LOVE IS A BATTLEFIELD
‘Catastrophe’ Is TV’s Most F**ked Up Rom-Com
Catastrophe stars Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan talk about creating a show that is brutally real about how awful kids and marriage can be. (Coincidentally, it’s TV best rom-com.)
“In the U.K. the tea is just blaaaaack,” he says, deciding on the lesser of floral-scented evils. “Here there are all these sassy teas.”
It’s at this point that Sharon Horgan, his Catastrophe co-creator and co-star, walks into the room. “What did you do with your minutes off?” she asks him. “I just laid in my bed and kind of zoned,” he says. “I didn’t want to go to sleep because I was afraid I wouldn’t wake up.”
Delaney’s acquired taste for a strong cup of British tea—not to mention his exhaustion—is owed to his move across the pond from Los Angeles to London. He carted his wife and three kids under the age of 5 along with him to work on Catastrophe with Horgan, who, after growing up on an Irish turkey farm, settled there with her husband and two daughters.
The two are about to debut the second season of the show on Amazon Prime—it finished airing on the U.K.’s Channel 4 in December—and face a battalion of press eager to discover what exactly it is about this partnership between decidedly unsentimental parents from different continents that combined to produce the funniest comedy you might not yet have discovered.
Season One of Catastrophe dealt, in six joke-a-second yet oddly moving episodes, with the struggles to maintain a relationship after an Irish teacher named Sharon becomes pregnant after a passionate week-long sex romp with an American businessman named Rob.
The show, they’ve long maintained, is roughly 49 percent autobiographical; they agreed to use their own names for their characters because they found themselves wasting time trying to think of anything better. They only worried that the life-art similarities might confuse their families.
“[We worried] that Rob’s mother might think there is any correlation between her and Carrie Fisher’s character,” Horgan says. (On the show, Sharon calls Fisher, who plays Rob’s insufferable mom, a “human hemorrhoid,” for example.) “Likewise with my dad.”
On Catastrophe, Rob and Sharon are crass and occasionally salty, but clearly star-crossed in a way that seems actually plausible for two jaded narcissists in the real world. The result is the best screwball rom-com banter and the most relatable depiction of a fledgling relationship on TV, as the couple is forced to fast-forward their commitment to each other because of the baby on board.
Critics became smitten by Rob and Sharon’s bitter-tongued honesty—“Just imagine a nice enough guy taking a shit and reading about Hitler, and that’s my husband” is one way Sharon lovingly describes Rob—and the refreshing look at adults stumbling on a path toward a happy ending that neither might have wanted in the first place.
Since the first season debuted last summer, it became the year’s biggest word-of-mouth hit.
“I think we were very lucky to not even have low expectations, but no expectations,” Delaney says of their success. “This wasn’t our next project after some massive hit or anything. It snuck in under the radar, which is good for us.”
“I don’t know if it’s true for you,” Horgan says, looking at Delaney, “but I did think that people might be a little bit cynical about it because of how we met. The Twitter thing.”
Yes, Delaney and Horgan met through Twitter.
Delaney is what we call in this day and age “Twitter famous.” He is, quite literally, the Funniest Person on Twitter—an award that was handed out by Comedy Central in 2012 and then never again, immortalizing Delaney’s 140-character prowess.
Back in 2010, a few years after her BBC comedy Pulling, about three adult friends with messy personal lives, was unceremoniously canceled, Horgan “followed” Delaney, who happened to be a fan, on Twitter. They DM’d back and forth a few times, eventually meeting in person before deciding to work on the pilot to Catastrophe in 2012.
Actually, the first episode of Season Two is the first episode of Catastrophe that the duo wrote together and pitched to networks.
It begins with a pregnant Sharon in bed with Rob, watching a crappy reality show together and eating ice cream out of mugs.
“I knew they were going to vote him out,” Sharon says. “Congratulations, you’re a psychic of garbage. Why are we watching this?” Rob asks. “Because Mad Men is finished and Game of Thrones isn’t on yet and there’s nothing else,” she responds. It’s all very familiar.
Eventually, she rests her legs on his. He’s annoyed and moves them off. She’s offended by how forcefully he moved her legs. They bicker about it. He storms out. He can’t find where their car is parked and eventually comes back. Again, it’s all very familiar.
Eventually they fight their way to some kinky sex, only for their son to walk in on them, the dog to jump on the bed, and chaos to ensue.
And herein lies the Season Two spoiler: The action flash-forwards to several years after Season One, when their son is born and baby two is imminent. (In fact, she is born at the end of the premiere.)
What we’re seeing in this season is not a couple navigating a new relationship, but one years into a marriage with a house of kids and a nightly reckoning with whether they’re together just because it’s easier, or because they’re truly happy.
“A marriage, even a good one, is a ramshackle thing built on ground that wasn’t surveyed properly,” Delaney says. “So you really have to work to keep it together. We wanted to have that danger because that’s what a marriage feels like. At least mine does. And that’s a marriage I’m happy to be in.”
“We thought we had things to say about a relationship within a family with kids, because we were in that,” Horgan says about their first script. But the network thought the kernel in that first submitted script about how the couple first met was interesting in its own right, and encouraged them to pursue that train of thought.
So while Season One dealt heavily with Sharon’s first pregnancy, Season Two is focused more on the ugly truths of child-rearing, and the ugly thoughts we have about ourselves, our partners, and even our kids while doing it.
There’s a throwaway line that Sharon delivers at a Meet the Baby party for her new daughter, Muirean, for example.
(The show’s running joke over how to pronounce her name is mined from Horgan’s 49 percent of autobiography: She had wanted the name for her own daughter, but her husband couldn’t pronounce it.)
When a friend marvels over the family life Sharon’s built for herself, Sharon deadpans, “It’s all I’ve ever wanted. Apparently.” For all the lack of sentimentality or saccharine sweetness in Catastrophe’s depiction of family or love, there’s a poignant power to lines like these. Because they’re real.
“It’s nice to tell the audience that feeling shitty about a newborn baby is fine, because of the amount of women and men who experience that and feel like dreadful people, feel ashamed of that,” Horgan says. “It’s really nice for us to have a platform to tell people that it’s fine to feel like that. And that if you do, it can also get better.”
In fact, the show’s best scenes are the ones where Rob and Sharon are confessing their darkest thoughts about parenthood and their relationship to each other. Maybe that’s the tenet of a great relationship: the freedom to tell your partner insane shit without feeling like they’ll judge or use it against you.
Or, in the case of Sharon asking Rob about Muirean—“You don’t think she seems manipulative, like she’s plotting something?”—only mock you lightly for it.
“I’ve said more than once to my wife, like, I’ve had to grip the arms of a chair and say, ‘I don’t want to admit this to you because I don’t want you to have this ammunition in the chess match that is our marriage, but in the spirit of vulnerability I need you to know…’” Delaney says.
“As a result, she knows things that barely anyone else knows and I can barely admit to myself,” he continues. “I have to vouch-safe it with her. ‘You need this information because I’m going to wipe it out of my mind by eating pudding.’”
He laughs. “I don’t drink anymore so I have to take a lot of pudding.” (Delaney’s sobriety, something he has spoken openly about, is another part of his 49-percent autobiography on Catastrophe.)
“It’s terrifying what they’ve got on us, you know?” Horgan laughs. “What we can use against each other. Because there are so many elements to being a parent where you have shameful, shameful thoughts. And it’s very hard to carry those around without feeling like they’re going to do you damage. Off-loading them is the only way.”
Season Two of the show finds the characters off-loading thoughts both humorously demented—at one point there’s a debate over whether their toddler son’s penis is impressively sized—and achingly real. Post-natal depression, dementia, infidelity, and relapse are all tackled.
Still, there are some thoughts, Horgan insists, that they weren’t quite yet brave enough to air on the show, or that are so “really dreadfully gallows-y” that they wouldn’t be appropriate.
“The line is where you can be really honest and say the dark things that people think without being ignorant, without offending anyone,” she says. “Although hopefully we offend some people!”
“The dog!” Delaney jumps in. “The dog really upsets people.” Another spoiler: The family dog is hit by a car at the end of the second episode, much to Rob and Sharon’s relief.
“It’s so weird about the dog, though,” Horgan says. “It still upsets me when people get upset about the dog because I’m like, ‘You know in that episode we find out that her father is definitely on his way to dying?!’”
“But people are really messed up about dogs,” Delaney counters.
Horgan groans. “You know, a woman’s going through desperate post-natal depression and a man is struggling with dementia and people are like, ‘That dog!’”
She pauses, for perfect comedic timing. “That dog was an asshole. We made that clear from the beginning.”