The Amazon series "Catastrophe" was created by and stars Irish actress Sharon Horgan and American comedian Rob Delaney as a couple (also named Rob and Sharon) who are thrown together after a week-long fling leads to an unplanned pregnancy.
Delaney and Horgan, who write every episode, have a knack for finding the funny in everyday drama.
Season one ended with Rob and Sharon arguing right before Sharon's water breaks. But season two doesn't start with her pushing in the hospital or resting at home with a new baby. Instead, it jumps ahead to Sharon's second pregnancy, throwing us smack dab in the middle of their parenthood journey.
The second season, which was just released on Amazon, tackles sobriety and medical issues with a healthy dose of humor. Today, "Catastrophe" was even named as a finalist for the Peabody awards.
John Horn sat down with Horgan and Delaney to talk about the narrative arc of "Catastrophe," the challenge between balancing truthfulness and humor and why their show tends to avoid nudity.
It seems like the original conceit of the show was what happened in the first episode: There was a fling, a shotgun marriage, and then there's a question about whether or not this couple was going to survive as a couple. But it feels like the second season is much more about a marriage. Do you think that was always the natural trajectory of the show, or was the setup just a way to get things going?
Horgan: It was absolutely the natural trajectory, because the first season was supposed to be the marriage — that's what Rob and I had pitched, and that's what we absolutely wanted to write about. But when we presented our script to various execs, they said, "There's a whole other story you could be exploring," which is the pregnancy, the getting to know each other. So then when we got to the second season, we were just desperate to dive into the family aspect of it, when things get really tough, because the other stuff is like child's play compared to that.
What did the success of the first season allow you to do as storytellers in your second season?
Delaney: There were some things like episode four of the first season, when there's a serious potential health obstacle in Sharon's pregnancy — when we were able to do that episode and have it be funny in addition to heartfelt, that gave us the confidence to go to darker, more difficult areas in season two.
Horgan: Definitely. And also on top of that, there was the confidence to write for our other characters. Initially, we were very interested in the dynamic between Rob and Sharon, and then we looked around and saw that we had all these great other characters and actors, and it felt like an opportunity. Of course, having worked with those actors in the first season, we knew what they were great at and we were able to write specifically for them.
I want to ask about how you deal with sex, because in terms of language, the show would almost be NC-17. But in terms of nudity, it's more like PG-13 — that outside of maybe a cake decoration, there's not a lot of frontal nudity. That seems very intentional, to be raunchy with your language but not visually explicit.
Horgan: I mean, it could be because it originated as a British comedy, and that's less of a thing there. There's a lot more nudity on TV over here, so it could be that.
Delaney: I think another thing is that I really enjoy looking at naked people's bodies, it's up there among my favorite things to do, but when I'm looking at them, that's all I'm doing. So in a comedy, when a naked person shows up, I'm like, "Whoa, hey, hold up, everyone gather around and look at the naked!" That can really take me out of the story, but it's okay if it's my silly, hairy, white butt that shouldn't be televised.
Horgan: Butts are funny.
Delaney: Butts are funny, but if you turn around then people will be pausing, taking screenshots, measuring, sending those screenshots to my mom... I don't want that. [laughs]
There are a couple series on TV that I can think of where, even though there are stories about couples, I can't imagine watching this show with my wife. It's close to home in many ways, and I wonder if you have people that come up to you and say, "I love the show but it's so close to home that it creates more awkward conversation in our house."
Delaney: People have said that to me. More than once. My favorite, of course, is couples who say, "It's the only thing we can watch together!" But then there was one person who told me, "I won't let my boyfriend watch it, because I don't want him to learn any of your tactics. I don't want him to do those things to me."
Horgan: Really? Whoa. I've never had that, I've only had people say it's one of the few things they can watch as a couple.
If I were to have dinner with you some night, would it be likely that what I revealed about my personal life would turn up in season three? Do you warn your friends that everything is copy?
Delaney: [laughs] I pay more attention now to other people's lives for source material. The other night, a friend of mine was telling me about something he's doing, some sort of real estate deal he's doing. There's a little creativity in it, but it's mostly legal... not that that means it's moral. But he was like, "You can't put that in the show." I was like, "Buddy, that's at least two episodes of next season. It's mostly going to be that now. Sorry." [laughs]
Horgan: Yes, if you came to my house for dinner, every story that you told might end up somewhere, but I'm very transparent with that. If a friend tells me a story, I'll say, "I'd love to use that, would you mind if I used it?" Of course, we fictionalize it, but I've definitely had friends who've seen an episode of something and gotten in touch with me after 10 years of not seeing each other to say, "I recognize that! Was that me?"
You try to have a little bit of fun in the first season with a chromosomal abnormality in a child. You also have a lot of jokes about sobriety, which is a very serious issue for a lot of people. Are those things you think are important to the characters, or the story?
Horgan: We weren't trying to have fun with that. I think what we were trying to do was tell a story about something that had specifically happened to us, that we felt like we had something to say about. First of all, we felt that if you can be very truthful about something like that in a TV show and people who have been through that situation can watch it and get something from it, that's great.
But also we thought that it would be a huge challenge, to deal with a subject like that and make an episode funny, or make people laugh through it. We were incredibly nervous about it, but ultimately we're really glad we did it. But the sobriety thing...
Delaney: Yeah, it's funny, because I'm the sober person here. I stopped drinking 14 years ago because I realized I really shouldn't, and I've been sober long enough that that's not the first thing I think about myself when I wake up in the morning.
But Sharon thought it'd be a good idea to put in the show, so I was like, "Okay, yeah, I'll check it out." And then it's become massively important as the show's gone on, so I think it was wise to include that. It turns out that it is interesting, even though I forgot that it was. [laughs]
Sharon, you said something that I thought was interesting: that the show's truthful. Is that the ultimate test for what does and doesn't get in the show? It has to be funny, but if it's not truthful it doesn't make it?
Horgan: I think that, if it's truthful, then it's from the heart and it makes me feel less nervous about what we put out, subject matter-wise. There's no way people can call it cynical, but it doesn't always work. We were just talking about this earlier — just because it's true does not mean it's funny or interesting, so it's just down to subject matter. We're not just lining up our truths and putting them in, we're deciding what we want to talk about.
Delaney: There's a trend now in the comedy realm to do storytelling shows, and now when I get asked to do them I just don't. I don't like sitting through other people's stories — because they think it's true, they think they have a right to say it through a microphone? No way. I'd rather go to any improv night — if you're going to talk, I'd better laugh. It can be true after that, but it'd better be funny. [laughs] Enough with the storytelling shows!
This is a British show that runs on an American streaming service. Is there a way to quantify the differences in sense of humor between America and Britain? Britain thought Benny Hill was funny, but America...
Delaney: I thought Benny Hill was funny.
Horgan: I thought Americans loved Benny Hill!
Okay, maybe that's a bad example.
Horgan: But I do think there used to be a bigger divide between UK or Irish humor and US humor. But it doesn't feel like there's so much of that now. I guess there's a difference between production values and all of that, and we tend to make stuff smaller and cheaper, and you can see it's a bit warts and all, but just in terms of subject matter and tone, there seems to be such crossover now. Also we're lucky, because we have one Irish person and one American person, so it doesn't feel like a British show to me. It feels like a weird hybrid, and we've peopled it with Scottish people, Australians...
Delaney: And even a Canadian.
Horgan: Even a dirty Canadian. So yeah, hopefully it doesn't feel like one thing or the other.
But you never wanted it to be a show about a fish out of water — Rob's character, the American, being lost or like, "Fish and chips? Why do you call them chips?"
Delaney: [laughs] We did a couple episodes about that, but we canned them.
Horgan: [laughs] No we didn't. It just wasn't of interest to us, and it felt like the most sitcom-y thing. It felt like there was much more material in them just trying to infiltrate each other's lives, even though they barely know each other but have something as intimate as a pregnancy scare when they should really just be having dinner together. That felt much more interesting to us than getting things wrong because of cultural differences.