The Likable Unlikability of Sharon Horgan’s Pulling

Photo: BBC Three

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series “Underrated,” we chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choice that they think deserves more praise.

Before Bad Sisters and Catastrophe, Sharon Horgan wowed the British comedy world with Pulling. Co-written with Dennis Kelly, Pulling premiered on BBC Three in 2006 and fictionalized Horgan’s life right before going to grad school, a time she described to Bustle in 2022 as “this idea that you can be in the most exciting city in the world but two miles away from where it’s all happening.” The series opens on Horgan as Donna, who breaks up with her fiancé Karl at their wedding-rehearsal luncheon. She moves in with her two single friends, and the three leave a path of wreckage as they fuck up their lives across London.

Despite being nominated for a BAFTA in 2007, Pulling was unceremoniously canceled in 2008 before a third season could be made. And the show doesn’t have the same name recognition as other, more dude-heavy Britcoms like Peep Show or The Office. Pulling innovated in the unsympathetic-comedy-protagonist sphere by asking, “What if a woman were annoying?” It’s something that comedian Jena Friedman loves about the show: the likably unlikable women at its center.

Friedman’s comedy has always been sharp and centered on women’s experiences under patriarchy. This year, she came out with a double whammy: a special on Peacock and a book of essays titled Not Funny. The book uncovers the roots of Friedman’s comedy outlook and lays out all the ways the world conspires against women. The comedian discussed Pulling’s inspired direction, the lack of HR in the comedy world, and why women should put off marriage and children for as long as humanly possible.

What made you want to talk about Pulling?
I saw it when I was a couple years into doing comedy, and I just thought, This is it. This is all I aspire to do. I rewatched the pilot last night because I hadn’t seen it in so long. Sharon Horgan’s character, all the women, are playing these really funny multidimensional characters. They’re unlikable, but they’re likable in their unlikability, which was something you didn’t really see in 2009.

I’ve followed Sharon Horgan’s career ever since. Catastrophe is great. Bad Sisters is incredible. But watching Pulling for me, as a young comic, just starting to get my feet wet in narrative comedy, was everything to me. It’s so feminist, so funny, and so radical. I remember at the time being single and dating, unsure of what I wanted or what life had in store for me. Seeing a woman completely reject being married, the day before her wedding, in the funniest way, was really refreshing and cathartic to watch.

Circling back to the Pulling pilot, I realized last night that, technically, this show starts exactly the same as Friends, with a girl running away from her wedding.
That’s funny. I didn’t even remember the Friends pilot. There’s also the scene where she meets her two friends, which is very Sex and the City.

I love the direction of the pilot. There are all these tiny little things hidden in the directing that are so good. There’s this one scene where they’re playing bingo, and she watches her friend who’s married. And there’s an elderly woman playing bingo next to her, and they both make the same move. She sees, like, the Ghost of Christmas Future: Get married and live this life. Tristram Shapeero was the director of the pilot.

It’s very visually cruel.
The fiancé, him puking and crying? So good. That makes me cackle. I don’t laugh a ton at scripted content anymore, because I work in the scripted space so much, so laughing at Sharon’s show was a good feeling.

Let’s talk more about the fiancé, Karl. This show is celebrated, and rightly should be, for having incredibly well-written female characters. But the depth of Karl and his patheticness was a surprise for me. And Cavan Clerkin’s performance is so physical.
You see his ass in the pilot. When she has to kiss him, you feel her revulsion. It’s so palpable. I love how pathetic he is on his knees begging her to come back to him. Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship that’s gone past its due date can see it captures that feeling so well. Even now, as I’m talking about it, my body is having a visceral reaction. His commitment to that character — he really embodies this sad-sack dude, who’s just in love and getting dumped, so beautifully. You feel for him, but you also feel for her. It’s just so well done.

The pilot so clearly sets up a divide between married people and single women. What do you think about how the show characterizes relationships?
I love it. As someone who just had a kid and is happily married, watching it now versus watching it then, it still holds up. There’s a lot of pressure on heterosexual single women to be married and have kids and all this kind of stuff, and the show tackled that in such a beautiful way. Without making it too personal, I got married at 40, and I feel like I’m a child bride. I feel like a kid. Maybe watching this show subconsciously helped me push back that decision as long as I could.

The show paints a very realistic — and I’m not talking about my marriage — portrait. Like when Donna’s asking her friend, “How are you?” and the friend’s like, “My kids are okay, my husband’s okay, everything’s great!” Then cut to later in the night, when they’re all drunk, and the friend is hysterically crying. As a new mom now, we’re just so set up to fail in so many ways. So seeing even the subtle nods to how hard that life can be, and how not desirable that life is, was really fun to watch.

Has your take on the show changed over the years?
The character’s 29 going on 30. At that age, I felt exactly that way. At 40, I feel a little differently. Show aside, my advice to any heterosexual single women in New York is to keep your youth as long as you can. Don’t seriously date anyone until you’re 35. Don’t have kids until you’re 40.

The show is about the life Horgan had before going to grad school at 27 and meeting the guy she co-wrote the show with. It’s very heartening for the people developing on their own schedule.
But for it to be her first thing, it is so specific and perfect. That’s almost daunting, you know what I mean? That person who made that is destined for success, because it just came out of the gate so fully formed. And the way she plays that character is just so funny.

Were you aware the show was canceled in a way that was very uncharacteristic for the BBC?
I think I watched it after the show was canceled. I was not aware of how it was canceled.

From what I was reading, they wanted to do a third series, and the guy at the BBC was like, “We want a younger audience.”
Insane. Where is that guy now? Is he the head of everything?

[Laughs.] Oh, it’s actually Prince Charles, so he’s king.
Prince Andrew. He wanted them younger.

That actually leads into a question that I had for you: Have you found anything that is too upsetting to joke through? Or is it still the main way to process negative information for you?
My mom died a couple months ago when I was pregnant, and I’ve been trying to joke about it. It’s not going well, it’s so hard to talk about. I’m trying to find the things to say to make other people in some more situations feel less alone. The comedy now, if there’s any at all, is from how unfunny it is. Right after it happened, my husband, who’s very encouraging, was like, “You got to get back onstage and talk about this.” I did this show at Little Joy in L.A., and I got onstage and was like, “Your mom’s gonna die, and your mom’s gonna die. You should be lucky if your mom dies before you!” And nobody laughed. It felt less like a stand-up set and more like a sad scene in an indie movie where someone clearly hasn’t come to terms with her mom’s death.

I have an idea for a show kicking around my head of this period in my life of becoming a mom while losing a mom. I think that type of comedy might lend itself better to a scripted TV show than a stand-up set, especially if it still physically impacts me to talk about it. People see that; they can see my face and my voice kind of quiver. It’s masochistic to talk about, but it’s currently how I’m processing it.

That’s really interesting, thinking about which ideas are correct for which formats. Do you need the distance of filming for an idea like that to work?
I think people don’t want to think about death. It’s the one thing we all have in common, and the one thing that will happen to all of us and to the people we love, yet it’s so hard to talk about. A lot of comics have had, like, hour shows about death, and they’re brilliant, and they’re beautiful. I don’t know if I personally can find whatever that is. But I think in a scripted format, where you’re able to keep people’s attention for a half an hour and you don’t have to be funny every second, you can balance the light in the dark a little bit better and show things that you just can’t do with stand-up.

A lot of the discussion around Pulling is about how “unlikable” the three women at the center are. Do you worry about your own likability at all?
Not at all. I never have. It’s why nobody knows who I am.

Was that a conscious decision, or is it more like you just can’t make space for that in your brain?
I don’t think I can make space for it in my brain. I also know that you can’t control what people think about you. Even if you want to be likable, people are going to think what they’re going to think based on things you can’t control. All you can control is what you put out there and how you act towards others.

I want to plug a friend’s show. Sara Schaefer has this new show called Going Up, and it’s so good. It’s about the journey of a young stand-up comic. She talks about this in her show, and I actually talk about it in my book: I don’t want to name names, but there’s a comedy booker who booked a very reputable festival, and if you were a woman and you went onstage with high heels, he would not book you. Even if you killed, even if you’re funny, it was an unspoken rule that you just were persona non grata. You weren’t in the running to get this really big festival that launched a bunch of careers. When you do realize that there are things that have nothing to do with you, that contribute to how other people see you or your “likability,” there’s no reason to worry about it. Even if you put forth the effort to try to be likable, it might not work anyway.

I probably hit this over the head a little too much in the book, but we are in an unregulated work environment with no HR and no barriers to entry, and no one making concerted efforts to get abusers out of our ranks. These are the kind of things that make it even harder to thrive as someone who is more on the margins.

Do you have any advice for people who are navigating a world that’s full of predators that have no intention of leaving?
I do think there’s power in numbers. Find your community of people who support you. It’s weird, because I love what I do, but I would not recommend going into comedy to anyone.

The gatekeepers are going away, because for better for worse, you have TikTok, social media, YouTube, podcasts, and other channels for people to kind of rise through the ranks. I think it’s easier now for people to avoid abusers than it ever has been, and there are whisper networks of people that warn who the abusers are, and that helped me out a lot. But it’s hard, and they’re everywhere. They’re not just in comedy. They’re in every industry. People are just interested in comedy, so we hear about it more.

Speaking of the changing avenues for getting comedy out, late night is changing a lot right now, with The Late Late Show ending, The Daily Show in its guest-host era, and all the newer and more diverse shows canceled. What do you think the future is for that format?
I think a lot of young people are watching TikTok more than they’re watching television. With the writers’ strike, the whole industry is kind of up in arms. I love the late-night format. I love being able to tune in and watch somebody who I actually trust deliver the news. Maybe MSNBC will have a comedian host a show. That’s kind of where I feel like late night is heading: It’s heading to news. If news is becoming entertainment, they might as well lean in and hire us to go on. I’m really just asking for a comedic show on MSNBC.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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The Likable Unlikability of Sharon Horgan’s Pulling