Sharon Horgan interview
The lovely Sharon Horgan, who co-writes Pulling with Dennis Kelly and plays Donna in the sitcom, kindly took time out her very busy schedule to talk to British Comedy Guide in the build-up to the second series of the show. Below is our chat...
Hi Sharon. Thanks for talking to us. Perhaps we could start off by asking you how you first got into comedy? We guess for many comedy fans you first came to notice via The Pilot Show?...
Yeah, I'd done a few bits previous to that, not a hell of a lot though really. I'd done a Comedy Lab called Shoreditch Twat and written a few bits for other people's sketch shows. I was basically doing a few pilots and things, I was sort of getting in that way. I suppose The Pilot Show was my first full series.
So how did you very first get into the comedy industry?
Dennis and I - that's Dennis Kelly who I write Pulling with - we'd sort of been writing together for a while before. We'd been writing sitcom pilots and stuff like that and sending them off, not really knowing who to send them to. We'd got a list of production companies from the internet and most of them just sent back a "no thanks" letter because, as you know, un-solicited scripts aren't really encouraged.
I contacted the BBC and went in to see a producer there called Jo Sargent - she's produced things like French and Saunders - and we got some stuff into her. The BBC then suggested that we submit some stuff to a new comedy sketch show. Nothing happened with it, but they did like our stuff and so they put us forward for the BBC New Comedy Award.
We went out and filmed some sketches for them and were lucky enough to win. It was sort of like "we're in" because, you know, you get to meet agents and sort of get a leg in with the BBC because they then know you.
Congratulations on winning the award. Our website is visited by a lot of aspiring comedy writers and performers, all of whom are looking for their big break so we know how competitive a field it is. So, how did it feel when you got that letter or call from the BBC in 2001?
Oh, it was great. Neither Dennis or I were doing jobs we were particularly interested in, and we were both heading towards our early 30s then, and in a way we were at the stage where we were thinking "this really isn't going to happen".
It was a very small in-road but, yeah, you need something that gets you in there first. You then have to build on that really quickly and not let them forget about you... We bombarded them [the BBC], but I don't think that works prior to getting in there, because they then think you're a nutter!
Ha ha. You mentioned that you were doing a job you didn't particularly enjoy, so has it always been your ambition, ever since you were young, to get into comedy writing, or something that came along later?
I was always interested in acting. I've always been a comedy fan, but I never saw myself as a writer.
I think I was definitely more interested in acting initially, but the thing is there are so many actors and actresses out there who are better than me probably, coming out of drama school or easier to classify, and I suppose I thought that if I had another string to by bow that it narrowed the competition down a bit; and I think a woman working in comedy narrows it even more.
I was acting in Fringe productions and stuff like that, and doing writing on the side, but I wouldn't say being a comedy writer or comedienne was what I had dreamt of doing, it was just an off-shoot of wanting to be an actor I think.
Well, we have to say moving into the comedy arena seems to have gone quite well for you - you've obviously got a fair few great credits to your name now, and no doubt many more to follow! How did you first meet Dennis?
Dennis and I met probably a good fifteen years ago. We were at a youth theatre doing a bit of acting and amateur productions and things. We got on - he always made me laugh, and I supposedly made him laugh. We kind of lost each other for a while and then, one night, we bumped into each other very drunk in a pub and he told me he'd written a play. I just found that just amazing, you know, that'd he'd gone ahead and made something. And then... I don't know how we ended up writing together, it just seemed to happen.
I'm so glad it did, as it is really hard to find someone who you can develop a writing partnership with. You need to have a very specific relationship I think; people can make you laugh but you might not write good comedy with them.
That's a good point... so being funny probably isn't enough? You also need the ability to analyse what works and what doesn't?
Right. You need to be extremely honest as well, and also trust that the other person might know better than you sometimes. I think the good thing about a writing relationship is that, even if you disagree on something, usually the right answer comes out in the end. You might have to give up on a point and drop a line that you think is funny, but if it is really funny it will find its way back in there.
If something isn't working that you agreed to under duress and it's not right, it'll find its way out. So, you kind of have to trust that you've both got your own strengths and they're not actually the same thing. Dennis and I find the same things funny, but he's good at certain things and I'm good at certain things.
Not only is being in a writing partnership quite rare, but being a writer-performer is also quite rare. To be great at both is very rare indeed so congratulations on being in that sliver of the Venn diagram! Hypothetically if you had to give up writing or acting though, which would it be?
I think I'd give up writing because it's so hard! It's so fucking hard. It's fine with Dennis because it becomes less of a job; I'd be lying if I didn't say it was a fun day. We're lucky enough to be doing a job where we can get paid to laugh our heads off most of the time, but that's the first draft...
We spend a long time writing Dennis and I, we do many, many, many drafts - and it is hard work! When you get to the point where you're casting and you're doing your rehearsal that's fantastic, you kind of forget about the six-to-eight months of hard slog.
But then there's the other side of the coin, where you kind of think the best position to be in is to be doing your own stuff. You've then got a quality control ability that you wouldn't have if you were only performing someone else's stuff.
I don't know, it's hard to say, but I think acting is a bit easier.
The first series of Pulling did particularly well... Some people can get a sense whether what they're writing is going to become a hit, was that the case here? Or did the positive press take you by surprise?
We knew it had ended up how we wanted it. We knew that what we had in our heads was pretty much how it came out, you know? We did a screening and we were sending out preview tapes obviously so we knew the feedback was very good critically.
I suppose in a way when we started getting nominated for things we were surprised because it's a small show and it's on BBC Three and we were amazed that people had found us. I don't know, it's really hard to say without sounding arrogant. We were happy with it and we felt that it was funny and even though it had grim, darker overtones people would hopefully still find the funny in it and appreciate it for that.
Having watched Pulling, we must admit those of us fast approaching our thirties started to worry a bit as to what the future holds relationship wise. The show paints a very bleak view of romance - was that your intention?
We wanted to show, and I think this is one of Dennis' quotes, "how lonely it can be trying to have fun". We wanted to paint this picture of living in a big city like London, but not having any money to utilise what the city has to offer and how grim it can be having nothing to do on a Friday night.
Dennis and I were doing a bit of radio earlier today and he said that sometimes the most depressing thing in the world is going into Friday night and having nothing to do. I think that's so true and I think that is sometimes why people end up in relationships or stay in relationships; it's because they're so scared of being alone at the weekend.
I think both Dennis' and my twenties were spent either down the pub or wasting time; a lot of our fun was had at the weekend. Our social lives were quite a big thing for us because our jobs weren't satisfying. We wanted to capture that.
I think for all the characters in Pulling things probably haven't worked out the way they had dreamed or hoped. So many people must relate to that because the kind of dreams we have as a youngster - the reality doesn't really mirror it.
The thing with Donna that I think people relate to is that she wants more for herself, but does she necessarily deserve it? I don't know. That's the thing, she kind of feels like she deserves better but what exactly is she doing to help make her life better? That's why she leaves Karl because she just thinks that she can do better than that; and then she realises that even though being in that long-term relationship is grim, being single isn't necessarily any less grim!
Hopefully Karl isn't based on anyone you know is he?
Ha ha, why do you say that, he's a lovely guy isn't it?
He is indeed - but his breakdown in series one was quite extreme and rather worrying, to put it lightly!
Yes, he is obviously an exaggerated version, but both Dennis and I were in lots of kind-of-long-term relationships that didn't really go anywhere. So, you know, there's elements of a real person there!
We wanted to show what can happen to a man. You never really ever see that. Quite often on TV you see the broken-hearted woman portrayed, but you never see a guy go to pieces like that. I've seen it with my very eyes, so, ha ha, in a perverse way we thought it would be funny!
And it was!
When we were doing our casting for Karl, the section of the script we gave the actors to read was that breakdown scene in episode one, the bit where he runs into a door and completely breaks down. It was amazing how funny we found watching actor after actor just breaking down in front of us. It was great fun.
We at British Comedy Guide class your programme as an 'embarrassment comedy', in that much like Lead Balloon and Nighty Night it is a show which one has to watch through ones fingers. A lot of the best laughs come from the unfortunate situations your characters find themselves in... is it as embarrassing to perform as it is for us to watch?
It's not embarrassing, it just makes you laugh. There's a lot of corpsing because anything that's embarrassing to watch - like someone being overly confident when they shouldn't be, or being overly sincere or anything that - makes you cringe inside, generally makes you laugh when you act it out.
I don't think anything really should embarrass you when you're filming; obvious unless you're getting your kit off!
... which leads us on to series two... what can we expect from that, and does any kit come off?
There's a few bare bums! It's more of the same really. Donna is trying to get her life back on track, but the difference this series is that Karl really has picked himself up and dusted himself off. He's moving on, Donna can see it happening and it's absolutely freaking her out.
We've developed the Louise character quite a bit. I think she was sort of the smallest part out of the three girls in the first series. Because I thought she was so beautifully played by Rebekah Staton in the first series, we've really upped that character this time around and its made it a much fuller, more focused show I think, I hope.
We've also introduced a couple of new characters. Paul Kaye plays Karen's ex-boyfriend who comes back onto the scene. It's a fantastic performance, he's really really something in it - he's an absolutely mess but really lovable and sympathetic character too.
Sounds great, we can't wait! Paul Kay obviously appeared in Angelo's too, your other recent sitcom. A couple of months back we published a news story about Channel Five getting lazy by scrapping its investment in scripted comedy. Does that mean it's all over for Angelo's? We hope not as we'd love to see it return!
I think before we'd even handed over the finished product we read in one of the industry magazines that Five had decided not to put any more money into original comedies, so we kind of thought: "Right, ok, the series hasn't even gone out and basically they're saying that's the end of it, for now anyway."
I think you put a lot of time and effort into writing and then producing a series and for it to finish after one series is quite hard, because you know you don't quite feel like you've got your monies worth. The thing is we wouldn't want to take it and do it on another channel as that would just seem weird.
I really loved the people I worked with on Angelo's, there was some great comedy performances there. We're developing something at the moment which is using similar characters to those we developed for Angelo's, and using the actors involved in it too.
Oh great, that is good news!
Yeah, we spent so much time developing those characters, and despite the production obstacles, we really all enjoyed working together, and had a great time making it and so it would be a shame to abandon it. So hopefully that will happen, but it won't be with Channel Five.
Excellent. Is there anything else in the pipeline you can tell us about? We hear a full series of Free Agents is coming to our screens following the success of the pilot?
Yeah, I'm filming that in August this year, I think it's then. So that's going ahead and I'm writing something for the BBC, and HBO have commissioned me to write a script so I'm writing something for them at the moment too.
Yes, always just trying to think of new stuff I suppose. Always good to have a couple of things bubbling away in the background!
It all sounds great. Particularly the new series of Pulling. We must admit it took us a while to get into the first series but, having caught the repeats, we're now properly sucked in and are waiting on tender hooks to find out what happens!
Oh, great. I think you might enjoy the second series more because it is a bit more focused. We really knew the characters this time around, and we knew the tone. I think the tone kind of shifted a lot in the first series because it was the first time we had written something full-length. It would change from one episode to the next, but I think this time around we were really able to find our voice and a good true narrative as well.
Great! We can't wait. Thanks Sharon. Just finally though... something we try and ask everyone that we interview: Excluding your own, what are your favourite comedies?
I'm always really terrible with this question, I think I should have a stock answer prepared!
Sorry, we've put you on the spot a bit haven't we!
If I'm watching TV and flick through Dave or one of those channels like Paramount Comedy I'll always, always watch Alan Partridge. I'd say that'd have to be my favourite modern comedy.
Peep Show out of the more modern comedies is also always brilliant. I enjoyed Nighty Night too. Out of the older comedies I'm a fan of Porridge and, um, what else? Out of the American ones I really enjoyed Roseanne, that was a big favourite of mine - I could just watch repeats of that over and over.
That's a good list Sharon, thanks. It's interesting that the modern comedies you've listed are all quite dark...
...and embarrassing to watch, yeah. I must say the bleak ones do appeal a bit more. I'm not so fond of mainstream studio comedy, but then saying that Alan Partridge was studio and League of Gentlemen was studio. I think I like stuff that was written for a specific audience but somehow is so good that it manages to find its way to a mainstream audience.
... which is definitely the way Pulling seems to be heading!
I hope so, I hope so!
Well, we've taken up loads of your time Sharon, thank you so much for talking to us, it's been great!