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The Hilarious, Wholesome, Filthy World of Rob Delaney

After a bout with alcoholism, years of struggle as a stand-up and an unimaginable family tragedy, the 'Catastrophe' star and co-creator has forged his own unique brand of irreverent, shamelessly scatological humor, and now he's earned a lead role in the upcoming 'Home Alone' reboot.

At the same time Rob Delaney was shooting Home Sweet Home Alone in Montreal in early 2020, he also was working on what he calls the “Eagle of Sexual Freedom,” a sticker chart to help him count the number of times he had ejaculated following a recent vasectomy operation.

Designed to alert him when he hit the magic number of 20 (at which point he was to have his semen tested to check that the surgery had worked), this Eagle of Sexual Freedom was, Delaney claims, actually his wife’s idea.

“Not that it needed to be eagle, but she said I should make a sticker chart,” he explains. “And I just thought, ‘What if it were an eagle?’ ”

For anyone with even a passing familiarity of Delaney’s social media presence or stand-up routines over the past decade, this anecdote is particularly on brand.

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His own reproductive organs, bodily fluids and excretions have had a fairly healthy presence across his uniquely irreverent strain of comedy. But then, so have serious political issues — especially surrounding women’s rights and health care — alongside a delightfully unabashed devotion to family and fatherhood.

This contrasting yet charming melange of subject matter — which regularly overlap (he penned a highly detailed article for The Guardian about his vasectomy to encourage more dads to get the “most fucking modest of procedures” so women needn’t continue taking hormones) — has earned him a vast army of admirers. It’s also one of many sizable juxtapositions in Delaney’s career, which is now on the cusp of reaching an entirely new level thanks to a host of big-screen roles in the pipeline (alongside Home Sweet Home Alone, upcoming titles include Matthew Vaughn’s Argylle, The Good House with Sigourney Weaver, Judd Apatow comedy The Bubble and YA fantasy The School for Good and Evil, both with Netflix, and Mission: Impossible 7).

Sure, on one hand Delaney may have recently shot a family-friendly Christmas caper reboot for Disney+ — his first major leading-man movie role — while adding colorful stickers to his R-rated sex eagle (“We built in special breaks on the call sheet,” jokes Home Sweet Home Alone director Dan Mazer). But then there’s the fact that he’s a Boston-born 44-year-old recovering alcoholic whose late-in-the-day Hollywood break came only after he moved from L.A. to London. Delaney’s also someone who, just as he finally cracked the entertainment world he’d been desperately plugging away at for so many years, suffered an unimaginable tragedy that almost made him want to turn away entirely.

Much of this began, in typically self-deprecating style, with a tiny green Speedo.

“When I first heard of Twitter, like anyone, I thought, ‘This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen, I will accordingly use the stupidest picture of myself that I have,’ ” he says, leaning over a Mediterranean breakfast — with extra spinach — in a London cafe shortly after completing the school run with his three children (all under age 11). “So it was just me in a tiny green Speedo.”

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Rob Delaney Photographed by Zoe McConnell

This was the photo — Delaney looking stoically into the middle distance on a beach while sporting the alarmingly tight swimwear, Tom Selleck-besting chest hair and a beard that would have most men weeping with envy (more on that later) — with which he chose to launch his Twitter account in February 2009. He was 32.

An NYU Tisch graduate with dreams of musical theater, Delaney had moved to L.A, later shifting toward comedy. But six months after arriving, things would fall apart as his years of steady drinking (which began during high school growing up Marblehead, Massachusetts, and carried on into college) caught up with him. At age 25 and blackout drunk after a friend’s keg party, he drove his car into a branch office of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, breaking his right arm and left wrist and tearing both knees to the bone.

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The profile picture Delaney chose to launch his Twitter account in 2009. COURTESY OF JOHN HANNEY

Delaney has spoken and written with remarkable frankness about the time he spent in jail, followed by rehab and a halfway house, dealing with depression and his sobriety (now approaching the two-decade mark). It made up a major chunk of his 2013 memoir, Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage (which, in keeping with his bladder-based shtick, describes the near quarter-century he spent wetting the bed, first as a child, then as an alcoholic).

“I think the removal of shame is a good thing,” he says of this brutal honesty when it comes to his personal struggles, acknowledging that there are two sides to being in the public eye. “Loss of privacy is really weird and awful, but then you do have an opportunity to share experiences that could help other people.”

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Delaney’s “Eagle of Sexual Freedom”
chart, which he employed, purely for medical reasons, following his vasectomy.

But in the immediate years after the crash, he didn’t have the level of fame for that to be an option.

“At the time I started on Twitter, I was worth less than zero dollars,” he says. “I was doing stand-up every night and trying to get hired as a writer for late night shows, you know, like [Jimmy] Kimmel, Chelsea Handler, [Stephen] Colbert, all those folks. And my wife was teaching public middle school in California as our breadwinner.”

Having amassed “stacks and stacks of jokes … Jay Leno-style two-liners,” none of which was getting him any further than a meeting, he decided he might as well just give them away for free using the stupid new medium of Twitter. Such benevolence was immediately well received — Delaney was rather good at making 140-or-fewer character quips, and the public rather enjoyed not paying for them. By 2012, he was being labeled the “funniest person on Twitter” by Comedy Central (even beating Colbert). “Twitter sort of came along at the right time for me,” he notes.

With this flourishing online audience came larger crowds at physical shows and an influx of more prestigious bookings. One of them was London’s Soho Theatre for six nights in summer 2012 — by which point he had nearly a half-million Twitter followers (it’s now more than 1.5 million) — becoming the fastest-selling act in the venue’s history. TV execs were starting to take notice of this peculiar online funnyman with a penchant for making jokes about masturbation and heckling Republican politicians (including then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney), and while in the U.K., he was invited by his manager to write a pilot for the BBC.

By this stage, Irish writer and actress Sharon Horgan was already a friend. Delaney admits he had been “absolutely crazy” about her breakout 2006-09 Brit comedy series Pulling and, noticing she was following him, sashayed into her DMs. They met later in L.A.

“We figured that we were, comedically, cut from the same cloth,” says Delaney. Suggests Horgan, more succinctly: “We’re both filthy. But he’s got this sort of innocence, this weird innocent scatological obsession,” adding that one of the times she’s laughed the hardest was on reading a fan’s list of every tweet he’d posted about diarrhea (a quick search reveals 60-plus mentions).

Presented with this exciting new opportunity to write his own show, Delaney’s first thought was to ask Horgan, someone “who’s made more TV — i.e., any TV — than I have,” if she was interested in teaming up.

The pilot they concocted was, of course, Catastrophe, the delightfully sweet, rude, raw and unsentimental relationship comedy about an American ad man (Delaney) who moves to London after a work-trip fling with an Irish teacher (Horgan) results in her getting pregnant. It sparkled with classic Delaney-isms from the start (within the very first minute, his character describes how he once “shit his pants” and has “hairy balls”). The BBC passed, but fellow Brit network Channel 4 stepped in, picking it up for series, soon to be followed by Amazon Prime, then only beginning to stretch its legs.

“And the rest is an incredibly important event in global history,” declares Delaney.

Rob Delaney photographed by Zoe McConnell.

Sarcasm aside, for Delaney it genuinely was seismic. In 2014, he relocated to the U.K. with his wife, pregnant with their third child, and their two boys (then ages 3 and 1), fully expecting to head back to L.A. after Catastrophe‘s six-month shoot and its subsequent cancellation (his wife had only taken a “leave of absence from her teaching job,” he says). But that never happened. People loved the show.

“A second season was ordered before the first one came out, which was … shocking,” he says. “We didn’t plan on living in London, but Catastrophe is why we moved here.”

Catastrophe isn’t, however, why they originally ended up staying.

In 2016, not long after season two had aired with the Delaneys eyeing a return home, their youngest child, Henry — born in London — was found to have a brain tumor. He had just turned 1. There was complex surgery to remove the tumor, and Henry would spend 15 months in the hospital. But the cancer returned, and in January 2018, not yet 3, he tragically died.

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Delaney with onscreen wife Sharon Horgan in Amazon’s Catastrophe. ED MILLER/AMAZON

Delaney somehow kept going during this period of colossal pain, writing and filming season three of Catastrophe while Henry was in the hospital, and working on season four after his death.

“I wasn’t going to do the fourth, because I didn’t really care about anything that wasn’t my family,” he admits. “I started writing it thinking, ‘I don’t even care if it’s funny or good.’ I just needed my kids to see that I was going to work, to sort of project normalcy for them.”

In the end, Delaney said he “wound up enjoying” the writing process and claims that Catastrophe‘s fourth and final season is — “by a wide measure” — his favorite.

“I wouldn’t say it was cathartic, but I did find grief and work compatible,” he says, speaking as candidly as he did throughout the trauma (he’s written numerous gut-wrenching, deeply moving tributes to his “beautiful Henry” and the pain he still carries).

“Just because you might spend a portion of a day laughing doesn’t mean you can’t spend a portion of the day crying or hiding under your bed,” he says. “Those aren’t mutually exclusive, and I didn’t know that before I lost a child.”

Delaney also was spending this profoundly sad period of his life juggling grief with the expectations and celebrations of being a central part of a major hit show. The 2016 BAFTA TV Craft Awards, which saw him and Horgan win for best comedy writing, took place as Henry was undergoing treatment. The 2018 awards — where Catastrophe was nominated for comedy writing and scripted comedy — occurred just three months after Henry died (his wife was then pregnant with their “magical” fourth child, born in August 2018).

The stark contrast of Delaney’s experience compared to that of others going through the same ordeal was, he says, “incredibly educational.” He recalls being at the hospital one day with Henry and other sick children from less fortunate backgrounds and seeing the stress their families were under, and later suiting up for the BAFTAs to be “feted” for his work on TV (work, he notes, that had “already made a lot of money and been told it’s great.”)

“It affected me beyond just emotionally and mentally but also socially and politically,” he says.

Not that Delaney wasn’t already deeply political. A committed socialist and one of the high-profile members of the Democratic Socialists of America, he’s a two-time endorser of Bernie Sanders who has consistently used his platform to support issues such as gun control (though he admits there is plenty to complain about in the U.K., he acknowledges there are “no guns”), and movements such as Black Lives Matter and Antifa (which he tweeted was “cool and good”). The latest threat of IATSE strike action, he says, was “magnificent.” The solitary Twitter account he now follows after a substantial culling (“Every time I went on, it would just make me angry,” he says) is @Communism, an account that is, ironically, inactive. “I just put that there because I hoped it would make people laugh,” he admits.

But it’s the subject of universal health care that is closest to his heart, a personal affinity shaped first by the car crash (and the tens of thousands of dollars in bills he amassed after being dropped by his insurance) and then later, across the Atlantic, after seeing the benefits that a free, publicly funded system can have on lives.

A vocal champion of Medicare for All in the U.S., Delaney has an unwavering admiration for the U.K.’s National Health Service, describing it in a 2019 video as “the pinnacle of human achievement” and praising the “truly unbelievable” care Henry received. In perhaps more recognizably Delaney-ish terms, in his 2020 Amazon stand-up special Jackie, he said, “If the NHS had a dick, I would suck that dick.”

This support — especially as the NHS comes under constant threat of privatization — has won him no shortage of appreciation in his newly adopted home. And it’s a home where, after seven years living off temporary visas, he’s now planting a permanent flag. “If you want to know my feelings about the U.K., I should tell you that we’re currently in the process of getting indefinite leave to remain and trying to become citizens,” he says.

While Delaney claims there are a number of factors behind the decision to stay put, not least his children having settled in schools and made friends, he acknowledges that his arrival preceded a major boom in film and TV productions, especially in and around London, meaning that he can often return home at the end of each working day. It’s something he admits is a “very lucky coincidence.”

But despite this love-in with the U.K., it was the growing base of A-list fans back across the Atlantic that ignited the next phase in Delaney’s career: film star.

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“I want to make TV and movies more than I don’t want people to approach me on the street, so there’s a cost-benefit analysis,” says Delaney of being famous. “But what if I have to fart? Shouldn’t I be able to fart?” Photographed by Zoe McConnell

First in line, Ryan Reynolds, who just happened to have watched Catastrophe.

“He phoned up and said, ‘We have a crazy idea for Deadpool 2; let me tell you a little bit about it,’ ” he says. “So he told me, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I would love to come do that.’ “

This crazy idea was Peter, the mild-mannered, dad-bodied, cream-chino’d, diabetes-suffering everyman who applies (via an ad) to join Deadpool’s ragtag ensemble of crackpot superheroes. Peter — for whom Delaney says he was given “just a basic framework” and allowed to fully develop himself — also sported a somewhat epic mustache (though this was Reynolds’ decision).

It’s essential to bring up the subject of hair when discussing Delaney. Six-foot-4 and sturdily built, he has an immediately striking all-American handsomeness to him. “He’s got a big, matinee idol face,” says Horgan. But it’s the facial hair — which made its global debut in the original Twitter profile pic — that truly takes his hirsuteness to stratospheric levels (Mazer says his virility requires Delaney to “shave about eight times a day”).

Even during our interview, his stubble appears to grow a couple of millimeters over the course of breakfast.

Equipped with his mighty mustache, Deadpool 2′s Peter — little more than a ridiculous cameo — became the movie’s immediate fan favorite (Reynolds joined the chorus of those demanding a spinoff, suggesting the title Deadpool 3: Absolutely Peter). Delaney had broken out from indie TV to blockbuster franchise.

Another would quickly follow, again with Reynolds — the two appearing (albeit briefly) as CIA agents in Fast & Furious spinoff Hobbs & Shaw. 

But Reynolds wasn’t the only one to have been charmed by Catastrophe’s hairy star — Charlize Theron also gave him a call, inviting him to join Fox News drama Bombshell as Gil Reisfield, Megyn Kelly’s producer. Then would come Warners’ live-action/CGI hybrid feature Tom & Jerry, popping up as a frazzled hotel manager, followed by Guy Ritchie action-heist-revenge flick Wrath of Man alongside Jason Statham.

Delaney enjoyed flexing his more serious acting muscles but admits it wasn’t always straightforward, with Ritchie having to constantly remind him on-set that Wrath of Man was not a comedy, despite what he may have thought of the script.

“He’d be like, ‘It’s great what you’re doing, but you may not do that in this film because it will take it off the rails, and if other people start doing what you’re doing, then I’m fucked,'” Delaney says. “Of course, now I’ve seen the film, he was more than 100 percent correct.”

The feature work had been given a healthy squirt of lighter fluid in the wake of Deadpool 2, but Delaney’s small-screen CV continued to grow as well. Bigger bookings included Amazon’s upcoming adaptation of hit novel The Power, playing a newsreader with Alice Eve, while he’s spent much of 2021 shooting Showtime’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, which he says serves as a TV sequel to Nicolas Roeg’s cult David Bowie-starring sci-fi (he plays a comic human sidekick to Chiwetel Ejiofor’s visiting alien). Sharp-eared reality TV fans might also have recognized Delaney’s dulcet tones as the narrator on Netflix dating show Sexy Beasts. He’s also writing again, having penned a TV script with friend Bart Layton, the BAFTA-winning writer-director of American Animals, which he says is “funny, although I’m not sure you could call it a comedy.”

But back in the film world, next up on a growing list of incoming Hollywood calls was from Christopher McQuarrie, who Delaney says he’d already “hung out with” several times in London. After a “summoning” from the director, he was cast in Mission: Impossible 7, something he claims was particularly special.

“I don’t see every franchise when it comes out in the cinema, but I sure as hell see Mission: Impossible because they’re just so great,” he notes.

While he chooses to “plead the fifth” when asked about his role or any screen time with Tom Cruise, he does claim he shot “for a week” and they “certainly recorded me saying a lot of stuff.”

But before the world sees Delaney do his thing alongside Cruise — or not — he’ll have his first bona fide, name-on-the-poster, leading-man movie role in Home Sweet Home Alone. That job came about as a result of Deadpool 2 producer Emma Watts loving his work as Peter and wanting to give him something more substantial.

Starring alongside Ellie Kemper as husband-and-wife duo Jeff and Pam Fritzovski, the two would seem at first glance to be rather more photogenic versions of the bungling burglars played by Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern in the 1990 original (Delaney is seen, as he says, getting “incredibly brutalized” in the trailer). But the film centers far more on their backstory, pitching them almost as the protagonists. Delaney didn’t need to audition.

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Ellie Kemper and Delaney in the upcoming Home Sweet Home Alone from Disney+. COURTESY OF DISNEY+

“He’s that very rare sort of combination of being brilliantly funny, very real and also easy on the eye,” says Mazer. Kemper, meanwhile, says he’s a “naturally generous scene partner and person,” though she admits the “thousands and thousands of fart joke pitches” he made were “roundly rejected.”

Few people who know him are surprised about Delaney’s sharp rise to prominence. Horgan claims he’s “like a big clown in the shape of a Hollywood leading man.” But looks and talent aside, there’s evidently another key secret to the upward trajectory — he’s exceptionally nice.

“He genuinely is a very sweet and kind person,” says Horgan, noting that “he also really likes the easy life, and I think it’s much easier to be nice.” Adds Kemper, “He’s a prince,” and laments that there’s “never any good gossip about a genuinely nice person.” One industry insider that has worked with Delaney closely for several years says he “really is one of the good guys.”

For the man himself, his somewhat speedy ascendance is hugely welcome and appreciated, although he does admit that there’s a cost-benefit analysis to being more publicly recognizable. “What if I have to fart? Shouldn’t I be able to fart?”

But despite his growing in-demand status, Delaney isn’t about to start going truly wild with the influx of offers, not just yet. And, like so much of his life over the past few years, this path is largely a result of what happened with Henry.

“My success came a little later — nobody knew my name before I turned 39, and I think that’s great,” he says. “But now it’s about slow and steady and building a career that allows me to do what I have learned, very painfully, is the most important thing — which is to be a dad.”

But with no more children on the horizon (one would assume — Delaney says that, because of the pandemic, he never actually got tested after completing his Eagle of Sexual Freedom chart), what happens when school runs are a thing of the past?

“Oh yeah. Once my youngest goes to college, then I’ll go crazy,” he says. “My agent will call, and I’m like ‘yep,’ and they’ll be like, ‘We didn’t even exhale yet.’ The goal is to turn on the TV and be, like, ‘Oh, him again.’ So it’s quality now, quantity later.”

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.