What was your writing process like?
Horgan: There’s a lot of talking.
Delaney: I think about my own marriage. My wife and I have been together for 11 years. My wife is a very interesting person to me. Sometimes I would like to go to the top of the Empire State Building and either push her off or jump off with her because it’s so hard being married, but it’s never boring. And so we wanted to make sure even when our characters were fighting that it was always really interesting and compelling. That to me is the coolest part about a long-term relationship, you learn a lot about yourself. Humor’s vital. We hoped to show that with this show as well.
Horgan: We liked the idea of two people making each other laugh and enjoying each other’s company, because we knew we were going to be putting them through hell in other scenes.
Delaney: In a lot of sitcoms you’ll see the spouses get fed up with each other. Like, “Hey, she’s driving me nuts,” or “He put the diaper on backwards, but at least he put it on!” That’s like, kill me. That’s a lie. That’s why people get divorced and kill each other, because there are sitcoms like that. We wanted to make people love each other instead of kill each other.
Your characters really do seem to like each other, which is refreshing.
Horgan: We really wanted people to give a ... about them. We had no idea if people would. We put out each episode and were genuinely surprised and thrilled when people cared about what happened to us.
Delaney: We wrote it and people would be like, “Jesus, this is dark.” We were like, “Swear to God, it’s going to be funny.” And then it was broadcast and it was, “It’s a love story.” And even we were like, what? We knew we wanted it to be, but I thought it might not come across that way.
Horgan: I think because we were so cautious about making it too obvious, the love aspect of it. There’s little things a long the way that hint at it.
So what do you find so funny about each other?
Delaney: Despite the fact that Sharon appears to be very together, I believe she would sacrifice her skin and her bones and her muscles and organs to make people laugh. If Sharon got an order from the military that was like, “Well, to make people laugh you’re going to have to saw your own arm off,” she’d be like, “See you later, arm!” I forget what a good actor she is. Not just good, but like Olympic, world-class good.
Horgan: This is ridiculous. [Laughs] It’s really hard to describe what you find funny about the person you write with every day. It’s like his sense of humor is just in my DNA now. It’s all around me. But he never lets me down. I still read his tweets like a fan would, going through his timeline and snorting and honking. I genuinely don’t know how someone this nice and seemingly kind can write such disgustingly awful, funny things.
It sounds like your writing process has a therapeutic or confessional quality to it.
Horgan: When you write a show like this you have to be intimate and you can’t be scared of telling each other really disgusting things because they all need to go in the show.
Delaney: We used to be like, “OK, don’t hate me, but I’m going to tell you something awful.” Now we don’t even do that. It’s just like, “I did this. Take it or leave it.”
Horgan: Sometimes I talk about stuff that I know isn’t going to make it in because I know that I have to unload it. There’s no one I see more, apart from my husband or my children. I can’t tell my children, and it’s always about my husband.
Delaney: We feel very lucky that we get to transmute the things that might have been scary or bad in almost real time. We’re still married, we still have kids and we still don’t necessarily know how to do it the right way.
You’re both married to other people. How is it for your spouses that you’re collaborating on something so personal?
Delaney: This would be the worst way to have an affair. My wife’s cool. I think Sharon’s husband is pretty upset about the whole thing, but...[laughs]
Horgan: He quite enjoys seeing bits of our lives that I’ve taken wholesale. I don’t think he finds it that easy to watch when were like, having sex. Also, my eldest daughter has started winding him up. She’ll be like, “Mummy, what was it like to kiss Rob?” She’s 11 and a half. She knows exactly what she’s doing. But apart from that, my husband genuinely loves the show. It’s the thing I’ve done that he likes the best.
Delaney: We like each other’s spouses. I wouldn’t jeopardize my relationship with him by doing anything with Sharon.
For what is ostensibly a comedy, “Catastrophe” tackles a lot of dark subjects. What motivated that?
Delaney: A show that purports to be about real life but doesn’t have those things to me wouldn’t be a real show.The worst stuff that happens in this show happened to us -- that is the most autobiographical stuff. We really just wanted to show that that’s a part of life and it’s OK and there’s ways to survive.
Horgan: Also I know for me I’d just gotten to a stage where I just don’t want to make something for the sake of it anymore, or just do something that was silly and daft. I wanted to make something that was saying something. There’s a real challenge doing that in comedy. We weren’t sure how people were going to react, but it’s nice to do something that has some substance.
Presumably you’ve got lots more material to draw from.
Horgan: His life at the moment, with the new baby and having had to move [to London] and make a new life, is very handy. We’ve got a pot of gold there, unless one of us dies.
Delaney: If I do die, you still have to finish it.
Delaney: Of course.
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