Catastrophe. Image shows from L to R: Rob (Rob Delaney), Sharon (Sharon Horgan). Copyright: Avalon Television.

Catastrophe

Channel 4 sitcom about a messy relationship. 24 episodes (4 series), 2015 - 2019. Stars Rob Delaney, Sharon Horgan, Ashley Jensen, Mark Bonnar and others.

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney interview

Catastrophe. Image shows from L to R: Rob (Rob Delaney), Sharon (Sharon Horgan). Copyright: Avalon Television.Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney talk about their comedy creation here...

Hi Sharon and Rob, could you explain the concept of your show?

Rob: A man and a woman fall in lust - an Irish teacher and an America advertising executive. They have an affinity for each other. They have a little dalliance - an affair that lasts a week - and she falls pregnant. And because they're not 22, he decides to uproot himself from America and settle here, and they make a go of it.

Sharon: It's an unromantic look at a romance, I think. It's about a couple who meet on a one night stand, and end up spending this great week together, and that should be it. But she gets pregnant, and he decides to do what he thinks is the right thing and stuck around. And she's happy for him to lend a hand, as she can't really be on her own. So they have this speed-life version of a relationship, where everything starts going to shit from the moment they get together.

But the way it differs from a normal relationship is that they don't really know each other, they're just getting to know each other while all this shit's happening. Going to have a pregnancy scan and getting bad news is hardcore enough with someone you've been with for years. But having to do it with someone who's almost a stranger to you... And as the series progresses, more and more catastrophic things happen to them. And they're slowly falling in love while all this shit's going down.

Where did the idea come from?

Sharon: I guess because of my situation, and Rob's situation, and the fact that you kind of want to write about what you know. I knew what sort of material he did with his stand-up, he knew the kind of stuff I did, and we just figured this subject matter would suit our styles the best. And we both had a series of shitty things happen to us in our relationships or in our experiences as child rearers, and we felt like it would be nice to bring people a warts-and-all picture of a relationship. Still romantic, still a love story, but a real version of it.

Rob: Sharon and I are friends - we're both married, we both have two kids each. We're both happy, but we're at similar points in our lives, where we're trying to maintain a marriage, trying to maintain parenting, trying to do so with a modicum of grace from time to time. When I say that, I'm talking five minutes of your week - if you're able to sit down for those five minutes and savour them, that's a victory. If it's not total, total mayhem at all times - which for me it is, my kids are one and three, hers are older - then it's a victory.

Our show, which is crazy, is not as crazy as the things which we come in and tell each other each morning when we go to work, the stuff that happens in our families. Anybody can raise kids - not well, but the biological imperative makes you wiggle around and grunt with other adults, and then kids happen. And if you don't do a passable job looking after them, they're going to die. But you can just totally run a relationship into the ground and treat another adult like garbage. You have no obligation to be nice to your spouse. Unless you want it to keep working. And the skillset required to do that is harder than anything I've ever done. I've run marathons, I've been in jail, I've been in a wheelchair - being married and maintaining it is harder than any of those things by a lot. And we wanted to write about that.

Catastrophe. Image shows from L to R: Rob (Rob Delaney), Sharon (Sharon Horgan). Copyright: Avalon Television.

So it's a show where the stakes of the relationship are high right out of the gate, and we want the characters to like each other sometimes and love each other sometimes and want to kill each other with a hammer sometimes. We wanted to show something real, something bloody and painful, with glimpses of beauty once in a while. Polluted with jokes, of course. We wanted the joke content to be intoxicating and suffocating.

You originally met via Twitter?

Sharon: Yeah, that's right. I started following him because Graham Linehan had retweeted him a few times, and I found him extremely funny. And totally filthy. And then I noticed he was following me, and then he got in touch on a private message saying he liked what I did. I thought that was sweet, and when I was over in the States we decided to meet up - it's always interesting, meeting people who kind of do what you do but in a different medium. And then we just kept meeting up, over the years, and eventually found the right thing to collaborate on. But that was kind of scary when we started writing - you never know whether these things are going to be a disaster or not. It can be really hard to write with someone, it's very intimate and exposing. But the relationship worked immediately, it felt fun and easy.

Rob: I was a huge fan of Sharon, I think she's the funniest person alive. Maybe Richard Pryor is funnier, but he's dead. I was crazy about all her shows, couldn't watch them enough, and I saw she'd followed me on Twitter. I wrote to her and said "Maybe your computer has a bug and you followed me by mistake, but I'm a giant fan." And she said "No, I know who you are, you foolish little comedian," and we became friendly. And if I was in London or she was in LA we'd meet up, and we hit it off. And, as I say, we're at similar junctures in our lives, married parents doing the best we can.

How did the creation process work? Presumably you were separated by the Atlantic?

Sharon: Yeah. For the pilot, we talked a lot across the Atlantic, and then I was in America working again, and we grabbed what time we could. And then, for the second episode, Rob was over here for a while, and then we went back and forth over Skype. When Channel 4 said they wanted to do the full series, we wrote all the first drafts on Skype. We Skyped each other the whole time. But then we kind of realised that you need to be in a room, reading the script aloud, making changes as we'd go. So we did a lot of rewriting when I was over in LA. But now he's moved here, he lives here now, which makes it much easier.

Catastrophe. Image shows from L to R: Sharon (Sharon Horgan), Rob (Rob Delaney). Copyright: Avalon Television.

How did you find it working on a British show Rob? Do we do things differently here?

Rob: What I love about British sitcoms is that generally one or two people write every episode of the series. If people like the show, that's so great for Sharon and me. If people like a show in the US, that's still great, but you have to divide that by 13 staff-writers. That's an aspect of British television that I really like. That's why this has been the most gratifying television experience that I've ever been a part of. By many multiples.

Do you think there's a difference in the British and American sense of humour?

Rob: There's a higher value placed on comedy, culturally, in the UK. If you sliced a British person in half with a sword, you'd find that they had a more developed comedy organ in them than the average American. That doesn't mean that incredibly funny things don't come out of the US. But here, the guy who comes over to fix your boiler in the UK, there's a higher likelihood that he'll say something funny than his American counterpart. I think British people recognise comedy as a vital lubricant to any human transactions.

Why did you decide to give the characters your own names?

Rob: At first we just did it because we knew we were going to be in it, and we were writing it, so it was just easy to do that. And initially we thought we'd end up giving them different names. In retrospect, I'm glad that we didn't, because in writing it and brutally mining our own personal lives - the show is semi-autobiographical for both of us, in some aspects - it just seemed to make it easier to put it all out there by using our own names. And after we'd written it, we kind of went "Oh, we never changed our names." Maybe when the show comes out, we'll regret it, because people will think it's all really us.

Did you find that you each tended to write more for your own characters?

Sharon: I don't think it did pan out like that. Maybe a little bit initially. What we did end up doing was rubbing our corners off a bit. If I'd write something that sounded a bit harsh, for either character, he'd give it a bit of California sweetness. And if he wrote something that I thought sounded too warm and American, I'd write a bit of Irish acerbic into it.

Rob, you're teetotal. Was it important to you to make your character teetotal as well?

Rob: No, not at all. That was Sharon's idea, I couldn't care less. I happen to not drink, but I don't think that's interesting, and I've seen enough movies and TV where that's sort of a big factor. But I'm also biased, because I think we might look at aspects of our own lives and think "That's not interesting!" Sharon thought it was. So I usually defer to other people's opinions when it's stuff that I'm closer to. I don't proselytise it. It just so happens that I don't drink, but I don't not drink because alcohol is bad. I don't drink because my own personal history showed me that I probably shouldn't. But I couldn't care less who drinks and who doesn't.

Catastrophe. Image shows from L to R: Sharon (Sharon Horgan), Rob (Rob Delaney). Copyright: Avalon Television.

Judging from the trailer, Sharon isn't going to have the most pleasant pregnancy. Is that partly based on your experiences? What were your pregnancies like?

Sharon: I would say pretty tricky. But it wasn't just mine that we based it on. We used mine and Rob's wife's experiences, we mixed it all in. Any shit that happened to me we multiplied by two, because we had another pregnancy to steal from as well. But you ask any woman who's been through it. There won't be too many rosy stories in there. I got knocked over by my dog and broke my knee. My pelvis parted, so I was on crutches for most of it. My second one, my ribs felt like they were splitting because my baby was so massive. A lot went wrong - the same with Rob's wife - which is why we were able to throw that all in there. I know there are women out there who loved being pregnant, but that wasn't my experience.

While you were filming, did you have to wear a bump that grew steadily bigger throughout the series?

Sharon: Yes. I had three or four bumps over the series. It was good, because it genuinely felt incredibly uncomfortable, especially the really big one. It was really heavy, and it did make me relive it, because my back was fucked at the end of it, and I remember feeling exactly the same at the end of the pregnancy. But it worked - whenever I needed to be grumpy and fed up in character, I generally was.

The show's got a great cast, including Ashley Jensen and the great Carrie Fisher. That must have felt so exciting, getting them on board.

Sharon: Yeah, it was. It kind of felt like that for everyone who came on board. Every time we got the person we really wanted, we were pinching ourselves. Everyone in the cast is phenomenal, top of their game. But we did end up feeling "Shit, why weren't they in it more?" with every supporting character. They're all actors you want to see more of. Carrie Fisher's a legend, isn't she? We were madly excited when she came down on set. We were all acting like dicks. We were running around like grinning weirdoes. I was going over her lines with her, lying on a bed by her side because she was a bit jet-lagged, and I felt like "Yeah, this is it. I've reached the heights now."

Catastrophe. Image shows from L to R: Sharon (Sharon Horgan), Rob (Rob Delaney), Mia (Carrie Fisher). Copyright: Avalon Television.

Rob: It's unbelievable that we got her. Even still. We got her, we're editing it, I've seen everything we shot of her, many times, as we edit. But I still can't believe it. When she came on to the set, we were just agog. What a coup!

Sharon: And Ashley is just incredibly funny, and great to be around. She's a lovely, funny, warm presence all the time. Mark Bonnar, you can't take your eyes off him. I can't wait for people to see it, just for the supporting cast.

The show's already been praised by the Radio Times as possibly the comedy hit of 2015. That has to go down as a great start.

Rob: Yeah. I don't know if people will like the show. Enough people have seen the first episode and liked it that I'm optimistic about people liking the first episode, but there's still quite a few more after that. But we've made the show that we wanted to make. We did capture the feel and the tone and the character, and espouse the ideas and beliefs that we wanted to, so we've made what we wanted to make. So if people don't like it, they're saying they don't like us, and who we are as people, on a molecular level. [Laughs]. But of course I'm grateful that Radio Times liked it.

Rob, you've got a huge following Twitter, and you were named the funniest person on Twitter by Comedy Central. That's some achievement, on a medium where you've got millions of people who are trying to be funny all the time...

Rob: Yeah, I'm really grateful that people like what I do on there. It's weird, Twitter is such a crazy, big, powerful tool. It's like a bulldozer: It can clean up hurricane damage at an amazing rate, but it can also run over a family having a picnic. It's such a big, weird thing, but I'm glad people have embraced the manner in which I use it. I'm happy I fell into a groove with it.

Did that then cross over to you having a higher profile as a stand-up?

Rob: Oh yeah, without question. I would never downplay the role that Twitter has played for me. Sure, I might have been writing and performing for years before Twitter, but it has opened a tremendous amount of doors for me. It's an indispensable building block in my little hut that I'm building, for sure.

Catastrophe. Image shows from L to R: Rob (Rob Delaney), Sharon (Sharon Horgan). Copyright: Avalon Television.

Is stand-up still the purest form of your art for you? Is it something you want to stick with, no matter how successful the writing and acting becomes?

Rob: Yeah, stand-up makes me very happy. I have a dream partner with Sharon, because we have so much fun, and we get to make something bigger together. We get to collaborate and bring the best out of each other. So doing this show has been magnificent. But I think, for me, the purity of getting onstage with a mike and just going... I don't know how to live without that. It brings me perfect peace. I have the stand-up's sickness that when I get on the stage with a mike, it feels to me the way a normal person feels when they get into a Jacuzzi. Something's aberrant with my brain. I have to do stand-up, so yeah, I'll keep doing it.

Sharon, in the past, you've done a couple of factual programmes for Channel 4. Is that something that you'd like to do more of in the future?

Sharon: No. I really loved that they asked me to do it, and allowed me to make documentaries on whatever I wanted. I hooked up with my friend, Chloe Thomas, and we went out and talked about the stuff that we were interested in, and our own experience. And at the time, that was motherhood, and mid-life crises, and marriage, so those were the three films we made. But it's not really something I want to pursue any further than that for now. I said what I had to say. And it's hard work! It's tough, because you've got no script, and a lot of it is built in the edit, and a lot of it is down to chance. These are real people that you're dealing with, you have to tread carefully. I had a great experience, and I'm glad I got to do them, but I think I'd rather just watch that sort of thing from now on.

In your body of work, what are you most proud of? And where does Catastrophe sit within that?

Sharon: I'm still very proud of Pulling. It was the first sitcom I ever made, and it was a situation where someone took a leap of faith, and let us have a go. So we ended up making something that we really liked, and had enormous fun doing, with the people that we wanted to do it with. And Catastrophe, for me, feels very similar. I felt with Pulling that I couldn't have made it at any other time, and I think with Catastrophe, I couldn't have made it even three or four years ago. It feels like the perfect thing for this moment, for the stories that I have to tell. It's the same thing, just being given proper creative scope by Channel 4 to make the show that we wanted to make. I guess we'll have to wait and see now what people think, but it was an enormous pleasure. I felt as emotional at the end of filming as I did at the end of Pulling, just the feeling that I'd really, really enjoyed it and I was very lucky.

More Catastrophe interviews

Published: Monday 19th January 2015