Sharon Horgan Talks Capturing the Real Side of Love and Marriage in 'Catastrophe' (Q&A)
The England-born Irish writer and actress (who is also behind Sarah Jessica Parker's upcoming 'Divorce' on HBO) discusses creating Amazon's U.S./U.K. comedy, where "Sharon" is the quirky star's vessel to "vent my feelings" and win over audiences here and across the pond.
Season two of Amazon's hilariously ribald comedy Catastrophe leaps forward to more than a year after Sharon and Rob — played by co-creators Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney — had the child whose birth abruptly ended season one. She's pregnant again, indicating that the couple who met during a fling — Rob is an American businessman who sleeps with teacher Sharon during a trip to London — not only succeeded in making a go of things, but also have settled into the kind of marriage and family life that is all too real to the show's dedicated viewers. There are cringe-worthy sexual negotiations — Her: "You can do it between my thighs, but just come on your own stomach." Him: "You drive a hard bargain, but I agree to your terms." — commingled with more serious topics: a parent's dementia, Rob's sobriety, a closeted friend.
Like everything in the series, Horgan's housewife-in-headlights alter ego — an outcast at mommy-and-me class, she refers to the other women there as "mombies" — is the carefully constructed result of an atypical writing partnership between the series creators. Horgan — who also is behind the upcoming HBO comedy Divorce, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, and the star of yet another series, IFC's The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret — spoke with THR about the delicate imbalance of her writing life.
How would you describe your writing process with Rob Delaney? Do you sit in a room together? Send emails?
It's a mixture of everything because for the first season of Catastrophe, and for half of the second season, we lived on different continents. We'd get together when we could but otherwise it would be a mixture of Skype and emails. We have this fantastic arrangement simply because we're in two completely different time zones. I would work during the day and then he would get [my notes] as he was waking up. And then he would work during the day and in the morning I would have a whole lovely bunch of new stuff to get going with. It was not only economical, because you got double the amount that you could normally get done, but it was also just kind of fun, you know? What we would do then is get together with six rough episodes. That's when we'd sit side by side and start reading out loud and hearing if the words sounded like the characters. We can work out if a joke is working immediately, if it sounds true.
So a more traditional writers room probably wouldn't work. Can you even imagine having other people in the room with you both?
Well, it's funny you should say that, because due to time constraints and commitments, we have thought about [a writers room] for the next season and it's something we're very nervous about. We're meeting people just to see if there is any way for it to work, maybe just have someone in the room who is a bit of a sounding board. It's hard to write more than six episodes when it's just me and Rob because they really do take four or five months. Of course, if you had a bunch of great people doing it with you, it would be half that time. So, of course, we'd like to write more episodes because people ask us for more, and more episodes make more money and more people happy. If we could, we would. It's just that in this style — which I guess is more of a British style — it's trickier.
Horgan and Delaney say they bring a lot from their respective marriages and families to Catastrophe.
The characters Rob and Sharon are anything but perfect. How hard is it to be unapologetically real while still making them sympathetic to viewers?
We do discuss that, actually — and we have people around us who make us aware of that. But we lost our fear a little bit after we saw the pilot. Reading from the page, things that would have sounded unnecessarily harsh — it's really just these two people being very straightforward and not painting any rosy pictures about the future for themselves or about life in general — seemed mellow when they're on the screen. What we have to do is go through scripts with a fine-tooth comb and make sure there isn't anything too sentimental from him or too harsh from her; we don't want her to come across as a shrew or for him to come across as a pussy.
How have you adapted your writing process from a series like Catastrophe to your next project, HBO's Divorce?
With Divorce I had to adapt to a writers room because I had never done that before. I had to realize there was more than one opinion; you might think you're right, but there are five other people who are also right, just in a different way. So the adaptation there was learning to release control a little. When I first started writing, it was for network pilots in the U.S. They were very aware of who they had to make happy: There is a different set of rules, and you have to respond to notes — some that you wouldn't necessarily agree with. You have to be ready for the show to change shape, but also be prepared to work hard to keep it funny or keep it in your voice. That was all something I wasn't used to, because in the U.K., we were just given carte blanche to do what we wanted.
As a writer, how do you approach being creative in this age of peak TV?
Well, it makes you work harder and it makes you really stretch yourself because there is so much good TV out there. You can't just punk it out; you really have to find a way for your show to resonate with people, because if it doesn't, there are 10 other shows behind you that will. In terms of standing out, I'm not really one for trying to find a format that's never been done before. If it comes organically — whether a science-fiction idea or a show set on a horse farm — great, if you've got something to say. The real problem is repeating yourself.
Horgan created and writes for HBO’s upcoming Divorce, starring Sarah Jessica Parker (below, with Thomas Haden Church).
How much of you is in Sharon?
I didn't really try that hard to separate myself from the character. There's so much of me in there. I enjoy giving her things to say that even I would find tough in certain situations. I use her to vent my feelings, and it's actually very therapeutic. Audiences, and particularly women, respond to the fact that she's allowed to be selfish and flawed and tired and unhappy — for her still to be likeable is the challenge. Life changes, there's always new pressures and difficulties, but it's Rob and Sharon's way of dealing with them that keeps the show interesting. They use that gallows humor to get through things. They've always done that. They've always laughed in the darkest of places.
How do you switch gears between all your current projects?
You've just got to compartmentalize things. I work hard. I stop doing one thing and start doing another. There is no breather — that's just the way it's worked out. I wouldn't recommend it for everyone. It's tough. But I have amazing opportunities: to write a show for Sarah Jessica Parker that feels tonally very me, but at the same time very specifically is written for her and for HBO. You don't get that chance very often, so you just have to find a way to make it work.
"Audiences, particularly women, respond to the fact that Sharon is allowed to be selfish and flawed and tired and unhappy."
This story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.