Sick of honey-sweet TV portrayals of relationships and hackneyed sitcom clichés about the drudgery of marriage, Sharon Horan (Pulling, Dead Boss, Free Agents) and stand-up Rob Delaney (Burning Love, Larry King, basically the king of Twitter) wrote and star in Catastrophe. It’s a deeply funny, down-to-earth story of two people whose strings-free hook-up is fast-tracked due to an unplanned pregnancy, and their attempts to stay their accelerated course.
Deftly balancing sharp humour with naturalistic performances and genuine warmth spiked by the odd disgusting moment, Catastrophe is a solid addition to Channel 4’s comedy line-up. We chatted to writer/actors Horgan and Delaney about avoiding schmaltz, working with Carrie Fisher, the influence of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, and discover that Rob Delaney can’t pronounce the word ‘treacle’…
I’ll start by saying hooray for Catastrophe. We need more sitcoms talking about cervical creepy crawlies and trolls tobogganing out of people on waves of turds…
Rob Delaney: Well, we’re happy to blaze a trail.
You’ve said it’s an unromantic look at romance. What’s the closest the series comes to an unadulterated touching moment?
RD: Maybe before Rob leaves for Boston in the pilot when they sort of confess how they are beginning to feel about each other and what they might do if they got to spend more time with each other.
Sharon Horgan: Considering it’s just a few nights of sex, they do sweet, touching things for each other and I guess it’s because they sort of assume they’re never going to hook-up again. Hopefully that’s a moment when you can see that they really like each other.
So is that as romantic as it gets?
SH: No! It definitely gets more romantic than that, but further into the series. To begin with, it’s kind of practical, there’s a lot of practical shit that they have to get through. They immediately have to start going to screenings, it’s all pregnancy stuff and meeting friends that aren’t maybe the best friends to meet.
Let’s talk about the friends, because there’s a really enjoyable thread of misanthropic satire in the first two episodes. Rob’s friend Dave and Ashley Jensen’s Fran seem like awful, awful people.
SH: You get to know them better in the series and I think the great thing about both those actors is that they just brought so much to those parts, so in the series, we’re able to really write for that. I think Fran and her husband are a portrait of a relationship further down the road, so it’s a good opposite to what’s happening with Rob and I. You assume that that’s it, it’s finished, there’s nothing really romantic between them but as the series goes on there’s little hints that there’s love there and feelings.
So it’s not quite as scathing a portrait as it might first appear then?
RD: I would say the scathe level might remain similar and rears its head throughout but also does the fact that they care about each other really becomes much more apparent as time goes on, so I think we just wanted to capture how a relationship really does rocket between extremes. I don’t think of marriage as the drudge work that a lot of sitcoms and movies might have shown it to be, I think it’s more deadly murderous rage, unadulterated passion, soul-crushing purgatorial dread… It’s more interesting. The drudgery isn’t boring.
The dinner party reminded me a little of Curb Your Enthusiasm, with the shoes and the homeopath-skewering…
RD: I suppose the homeopath thing is a little Curb-y.
SH: I think the thing is that we were very interested in painting a real picture and to be naturalistic and for people to recognise the situation, but we also love a good plot. We got caught up in plotting fun things that could recur and I guess that Larry David’s kind of the king of that, things coming back to haunt him.
There’s quite a toxic, smug competitiveness about pregnancy and parenting at the moment, with doulas and natural labour and people making omelettes with placentas. You didn’t want to get into all that I suppose?
RD: Lord no.
SH: We didn’t really want to do much about pregnancy at all, more about how these two people deal with it. When we were plotting out where we wanted to take it we were throwing around ideas of pre-natal classes and then we were like, fuck that! We really didn’t want to get involved in any of that. We touch on it a little with Fran, how she does it, what she thinks is the right way to do it versus the way anyone should do it, which is the way you want to do it.
But it’s hard. I went through all that with my pregnancy, people telling me what they thought I should do and it just made me go the absolute opposite with a pure bloody-mindedness. So much so that when I was in labour I was like, I literally do not know how to push or breathe, I had to just basically do what they did in films and copy that.
Can we talk about the proposal moment, which is sort of exemplary of the series in my mind, in its balance between being brilliant, romantic, and also quite disgusting all at the same time.
SH: Thank you. We really really tried to make it romantic and disgusting.
Anytime you got to a moment that could potentially be a ‘sweeping violins’ sort of mawkish moment, did you feel the need to swerve the other way toiwards something disgusting?
RD: Not just as a kneejerk thing, but I think we were careful not to have any moments that were just like, where somebody bursts into song, or that were just like – how do you say that word? Tre-ackle?
SH: Treacle? [Laughs] That’s so cute! I would say that for the most part we like to undercut sweetness with a dose of harshness, but I definitely think there are moments in the series where we don’t, we just let it ride. It’s not very often, but there are moments when we don’t even try and throw a joke into, we just let the reality of it play out. We don’t always feel like we need to throw in something snarky.
RD: You might know better than we do having only seen the first two episodes, but I think after seeing those you’re really very clear on how they feel about each other by the end of episode two. Do you agree?
Absolutely. They really like each other, but they’re in a shit situation. Well, perhaps not shit but…
SH: It is a shit situation.
RD: There are shit aspects, certainly.
Talking about their relationship, I wondered if there are couples in other sitcoms that you admire, or was it more a conscious attempt to swerve away from what we see with most sitcom couples?
RD: I felt like getting on a horse and galloping very fast away from other sitcom couples. The only couple that I can think of that influenced me, and I think Sharon liked them as well, was the couple in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, particularly the last one [Before Midnight]. The way that they communicated was a big influence on us.
Could it have been a film do you think, or was it always a series in your minds?
SH: Ha. We have this hi-falutin’ idea that we might like to cut the film version of the series.
Like they did with The Trip?
SH: Yes. Because it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and also because we wanted it to have this filmic quality in the look of it.But we had such a short amount of time to get it edited and ready that that sort of feel by the wayside. It has definitely made us want to write a film together, because we love – like Rob was saying there – what Linklater did with his couple and their relationship, so it’s something for the future.
RD: You know what I don’t think will sound pretentious? Steven Soderbergh is re-cutting films that he enjoys and posting them on his website, like Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. So I think that Steven Soderbergh probably will read this and if he wanted to cut it into a film and put it on his site I think that would be a great idea.
You’re right. That doesn’t sound at all pretentious.
RD: I didn’t think it would.
Does Catastrophe have any relation whatsoever to the Kinky Sex BBC online short you both starred in a couple of years ago?
RD: None whatsoever. Somebody else wrote that and said hey, do you guys want to come and do this, and we both had a free afternoon so…
So we can’t expect Bernard the creepy clown to turn up at any point in this?
RD: Not in series one.
SH: It’s slightly different tonally. I think also we knew we were going to be writing together and we hadn’t spent any time together on screen so we jumped at the idea because we wanted to film a bit together and play around.
Like a chemistry test?
Am I right that you originally talked to Dennis Kelly [Utopia, Pulling] about writing something similar to this but he said because he didn’t have any kids, he didn’t think he could do it?
SH: Yeah. I came to him with an idea four years ago I’d say, but not this idea. It was more something I wanted to write about mothers and he said that we had to find something else because he had nothing to say about that particular subject, so I just sort of parked it.
RD: Whereas he has a tremendous amount to say about submarines.
RD: Which is the subject of his new movie.
SH: No, me and Dennis are writing something else together. I feel like I’m really glad that it happened with Rob because I feel that we have a very similar take on things and I’m so glad I didn’t continue looking for someone else to write it with, because sometimes that’s what you do, you go alright, so you’re not the right person but I’m going to keep going with this and I didn’t. I just sort of parked it.
Until you met Mr Right.
SH: Until I met Mr Right.
RD: And then he was hit by a car and I happened to be standing there.
You two are like a comedy Super Group. If this was like a chain letter type scenario, and you could now nominate two other comedians to work together, who would you put together?
SH: How about Larry David and Julia Davis? That sounds good doesn’t it?
RD: I just finished watching Happy Valley…
SH: That’s not a sitcom
RD: …no it’s not but some of the funnier moments on that are so funny. I would love to see Sally Wainwright and the aforementioned Steven Soderbergh.
SH: Sally Wainwright and anyone. We’re massive fans of hers.
What would you say you’ve learnt from previous sitcoms that you’ve brought to this. Dos and Don’ts?
SH: A massive one is really, really just do it if you absolutely can’t not do it. Only talk about stuff that’s really important to you and means something and you feel like you’ve got a lot to say on. Generally, that’s what I try to do but it hasn’t always been the case and you spend a long time, many many hours making a show like this, longer than writing it, there’s promoting it and everything and if it’s not something you truly love, then back away.
Okay, last question. What can you tell us about working with Carrie Fisher?
RD: [To Sharon] You lay in a bed with her. For a little bit.
SH: That’s probably not an anecdote.
Or how about her dog, Gary Fisher, who’s in Catastrophe?
SH: Did you know that he travels with her as her companion, and can only fly with an airline that allows that to happen.
Umm, what else about Gary Fisher? She insisted on him being in all of the scenes and we had to rewrite it slightly so that her character didn’t have dogs, she had one dog. Gary Fisher’s tongue is fully distended twenty-four hours a day because he doesn’t have any teeth. And he’s her favourite dog and we worked out that it’s because she spends a lot of time with him and he has a long tongue.
I don’t think we can write that. But Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, thank you very much!
Catastrophe continues next Monday the 26th of January on Channel 4 at 10pm.