chat room

Sharon Horgan on Season 2 of Catastrophe, the Mechanics of Writing a Sex Joke, and the One Time They Say ‘I Love You’

Photo: Steve Mack/FilmMagic

Light spoilers ahead for season two of Catastrophe.

Can you say that one more time?” Sharon Horgan asks me on the phone. “My kid just walked into the room just as you were talking and I stopped listening. Sorry.” Horgan is calling me from her home in London where she returned after wrapping production on her HBO show Divorce starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Soon, though, she’ll be jumping back on the plane to come stateside to promote the second season of Catastrophe, her sweet and spiky comedy with Rob Delaney, which is available today for American viewers to stream on Amazon (U.K. viewers got to see it first on Channel 4 late last year.)

The second season of Catastrophe starts most significantly with a time jump where their fictional counterparts, Sharon Morris and Rob Norris, have not one child, but two. Vulture spoke with Horgan about what happened during the time jump, the mechanics of writing a sex joke, and her comedic philosophy.

Why did you decide to do the time jump?
Initially our whole pitch for the first series was the first episode, really, of the second series. They were going to meet, but it was going to be very, very condensed. She was going to get pregnant and then we were going to leap forward in time, and they’ve got two kids and they’re in the middle of it all, because Rob and I were interested in exploring a real marriage with all the difficulties: Having kids, trying to stay in love, trying to find reasons not to part, deciding eventually that it’s easier just to stay together, that kind of thing. And when we pitched that, Channel 4, who are our broadcaster outside of Amazon, were just really keen on the getting together, the romance of it. And we found, when we were writing the first series, that there was a lot to talk about when you’re fast-forwarding your life like that — “speed-lifeing,” we called it.

And then really what we weren’t interested in doing was the whole parents-with-a-new-baby thing. We felt like that had been done: jiggling a baby up and down, sleepless nights and all that. We were much more interested in what happens two years in or three years in. And so we got to sort of do both, really. Because we got to do our first series as we wanted, and then we got to fuck with people’s heads a bit by her still being pregnant, but then having the reveal that they’d been together a while and it’s the second pregnancy.

Babies often ruin TV shows.
Well, they can. But you might have noticed, although the baby’s there, it’s never really about the baby. The baby’s there, and there’s issue that surround that, like feeling lonely as a new mother, a lack of sex, postnatal depression, but what we were much more interested in is concentrating on their relationship and them navigating the kids rather than the kids being the reason for story.

There are some references to what happened in the time period between the first and second season. Did you and Rob flesh out that gap period during the writing process?
We did spend quite a bit of time on it, actually. We had a whole, much darker story. We left at the end of season one and her water’s broken and it’s way too early and we did consider the idea that it hadn’t worked out … So we talked about it at length and even wrote some stuff, and actually then when it came to the series, it was very lucky that we’d done that work, because then we were able to talk about it with real facts, albeit made-up fictional character facts, but we felt like we had the interim period very much in our pockets.

The themes of the second season seem much darker. Were you worried that the tone would be difficult to maintain?
Not really, because I felt like we had a baptism of fire with the first series. We got away with it by the skin of our teeth. We didn’t know if people were going to have a bad reaction to a comedy show that has someone with a cancer scare. We didn’t know whether we’d get away with the worry that they might have a disabled child. We didn’t know if we’d get away with any of that stuff. We not only got away with it, but people really responded to it. Comedy is an underrated medium for dealing with difficult issues because you can be very honest and you can talk about it like you do in real life. Gallows humor — you make a joke about it and then it’s okay. We could put people through the grinder and let them know that shit happens, but it can work out.

So with series two, it’s not like we went out of our way like, “What are the difficult topics?” But we thought, we have a platform, and the audience seems to want it, so we should use it. All of the things we discussed in series two were things that were really important to us and felt that we had something to say about. The only thing that was a worry for us in series two was the lack of romance. There’s still romance in there, it’s just more heavily camouflaged. In series one, people really responded to it and we weren’t expecting them to respond to it as a romantic comedy. We never saw it as that, and so when they did, we were like, Oh shit, we better get more romance in there. And so we were a bit worried because what we wanted to show was a weary couple — a couple who were finding it hard to cope or to keep that lightness in their relationship.

I particularly enjoyed the reconciliation when they’re having sex in the park and he’s watching the man watch him, and then they both say “I love you.”
That’s the only “I love you” in both series. We were very cautious to bandy it about, certainly in series one. And then in series two we just thought, the first time we hear it is in the most obscene manner. Some stranger watching them do it behind a shed seems fitting.

I think that’s why the show keeps its edge and doesn’t ever feel saccharine.
Yeah, because it’s easy to get drawn [down] that route. It’s like, Stay away from the saccharine light. You have to stop yourself, because you kind of ridiculously fall in love with your characters when you write them. You can’t help yourself and you really have to tie your hands back. Oh no, don’t do that. Just to keep it real.

How would you describe your comedic philosophy? Is it very personal?
Oh yes, very. Not always firsthand, but generally first, second, or third-hand. My approach is always using myself. I use and abuse myself and everything that’s happened to me in my comedy. Anytime I’ve strayed from that too much, it’s never felt right. It’s definitely about being as truthful as possible. I like to put my characters through the ringer. I like to really beat the living hell out of them and see what happens to them when they come out the other side. I’m finding the longer I do this, the more I realize that for me, I love big, broad comedy. It makes me laugh and I would really hate to think that I’d ever put out something that called itself a comedy that wasn’t funny. But there has to be pain there as well or I’m just not that interested.

Yes, there is certainly the rise of the sad-com now, where many comedies have gotten very sad and dark.
Yeah, I know. I love that as well. I have to say though I am a whore for jokes. There’s a lot of comedy out there that has sadness and pain but I really, really try hard to make sure there’s plenty of silly. People are like that. People are silly and stupid. They say stupid things at the wrong times.

Rob and Sharon feel like they can talk their way out of anything. Do you feel like that’s what their chemistry is rooted in?
Yeah, I think the chemistry was an instant kind of easiness. Both of us feel like the people that you feel most comfortable with are the people who can make you laugh, you know? It’s not about trying to be someone else. Quite often, you find yourself in those relationships where you have to perform. You’re trying to be intellectual, witty, political, smart, beautiful, or whatever. But the people that you end up having the best relationships with — friendship or a sexual relationship — are the people you feel most comfortable with.

With them, they just had an instant kind of rapport. They’re both smart-asses. She’s probably a bigger smart-ass, but he makes her laugh. They both like to talk. And the thing is, Delaney and I like to talk. And most of the writing process is sitting in a tiny little room with no windows, just yakking away. When you’re writing on your own it feels quite linear, but when you’re writing with someone else it’s very much a conversation. And so that conversation finds its way into our characters. So we find ourselves writing a scene we don’t even really see the point of. Then we’re like, It doesn’t matter. They’re just Rob and Sharon talking, because that’s what you do in a relationship. You sit down and you talk about what size your son’s penis will be. And that didn’t really have a point. It didn’t move the story forward or anything like that, but it was important for us that the characters enjoyed talking to each other and can make each other laugh.

I love the way the show deals with sexuality, because it feels like someone’s sexual desires are not the punch line, but rather it’s the actions involved with procuring it that’s funny. Here’s a small instance: In the first episode of the new season, when Rob asks you to put your finger in his asshole as he’s banging you from behind …
[Laughter] I feel quite shy that I have a stranger quoting these things back to me, but go on.

I’m sorry!
You make me sound like such a dirty bird, but go on.

It’s funny not because he asks you to do it, but because it’s physically impossible for you to do it. And so you’re just like, “I can’t!”
Well you know, sex is awkward, isn’t it? And messy. And no one has sex like they do in the movies. Generally it’s not a beautiful-looking thing. It’s two people rushing and there’s a goal, and sometimes there’s a shared goal and sometimes there’s a selfish goal. That scene in particular was led by the story, which is, a kid walks in, and you realize it’s not the same pregnancy as the first season. There’s another kid. Blah. There was a point to it. We wanted the kid to see us having really not pretty sex.

The original joke was, it’s two people having sex — one of them is probably just trying to get it over with, the other one is more into it. Sorry, I need to check if my kids are around. He says, “Put your finger in my asshole,” and she just says, “No,” but she’s still into it. And they just carry on. Basically that’s the part and parcel of having a long-term sex relationship. You’re not always into it, but you still do it. Then, we thought it was funny because of this massive physical block. Simply, she can’t do it. So she gives it a go and she can’t do it. But the original joke was a different one. It was like, “Uh-uh, I’m not doing that.” We just thought, Oh, there’s probably a bigger joke here.

It’s the better joke, I think.
Yeah it is a better joke. In the first series it was much more passionate, because when you get it together with someone first it’s all about sex. It’s all you want to do. And beyond that, it becomes more of a functional needs thing.

Six-episode seasons are rather short for American viewers. Would you want more episodes to uncork the story line?
The problem is that it’s just Rob and I writing. Longer seasons have groups of writers and that’s how you manage to make ten episodes in five or six months. You can’t really do that when you approach it the way we do. It’s just the two of us. It takes months and months and months to even write it, let alone do everything else that goes with that. Pre-production and filming and post. It’s all us. For us at the moment, it’s a cozy number. It’s just enough to get a good series arc, but it’s also just about the amount of time constraints.

What’s your working relationship with Rob like?
There’s a lot of talking about shit that’s gone down with family or relationships and shit that’s happened in our lives, so a lot of it is conversation. When it comes to writing, Rob does have a naturally sweeter take on things than me. I think he might be drawn to a sweeter look at relationships and I have a kind of harsher heart. In that way it really is just a cocktail. We put him and me in there and shake it up and it comes out like nothing he could write on his own or nothing I could write on my own. There’s a good blend there.

Have you thought about how you would start season three? [Note: There are spoilers in this paragraph for the end of season two.]
I don’t know, really. It depends when we eventually get around to writing it. Season three would begin with that very syllable — the second part, hearing him say that word. He goes to open his mouth to say something. We like the idea that we literally pick up where we left off with season three. But you know we’re both really scared of repeating ourselves. We’re both scared of formula and people working out what our trick is. You know, when you have a favorite show, and you watch season one and two, and then season three you’re like Oh, I get it. I get the joke. I saw that coming. I think we’re both deeply terrified of that happening so whatever we can do to avoid. If that means getting them to Boston, if that means a whole new ream of characters. It’s wanting to keep things fresh for ourselves, but it’s also being respectful of our audience and wanting to keep things interesting.

What can we look forward to with Divorce?
You can look forward to a whole heap of pain and laughs. It’s a story of a long-term acrimonious divorce starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church. It’s really the breakdown of a marriage and two people trying to cope and rebuild themselves. Tonally, it’s not dissimilar from Catastrophe because it’s got heaps of drama, but we’re very conscious that it’s a comedy. We never wanted it to slip into taking itself too seriously. It feels like a good mix of both.

Sharon Horgan on Catastrophe Season 2