Americans Are Finally Grown Up Enough for British Humor

"Catastrophe" star Sharon Horgan dishes on the show's new season and what it was like to work with the late Carrie Fisher.

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney in "Catastrophe," which returns to the US for its 3rd season April 28th.Courtesy of Amazon Studios


Amazon’s hit comedy Catastrophe starts with the story of a relationship that goes very quickly from a one-night stand to accidental pregnancy (the “catastrophe”) to marriage and family. If the plot is similar to Knocked Up, the execution is more interesting. Knocked Up was a movie about two stupid kids who bump into each other, make a baby, and then spend nine months falling in love and deciding to get married and raise the kid together. Catastrophe is a show about two stupid adults who bump into each other, make a baby, immediately get married, and only get to know each other and fall in love after having made that decision.

It’s a barbed but loving show—brimming with the dry humor the British are known for, and Americans are known for missing. “It’s brutal in places, but it finds sweetness,” says co-writer and star Sharon Horgan, who along with co-writer Rob Delaney, stars as one of the titular catastrophe’s parents. “That’s made it more palatable to a US audience, ’cause even though we don’t finish every episode with a little bow and a sort of cute moment of realization, they are there! They’re just sort of hidden.”

Horgan (who is Irish, not British), received critical acclaim for her TV series Pulling. Last year, she wrote the HBO show Divorce, starring Sarah Jessica Parker. Now she’s back to focusing on Catastrophe, which garnered her and Dalaney an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Writing; the third season returns April 28. Mother Jones chatted with Horgan about working with the late Carrie Fisher, who played the show’s character Mia, and using comedy to deal with Trump.

Mother Jones: One of the things I love about your show Catastrophe is it’s really fast.

Sharon Horgan: Yeah, I guess. It’s a shame though, isn’t it, that we’ve gotten like that now. I think it sort of spins along quite quickly.  ‘Cause there’s an awful lot of story in there, and you don’t get any down time in it, you know? It sort of zips along, and it’s full to the brim, really.

MJ: Totally. And episode six has Carrie Fisher in it. It was her last project working with you guys—what was that experience like?

SH: Well, it was brilliant fun. We just had way more time with her this series, we just really got to know her. We got to spend proper time with her at work and outside of work. That was for me the best bit, just getting to talk and hear about this Hollywood life that’s incredibly far removed from mine, or most people I know. And just to hear those crazy stories and know that this very unusual but very grounded woman came out of it who sort of questioned the whole thing. Questioned the industry. Questioned the craziness of it all.

“We were sort of gob-smacked most of the time that she even turned up,” says Horgan of the late Carrie Fisher.

MJ: In a lot of ways she matched up with your show, in the fact that Carrie was bitingly witty, and a lot of people found her humor brutal and harsh. And she would say these terrible things.

SH: Yeah. It’s true. I don’t know why I didn’t think about that. Because you’re absolutely right, she did have a kind of brutal way of looking at things and even a brutal way of describing herself. There’s no saccharine coating to any of it, it just was what it was. We were sort of gob-smacked most of the time that she even turned up. I didn’t realize how much she loved doing it until sort of midway through the third series. She got it. It was her kind of sense of humor, and that felt great as well, you know?

MJ: Absolutely. I think that Catastrophe has been variously described as brutal, it’s humor being cutting. There’s the New Yorker profile on you, where they talk about how it’s a harsher humor than America is used to. There’s that old canard about British humor versus American humor. Which I don’t think is necessarily true as much. Because we have, in the same way that you Carrie and you guys match up so well, there’s obviously an audience on both sides for both sensibilities.

SH: Yeah. It certainly seems more so now. I also think that it’s brutal in places, but it finds sweetness. It finds moments of joy and gentleness and vulnerability. And I think that’s sort of why we get away with it. If they were just selfish assholes all the way, I would say people shouldn’t necessarily invest in those characters. But there’s more than that. It has got heart, and it has got joy, and you do end up caring about them. That’s made it more palatable to a US audience, ’cause even though we don’t finish every episode with a little bow and a sort of cute moment of realization, they are there! They’re just sort of hidden.

MJ: I mean, some of my favorite moments in the show, and they’re sprinkled throughout, are when you guys are laughing together.You use humor to come together as a couple, in such a beautiful and wonderful way, I think.

SH: Awe. Well, thanks. I mean, I think that was sort of derived from our slight allergy to people cracking jokes in sitcoms and then them being met with a sort of stare, or aghast look, and we just thought, “People don’t do that.”

MJ: That’s right…in sitcoms the characters themselves never laugh, it’s just the audience.

SH: None of them have. And when your partner says something funny, to make you laugh, I think it sort of helps with the dynamic of that very traditional sitcom dynamic of goofy husband/disapproving wife, or any of those sort of tropes, you know? When Rob says something funny, or disgusting, or vile, she laughs because that’s her humor too. If it wasn’t they probably shouldn’t be together.  

MJ: The first two seasons were shot back to back, right?

SH: Yeah, but also with season two we sort of knew what we wanted to do with season two before we wrote season one really. But, you know, season three, you kind of feel like you want to have a bunch of other stuff to say. And you want to make sure it’s not just repeating itself and you’re not just watching two people walking through London holding hands. I think people would get bored of that.

MJ: In the interim you did Divorce.

SH: Yes. I managed to squeeze that in. That was a hardcore year.

MJ: Another great show. You told the end of a marriage as opposed to the beginning of it.

SH: Yeah. It was really interesting from that perspective. And also interesting how little crossover there was, because I thought that storyline-wise I might get a bit, not confused, but trying to work out which story was best to tell where. They did feel like completely different characters. A much less happy story to tell, but at the same time, story-wise and dramatically it threw up so many different story areas than Catastrophe does. In Catastrophe they decided they’re going to absolutely going to stay together. Whereas, Divorce it was trying to get out intact. Trying to find back who you were before you stepped in to that 18-year marriage.

MJ: I have to ask you, also, there’s a video going around today, from London, about this bagel fight on a train. Have you seen the bagel video?

SH: Hah! No, what?

MJ: It’s a video about some people in a fight on a train in London with a bagel on someone’s head. It’s going viral around the internet, and I was going to ask if you could explain to me what the hell is going on, ’cause there’s a lot of confusion in it.

SH: I’m really confused. I have no idea. I’m sorry. I guess I was just working hard today, not looking at bagel videos.

MJ: Of course, your show’s premiering tomorrow, you haven’t had time to fuck around on Twitter and look at the bagel fight video.

SH: No. You know I’m going to look it up now, but I’ll wait ’til we get off the phone.

MJ: No don’t, I would love it if you want to watch it right now and then tell me what you think.

SH: Really? Okay. Oh my God. My eight-year-old is beside me, is that okay?

MJ: I think it’s suitable, there’s a lot of hooting and hollering, but no explicit cursing.

SH: Oh, God. Oh, wow. It seems like a woman restraining another woman, with the bagel. Oh my God. Oh my golly. That woman, that blonde woman, put a bagel on that other woman’s head. And this other woman is restraining her. Wow. That seems ah, that seems pretty extreme.

MJ: You have to wait for the last scene.

SH: And what did he say? He found another piece of bagel, and he threw it out the window. He’s some kind of hero. All right.

MJ: See it through.

SH: Oh hang on what’s this guy saying? Oh my God. Now that guy’s getting swamped. Oh my, are they all drunk? Oh, that’s got to be a Friday night. That’s, oh my God. That’s insane. I mean, I cannot explain that to you, outside of saying, it’s got to be a Friday night out! It’s got to be a bit of drunken shenanigans, please don’t judge our city based on #bagelgate. But thank you for drawing my attention to it. That made me feel really anxious. I guess people are little on edge. That would never happen in America.

“Comedy is helping a lot at the moment. It also seems to be getting under [Trump’s] skin and revealing a lot about the kind of thin-skinned fool that he is.”

MJ: Oh no, I mean, in America there would be shooting in that video. It would be much worse if that was in the United States.

SH: Everyone wouldn’t have come out of it alive. So we can take comfort…

MJ: I think a lot of people are on edge. I haven’t seen season three, but I know that you guys in the first episode do sort of address Trump and Brexit.

SH: Yeah, it’s not a big thing. I think it would have felt odd in a way to ignore it, because…they’re characters that we’re telling you are real characters, and we’re asking you to believe in them and their lives. And it would have felt odd for it not to factor in some way, but there is very little other mention of it. The thing is, it’s a massive, massive terrible situation that’s going on all over the world at the moment. In that one particular scene, she’s doing it to say, “My head isn’t in the right place at the moment because the world isn’t in the right place.” Stresses in a marriage and in family life, sometimes they’re prompted by whatever is going on in the wider world as well as what’s going on behind your door.

MJ: Totally. And when people look back at various different eras, they think of the comedy and the culture that came to define it. There’s already been a lot of discussion about how Hollywood will respond to Trump.

SH: It will be interesting to see how the arts respond to it and what people get from that. Comedy is helping a lot at the moment. It also seems to be getting under [Trump’s] skin and revealing a lot about the kind of thin-skinned fool that he is. Do you know what I mean? But then of course, it’ll become bigger than that. Artists and filmmakers and TV makers will respond in different ways. Or everyone will just start making zombie films.