To have any chance of finding characters she actually wanted to play, Sharon Horgan discovered early on that she’d have to write them herself.
Horgan is the living embodiment of Gandhi’s philosophy about being the change you wish to see in the world–or at least on TV. When she was bubbling up in the U.K. comedy scene in the early 2000s, Horgan was faced with parts that were often interchangeable, marginal, and clearly written by men. After the paradigm-shifting success of her breakout series, Pulling, which she created with writer Dennis Kelly, nothing has been the same. The writer, actor, and burgeoning director has found a variety of outlets for her creative restlessness, including the high concept series Dead Boss–which anticipated Orange Is the New Black with its jail setting–and the hilarious, deeply personal relationship comedy, Catastrophe, which she created and stars in with comedian, author, and Funniest Man on Twitter Rob Delaney. The latter project, which just released its second season on Amazon on April 8th, is an almost pathologically authentic series about slapdash family-assemblage, and its critical success has only amplified Horgan’s stateside fandom.
As the second season of Catastrophe drops, and in the lead-up to Divorce, the HBO series Horgan created for Sarah Jessica Parker that will premiere later this year, Co.Create spoke with the perpetual multitasker about learning to write for TV, creating great roles for women, and the joys of complementary collaboration.
“When I first started acting, I was getting kind of broadly comic roles and, well, non-roles. I was getting some fun stuff–it wasn’t not-fun–it just wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I think what I sort of read at that point in my career was ‘girlfriend’ stuff–feeding lines to the funny guy,” Horgan says. “Eventually, when we made Pulling, [Kelly] and I were so surprised that anyone would give us the opportunity to put something on the telly that people would see, we thought, ‘We should do something with this.’ And it really was an exciting thing to be able to provide these roles. We gave all the good lines to the women on the show. We had some really funny male parts as well, but the women were leading all the story lines.”
“Writing with someone else is 100% the best way, and in some ways the only way, to start because otherwise it is really hard to know if something’s funny or not,” Horgan says. “The material kind of sings a bit more when you’re with someone because you’ve got two sensibilities, and it tends to have more of a fluid conversational tone–because when you’re writing with another person, it is a bit more of a conversation. But when [Kelly] and I started writing, we were told you need three people to know whether something is funny or not. That meant that if [Kelly] and I plus one other person laughed, we knew it was good. Now that’s been reduced to two people. I don’t know who makes these rules.”
“We had no idea how to write a TV show because we’d never written one before,” Horgan says. “We didn’t even have to make a pilot for it, so we were sort of thrown in at the deep end. We just kind of guessed what a TV show looks like, and when we got to the end of our first script we said, ‘Yeah, that’s what a TV show looks like.’ A big part of what I love about what I do now is coming up with the series arc, and plot structure, and looking out where to place certain character storylines. The first script [Kelly] and I ever wrote, we took four months to write it, and then after that it got quicker. But we talked a lot and we put everything we found interesting on a page and then sort of shuffled things around until we found the best structure for that story and the best arc for the series, and now it’s sort of inherent. It’s built in. Your brain just ends up working like that. It’s not something you have to think about—it just sort of occurs.”
“Our initial script [for Catastrophe] was very much like the whole first series in one episode–meeting and getting pregnant and deciding to have a go and getting married, and then at the very end you jump forward three years and you’re slap-bang in the middle of their family. It was because we really just wanted to get in there right away,” Horgan says. “And when the U.K. execs read it, they said they loved the voice and what we were trying to say, but they wanted to get to know these characters, and they wanted to see how they maneuver their way through this difficult period of being pregnant and not knowing each other. We were a little weary because we thought that’s happened before. But so’s everything, and I guess it’s just our take on it that’s different. I’m really happy that they did that because we realized it was super fertile ground. We really enjoyed showing how tricky that whole time is, made more so by the fact that your partner’s a virtual stranger.”
“Catastrophe is very story-heavy, so we throw a lot of personal stuff in there,” Horgan says. “We just start having these conversations early on, with tales of what’s been happening in our lives, and just sort of end up structuring those stories throughout the series. [Delaney’s] brain is completely different from mine, and we just sort of complement each other, and therefore what [Delaney] is missing, I have, and what I’m lacking, he makes up for. One of his stories will bleed into one of mine, and one of mine he’ll find the ending to. It’s never like, ‘Oh, I wanna get this story in and you have to lose that idea.’ It’s all just ingredients, and if it’s not in that particular series, it goes sort of into a bank for later, waiting to be used.”
“The problem is, I’m a bit spoiled now,” Horgan says. “I get to do this great character [on Catastrophe] and I get to say what I want to say. And it’s tricky because that’s kind of a luxurious position to be in. There’s obviously lots of great stuff out there, but I tend to get some things and I’ll read them and think, ‘I just don’t know what I could bring to that to make it different.’ I think I know my range and I know what I can do. I guess I’m getting more drama, which is fun. It’s lovely to act in other people’s things. It’s easier. It feels like a holiday to not have to worry about the whole show. But at the moment I’m sort of slam-bang in the middle of my own projects.”