Catastrophe creator Sharon Horgan on why real life is the key to her success

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From Pulling to Catastrophe, Sharon Horgan's talent for taking the highs and lows of real life and seeing the darkly funny side marks her out as the genuine article

Words: Eva Wiseman

Sharon Horgan is the funniest person I’ve met in real life. A turkey farmer’s daughter from County Meath, she has a knack of taking the darkest bits of our life and making them hilarious. With cult BBC comedy Pulling (2006–9) she showed us the tragedies in female friendships, and made us laugh until we were sick; with Catastrophe she showed us the terror of love, and made us laugh until we cried. If you’ve missed it, Catastrophe is the story of two potty-mouthed 40-somethings, Rob (played by her co-writer, US comedian Rob Delaney) and Sharon, whose five-night stand results in pregnancy, and a bit later, love.

To meet 45-year-old Horgan is to be confused, because the characters she plays feel so close to real life it’s hard to know where Sharon Horgan ends and Sharon Catastrophe begins. They look very similar.

There’s an initial softness to Horgan that she doesn’t write into her characters, but as we talk, and she relaxes into a two-day-old hangover, there’s a definite increase in the number of f**ks that drop from her mouth. Slowly, the Horgan I know from TV emerges, the Horgan who as Catastrophe’s Sharon wishes her toxic friend’s dad would get caught with child porn “just to knock the smug out of her”.

It’ll be interesting to see how many f**ks she can get away with in her new writing project. HBO’s Divorce (which she’ll rush from our meeting to work on in New York) will be Sarah Jessica Parker’s first series since Sex And The City. So, no big deal.

As Catastrophe returns to our screens, (the second series having been commissioned before the third episode had even aired) I asked her what we can expect.

You left Rob and Sharon in the middle of the worst fight in the world, on their wedding night, just as Sharon’s waters broke…
Then, in this series, we jump a bit. But that's all I’ll say. Writing this series was a scramble punctuated by Rob’s baby being born and me being in New York. We wanted to f**k with people – we enjoy the perversity. It’s so easy to tie everything up in bows, but it’s not always the best thing to do, you know? The whole story is very close to the bone, but it’s all lifted from our lives, which means we know we can push it. 

Do you ever have serious fights with your partner [entrepreneur Jeremy Rainbird] over stories?
Well, I didn't ask my husband to sign it off. He’d glean an awfulness as I practiced my lines at night, yes, but the main thing is that the only people getting hurt are us. We didn’t mean to write a romantic comedy. But it seemed nice to see people falling in love while falling into something terrifying too. Sex is intimate, but it’s not as intimate as your first ultrasound or a cancer screening. This series asks how you manage to stay in love when you have a baby?

What’s the answer?
No idea. Knowing marriage is interesting, and not always fun? There’s a lot of riding out the sh*t. It’s about being realistic.

Is that something you’ve found people want to hear?
Not at all. When we first handed in the scripts we heard a lot that people watch their TV to escape – they don't want to see shitty lives reflected back at them. We had to convince Channel 4, and show them while it looked harsh on the page it would end up lovely. 

Has the working relationship with Rob affected your relationship with your husband?
I constantly overthink everything anyway, so rather than a voice in my head going on about our life, it’s playing on the TV. It’s cathartic. Rob and I know each other much better now. At first we’d have to preface every story with, “Don’t think I’m a monster, but…” and now we both know we’re monstrous. Or honest – however you want to phrase it.

How is Rob [who’s from Boston] enjoying the UK?
He loves it. Who wouldn’t? London f**king rocks. I’m too old for New York. 

Do you feel old?
It depends on how hungover I am. I feel like a kid most of the time. I still want to go out and play with the puppies. Parts of Hackney, where I live, are quite genteel, but there’s the dirtier side where, if it’s dark enough, I can blend in. I love it.

Do you have a favourite Catastrophe episode?
Episode four, when we find out there might be abnormalities [with the baby]. It happened to me, and I had a perspective that was real. But being truthful about that kind of thing in public makes me incredibly nervous, in case the world disagrees and you’re branded bad people. But then we got a lot of emails from women who said they were nervous when they started watching, women who had terminated, women who had seen it through, and it felt incredibly rewarding to affect people like that in a comedy.

Are you scrolling through Twitter reactions when it’s on TV?
I’m afraid so. We are joke whores. Quite desperate for laughs. If we don’t get one at a read-through we cut it out.

What's your relationship like with the internet?
Poor. I’m new to Instagram but it’s already taking up too much of my time. I still look at Twitter, obviously, because if you follow the right people it's the best snapshot of what’s going on. I used to read gossip online…

I don't want to say it out loud.

Ah, MailOnline.
I’ve weaned myself off it. I just set up a production company, Merman, and I banned it in the office. Because every time I read gossip I’m dumbing down. It makes me feel ashamed of myself. It’s the opposite of cleansing.

Have you ever been encouraged to tone down your ‘Sharon-Horgan-ness’?
During my time making pilots in the US I was. It’s weird – they’re commissioning you because they like what you do, but they’re trying to siphon off the bits they want, to distil you. TV suffers because of that. All the corners get shaved off to make it fit a different hole. You can’t write comedy like that.

Is writing therapy to you?
I guess, in hindsight it is. Sometimes. You know it’s good when you’re cringing, and you’re scared to put it out. Every episode of Catastrophe I shit my pants a little. 

Is there anything you’d never write about?
I’d find it difficult to tell stories about my kids. Which isn’t to say families aren’t interesting. But what we’re trying to do is tell people how hard it is to be a parent, be really honest about the difficulty and the joy.

It is weird how revolutionary it still feels to say, “it’s hard to be a parent”.
Because people equate saying it’s hard with being neglectful. Especially for mothers. I tried to make a show in the States about a mother who isn’t a natural carer. And nobody wanted to see it. No-one minds seeing a bad dad or irresponsible man-child, they find it OK to laugh at that, but it’s much harder with a mother character – it makes audiences feel uncomfortable. 

Do your own daughters [Sadhbh and Amer] think you’re funny?
Yeah. Because I work really hard to make them laugh. When you work long hours away, you have to make it count when you get home. So the second I get home, I’m a horse. I’m on all fours, they’re on my back, and I’m making sure this is the best half hour they’re ever going to have. I’m a better mother because I’m around less.

Amy Schumer says that it sucks to be a woman today. Do you agree?
It’s hard to be a girl today. The images you’re surrounded by – the reality TV-ness, the Kardashian of it. The fact these are their role models upsets me. I got my older daughter into Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, and celebrating how great it is to be interested in learning, rather than selfies.

Is it a good time to be making TV?
It’s an exceptional time. There are so many people willing to take a risk now. Places like Amazon, where it’s not about advertising – it feels much less prescriptive. You have to get f**king lucky to make a network show today. I’ve made five network pilots in the last five years, and at the end it’s never the thing I pitched.

Are there any TV shows you wish you'd thought of?
Transparent. I was in love with that. Sometimes people approach comedy in a different way to drama, they’re less ambitious, but it felt like Jill Soloway [the show’s writer and director] had put such effort and love into it, it made me excited about the possibilities of comedy. And made me more ambitious for Catastrophe. I get jealous a lot, but it always makes me want to be better.

Tell me about Divorce
I liked the idea of showing the workings behind a very long, very painful divorce. They can go on for years, and become part of your life. There’s a whole industry that feeds off two people having the worst time of their lives. I met Sarah Jessica, and talked about what we liked, and she read some of my stuff. I had to think about what I, as a viewer, would want to see her in next. So obviously I had to take it somewhere really dark and tricky. Luckily she’s so up for it. It’ll be fun.

Is it scary to think of so many people watching?
It is now you’ve said it. I try not to think about it. Sex And The City was such a massive phenomenon – I think Sarah Jessica welcomes the idea of something smaller – but no, I can’t think about it. My goal is to make something I love that lots of people watch.

You’ve said before you don't think of yourself as a comedian, or a writer, or an actor…
Because it’s embarrassing! Actors are so needy. They’re massive oddballs, looking for somewhere to be normal. They relax when pretending to be someone else. I don’t mean it to sound tragic – I’m talking from my own perspective. When I haven’t performed for a while I feel a bit loony. So getting to be someone who’s better than you. Well. It’s f**king amazing.

Catastrophe starts on Tuesday October 27 on Channel 4

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