'Everything Is Up For Grabs': Life Inspires Art For 'Catastrophe' Co-Creator

Jul 5, 2017
Originally published on July 6, 2017 1:08 pm

When it comes to writing TV, producer and actress Sharon Horgan admits that she draws heavily from her own life. "I am my own provider of material," she says. "I'm ... just trying to put the most honest version of what I think onscreen."

That impulse is what inspired Horgan's current project, the Amazon comedy series Catastrophe, now in its third season. On the show, Horgan plays a London school teacher (Sharon) who meets an American (Rob, played by show co-creator Rob Delaney) who's in London on business. They share a brief romance and a month later she discovers she's pregnant. Even though they barely know each other, they decide to start a relationship and raise the baby.

While the particulars of Rob and Sharon's situation are unique to the series, Horgan says the details of their relationship often spring from her and Delaney's own experiences. "Everything is up for grabs really, whether it's how much time Rob spends on the toilet in his own household and how his wife feels about that, to, I guess, being very honest about the kind of sex that you have as a married couple," Horgan says. "It's all copy, as they say."


Interview Highlights

On Sharon

She's a bit of a toughie, but tougher on the outside than on the inside, I'd say. She's a good person, but she's definitely prone to selfish acts. The interesting thing about her as a female character — and playing against Rob Delaney's very sweet, kind of optimistic character — is she's very aware that bad stuff happens and she kind of assumes that bad stuff will happen to her. Not a bright, kind of sunny character. So that was always a challenge to make sure that she wasn't too gloomy or too down on things. But it was fun having the male character [be] the kind of chirpy, optimistic one.

On the importance of showing that Sharon wanted to be a writer, but it didn't work out

I quite like the idea of showing someone who wasn't able to make it in the career that they originally hoped for themselves, but not letting that define them — not letting their failure define who the person that they came to be [is]. I think in some ways she's a stronger, better character than me, so I'm not sure if I would've been as capable of picking myself up and retraining. I just quite like seeing a better version of myself deal with something like that on screen. Again, I consider myself extremely lucky because luck had a lot to do with it, as well as the other stuff, hard work, but not everyone gets to be that lucky. And, again, it kind of felt like a kind of responsible thing to say: "Look, if it doesn't happen, it doesn't mean your life is over. You find other things."

On how she met co-star and co-creator Rob Delaney

I had done a show in the U.K. called Pulling, and it was a small show and it had a small audience, but it was fairly well loved and he had somehow managed to see it all the way over in L.A. So I was following him [on Twitter] simply because he was very funny and he had a good profile picture of himself by the beach wearing a pair of green Speedos. And so [he] got in touch with me just to say he'd seen my show and he loved it. And then we'd just check in with each other occasionally, and if I went to L.A. for work or whatever we'd [meet] up, or if he was in London doing gigs we'd [meet] up.

We didn't know each other that well. We had met a few times and corresponded a fair amount, but you never know how that will work when you're sitting side by side each other at a keyboard trying to write something funny. We really only got to know each other properly through doing that.

On learning about the death of Carrie Fisher, who played Rob's mother on Catastrophe, and the remembrance she wrote for The Guardian

I had about 50 people in my house — I was having a party in my house — and that's when I found out [that Fisher had died]. And I couldn't be around anyone, and I thought, "If I don't write these things down now I might forget them." Just stuff that she said or a feeling I had when I was with her, or any of the funny little remarkable things that she did during filming or away from filming. I just wanted to write a love letter to her while it was all very fresh in my brain. I think that's why it's kind of an emotional piece, because most of it was written that night.

Lauren Krenzel and Heidi Saman produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Sharon Horgan is the co-creator and star of the Amazon series "Catastrophe," a comedy about marriage. She also created the HBO comedy series "Divorce." On "Catastrophe," Horgan plays Sharon, an Irish schoolteacher living in London who meets Rob, an American who's in London on business. They have an extended one-night stand, and a month later, she discovers she's pregnant. Even though they barely know each other, they decide to start a relationship and raise the baby.

Season Two of the series dealt with the problems of staying married and being parents, and Season Three of the show, which was recently released on Amazon, deals with some serious issues like infidelity and caring for aging parents. Sharon Horgan and American comedian Rob Delaney created the series after meeting on Twitter. The late Carrie Fisher costarred on the show as Rob's skeptical mother. Horgan spoke to FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. They started with a scene from the first episode of "Catastrophe." After Sharon finds out she's pregnant and calls Rob, who is already back in the U.S., he flies to London to talk about their situation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATASTROPHE")

ROB DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) You just don't think that stuff like this'll happen.

SHARON HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) What, that repeated sexual intercourse between two healthy adults will do the exact thing it's supposed to do? Have you ever done a science class? Do you know how to read?

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) I'm sorry. I'm not pregnant, and you are, and it's because of me. But if you're going to have this baby, then...

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Who says I'm going to have it?

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) Well, how old are you? Look; the good news is - is that we're reasonably good people. So we could probably do this and not [expletive] the kid up too horribly. I'm just saying, a terrible thing has happened. Let's make the best of it.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) So where are you staying? I'm joking. You can stay in my spare room. I'm joking. I'm a teacher. I don't have a spare room.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: Sharon Horgan, welcome to FRESH AIR.

HORGAN: Hi. Thank you for having me.

BALDONADO: You've both said - you and your co-creator, Rob Delaney - you've both said that you knew you didn't want to play stereotypical male, female sorts of roles. What kind of pitfalls did you want to make sure you didn't fall into? What were you guys reacting against in other shows that you've seen?

HORGAN: We wanted him to be a worrier. You know, we wanted him to be someone who was more than aware of what he was getting himself into. And we kind of wanted it to be more of a challenge for her I think. You know what I mean? We just didn't want the kind of responsible wife character, you know, frowning at his mistakes and, you know, him sort of letting her down but being charming enough to get away with it. I kind of felt like, you know, romantic comedies - I mean there's still a real place for it, but I feel like we had an opportunity to kind of turn it on its head a little and for it still to be romantic and funny and all the things that you expect from that genre.

BALDONADO: You said that this kind of show inspires an intimate kind of writing. You can't be scared to talk about things like sex or drinking or how you really feel about your partner sometimes because you said that the disgusting things have to be in the show. How do you guys make that a part of your writing process? And are there any examples that you could give of these disgusting things that made it into the show...

HORGAN: (Laughter) Well...

BALDONADO: ...I guess that are broadcast safe?

HORGAN: Oh gosh, well, then, no.

BALDONADO: (Laughter).

HORGAN: No, we kind of come into the room armed with stories, you know, whether they're from the night before or, you know, an argument that we've had with our partner. Or - I mean Rob, back in the day when we started out first, would come in and go, OK, don't judge me on this, but last night - and now he doesn't have to do that anymore (laughter) because he kind of, first of all, doesn't really care what I think anymore. And secondly, there's never any judgment. It's just - it's all copy, as they say.

But you know, it's kind of - everything is up for grabs, really, whether it's how much time Rob spends on the toilet in his own household and how his wife, you know, feels about that to - I don't know - I guess just being very honest about the kind of sex that you have as a married couple compared to, you know, the kind of sex that's usually shown on TV, which is beautiful, you know, and arching backs. And you know, everyone's - you're looking deeply into each other's eyes. I don't know. It's not like that, is it? So we try and put in as much gross bodily function without driving anyone away...

BALDONADO: Right.

HORGAN: ...Because there is a bit of a thin line there.

BALDONADO: I want to play another scene from "Catastrophe." This is from season two. Sharon and Rob have just had their second child, a daughter who's about four months old. And Sharon's been thinking about going back to work as a teacher. She's not quite sure. Meanwhile, Rob is the main breadwinner but really hates his job at a pharmaceutical company. And Rob and Sharon are discussing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATASTROPHE")

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) We have to do something though. We're [expletive] if I get pregnant again, especially now I'm going back to work. I mean I'm just be taking the piss.

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) I mean, you really want to go back so soon? I mean Muireann's only 4 months old.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Did you say to yourself as you went off to work yesterday? Oh, I'm not sure if I should go to work today; Muireann's only 4 months old.

DELANEY: (As Rob Morris) Well, maybe if I could feed her with my body, I would.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Oh, I have good news. Seven hundred years ago, they invented formula, and now men can feed the babies they make. I love her so much. I need to get away from her, though.

DELANEY: (As Rob Morris) So what's the plan, we put them both into nursery?

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) I want to take Frankie out of there anyway. He asked me for a cup of milk yesterday. He called me love. He sounds like Jason Statham. We'll just get a childminder.

DELANEY: (As Rob Morris) A full-time childminder will cost almost as much as your teaching salary pays.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Yeah.

DELANEY: (As Rob Morris) So you want to go back to a job that takes you away from your kids to earn no money.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Bingo.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDONADO: That's a scene from the second season of "Catastrophe." My guest, Sharon Horgan, co-created the series and is one of its stars. Now, looking back at season one episodes as I did for this, I had sort of forgotten that Sharon had aspirations as a writer, and that sort of comes up. Both Rob and Sharon kind of struggle with their professions and if they're doing the right thing and if they like their jobs. And Sharon at one point is looking at some of her old writing, and Rob ends up reading something that she had written and says she was - you know, it was funny.

HORGAN: It was funny.

BALDONADO: She's a good writer.

HORGAN: Yeah.

BALDONADO: Was that something that you went through - you know, doing one job when what you really wanted to do was be a writer or be a performer?

HORGAN: Oh, my gosh, yeah. I mean for years - I worked in an office for six and a half years I mean trying a little bit, you know, to get things moving in a more sort of focused direction but failing, you know, because a whole bunch of reasons. But I guess confidence is one of them or not feeling like you're good enough. Or, you know, if the - the more you put it off, the less chance there is that you're going to fail (laughter). So eventually you never really get round to doing it.

And I don't know. I quite like the idea of showing someone who wasn't able to make it in the career that they originally sort of hoped for themselves but not letting that define them. And I think in some ways she's a stronger, better character than me. And so I'm not sure if I would have been as capable of, you know, just picking myself up and retraining and - you know, as a teacher as she did. And I just quite like seeing a better version of myself deal with something like that onscreen.

BALDONADO: Now, something that happens in "Catastrophe" and your other show - your HBO show, "Divorce," that - now, obviously in "Divorce" they are deciding to end the marriage, but it's, like, this thought process about when you stay and when you don't. And you talk about how sometimes what keeps a marriage together is you want a divorce at different times.

HORGAN: Yeah. I mean it was a quote that we'd said...

BALDONADO: Oh.

HORGAN: ...That I'd read years ago from - I think it was Gwyneth Paltrow, believe it or not.

BALDONADO: Oh, right.

HORGAN: She was saying that that's why - that's how her - I think it was her dad - how he explained why they'd stayed together, and it was because neither of them had ever wanted to get divorced at the same time. And you know, Rob Delaney used to talk about it quite a lot in his stand up - how, you know, more people would get divorced if it was easier. I mean I know a lot of people do get divorced - I mean less so in Ireland or even the U.K. I think.

But the further we got into "Catastrophe" - and I don't know whether this is because I wanted it to feel so completely different from "Divorce." We thought what we want is for these characters to decide that without each other, they don't work. You know, so we - to give the show those parameters - you know, that whatever happens now, these people are going to stay together because they're not really whole anymore without the other one.

BALDONADO: I want to play another scene, this one from season three, the most recent season. And Sharon - the characters Sharon and Rob are having some problems. And while they were separated, Sharon has a sort of tryst - we'll call it that - with a younger man and lies about it to Rob, and the truth does come out. And Rob is trying to figure out what to do about it. It sort of speaks to what we're talking about - about, you know, when you forgive or, you know, when there are problems in a marriage, should they stay together; should they break up? So let's just hear a little bit of that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATASTROPHE")

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) What now?

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) I don't know. I guess over time I'll have to learn to forgive you.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Right, over how much time?

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) I don't know. I want to guess it'll take two or three months, a season?

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) A season.

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) What are you doing?

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) I'm just trying to work out if we'll be OK by my birthday.

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) No. I'm thinking we might be OK by Thanksgiving.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) When's that? Look; sorry. I'll look it up. Do you want me to sleep on the sofa, or we could sleep in the same bed but just, you know, head to toe.

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) No, I don't want you to lacerate my face with your White Walker toenails.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris, laughter) Do you still love me?

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) Actually, yeah, maybe you should sleep on the couch.

BALDONADO: That's a scene from the show "Catastrophe." My guest is the star of the show and co-creator Sharon Horgan. You and your writing partner, Rob Delaney, who's the co-creator and also the costar - you didn't know each other before working on this, or you sort of met soon before working on this. You met through Twitter. How did you guys meet through Twitter? It's shocking that Twitter could bring some good...

HORGAN: (Laughter).

BALDONADO: ...Instead of evil.

HORGAN: Yeah, good stuff can happen over Twitter...

BALDONADO: Yeah.

HORGAN: ...Believe it or not. Yeah, I had done a show in the U.K. called "Pulling," and it was a small show, and it had a small audience. But it was, you know, fairly well-loved. And he had somehow managed to see it all the way over in LA. And so I was following him simply because he was very funny, and he had a good profile picture of himself by the beach wearing a pair of green Speedos.

And so I - he got in touch with me just to say he'd seen my show, and he loved it. And then we just would check in with each other occasionally. And you know, if I went to LA for work or whatever, we'd hook up. And if he was in London doing gigs, we'd hook up. But yeah, we didn't know each other that well. I mean we'd met a few times and corresponded a fair amount, but you never know how that will work when you're sitting side-by-side each other at a keyboard, trying to write something funny. It was still, you know - we really only got to know each other properly through doing that.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Sharon Horgan, the co-creator and star of the Amazon comedy series "Catastrophe." We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS SONG, "NAMASTE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Sharon Horgan, the co-creator and star of the Amazon comedy series "Catastrophe." The third season is now available.

BALDONADO: Now, you were born in London. Then when you were around seven, you moved to Ireland and lived on a turkey farm. What was that like moving from, you know, the extreme city to the extreme country, if that was jarring?

HORGAN: Well, I was a bit younger actually when I moved to Ireland.

BALDONADO: Oh, OK.

HORGAN: I must get that changed on the Wiki thing.

BALDONADO: Yeah, sorry.

HORGAN: It's - I was 4. But my parents were publicans. You know, they ran a bar in the East End of London. And at that point, they had two very young daughters. And you know, it was quite a heavy area of London. It was East End. It was sort of, you know, bit sort of gangstery (ph). And I think they realized that maybe it wasn't the greatest environment for their little girls. And you know, my mum's Irish, and so she wanted to go back and be near her family. So I do remember it. You know, I do vaguely remember that big city feeling and moving to a small village in the Irish countryside.

And you know, turkey farming - I mean I'm sure my dad rues the day he (laughter) chose it as a profession. But it's kind of - in a weird way kind of informed a lot of my personality, you know? And I don't know. It's creatively kind of given me a few things as well. I made a short film about it, growing up on a turkey farm because obviously Christmas is the main time of the year where you make your money. And it was just this very, very hardcore, full-on environment as a young kid, you know, watching sort of everyone run around, going crazy trying to make as much money as they could during that very short period.

BALDONADO: Oh, it occurred to me you talking about Christmas and a turkey farm. Was it hard being a kid and I guess having to say goodbye to all the turkeys...

(LAUGHTER)

BALDONADO: ...As they got to, you know, their destination?

HORGAN: I had no love for the turkeys. I'd eaten enough of them at point to (laughter) have zero feelings. No, it was just an unusual kind of atmosphere, which I think is a good thing. You know, I think creatively and for a bunch reasons I like having that story. You know, I like the fact that every year we'd kind of get taken out of school to pluck turkeys because it was a sort of all-hands-on-deck kind of scenario. And I don't know. There was kind of a raucousness and a kind of madness to that time that seems to have sort of benefited me in some ways.

BALDONADO: You cast Carrie Fisher as Rob's mother in the show "Catastrophe." And you wrote a lovely remembrance about Carrie Fisher for The Guardian. And you talked about how real she was and nonsaccharine. And it sort of felt like she's kind of emblematic I think of what the series "Catastrophe"...

HORGAN: Yeah.

BALDONADO: ...Sort of is about. And I would encourage people to look up what you wrote about Carrie Fisher for The Guardian. How did writing that piece come about?

HORGAN: Well, I had the opportunity to get to know her a lot better in season three. I don't know. Whatever happened, something just sort of clicked, and we sort of, you know, really fell for each other (laughter). And we hung out a bit. And the night before she left to get her flight back to LA, we had dinner. And the piece came about because when I found out that she passed away, the shock of it - I just - I had about 50 people in my house. I was having a party in my house, and that's when I found out. And I just couldn't be around anyone. So I went upstairs, and I thought, if I don't write these things down now, they might - I might forget them.

And so yeah, I just wanted to write a kind of love letter to her while it was all very fresh in my brain. And that's why it's kind of an emotional piece, you know, because it was - most of it was written that night. And we felt so ridiculously privileged to have her in our show, and we felt that all the way through, all the seasons. But on top of that, we did have this opportunity to get to know her a lot more. So I felt - you know, I felt real loss. I felt, like, really pissed off about it (laughter). But yeah, I'm just so glad that everything aligned so that we really could, you know, show people what a great kind of all-around actor she was comedically and dramatically.

BALDONADO: Sharon Horgan, thank you so much.

HORGAN: You are so welcome.

GROSS: Sharon Horgan spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Horgan co-created and stars in the Amazon comedy series "Catastrophe." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be the author of "How To Be A Muslim," Haroon Moghul. His memoir is about being the son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants, trying to find his own religious path while dealing with bipolar disorder that nearly led him to suicide. He helped build the NYU Islamic Center and is now a fellow in Jewish-Muslim relations at the Shalom Hartman Institute. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SANDS' "ARMANDO'S SONG")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. My thanks to Dave Davies for hosting while I was on vacation last week. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SANDS' "ARMANDO'S SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.