Sharon Horgan: from Catastrophe to Divorce

Interviews of the Year: This highly successful, Bafta award-winning writer and actor is currently running two television shows, but when it comes to the trappings of fame she still feels like an outsider

 

‘You don’t know if your truth is a perverted, disgusting truth, so you’re kind of putting yourself out there and hoping that people will go, ‘Oh no, I recognise that’.”

When I spoke to Sharon Horgan in January for The Irish Times Women’s Podcast, Catastrophe was two series old. In Greenpoint, Brooklyn, going between an edit of her HBO show Divorce, and the set itself, she spoke over the phone about the most testing periods of her career.

“I think just trying to catch a break after Pulling. Just feeling like I’d sort of found a show and a thing and a writing partner, and I just felt like I’d found my groove. And then, when that show finished just thinking, Well, I’ll find another groove.

“And it’s not that easy, actually.

“It’s not that easy to find something you love enough writing about or talking about that it shows in the work. Sometimes when you try too hard, that’s the thing that shows, and then the honesty and the truth and all that doesn’t shine through.

“And then now, I guess. It’s ridiculous, and I feel like a spoilt brat moaning about it, but it’s sort of having this incredible opportunity and not wanting to screw it up and therefore having to run two shows at once. I love them both and they’re both my babies, but it’s tricky.

“It’s a keeping-your-balls-in-the-air moment I’ve never had before. And, you know, things are affected by that. Priorities. Family stuff. It’s a ridiculous problem to have, but it is a problem.”

Since decamping to New York, and then moving back to London, there have been more balls in the air. From the end of August to early October this year, Horgan has airing on television; The Circuit (Channel 4), made with Dennis Kelly with whom she created Pulling; Motherland (BBC2) made with Graham Linehan, Helen Linehan and Holly Walsh; and Divorce (HBO) created and exec-produced by Horgan.

At the same time, she is writing season three of Catastrophe (Channel 4) with Rob Delaney, working on a TV project of Aisling Bea’s – the script just got picked up – and is also running Merman, her production company with Clelia Mountford.

Calling her hot property would make her squirm, but she is. The Monday after Electric Picnic, Horgan walks into the Booking Office bar in St Pancras station. At the Picnic, she was speaking in the Mindfield area (sample on-stage riff: “I’d rather write a series, film a series, edit it, and put it on TV than talk to my husband . . . ‘Watch that, and if you’ve any questions, bring them to me’.”).

In the bar, she orders half an ale, which ends up being a pint, arriving in an utterly incongruous beer stein. “Oh my god it’s in a pewter mug. That’s ridiculous,” she says as a waiter places it in front of her, then catches herself, “Thank you.”

It’s a fortnight to the Emmys. “Well that’s another situation where I’d rather gnaw my own shoulder off,” she says when I bring it up, “but I have to sort of think ‘oh, it’ll be an experience’. I’m the most awkward woman in a long dress you’ve ever seen. Hot and sweaty, my rosacea really flares up, I break out in spots. All of that.”

When she’s eventually at the Emmys, she posts a red carpet photo of her and Delaney on Instagram captioned “big losers” when Master of None wins Catastrophe’s category. Not to be mean-spirited about Master of None – as a show, it’s fine – but Catastrophe should have won.

Horgan calls her awkwardness out before anyone else can. An interview is a contrived situation, a kind of pretence, a professional transaction masquerading as a conversation. There is no performance from Horgan when she’s being interviewed. She is funny and intelligent, obviously, and refreshingly real.

As someone who makes television about finding the humour that resides in the disingenuous nature and absurdity of people playing social roles – in relationships, in social interactions – without an audience, she speaks as if she’s just been rushed to a podium as a last-minute replacement, slightly reluctant, a bit cautious and apprehensive. When she was actually rushed to a podium upon winning a Bafta for their writing for Catastrophe, Horgan and Rob Delaney talked over each other, an act playing on their familiarity and dynamic. Horgan mentioned needing to go to the toilet. The speech ended with:

Rob: “Thank you to our families who put up with us while we do this”

Sharon: “Yeah”

Rob: “Thank you”

Sharon: “To them”

Rob: “To my wonderful wife and my three sons”

Sharon: “Oh no. Oh god. Me too, then. My family and daughters.”

After the almost sighed “me too, then,” laughter rose from the crowd. Why was it funny? Many of Horgan’s jokes revolve around a reluctance to indulge. If there’s an acerbic thing to be said, it will emerge.

Some of her best scenes make you think something is going to end satisfyingly before it flips, either with a complete surprise, or a little dig.

“Must I?” her characters (and herself) seem to emit, “do I really have to go along with this? Oh no, oh god, me too, then.” Horgan has a tendency to shift in her own skin as if she’s the recipient of a birthday cake and song in a crowded restaurant. This reluctance to play along with the expectations we have of both public and private people is what can make her seem guarded.

I ask her where her suspicion of social norms comes from.

“I don’t know if it’s a suspicion but an inbuilt awkwardness, plus a healthy kind of cynicism and, like, a bit of a sneery head on me. It’s easier to stand back and look at situations and have something funny to say about them. I don’t think I’ve ever found myself in any social engagement or situation where I’ve felt comfortable, or where I’ve felt ‘these are my people’ or ‘this is where I should be’. I’m always awkward.”

A minute later, she points out my recording device “looks like something you’d find in a gynaecologist’s top drawer”. She’s not wrong.

Horgan is 46 and looks at least a decade younger, stylish and striking, with a broad, genuine smile and a great laugh. Born in Hackney, she grew up in Bellewstown, Co Meath, going to school in Drogheda, where she somehow ended up in “the brat group”.

When she and her four siblings (who include former Leinster and Ireland rugby player Shane, and Second Captains producer Mark) get together, “We huddle, we scrum, and that’s it, we’re in our bubble of family, and it’s hard to penetrate it, and it’s probably extremely annoying for everyone that’s around us.”

When she was younger, she “always, always” wanted to make people laugh, “always.” “It’s just instant gratification. Not everyone can do it. It’s an attention-getter. It’s a way of standing out, if you’re not necessarily the smartest person in the class or the most gifted or the sportiest.

“It’s an armour as well. If you come from a family of five, it’s a way to get your mother’s attention.”

Pulling was Horgan’s calling card. Made with Dennis Kelly, it was laugh-your- drink-through-your-nose funny. It aired when she was 36. Before that, she panicked throughout her twenties, and when it was cancelled after two series, she panicked again. Things came in dribs and drabs.

She won a British Comedy Award in 2008, and Pulling won one in 2009. In 2012, she co-created with Holly Walsh (and starred in) Dead Boss (one series). They also wrote the pilot Bad Management together. She began collaborating with Rob Delaney, meeting on Twitter, and writing and starring in Catastrophe, which first aired on Channel 4 in 2015.

It was the kind of instant hit that makes you refuse to leave your friend’s flat until they watch it. If her career sprang to life with Pulling, it exploded with Catastrophe.

The honesty of Horgan’s writing is not just brutally hilarious, it’s also loaded with empathy and heart. She freely admits borrowing from her own life to colour her art. (“Horgan has always been her own muse,” The New Yorker decided, in a profile piece.) Now, she is at the precipice of something much bigger.

While Catastrophe and many other current projects are the little shows that could, the upcoming Divorce on HBO is a different beast. She knows it, the industry knows it, fans await it. Despite the fact that there’s a writers team involved, it will inevitably be viewed as a Horgan solo run. She is the creator, one of the writers, and one of the executive producers.

“This feels like it’s already a big thing before it’s even begun,” she says. She doesn’t want to let one of the lead characters, Sarah Jessica Parker as Frances, down in her first major return to television since Sex and the City. “I will beat myself up quite heavily if it doesn’t work. It’s looking good. I think it’s a good show.”

Watching the pilot, which Horgan wrote, there’s an initial joy in realising how bereft television has been of Parker. Divorce is grown-up, dark and funny. It also pulls a very Sharon Horgan trick, one that flummoxes the viewer into wondering: why haven’t we seen a show like this before? How does Horgan keep making shows about the universal that feel so bloody fresh?

Just before we meet in London, Horgan was rereading new Catastrophe scripts with Delaney. The latter half of the season is in good shape, she thinks.

“Because we’re getting close to preproduction on Catastrophe, we have them all written, and went back today and started rereading the earlier ones and were like, ‘Oh no, these are shite’. F***ing terrifying. We both left the office 20 minutes ago just like, ‘What the f***?’ It’s always scary when you get to this point, because, you know, it’s going out, which is great, what you write is going to be on TV and have an audience. But it’s just f***ing terrifying.”

Horgan says they can’t fool themselves into thinking something is good if it doesn’t sit quite right. No matter what anyone else says, unless they’re happy with it, then it needs more work. There are fan expectations too, something both Horgan and Delaney are acutely aware of.

“I don’t know if ‘people pleaser’ are the right words [but] I like people to be happy watching it. If people have bought into the series and given over their time to commit to this world and these characters, you don’t want to let them down.”

It’s the response to the romance between the Rob and Sharon characters that took them by surprise. Although they never set out for Catastrophe “to be a romantic thing”, Horgan knows that the romance of the relationship is beloved of viewers, so they protect that.

In an industry that idolises and obsesses over youth, Horgan was a relatively late starter. There was no Hollywood blacklist script at 21 or memoir at 23.

“I started late at any kind of social anything. I think I prolonged my youth for way beyond what is acceptable. I didn’t sort of settle into any sort of norm or groove that might be considered adult behaviour . . . I probably didn’t have a table until I was way into my late 20s, everyone just sat around on the floor and we were hippies and lived in squats.

“There was never any notion of having to behave like an adult or fit into any kind of adult situation. So I think because I came to it late, I was a bit already kind of . . . malformed.”

Motherland was born from a pilot she and Holly Walsh wrote called Bad Mom, which didn’t get picked up Stateside. Meanwhile, Graham Linehan and Helen Linehan were concocting a show about mothers. “Graham had heard that I was already doing it, and he was like ‘Ah, f*** that then.’” Linehan got in touch with Walsh and they all started working together. Helen Linehan’s experience as a stay-at-home mum fed into the mix, trying to capture the idea of a clique of mothers who are brought together through the circumstance of their children.

“If you’re a bit gnarly and awkward like me, you always feel like a bit of an outsider,” Horgan says.

The results are brilliant. And again, watching it, you think: why haven’t we seen a show like this before?

In one terrific sequence, Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) turns up at an empty school with her children, forgetting that it’s half-term and, in an effort to style it out, meets the head mistress and concocts a false bullying claim her daughter is a fake victim of, reaching for the name of a male perpetrator – who turns out to be five-years-old – by reading a signature off a child’s painting on the wall.

In Catastrophe, Sharon, the character, sees her parents off at the airport, and her father kindly presses a note into her hand in a well-meaning gesture, which turns out to be an eye-rolling measly tenner.

In The Circuit, one of the seemingly alright female dinner party guests is unapologetic about working in arms manufacturing. This is Horgan’s genius: just the right amount of bitterness, just the exact shade of darkness.

It is an incredibly difficult thing to do – making likeable people do unlikable things and yet not undermine their likability. Despite Motherland’s Julia recklessly driving while her kids are in the back seat, or Catastrophe’s Sharon cruelly mocking Rob for bringing her to a cheese-making class as a date, we still end up rooting for them. Horgan puts crowbars between characters, prises them apart, pours realism and empathy into the gaps, and then snaps them back together, all complicated and true.

What really changed the game for Catastrophe was how it took off in the States. It’s not that Horgan and Delaney were unsure whether people would like it in the US, more so whether enough people would get to see it to make that collective judgement. Catastrophe aired on Amazon’s streaming service, who proved their award-winning indie credentials with Jill Soloway’s Transparent.

“By the time it got to Christmas and they were doing those [best of] lists,” Horgan says, “I mean, Rob and I would constantly be going ‘I can’t f***ing believe it. How is it there when there are that many shows?’ And good shows! So it was more the fact that it was surprising that it was found.”

More than once, Horgan switches the conversation to praise the people she works with; actors, writers. In a collaborator, she looks for someone who is good at being open in the room, open to talking about their life and situations, someone who is a good chatter, someone who is knowledgeable and has a good handle on what’s going on in the world, someone who is good at jokes.

“I love constructing a story and creating characters and coming up with scenarios, I love all of that, but jokes are really hard.”

What gives her the most creative satisfaction is “when I write a scene that tells you it’s going to do one thing, but completely turns that on its head by the time you get to the end of the scene. Anytime I can write something like that, there’s a deep satisfaction, more than just a funny line”.

It’s probably The Circuit that exposes Horgan’s (and Dennis Kelly’s) unease with social conventions the most. The pilot lampoons a dinner party set-up to the point that you can’t unsee it.

Her parents never had dinner parties, apart from once, which she remembers finding “the oddest thing in the world that there were people in my house in a social situation.” By the time she came to adult socialising “some sort of social rigor mortis had set in. It was very hard to sort of break that. I can totally do it now. Lots of lovely people ask me to their houses!”

“But I know for a fact that when I first walk in the door, my face is doing all sorts of things that it shouldn’t be, and then, after a while, I relax.”

These days, she watches more drama for pleasure than comedy. When she watches comedy, it feels as though she’s still on the clock. She over thinks it, deconstructs it, or gets annoyed by it.

A big Bob Odenkirk fan, she watches Better Call Saul. When her and Delaney are writing, they think about things such as Odenkirk’s creation of a character, something that’s funny and heartbreaking at the same time. Sometimes, when you watch a drama like that, there’s more humour in it than a lot of comedies.

She can’t think of the last grown-up film she watched (“because I’ve got kids and all I do is go and see f***ing animated features”), but her go-to comedy these days is the animated series Bob’s Burgers.

“Have you seen Bob’s Burgers? You have to watch Bob’s Burgers. It’s amazing . . . it’s literally one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. That’s my comedy pleasure.”

It must be odd being the subject of a buzz. Again. “It doesn’t really impact on me, because I’ve had that before and it’s gone away. So, there’s never a feeling of, ‘wow, I must really be somebody now’, because I know how it shifts and changes.

“I guess because I don’t open myself to it, I’m less sort of aware of it. You get more meetings, more people want to come to you with stuff . . . ” She talks about how it was good that Divorce helped her strike out on her own, to feel less dependent on collaborators, aware that her work with Delaney is “unusually easy and unusually creative”.

She retreats a little into her seat when I mention fame.

“Genuinely, I don’t have a huge profile. It doesn’t come up that much at all. So I’ve never felt like it’s really impacted or made anyone change the way they behave or anything like that. It’s more sort of like . . . ” she reaches for an answer, “Generally when I have shows on the telly people do come up and say they like that show. And then the show ends, and people stop! So it’s not like I’ve got the persona of a famous person, because I don’t go to things and I don’t put myself out there. I don’t do any of that stuff.

“Although when I’m promoting a show, suddenly I’m like ‘Shit, I’m going to have to do interviews all over the place’, and I feel like a dirtbag. Generally, it’s just when there’s a show on. So people recognise the character and they say, ‘I love Catastrophe’ or ‘I love Pulling’ or whatever. No one really ever comes up to me and goes: ‘SHARON HORGAN’.”

Divorce airs on Sky Atlantic next Tuesday, October 11th at 10.10pm

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