TV’s Realest New Mom on Being a Woman in Comedy

<i>Catastrophe</I>'s Sharon Horgan.
Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan. Photo: Jenny Anderson/Getty Images

Sharon Horgan has been rising and grinding for years, from her work on the short-lived British sitcom Pulling to small parts in indie films like Run & Jump and Man Up. Now Horgan’s enjoying the fruits of her labor with the critically acclaimed show Catastrophe, a hilariously foul-mouthed and incredibly smart Amazon sitcom she co-wrote with comedian Rob Delaney.

Horgan stars opposite Delaney as an Irish woman in her early 40s who gets knocked up during a nearly week-long tryst with an American in town on business. They end up getting hitched, but it is, as the title suggests, a total catastrophe. (The title actually refers to a quote from Zorba the Greek: “I’m a man, so I am married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.”) The Cut sat down with Sharon Horgan at a posh Soho hotel during a whirlwind press tour to chat about everything from C-bombs to film critics. The second season of Catastrophe arrives on Amazon Prime on Friday, April 8.

I found out after I watched this season that this was your initial pitch — that the couple was already married and had a baby together. Did anything surprise you when you were writing it — like, did the characters do anything that sort of came out of nowhere, or do things you didn’t expect them to?

I think that probably happens all the time, which is a good thing. I think when you do an initial pitch, what you present to your execs, or whoever’s going to make the show, usually ends up quite a million miles away from the finished product, and that’s because your characters take you down routes all the time. Or even in the writing process, you think you’re going from A to Z, but you know, you take lots of little detours along the way.

I think maybe we started off with Rob being a very sunny character, and then realized that that was a little bit too … typical sort of happy American guy, and we didn’t really want that, so we made sure we went back and peppered in as much sort of small little pointers that could lead to where he sort of ends up, which is, you know, in sometimes quite a dark place, and sometimes it’s a bit of a struggle. I think with Sharon’s character … her pessimistic side and her harshness and her kind of “What you see is what you get” kind of thing sometimes on the page felt a little too harsh, so we had to make sure we went back and found her sweetness and drew that out a bit, because we certainly didn’t want it to feel like — especially in the second season — like a show where she’s just giving him jip all the time. I mean, I hate seeing women portrayed like that, and I certainly didn’t want to see my own character portrayed like that.

So I wouldn’t say there were huge surprises, but there were definitely things that we changed because we found that we didn’t want our characters to be that one-dimensional.

I really appreciate that both characters hold their own; she’s not a shrew, she can be vulnerable. The little jabs and comments that people make, about her being over 40, and, “Oh, we just thought you would take care of your parents.” It just kills me.

I know! I always think about her in terms of what would’ve happened if they didn’t have that one-night stand, and how she’d sort of worked things out in her head. She was probably already resigned to the fact that, you know, she wasn’t going to have children, and you know, there is an underlying kind of sadness in there because of that. Not that everyone should have children — a lot of people shouldn’t! But there are people who probably should and she’s one of them, so the idea that this parallel life of hers, moving back to Ireland to look after her parents, it’s good character material to have.

How do you avoid being treacly about kids? Writing about them or just even having them on the show? You maneuvered her postpartum depression and eventual bonding really wonderfully, so I was wondering if you could just speak to how you balance it, so it’s not just gooey.

Well, I think I’m allergic to any kind of saccharine moments, but I’m not allergic to true emotion and feelings, and in fact, I love it. I love when things move me, and I particularly love it when a comedy moves me because it’s unexpected, and then you laugh on the other side of it. So I think it was simply not being too indulgent, you know. It was using the kids as little as we could because we wanted the show still to be about Rob and Sharon, and not about the family. We wanted it to impact them, but not to have story lines that were very sort of family-based, so you’re kinda seeing everything from her perspective and his perspective … It’s little things like [not using music to] indulge those moments. You just sort of tell them raw, and I think it hits people a lot harder, you know?

I found it really interesting that these sort of peripheral characters have their own little adventures without Sharon and Rob. Did this sort of world-building come naturally, or was it on purpose?

We definitely made a conscious decision to make it a world, and in fact we were sort of slightly advised against it or told to tread carefully because people seemed to like their Sharon-and-Rob dynamic, and so there was a slight worry that turning it into more of an ensemble in a way, where you’re following other characters and their stories away from Sharon and Rob’s story, it was a bit of a risk. But we felt that those characters that we met in series one had a lot more to say and do, and we hinted at little things and complexities, and it would’ve felt obscene to not explore those with those actors. It would’ve felt really wrong, and I think it just came in fits and starts.

Do you ever get pushback either from Channel 4 or Amazon or anyone to tone down content or the language, or is it just like, “C-bombs! Go for it!”?

“C-bombs, go for it,” really. Well, no, I mean, the thing is that we are quite particular about language, and I think language that is a bit fruity kind of loses its impact the more you use it so … We are told that there’s a limit, but we never seem to go over that limit anyway, because then I think it loses its power, and I think it sounds repetitive and boring. So, no, they’re only ever supportive of what we want to write and how we want to write it. It’s a very sort of supportive, kind of nurturing atmosphere. Any notes we do get, in all honesty, just make it better.

Here in the U.S. right now, it’s such an amazing time for TV, and it also seems like it’s much less sexist and ageist than it is in film, in particular. Do you feel like that’s true in the U.K.?

Yeah, yeah. I mean there’s a host of female-led, female-authored TV — in drama and in comedy — some of the best is authored by women … I mean, obviously there’s always going to be a push toward youth, but I think everyone’s realized that there is a market there for those kind of stories, and things coming from a mature angle doesn’t mean that it’s only going to appeal to a mature audience. We would hate very much if the only people watching our show were middle-aged parents.

I love that they’re watching the show, but it would upset me if they were the only ones watching the show. I think that it’s very wide-ranging at the moment, the kind of work that’s being made in the U.K., comedy and drama, and it’s a very exciting time for TV.

Who’s on your wish list of people to work with?

God, so many people. Sally Wainwright in the U.K., and Jill Soloway here, and Amy Poehler, and I mean, so many actors that I want to write for that at some point I’m going to have to stop writing for myself because I’m inspired all the time … I’m going to have to try to find some way of making more hours in the day because I don’t know how I’m going to do it.

Does this press tour feel different than last year, when Catastrophe was just launching and no one really knew what to expect? And this year, it’s like, Oh, it was one of the best shows of the year last year! What’s the tenor of it like?

We were just so surprised by it. I mean, we couldn’t believe it when we saw all those lists and stuff. We were constantly sending them to each other, saying, “What the fuck?!” because it seemed like such a small show. We didn’t know that anyone would find it, and you know, shows I’ve made in the past, they’ve made their way over here but … [they] had such a small cultural impact, because smaller shows on smaller channels, they’re trickier to find. It’s a word-of-mouth thing, but I think with Catastrophe being on Amazon, and you know, because critics got behind it, and because of word of mouth, it kind of became a thing that really surprised us.

So, yes. The fact that this time around people are anticipating it, or that the profile of the show is raised, that we’ve got — it’s exciting for me to see billboards. I mean, it’s ridiculous, I’m 45, and I feel like a newbie in the business because I’m so thrilled that it has a visibility. Because, you know, you work really hard; you sit in these sort of dark, airless rooms writing for years and years and years, and you make a show, and sometimes people see it and sometimes they don’t. But when people appreciate it and a wider audience sees it, it’s a really great feeling, because all that hard work has paid off, and the time you took and the care you took, knowing that people appreciate that is incredible.

TV’s Realest New Mom on Being a Woman in Comedy