How ‘funniest person on Twitter’ Rob Delaney revived the TV romcom
The Marblehead native’s “Catastrophe,” rolling into its second season on Amazon, made critics’ top 10 lists by breaking with formula.
ROB DELANEY, BACKLIT BY A LARGE BRIGHT WINDOW in a fashionable London pub, looks as if he might be about to lose his temper. This is unexpected, as up until now the Marblehead-raised comedian and actor has been almost excessively pleasant, thanking me where no thanks are necessary, dropping gosh-bombs, and smiling the way you do when a toddler is eating cake.
The mood darkens a little when I launch into a rambling monologue about Delaney’s relationship with the Anglo-Irish actress and writer Sharon Horgan, about how they have a real spark onscreen, how they clearly work well together behind the scenes, and how, if I were his wife, or Horgan’s husband, come to that, I might, you know, maybe feel a little bit, for lack of a better word, jealous.
“Is that a question?” Delaney replies, using the standard industry code for “Shut the gosh up.”
We should rewind a little. Delaney is here to discuss Catastrophe, his funny, raunchy hit sitcom that first aired on the UK’s Channel 4 (you can catch the second season on Amazon Prime starting April 8). The London-based show’s plotline revolves around the relationship between Rob and Sharon, who have a one-night stand that develops into a six-night stand that results in an unplanned pregnancy and a makeshift marriage.
Catastrophe, which made many TV critics’ top-10 lists for 2015, is not your typical feel-good romcom. While there is an undeniable spark between the lead characters, the dialogue is driven by a succession of furious domestic spats, which often flare during moments of tenderness. He’ll be clipping her toenails one second, then calling her an “ingrate shrew” the next; she’ll ask if his e-mail address is still “fat-idiot-at-bad-breath-dot-[unprintable word].”
There is, in fact, a lot of material in Catastrophe that’s not fit for a family newspaper. “We wanted to do something brutal and honest and unvarnished and funny,” Delaney says of the show. Besides, he adds, sipping a cup of coffee, “if you are taking people to a good place and a kind place, then I think it’s fine to be shocking or titillating on the way there. That might make it more fun.”
DELANEY STANDS 6-FOOT-3. He has dark hair and a linebacker’s jaw, which is currently obscured by a Revenant-quality beard. Dressed in a maroon sweater and jeans, he could be a carpenter on his day off. His manner suggests an eager, discursive intellect, someone whose thoughts can’t sit still. There is a sense of decency about him, an almost gawky earnestness that makes him seem younger than his 39 years. He can be funny, too, but not always in an obvious way. “I like to have people wondering if I even meant something as a joke,” he says.
While he is good with the withering comeback, Delaney’s real forte — professionally and in person — is off-kilter observational comedy. “Oh, you’re much less likely to get into a fight on the streets in the US than here,” he says when I bring up the British penchant for casual violence. “In America, it can explode absurdly and turn into a gunfight. Over here, since there are, like, 23 guns in the whole country and everyone has to share them, people are more likely to get into a bust-up, you know, knock a few teeth out. And that can just be a fun thing to do. It doesn’t mean you want someone dead or anything.”
Delaney has lived in London with his wife and children since 2014, when production on Catastrophe began. When asked what he misses most about Boston, after a lots ahs and ums, he settles for the Red Sox. “Maybe I could fly in with some sort of Batman-villain superweapon X-Men thing and lift Fenway Park off the ground and fly it over here,” he deadpans. “I think people would be pretty upset, but I don’t care. I’m going to do it.”
This skewed worldview has made Delaney a superstar on Twitter. In 2012, he won a Comedy Central award for being the social network’s “Funniest Person,” and now has more than 1.2 million followers. At their best, his tweets read like an absurdist commentary on the banality of the medium, Jack Handey re-imagined by Ryan Seacrest:
Walking around Brooklyn, slapping people's brunches to the ground.— rob delaney (@robdelaney) June 22, 2014
The platypus has to be the WEIRDEST looking animal I've ever gotten pregnant.— rob delaney (@robdelaney) December 9, 2013
You know you’re getting old when you forget the name of the street you grew up on and break your hip and die.— rob delaney (@robdelaney) June 19, 2012
Delaney used an excruciating Twitter convention — that of announcing yourself in your many guises — for the title of his 2013 memoir Rob Delaney: Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage. In the book, he describes growing up in a middle-class Irish Catholic family on Boston’s North Shore, sailing boats for fun, and delivering the Boston Globe for pocket money. His parents divorced when he was 14, but otherwise it was a reasonable upbringing. “I was a daydreamer; my fantasy life was pretty active,” he says. “I guess I thought I was strange.”
He describes Marblehead with affection — though even here he can’t resist a dig: “It’s tiny. But it’s beautiful, has lots of trees and beaches, and is filled with white people.” It wasn’t all rock pools and lobster rolls, however. He reveals he had a problem with bed-wetting as a boy, recalling a camping trip where one of the other kids noticed his sleeping bag was damp. Panicked, Delaney rubbed the wet patch over his face. “Would I do this if I’d peed in my sleeping bag?”
He also remembers that, around the time his parents were getting divorced, he developed a taste for gruesome psychological thrillers (The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon). “On some level I thought, Well, at least that’s not happening in my home.” Otherwise, the closest we get to a dark episode in the early years is when little Rob pilfers a copy of Playboy and smuggles it home (tucked inside a copy of the Globe), “believing that a police sniper’s bullet might pierce my skull at any moment.”
Later, though, things take an ugly turn. “I first got drunk at the age of twelve,” Delaney writes, describing the sensation as “Ooh, there we go. Here I am.” By the time he left home to study musical theater at NYU in the mid-1990s, he was a raging alcoholic. Rock bottom came in 2002, shortly after Delaney went to pursue a show business career in Los Angeles. Drunk, he’d crashed his car into a municipal building, breaking an arm and a wrist, splitting his legs open to the bone, and sloughing the skin off his forehead.
“I was in a jail, in a wheelchair,” he writes. “The hospital gown I was in was covered in blood.”
Of all the funny bits in Delaney’s book, this isn’t one of them. There is a brief slapstick turn when, in a holding cell, he keeps slipping from his wheelchair, which causes his gown to come open, revealing his private parts to the unsavory characters around him, but otherwise the belly laughs are in short supply. The same goes for the time he spent on a psychiatric ward and his subsequent battle with clinical depression. “I was just gripped by terror,” he writes. “I began to think about suicide.”
LIFE IS PRETTY GOOD FOR DELANEY RIGHT NOW. He has a hit TV show. He lives in the hip London borough of Islington with his wife and their three boys — a domestic situation that doubles as a kind of joke factory. The route he took to get here, though, was not straightforward. He did not burst out of rehab in a blaze of creative phosphorescence. He flittered around the fringes of the LA comedy circuit for a few years, landed a couple of minor TV and movie roles (he was “Whipped Cream Ass Man” in the 2010 film Wild Girls Gone).
Delaney’s real breakthrough came about, in large part, due to a medium that is more known for torpedoing show biz careers than making them. Rather than using Twitter to announce what he had for breakfast or to exchange insults (“You might as well smear dog feces on yourself,” he says, “it has the same effect”), Delaney used the network as a combination of teaser trailer and focus group, posting stand-up material to raise awareness and gauge enthusiasm for his act. Most important, it was there that he met Sharon Horgan.
Compared with Delaney, Horgan is a veteran of television comedy — her credits include the brilliantly vulgar award-winning British sitcom Pulling. The pair tweeted witticisms for a bit, then met up, hit it off, and started laying the foundations for Catastrophe. Horgan’s comedy chops likely played a big part in Channel 4’s decision to sign up for the show, but it’s the rapport between the co-creators that makes it work.
“We magnify each other’s gaze onto the things we find funny,” Delaney says, adding that while writing the scripts for season one, they were barely aware of an outside audience. “We knew that we had to make it as funny as we could for each other,” he says. Horgan, for her part, has said of the relationship: “He rubs my corners off, and I try to kick some of the sweetness out of him.”
Delaney is indeed a very sweet man in person. In his stand-up routines, however, he is another animal altogether, frequently crossing the line from the bawdy to the atrocious. He has just started touring the UK and Ireland with his show Meat, a routine whose sexual and scatological subject matter makes Catastrophe look like Family Ties. Doesn’t he ever worry about going too far?
“Well, I hope when I talk about something awful that I’m enjoying myself enough and appear to be coming at it from reasonable mental health, so you don’t feel like you’re watching someone unravel in a dangerous way onstage. If I feel safe and happy, that allows audiences to feel that way as well.” His ultimate aim, he says, is to take people to the brink of scandal, then bring them safely out the other side. “It’s like a water slide: You come to a corner and think, ‘Oh God! I’m going to die!’ and then: ‘Oh, no, I’m going to splash into a temperate pool.’ ”
Delaney has taken heat for aiming some of his more aggressive gags at his family, but he insists the criticism is unfounded. “If someone goes home and wonders if I’m not crazy about my wife and kids, then I need to go back to the drawing board,” he says. “The butt of the joke has to be me. If I complain about my family onstage, my goal is that the audience sees a silly man impotently raging at the wrong things, when the obvious answer is that it’s his idiot self who’s the problem.” He pauses. “Um, where am I going with this?”
We were talking about things going well. About being happy.
“Optimism is good; I suffer from it congenitally,” the comedian says. “But let’s not be ridiculous. The world is still just a horrible toilet.” A little later, discussing his struggles with depression and addiction, he says: “We all have problems of some kind or another, we are all rotting. Our mind is, I don’t know, this gray lump of ham in our head, and we all carry it around, and it’s all just falling apart. Everybody has some part of the body that’s betraying them disgustingly or pathetically or sadly.”
Delaney doesn’t equate being funny with being happy — “Yeah, my life has been very easy” — but he does believe in the redemptive power of laughter. “I know it can transform the pain and misery we have and turn it into positive things or constructive things,” he says. “Comedy is about one of the better kinds of transformation. I think it’s a healthy way to deal with life’s vicissitudes.”
This idea lies at the heart of Catastrophe, in which Horgan and Delaney put a comic spin on the trials of their own family lives. “I aspire to show the picture of a guy struggling mightily with the difficulty of raising kids and being a husband to a woman he loves,” he says. “I think it’s more fun and more powerful to see someone struggle with that. I’d rather see that than a PowerPoint on” — he adopts a deep infomercial voice — “ ‘How To Be a Good Dad and Husband.’ That would make me throw up. I’d rather see someone grapple in great pain and maybe not even arrive at the answers.”
There is an answer in the show, however, and again it comes from real life.
“My perspective of marriage is changing, something is happening,” Delaney says. “My wife and I are approaching our tenth anniversary, and to me now there’s something really cool and strong, romantic even, about endurance, or a sort of surrender. What if you looked at the door that leads to divorce and had a mason come over and seal it off? What if you didn’t throw a brick through the window? What if you didn’t listen to your baser instincts and tell your wife to go take a hike? I think that’s what we’re trying to capture in our show. These guys are in it to win it, as it were. Even the arguments, if they could just err toward some modicum of kindness, something wonderful can happen. That’s our goal with the show, and I think that’s part of why it resonates with people.”
THE TITLE FOR CATASTROPHE COMES from the film Zorba the Greek: “I’m a man, so I am married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.” Delaney and Horgan take this idea and run with it. Along with a supporting cast of neurotic or vindictive friends and family, there are brushes with cancer, postpartum depression, substance abuse, dementia, marital infidelity, and a dead dog.
Then there are the domestic squabbles — Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy gone mad — which came to a head in the season one finale: the couple on their wedding night, in a hotel room, she heavily pregnant. “If I showed you a rainbow, you’d be, ‘Ew! There are too many colors!’ ” he says in a nasal-y whine. “There are too many colors on one thing!” It’s a funny moment, but it descends into something more serious. Sharon storms out. Rob throws a dinner plate. Sharon knocks on the door. Her water has broken, months before she is due. Cue credits.
I ask Delaney if American and British audiences respond to Catastrophe in different ways, and he refers to the wedding night episode. “People here thought it was funny,” he says. “But in the US, people were like, ‘I’ve been betrayed! How dare they!’ ” He leans forward. “I believe in humility and considering what people say, but to anyone who had a problem with the end of season one, I’d just like to say: ‘You’re wrong.’ ”
Catastrophe may have violated sitcom conventions by finishing its first season on a downer, but the show contains another, less contentious twist: The lead characters laugh at each other’s jokes, which is something you rarely see on TV comedies. “It’s possible that’s a function of me not knowing how acting works,” Delaney says. “Also, Sharon is very funny, so good luck acting with her and not laughing.”
Even so, the laughter serves an important function, heightening the sense of genuine, abiding affection between the characters. And this is the thing that stays with you when the credits roll: those moments when Sharon and Rob, in the maw of a familial crisis, exchange a glance and you just know they’re going to be OK. That, surely, is the “something wonderful” that can happen. And that — far more than the steamy sex — is what would bother me if I were Delaney’s wife.
I’ve broached The Subject again, and for a moment it looks as if Delaney might get up and tweet me. Instead, he starts talking.
“My wife is funny and savvy,” he says. “She understands how TV works. She understands what’s fiction and what isn’t. But there have been things in the show that have been difficult for her to watch.” He pauses. “It’s a weird situation. I can’t think of another television relationship like the one Sharon and I have. So I am sensitive if my wife has an issue, or Sharon’s husband, who’s a cool, happening dude who I like a lot. If he came to me and said, ‘Man, I have a problem with this,’ I would be, like, ‘Hey, yeah, not a surprise. I feel you, brother!’ ”
Watch Rob Delaney in the trailer for “Catastrophe”: