Over its first three seasons, Catastrophe was one of the great miracles of Peak TV, a comedy as hilariously profane as it was startlingly tender. Co-creators and stars Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan played a trans-Atlantic couple (also named Rob and Sharon) who do everything out of order: they meet, then he gets her pregnant, then they get married and gradually they fall in love. The series (produced in the U.K. and distributed here by Amazon, which releases the final season on Friday, March 15th) was a classic example of execution overpowering concept. What could have been a broad and schticky odd-couple romantic comedy has, through the impeccable writing and understated, vanity-free performances of Delaney and Horgan, been a very specific, very raw and often very beautiful commentary on the challenges of making a marriage work under any circumstances, let alone this ass-backwards one.
The final season was made under complicated, often painful, circumstances. Carrie Fisher, who had played Rob’s mother Mia, died after flying home from England after wrapping on the third season. And Delaney’s youngest son, Henry, died at only two and a half from brain cancer not long before Delaney and Horgan were set to begin writing again. Catastrophe had always had room for darkness — the third season ends with recovering alcoholic Rob falling off the wagon and getting into a car accident — but these final six episodes are unsurprisingly even heavier than usual. The loss of Mia is addressed in the finale and the Norris marriage is particularly strained throughout. But the performances are still wonderful, and the moments when something funny happens (Sharon investigates a mysterious wet spot left on her desk by her school’s new principal; Chris Noth guest stars as an obnoxious pharma exec who takes a shine to Rob) stand in sharp, welcome relief to scenes featuring the two leads fighting. And the ending… well, we’ll get back to that on Monday, with some thoughts on the subject from the stars. But it feels perfect for Catastrophe.
Earlier this week, Delaney and Horgan sat down to talk about their creative partnership, some of their favorite moments making the show, Delaney’s effort to process the loss of his son and more. (Some light spoilers ahead.)
Rolling Stone: With just the two of you doing all the writing, what was the process like?
Rob Delaney: We try to start with the season concept or thesis first. But then we also think tiny picture, like what would it be funny to see Dave [Rob’s friend, played by Daniel Lapaine] do this season? So just to get ourselves warmed up, we’ll start to think about the other characters and the paces we might like to put them through. And then figure out where Sharon and Rob can fold into that and use those folks to express the larger story that we want to do.
When you were in the middle of writing a season, did you give any thought to what you might do beyond it, or you’re just focusing on those six episodes?
Sharon Horgan: There’s always bits where we’ll go, “Oh, that could be an other season thing,” but not really.
RD: It is fun to sort of paint ourselves into a corner. For example, we leapt time-wise quite a bit into the second season, which is really fun to do, and then we thought, “What if we begin the third season like the frame after Season Two?”
SH: Which is tricky when you’ve lost the outfit that you were wearing in that scene! There were so many things that made it difficult to literally be a frame later.
RD: Yeah, at the end of the third one, you know, Rob and Sharon have essentially renewed their vows. They’ve expressed that they’re truly, deeply in love with each other for life, and then boom, the chickens come home to roost for Rob in the form of a big car accident. So, had Sharon not said all those things minutes before, she could have been like, “Aw, man, screw you.” Whoops! Rob knows that she loves them, and vice-versa, so they have to muddle through. It was fun to operate within that stricture.
So when you ended Season Three with the car accident, did you have any thought at that point about how you were going to deal with it next?
SH: No, we didn’t. We got pissed off with ourselves a few times for painting ourselves in that particular corner, because it is harder to make a comedy show when you’re —
RD: — beginning with legal proceedings.
SH: But that’s what made us begin in the courtroom, wasn’t it? Because we thought, you know, that’d be funny, and let’s give him a neck brace, that’ll be funny. Like, finding all the different ways to make that terrible situation funny.
RD: Yeah, and that first episode is a surprisingly by-the-numbers, sitcom-type episode, with some hijinks and story-of-the-week type stuff. And it’s sort of deceptive, in terms of what’s going to be happening throughout the rest of the fourth season.
Even before this year, the show had room for darkness. Did you ever have a conscious limit to how difficult things could get for Rob and Sharon?
SH: I think we’re always aware of that but never in terms of “We can only go this dark.” It’s more practical, really. We know that as much as we enjoy them fighting, they can’t just fight because it’s not fun to watch. We like it best, and I think the audience likes it best, when it’s us against the world. So we had to, in that first episode, just turn the whole thing around. They can start off sparring and being incredibly upset with each other. But at the end of the episode, they need to be back on each other’s team.
And then we just had to keep our eye on it a bit. Like in Episode Two, everything couldn’t just be OK, because that’s Sitcom Land. But it’s also real life to get over things in a marriage a lot quicker than you would in a lot of other situations, right?
RD: In terms of the darkness and the light, we definitely learned throughout the four seasons that one episode of the show could contain quite a wide range of things. Like a very silly set-piecey type thing could happen — you know, proper hijinks — and then there could be abject grief as well. And a viewer can handle that, you know?
When the two of you first started talking about doing this, did you understand that it could be a show that could go to these tonally dark places?
SH: Yeah, because I’d seen Rob’s stand-up. I knew what he talked about. And how he described a marriage in his stand-up was of course funny at times but sometimes just so brutal it’s hard to listen to. I was trying to do the same thing in previous sitcoms. I think it’s just a balance. It’s hard to get it right, but when you do, they sit perfectly side-by-side, comedy and tragedy.
When you went from people who knew of each other and were interacting on Twitter to actually knowing each other in real life, what were some of the things that initially surprised you about one another?
RD: Sharon’s ability to eat the exact same thing every day for a month when we were writing.
SH: Rob’s ability to fall asleep in perfect posture sitting up. [Sits perfectly straight as she pretends to doze off without moving.] Deep, deep, deep sleep. That was a surprise.
But writerly-wise just that perfectly-formed dialogue can come out of his mouth that would take any normal human a bunch of time to construct on the page. Sometimes it just comes out of his mouth and I write down and it stays exactly as it is, because it’s so prescient.
RD: Well, I should say that when we were thinking of a title for a fake Wes Anderson movie, you just go, “The Emancipation of Flyburton Crisp!” I was like, “What’s that from?” And you’re like, “My mind?” And, like, The Emancipation of Flyburton Crisp. She just said that. I mean, that’s amazing.
There are some speeches on this show that are astonishingly detailed in their filthiness. Mark Bonnar’s character Chris has this monologue about a woman delivering a baby releasing… a river of shit, was it?
SH: It’s “a wave of turds.”
Yes. What do you remember about the origins of that and the general level of gross detail on the series?
SH: [Points at Delaney] That just came literally straight out of his mouth.
RD: So that would’ve happened really not long after the birth of our second child in real life. I had in rapid succession witnessed a couple of births, and I just thought it was so cool. And I could remember talking to other men who were like, “Ugh.” You know, some men are just awful. Whereas I was sticking my head right between my wife’s legs being like, “Let’s get that baby!” I was so into it and so happy and so blown away. But then you hear some people who are like, “Mate, don’t even, you don’t even want to.”
SH: I think we had read some Gordon Ramsay stuff as well that was kind of inspiring. He doesn’t go to any of his wife’s deliveries because he still wants to find her sexually attractive. So we thought, let’s plop a bit of that in there.
RD: Yeah. I’d like to talk to Gordon Ramsay about the elasticity of the human vagina. It’s an amazing thing! You can have a baby and you can… Anyway… Gordo, I know you’re reading this…
When and why did you decide that Season Four would be the last one?
RD: I think right before we started writing?
RD: Because we just didn’t want to do any bad ones, you know? For better or worse, we were the bosses on the show and we realized we were saying what we wanted to say. I’ll speak for myself. Sharon obviously is a reservoir of amazing things and under the reservoir is a spring, bubbling up and continually renewing it. So maybe Sharon thinks that she can say more but I have nothing else to say about the early years of a marriage and young kids. Nothing. If I had any further involvement in Catastrophe at this time, I would be repeating myself, saying things that I wasn’t wholly passionate about. For me the ending of Season Four feels like the ringing of a bell, where we’re like, “Oh, this is it.” Now I’m scared. Now I have to get another job. There are people who are like, “You’re a stupid man. You’ve made a funny show, but you’re stupid personally.” And maybe they’re right, I don’t know.
SH: Well, who knows if we, collectively or individually, will find a thing that we love doing as much?
RD: Oh, can I say? I thought the worst thing that could happen would be if one of us, like, continued the show without the other one. Did it in front of a live studio audience. Got a big, shitty writer’s room, and did 23 episodes a year of it. I think that would be funny.
SH: I’m sure someone asked us to do that at some point.
It’d just be called Sharon!.
SH: It was a great, brilliant, fun thing to do. It’s going to be tough to find anything that is as brilliant or as fun to do as this, but let’s see what happens.
Did you have any particular thoughts for what you were going to do with Rob’s mother Mia this season before Carrie died?
SH: We were just enjoying watching her play Mia so much. It was always just, how can we get her in the show more? So for Season Three, it was my father’s funeral, which Mia came to but mainly so she could visit all the places that Michael Flatley had been. I think we can definitely say that we wanted her in it more. It’s hard to think of what order it came in, when Carrie died and when we decided it was the last season — I mean maybe we would have found ourselves with an episode in the U.S. anyway [besides one surrounding her funeral].
RD: Yeah, with her eBay travails. I think that could’ve been an easy three episodes. Where she buys different figurines on eBay and sells other ones.
SH: What I’m so happy about, and I thank God we did it in Season Three, [was] we see this whole extra side to her character. Because she was a very, very funny comedy foil for me and obviously for Rob as well. But in Episode Three when Rob goes into his mum’s bedroom to talk to her because he’s feeling so down and she says very Mia things, but it’s still very moving, and she exposes some of herself and what happened to her in the past… Oh my god, fucking hell. I’m so glad that we got to do that.
RD: And says in her beautiful way that she loves Sharon and she loves their relationship that they have. Her performance in the last episode of Season Three, which is the last thing she ever filmed, is just out of this world.
Rob, do you have a favorite thing that Sharon either wrote or played over the run of the series?
RD: I would say Sharon’s performances in Episodes Five and Six of the third season, where her dad is dying and then is dead, are pretty virtuosic in the sense that they’re incredibly funny but also incredibly moving. You don’t get better than that. That really rocked me.
And Sharon, same question about Rob?
SH: I would say the same. In Episode Five, leading up to the moment before Rob comes over to Ireland to find me, when he goes to our babysitter’s house and thanks her for looking out for him that night. It’s a funny scene, kind of heartbreaking but funny, but then you go down to the car and the kids are in the back and you break down in the car. That just kills me. But I weigh the really funny stuff as as important, you know? So anything that was really funny that you did over the course of the season, it was just a pleasure to watch.
Rob, did you give any thought to delaying or simply not doing this season given the immense personal loss you’d just suffered?
RD: Yeah, absolutely. Truly, when I started it I was just like, I wanted my kids to see me go to work and just sort of preserve some sort of normalcy — really, for them. I didn’t know that the fourth season would or could be good, let alone funny. And so I was really scared starting it. But rather quickly, I found grief — terrible grief — and work to be compatible.
And because it wasn’t a big, 13-member-writing-room CBS sitcom — it’s just Sharon and our writing assistant Chrissy — if I needed to just sit there and sob, then I could. Or if I had to go home early, I could. So I quickly came to enjoy the process. It wasn’t a distraction. I mean, there’s no distraction from the grief of losing a child.
It felt appropriate, and I was very grateful to have it, and it helped me. So I wouldn’t say it was, like, therapeutic. For me therapy is therapeutic. Going to a bereaved parents group is therapeutic. Talking to NHS charity workers that helped my family, that was therapeutic. But work just felt good. And I am cognizant of the fact that I am very lucky to have a job that I enjoy. I can imagine a world where there would be jobs that I did not want to punch into each day and do. But this was a bright spot for me.
And Sharon, from your perspective, knowing Rob as long and as well as you do, did you have any trepidation about his coming back to the show?
SH: No, I just wanted him to do what he wanted to do. Every day, I was amazed that he was there, and that he was so funny and great. And I just wanted him to be happy. So if he didn’t want to do it, or if he did want to do it, or if he wanted to stop… Just, whatever, you know.
RD: What happened with Henry, his illness and his death, helped me put making TV — it gave me a very healthy perspective. It made me feel like it’s not as important as some people think it is. Especially in the business of television. But it’s also not unimportant, you know? People, when they’re sad, when they’re upset, when they’re frustrated, it’s wonderful to have a story to watch, you know? So it made me realize that making TV is no less and no more important than driving a bus, making a pair of shoes, whatever.
It felt good to have a craft to go and do. And to feel that I was doing something that was worthwhile, you know? Not saving lives, but hopefully making some people smile. It made me smile in a very dark time, and continues to.
The way the business works right now, no show is ever truly done. Could you see yourselves in 10 or 15 years with some new stories about what Rob and Sharon are up to at a later phase in their lives? Or was that finale the last you ever want to see of them?
RD: We have a very explicit idea, and it’s that, like in Innerspace, we will miniaturize ourselves, and then Sharon will get inside the body of Millie Bobby Brown, and I’ll get inside of the boy from Hereditary, and then we’ll kind of drive them around and make them do different things. And it’ll be set in a kibbutz. I don’t wanna give too much away, but…
SH: Definitely not 15 years, anyway. In 15 years, I’m going to be in dressing gown, in Tenerife, drinking gin.
RD: Right, that’d be so good, though.
SH: Maybe 10.