Sharon Horgan absolutely hates talking about her personal life. "Most times when I'm doing an interview and anything personal comes up, I'm like, 'Oh, Jesus,'" she tells me during our phone call, softening her words with her contagious, crackling laugh. But she will, somewhat contradictorily, mine that life shamelessly and relentlessly for her work. The writer, comedian, and actor first broke out in the U.K. in the mid-aughts with Pulling, a rawly funny, canceled-before-its-time sitcom about single women in their thirties based on her own such experience. In the warped rom-com Catastrophe (which premiered last year on Amazon and debuts its second season April 8), Horgan plays Sharon, a dryly witty Irish teacher living in London who enjoys a several-night stand with American ad exec Rob (Rob Delaney) only to find herself knocked up a few months later — a story that mirrors Horgan's own unplanned pregnancy six months into her relationship with now-husband Jeremy Rainbird.
Both Horgan and Delaney — who met and agreed to cowrite and costar in the show when the latter messaged the former on Twitter — have joyfully admitted to drawing much of Catastrophe's chaos from their own lives and relationships, writing viscerally and hilariously about the uphill climb of long-term marriages, parenthood, and even addiction, something with which Delaney himself has struggled. While Catastrophe's raucous and bracingly blunt first season followed the pair's fictional avatars as they coped with the realities of Sharon's burgeoning belly and Rob's spontaneous across-the-pond move, the decidedly darker second season jumps ahead a few years to see the two married with a toddler, Sharon pregnant yet again, and all parties mired in considerable mayhem. There's vomit, there's dementia, there's postnatal depression, there's crack-cooking, there are endlessly leaking nipples. Somehow, though, it's still fun as hell, in large part because of Horgan's unparalleled comic timing and that delightfully infectious laugh. MTV News called up Horgan before Catastrophe's second-season premiere to talk about accidentally getting darker, dealing with costar Carrie Fisher's dog, and her love of torturing the audience.
So this new season of Catastrophe was equally funny but significantly darker. Why'd you guys decide to make it so much blacker?
Sharon Horgan: [Laughs.] We totally didn't decide at all. I think it's much darker because now they have a family. I think that's the sad and only reason. I think also there's something about the first season that was, I guess, more romantic because they're in the flush of it. Obviously there's a ton of complications and things going wrong, and it wasn't rosy all the way or anything, but there's a sense of two people falling in love. And I think in Season 2, everything is much harder. They have two kids now. Rob has a job that he hates but he stays at because he has to support a family. I'm suffering from a sort of postnatal depression, and things are just hard. We did try and show moments of love and romance and respite and all that, and I think that all comes through, but we didn't want to shy away from the fact that this is what a real relationship is. This is how hard it is, this is the shit you have to go through, the compromises you have to make. There's enough light and fun in there to counteract it, but, you know, we're just being honest, I think.
There's another cynical undercurrent to this season — at least for what's ostensibly a rom-com — about staying with somebody mostly because you're afraid of being alone and there are really no other options left. Is that how you and Rob both really feel?
Horgan: We both kind of — in Rob's stand-up and in stuff that I've written — we've tried to be really honest about how tough it is in general just being alive [laughs] and being happy. When we initially pitched the show, it was like, "It'll be about two people who stay together because it's easier than the grief of trying to rip themselves apart." I think it's true. If it was easy to split up, a lot more people would do it. It's a burden and a horrific nightmare to part with someone. I think that's why the whole legality of marriage is probably a good thing! Once you have kids, it's like, "Ah, shit." If you're in a terrible situation, you must do what you can to get away, but if it's just the process of falling out of love with someone, wait a few years and you might fall back in love.
You thought of the idea for Catastrophe's second season initially, right? Why'd you ultimately move backwards in time for Season 1?
Horgan: We did. Our first season was what we pitched and had in our heads — two people staying together because it's easier — and we had this whole idea that every night they'd lie in bed and list the pros and cons of staying together. We always knew we wanted there to be a great deal of love there, but also reality. So when we pitched it, we knew we wanted them to meet under the circumstances they did, but we sort of wanted to fly through it and just get to the nuts and bolts of it. But Channel 4, who we initially took the show to, said, "Well, we'd like to see these people get to know each other. Let yourselves enjoy that. " And as it turns out, it was really easy. Narrative-wise, you have the arc of a pregnancy; watching a tummy get bigger and bigger is a great, in-built structure.
When promoting Season 1, you guys discussed at length the fact that you pulled a lot of your material from your real-life marriages. What have you pulled specifically for Season 2?
Horgan: Oh, so much. Even in Episode 1, with our kid's name [there's a running joke about nobody being able to pronounce Sharon and Rob's daughter Muirean's name], that's the name I wanted to name my kid and my husband couldn't pronounce it, so I didn't end up naming my kid that name. He was emotional. He'd just had a baby. The thought of having a kid with a name he couldn't pronounce was too much for him to handle.
But yeah, tons of it [is pulled from our lives]. And there are stories that we were kindly given by friends. There's the essence of things as well — it might not be a direct story line. But [for example], that feeling of isolation, when you're a new mom and trying to fit in with other moms, the feeling of wanting and needing to go back to work but being far from emotionally ready to do that, but putting yourself through the wringer and giving yourself a hard time. The essence of all of that was definitely from real life, but not the sort of story that we told it within, you know what I mean?
Have you ever run a story line by your husband or Rob's wife, and they were just like, "Um, no"?
Horgan: No, because unfortunately, we're very bad people and we don't ask.
So they're as surprised as the audience when they see it?
Horgan: Uh ... yeah. I'm afraid so [laughs]. But we tell the stories in a very affectionate way. There's no painting anyone as an asshole. They're just people who make mistakes, and everyone makes mistakes and is flawed. There's never anything nasty that's going to hurt anyone.
Something I've always loved about Catastrophe is that both of your characters find each other genuinely funny. How do you toe the line between the characters being witty but not sounding like two comedy writers riffing?
Horgan: My husband makes me laugh. I make my husband laugh. Rob's wife makes him laugh and he makes her laugh. In general, if you're in a good relationship, you hopefully spend a lot of time laughing. I think the reason it doesn't sound like comedians doing lines is because the characters are actually laughing. And we spend a long time writing it and reading it aloud. And if anything sounded like too much of a "line," it got kicked out. It had to sound real or clumsy or silly. It makes the acting job easier as well, because he makes me laugh and hopefully I make him laugh. The idea of having to receive a funny line and take it with a straight face is hard work. So we just made it easy on ourselves.
Carrie Fisher is so incredible as Rob's terrible mom. Are there any good Carrie stories from the set?
Horgan: Just that she's an absolute legend, and that we spend way too long sitting around listening to her stories. She insisted on her dog, Gary Fisher, being in both seasons. The first season was kind of by accident — she turned up with him, and we were like, "That's hilarious, let's get the dog in." And when she turned up for the second season, I mean, Gary obviously stole the fucking show [laughs]. We had to ... obviously, he's gonna be in it. But dealing with a dog — he's sniffing his balls, he jumps off a chair. It's extra work. But what can I say? He was worth it.
Season 2 ends on another wild cliffhanger. Why are you torturing us?
Horgan: [Laughs.] 'Cause it's fun? I don't know. We probably had a different ending for the season that was more tied up and stuff, but we just love the idea of not knowing what Rob was about to say. It just really tickled us. I thought, you know, as a viewer I'd be tantalized by that. It's also just because we like fucking with people, I have to say. It's kind of fun.
To back up a little, it seems like you had an innately comic upbringing: You were raised on a turkey farm. You worked in a bong shop for several years. Did these things seem funny or like good material to you like that at the time?
Horgan: No! Although I did end up writing a short film about the turkey farm, which I loved. I would get ripped to pieces on the school bus — turkeys are innately funny. There's nothing sexy about a turkey. I got called various turkey-based names. So I guess something sort of crept into my psyche. The bong shop was just ... I was a student, I wasn't a young student, I was a mature student, and I needed money, and it was around the corner from my house. I also worked in an employment office for six years. When I started writing comedy, I thought, I have to write about that. But it was so fucking dull that no material ever sprung to mind. It was the same kind of thing with the bong shop. It's so ridiculously comical. It's already so stupid that I don't know what I could bring to that idea. What it did do is make me incredibly grateful for my current work. There's nothing very fulfilling about selling paraphernalia to potheads.
A few of your earlier U.K. shows, like Pulling and Dead Boss, were canceled early despite a lot of critical acclaim. Why do you think Catastrophe succeeded and got renewed where those were axed?
Horgan: Some of them, it's kind of a straightforward business answer, like, the head of the channel changed or we didn't get the viewing figures or blah blah blah. But I really do think it's down to relatability. I think if people can tune in to your show and see something reflected back at them that they either completely get or makes them feel good — when you feel like someone's talking to you, I think that helps. Catastrophe is a universal kind of story, families and children. It's not, like, the most exciting of premises, but it's got universal themes and truths within it. I made a show about a woman being sent to prison for killing her boss [Dead Boss], and not a lot of people find themselves in that situation. So that got canceled!
You and Rob were both late starters in terms of finding fame, at least relative to the youth-obsessed nightmare that is Hollywood. Do you ever wish you'd broken out earlier, or do you feel like you're better equipped to handle fame?
Horgan: I definitely wish that it had happened earlier because I feel like I've got a lot to say and a lot to do, and it's a bugger that you feel a clock ticking. Obviously youth is way more attractive to viewers and to commissioners, and I think there's a limit to stories that you can tell. As a writer, I hope for longevity. But as an actor, there's less. The only thing about starting late is you appreciate it a hell of a lot more because you've done your jobs in bong shops and waitressing and job centers. You've got less chance of becoming an asshole. You haven't had years of people blowing smoke up [your] ass. I've literally just had a year of people blowing smoke up my ass [laughs]. It's fine. I can handle it. I know bullshit now. It's a great tool to have. I take nothing for granted and I don't expect anything, so that's one good part of it.
You were really a U.K. mainstay even before Catastrophe, but were essentially unknown in the U.S. until Amazon bought the show. What's it like to get famous twice on two separate continents?
Horgan: I wouldn't say famous. I think people sort of know my work but aren't sure who I am. It feels like I'm a very lucky girl. It's hard to make shows; it's hard to make successful shows; it's hard to make successful shows that you enjoy making. You know what I mean? I feel like I've gotten very lucky twice.
You and Rob met on Twitter. Do you remember what particular tweet drew you to him and vice versa?
Horgan: I wish I could! But Jesus, there are so many. I still go on his Twitter timeline or whatever you call that and laugh and just wonder at the lunacy of this person who's become my writing partner. I can't remember. But I just recall that it was one after the other after the other. And I was like, "How are they all so funny?" Anyone can write one that slays you, and you're like, "High five," but it was every single one. I just find him to be an intriguing person.
Did you message him first?
Horgan: I started following him, and he messaged me and sent me a really lovely message about the shows that I'd done and that he was a fan and it was really nice to hear. It took years for us to finally get together and make something, but it was nice that this very funny man had seen my show. I was always surprised when somebody over the pond had watched my stuff.
What's your writing process like? Do you argue?
Horgan: We spend a lot of time laughing. We spend a lot of time working. There's no messing about or shooting the breeze. There's very little procrastination. I make Rob turn his phone off. We sit and tell each other stories of stuff we think would be good on the show, and quite often, like a pair of assholes, we marvel at the fact that we're having so much fun and that it's a job. That happens probably once a week. It's so enjoyable and fun. There's no arguing, really. We have such similar sensibilities.
A big part of what makes Catastrophe so fun to watch is your character's great sense of humor. Unlike a lot of women on TV, she's not the punch line or the straight man — she's quick and witty and can laugh at herself, which I think is really refreshing, especially for American audiences. Was that sort of staid female character something you were actively railing against?
Horgan: It wasn't even a question; she was never gonna be the unfunny one. She was never going to be the girlfriend or providing the feeder line. We were worried at one point that we'd made her too cynical or too harsh and dry, and went back through and softened her up a bit. Likewise with Rob's character — we were like, "Oh, shit, we made him too nice. Where's his edge?" But I think apart from typical attraction, that's a huge part of why they're together — they like the way [the other] looks at the world.
You've gotten frustrated in interviews when asked about "women's comedy," or about your experience as a woman writer. How would you prefer to frame the conversation about what it's like to be a woman in an industry that undoubtedly treats them shittier than men?
Horgan: I didn't want to discuss the issue of women in comedy, because as far as I can see, women are ruling in comedy. It's a joke how many good female-led film and TV there is. I just wanted to speak about all of comedy, not women in comedy. It felt like it belittled it a little bit. Obviously there are huge issues, and male bias, and the continuing issue of equal pay. But there's no way anyone can say that this isn't a golden age for TV and that women aren't at the very forefront of it. It's very hard for me to list influences that don't include an extremely high percentage of women. Sometimes I think, Oh, shit, I should get a man in there.