Catastrophe: How two late starters created one of 2015’s best sitcoms

Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan met on Twitter and conceived their hit comedy Catastrophe thousands of miles apart – can parenthood bring them together?

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It’s mid-morning, and Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan have the preoccupied air of exhausted parents. It’s an appropriate enough state for the stars of the hit Channel 4 comedy about an Irish teacher and American businessman who hitch up after a brief fling in London leaves her pregnant. But if the first series of Catastrophe was all about pregnancy, the second jumps straight into the war zone of parenting.

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“The second series is the first one we dreamed up,” says Delaney, “but we realised, as we started imagining the characters and figuring out how they met, that that actually was really interesting to us, too, and that became the first series. Then after that we wanted to do what we originally wanted to do, which was a married couple in the thick of it.”

“The beginning of the first episode of the second series is the first thing we ever wrote,” adds Horgan.

When RT meets them in a largely deserted photographic studio café, it’s only been about 48 hours since they finished filming after weeks of back-to-back shooting. The fraught schedule has been made slightly easier by Delaney’s relocation to London last year. Before that he lived in LA, and he and Horgan – who lives in London with her husband and two children – got together in their respective cities whenever they could, often working around their other projects. If they share one thing beyond a comic sensibility, it’s a work ethic.

“We both like to work hard,” says Horgan. “Rob doesn’t like to take hour-long lunches. He likes to go and grab some take-out like me and eat it at the desk.”

“If we could rediscover umbilical feeding we would do it,” says Delaney. “We did a month of writing in LA and we were around the corner from an egregiously expensive juice shop. That was the best – we wouldn’t even [need to] eat solids. We would get two drinks that were called, like, ‘Be Near a Toilet!’”

“You get sleepy after a big lunch,” says Horgan, “and we had such a short amount of time, we thought, if we don’t eat solids, then we’ll just get the nutrition.”

“On the last day we went and got cheeseburgers,” says Delaney, “and we fell asleep as we were eating them.”

Horgan and Delaney have both become known – understandably, if unfairly – as late starters. It’s probably because they each achieved mainstream success in a relatively short space of time, after years of toiling in obscurity. Delaney set himself a deadline age of 35 to make it in comedy.

Horgan hung onto her waitressing job until she was 31. A few years later she found what should have been a breakthrough success with 2006’s Pulling (above), a comedy about the messy personal lives of three female friends, which she co-wrote and starred in. Pulling was critically acclaimed, popular (Delaney was a big fan before he’d ever met Horgan) and well-enough regarded to earn a Bafta nomination. Its brilliance was apparent to just about every- one apart from BBC3, who refused to commission a third series. “And look what’s happened to them,” says Delaney.

“Still, I think it was crazy that we even got to make that show,” says Horgan. “We’d written, really, nothing before, a couple of sketches. So to be given that opportunity completely unencumbered, completely getting exactly what we wanted – we were just brats.”

The first time a lot of people will have heard of Delaney was when he was named funniest person on Twitter in 2012 (it’s an actual award, conferred by Comedy Central). He now has 1.19 million followers, and a reputation as someone who sprang fully formed from social media, which can’t be true…

“No, I was born of woman,” he confirms. But Twitter did do a lot for him, he admits. As a struggling stand-up and comedy writer who’d battled alcoholism (a near fatal drink-driving accident was, for him, the turning point), Delaney first discovered Twitter in 2009, when most people were still using it to describe their breakfast. He posted jokes instead.

“I think, looking at it backwards, the reason Twitter was good to me is because I had just piles of submissions for all the late-night TV show hosts with sketches and jokes,” he says. He kept getting solicited to write more, but never hired, resulting in a wealth of unused material. “When Twitter came along as a way to get your jokes out into the world, I was supremely positioned for that.”

Twitter is also where Delaney and Horgan first met, as it were. “I think first contact was established in 2010,” says Delaney. “And we started working on the pilot of this in 2012.” By then they’d even met in real life a few times.

“But we still didn’t know if it was going to work out,” says Horgan. “We liked each other, we liked each other’s stuff, but you just never know what’s going to happen until you sit down.” In addition to the stumbling block of living on different continents, they were both busy: Horgan was writing a pilot for the American network ABC; Delaney had a successful stand-up career to maintain. And they both had families: two decades of marriage and five kids between them (Delaney now has three children under five). Their choice of subject matter was obvious.

The first series of Catastrophe was sharply written, gloriously foul-mouthed, and assembled with exquisite timing. It was also surprisingly moving, although they did their best to keep sweetness at bay. From the outset they were determined to keep it real.

“Marriage is interesting,” says Delaney. “It’s not fun, often. It is, sometimes, but it’s a much more nuanced thing. That’s what we wanted to capture, and I guess if we were successful, it’s because we did show that warmth and near-violent confrontation can exist within the same day, within the same hour, in a marriage, even a healthy one.”

Horgan admits to being pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the finished pilot. “I think Rob kind of tempered my harshness,” she says. “And I tempered his soppiness.”

Horgan and Delaney with Star Wars actor Carrie Fisher, who plays Delaney’s mother in Catastrophe

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Even if many elements of both series are taken from personal experience, one is warned against reading too much into the fact that the characters played by Horgan and Delaney are also called Sharon and Rob.

“We did it because we were just sat there trying to think up some names and it was taking up too much time,” says Horgan. “So we just put down Rob and Sharon, and completely intended to change it back.” But Channel 4 liked the names and insisted they stay, presumably because it leant a certain intrigue, as if the viewer wasn’t quite meant to know where the actors ended and their characters began.

“I don’t know if it makes it more interesting,” says Horgan, “but for us it was a bit of a cringe, because it introduces a load of other issues as well.” If people in your private life assume your characters are your exact fictional counterparts, they also tend to assume that the supporting cast are their fictional counterparts.

“Like your parents think they’re in the show,” says Horgan.

“That’s the worst,” says Delaney.

“Or your brother will ring you up,” says Horgan. “People start looking at it a bit too closely.”

Both Horgan and Delaney have always mined personal experience for comedy, and while the second series of Catastrophe will be as autobiographical – obliquely autobiographical, let’s say – as series one, they draw the line at using their kids for material.

“We don’t really write about our children,” says Horgan. “Just our own sort of daftness about how we feel about our kids, but there’s no…”

“…things taken from their lives…” finishes off Delaney.

“No,” says Horgan. “I don’t mind using a 40-year-old man’s weak points to get a laugh, but not my 11-year-old or my seven-year-old.” They’re also not big fans of using kids in TV shows (I’m not sure how they’ll get round it, but no baby appears in the series 2 trailer; a pram, yes, but no baby). Catastrophe remains, they say strictly for adults.

“It was always our intention for it to still be about the relationship, but how the relationship survives and thrives within a family situation,” says Horgan.

Playing characters not a million miles from their own experience is a great help, especially for Delaney, who had never before taken on an acting role of this size.

“It does make it easier that I’m not playing, I don’t know, an Austrian conductor,” he says. “That would be harder.”

And although they do write lines for one another, the characters are very much personal creations, both in terms of writing them and playing them.

“The Rob and Sharon stuff, I absolutely couldn’t imagine anyone else doing it,” says Horgan. “Although that’s not to say I wouldn’t like to sell this show to Russia and see two Russian actors having a go at it.”

“Let’s not forget that’s the ultimate goal,” says Delaney.

Catastrophe returns to Channel 4 tonight (Tuesday 27th October) at 10.00pm