“Catastrophe” feels like a show built on magic — real magic. No, we’re not arguing co-creators Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan are sorcerers, cooking up potions to create great TV, but it’s undeniable that impossible elements collide into a beautiful reality in the duo’s Amazon original series.
As we noted in our glowing Season 2 review, the marriage of authentic dialogue with sparkling humor feels like a harmonious fusion of paradoxical crafts. Finding the balance between outrageously funny moments and deeply poignant stories — especially in a 30-minute comedy — is a tough trick to pull off, and no one has done it quite like co-creators Delaney and Horgan.
Below, the on-screen couple and real-life writing partners explain their particular process for breaking episodes, how humor can help audiences identify with deeply dramatic moments and where they got the idea to open Season 2 with — what else? — a beautiful magic trick.
For a show this honest to work, does it have to be funny? You have such a balance between the brutal relationship moments, which get picked back up by being really funny.
ROB DELANEY: I’m gonna generally want it to be R-rated, so to speak. I think marriage is fascinating and labyrinthian and complicated. The subject matter is too much for a child’s mind to appreciate. It’s also brutal and terrifying, so I’m going to want to employ blood and guts and things that have to be on after 9pm, or on a streaming service.
We want to show a rainbow. We want to give a robust experience. But the red in the rainbow is blood. The blue is viscera. For some reason there’s brown in the rainbow, but there’s still pink, yellow and pastels, too. It all has to be there if it’s going to be accurate.
SHARON HORGAN: I think the humor allows people who are watching and who might have been in those sort of situations [to identify with the show]. I think when they watch something like that, we deal with it by trying to find the light in it or trying to even just use a gallows sense of humor.
I think some of the topics, if we dealt with them without the humor, I think it would’ve been too tough. Yes, we would have been imparting information, [laughs] but you’re not telling people, “Life is hard, it’ll be okay.” Do you know what I mean?
I do, but there’s also hope, and that’s really important.
HORGAN: It’s kind of scary in a way to do it because there’s a very fine line between lampooning or making fun of something and serious topics. There’s no way we think cancer is funny. Nor do we find dementia hilarious. But there’s certainly a way of dealing with those subjects where you can find moments when you can let your characters just blow off steam by saying something funny or inappropriate or dark or just not right.
And there’s always absurd stuff happening in life. There’s always someone saying the wrong thing that’s so wrong that’s ridiculous that you laugh. Or just coping with things badly, or being selfish. I think when you do that with comedy, if you show characters that are flawed in comedy — if you humanize it with a laugh — I think you can get away with so much more.
When we put the first series out, we were genuinely scared, especially when we did our episode about when they weren’t sure if they were carrying a disabled child or not, and the fear of that. We were like, “How can we make a comedy about that?” And then we thought, “Well, look. If we can do it, we can talk about this and we can somehow make it funny and make people watch something that could be awfully traumatic but then still laugh on the other side of it, then we’ve done something fairly good. It took a lot of balancing there to get the time right, but it was still very scary when we put it out.
When did you decide to do the time jump that started Season 2?
DELANEY: Believe it or not, we thought of that time jump when we first wrote the pilot episode of the first season. We really wanted to dive right into their lives with kids. That was in our first pilot script that we handed in, but basically the network said, “That’s great but before you do that why don’t we get to know the characters a little better? So we decided to see if we’d have fun writing that and we did. But we still wanted to thrust people into what it would be like having a couple of kids and being married for a while. So that was a trick we had up our sleeves from the beginning, we just decided to employ it for our second season.
HORGAN: I think because we felt that if we keep it fresh for us, we’d keep it fresh for the audience. We also weren’t interested in seeing a new couple with a new baby. We felt that was territory that we’d seen. And also, we quite like fucking with people. We quite like the idea of her being heavily pregnant at the beginning of Season 2 and the audience assuming that it’s the same baby. It just felt like a nice way to, you know, [laughs] fuck with people a little bit.
Do you have plans to use the technique again in future seasons?
DELANEY: No, in fact, we are not necessarily thinking of it as episodic pictures of their relationship with big jumps of time in between. In my own personal life, there has been nothing comparable to the shock of multiple children. We are more concerned with showing the day to day struggles of a marriage and how to comedically navigate that then we are with flashy narrative tricks, which we generally eschew, unless we feel like using them. Then we will do whatever we want.
One of the things that works for your show is how authentic the dialogue is. Is there a secret to how you go about writing that?
DELANEY: One of the benefits of being writer/performers is we never just type something and then read it quietly and say, “That will do.” We absolutely imagine the dialogue out loud with each other and then transcribe it and then read it and reread it and perform it to each other. There are shows where the dialogue is too snappy and clever. That takes me out as a viewer and reminds me I’m watching classically trained actors say words that were written by a screenwriter. You don’t want that to happen. We really try to make sure anything the characters are saying could conceivably come out of a civilian’s mouth because not everyone is a playwright or an orator. We want people to feel comfortable when they hear the characters speak. We do spend a lot of time thinking about that stuff.
HORGAN: When you write with a partner, it is a conversation to a certain extent — even the writing. So we’ll sort of back and forth some stuff between us and we’re certainly not there with a recording device or anything, but we’re scribbling stuff down all the time. And that finds its way into a scene, or we’ll construct a scene around just a piece of conversation. It’s kind of a weird way to do it, but sometimes, it really works and sometimes it doesn’t because it’s just meandering. By the time we get to our eleventh draft, [laughs] anything that sounds sort of arch or written or anything that just looks pretty on the page, but sounds pretentious when you say it out loud, that just all goes. We just cut it all out.
Ms. Horgan, I’m excited for your upcoming HBO series, “Divorce.” You’ve been making television for years now, but between that and “Catastrophe,” do you feel it’s easier for networks to accept and endorse women’s voices?
HORGAN: I think there’s a golden age of TV at the moment that we’re experiencing, and I think women are a huge part of that. There’s literally no denying that. I think TV and film executives, and money people, can see that we bring in viewers and we bring in money. I mean, of course, there’s an element of boys club still there. It’s very tough. There’s a ways to go, but there’s no denying that some of the best TV at the moment — comedies and dramas — are being made by women. And I’d be hard pushed to give you a Top 5 list that has too many men in it, to tell you the truth. It’s an exciting time to be making TV, and it’s an exciting time to be a woman making TV.