How ‘Catastrophe’ revolutionized the rom-com

Raunchy and hilarious, the show extracts laughs from sexual harassment, breast-pumping, a dead dog, and overdoses.

Everyone knows how the rom-com formula works. Boy meets girl, they don’t get on, they fall head over heels, adversity strikes, they live happily ever after.

If you’re watching Catastrophe – and why wouldn’t you be? It’s the best, most brutally funny, comedy to come out of the UK or US in years – things run a little differently.

Namely: boy meets girl in a bar, they have a one-week stand, have frantic sex in stairwells, girl gets pregnant, they decide to stay together – this is all five minutes into the first episode, by the way – argue, suffer quite a lot, and have a blazing row on their wedding day, just as the baby makes a premature appearance. That was series One’s “happy ending.”

Series Two, which landed on Amazon six weeks ago, takes a leap forward in time (they now have two children) and a darker turn. Over six extraordinary episodes, the show covers post-natal depression, addiction, alcoholism, sexuality, infidelity, divorce, dementia and death.

Remarkably, Catastrophe also manages to be spectacularly hilarious, wringing laughs out of sexual harassment at work, breast-pumping, a dead dog and, in what may be the darkest moment in a crowded field, an overdose which ends with an extraordinary bout of brotherly vomiting.

It’s the writing of Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan – who also star, with once-in-a-decade chemistry as Rob and Sharon – that makes it unique. (Even their off-screen writing is funny; one stage direction in the script has the couple “having athletic sex, making noises farm animals would find repellent.”) The two met on Twitter, having presumably spotted a common compulsion for searingly honest comedy. When it came to writing Catastrophe they had only one rule: make nothing up.

Delaney drew upon his drinking days – ruthlessly, hilariously chronicled in his 2013 book Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage – and family life, previously detailed with scatological glee in his stand-up. For her part, Horgan mined her own experience of meeting her husband Jeremy Rainbird, falling pregnant six months later, and being told hers was a “geriatric” pregnancy, even though she was in her 40s.

They’ve been through it and now they’re taking us through it too. “You’ve got to take them on a journey,” Horgan told Refinery29. “And you’ve got to put them through the mincer.” The reward? Jokes, lots of them.

“We were happy and comfortable taking the series to darker places, whether or not that comfort was justified,” Delaney tells me. “Just because life’s palate is pretty broad and darkness is a big ingredient in family life even if that family is ‘happy.’ Difficult things happen and we thought it would be irresponsible of us not to show that.”

Emboldened by a first series that tackled cancer and Down’s Syndrome among other things, it was easy to go darker second time around. “We had got away with it,” the show’s director Ben Taylor says. When in the first series Sharon is told she has a high risk of giving birth to a baby with Down’s, Taylor says,”It made us nervous; we knew we needed to cover that territory and do it sensitively but it couldn’t be a humorless episode in doing so. It became my favorite episode because it was as funny as the rest but managed to be very moving in the final scenes.”

He adds: “It’s Sharon and Rob’s ability to tackle difficult and dramatic subjects and maintain their humor that sets this series apart. The drama makes the humor more original and the humor makes the drama more human.”

That’s why Catastrophe has swept the board this awards season in the UK, winning the BAFTA for Comedy Writing, two Royal Television Society (RTS) Awards for best Scripted Comedy and best Comedy Writer, two Broadcasting Press Guild Awards and late last week won Best Comedy at the South Bank Sky Arts awards. Emmy nominations will surely arrive next month.

I was on the panel for the RTS Awards and around the table – a group of journalists, television commissioners, producers, directors and actors with deliberately diverse tastes – everyone was unanimous in their enthusiasm. Authentic, honest and subversive were the words that cropped up most often while the leads’ quicksilver chemistry was praised with not a little envy. Mainly, though, it was the fact that there was a laugh-out-loud joke a minute, a quality that is oddly rare in modern British comedies.

“I knew the script was exceptional, not like anything I had read before – hilarious, rude, truthful,” says Taylor, who has just shot an episode of Horgan’s next comedy Divorce. “Definitely not a sitcom. I didn’t dare imagine it would connect the way it did. I think that’s maybe a British thing. Sharon and I were cautiously optimistic when it went out; Rob was always certain it would be huge.”

Certainly, Catastrophe has been accorded the great honor of being a success in America, without being remade first by the locals. Horgan (English/Irish) and Delaney (American) straddle borders themselves, which helps, but their situation is universally relatable. Not quite in every way; they’re both more-than-averagely attractive and stylish and quite how a primary school teacher and a frequently out-of-work ad exec can afford that sprawling house in London is baffling, but no-one minded that with Friends.

That said, there was a distinct behind-the-scenes effort to embrace “American” values, says Taylor. “We knew this was going to be bought and shown in America alongside some big and beautiful shows, with five times the budget of ours- Transparent and Mozart in the Jungle, for example. I was very keen that ours didn’t feel like the poor cousins. We wanted to shoot a beautiful, exciting and aspirational version of London. Not a Richard Curtis Notting Hill but a more Brooklyn-style  East End, a bit dirty and textured and cool. That part of town is very cinematic… and coincidentally five minutes from where Sharon lives.”

Some conservative viewers have been turned off by the show and its scabrous look at marriage. “People in the US like the show as much as in the UK, but the people in the US who don’t like it, REALLY don’t like it,” says Delaney. “They’re angry we show the warts and the fights and the discord in a marriage. And that makes me very, very happy because I like making Pollyanna weirdos mad.”

One wonders what the Pollyannas will make of Divorce, Horgan’s highly-anticipated new sitcom, which arrives on HBO in the Autumn and stars Sarah Jessica Parker as a middle-aged woman going through a “long-term divorce”. Horgan was inspired by the 1989 film The War of the Roses, starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner as  a wealthy warring couple. The show will focus on “the anatomy of divorce” and industry – the lawyers, mediators and counselors around it. It is, Horgan told Radio Times, “as dark as any other stuff I have done”.

On paper, it looks like a giant leap for Horgan, a cult comedy figure in the UK, to take on the task of bringing TV’s one-time poster girl for singledom back to the small screen but it’s also the most natural progression. Divorce can be seen as the last installment in a trilogy, a sitcom about the end of a marriage following one about being in the thick of it, married with children (Catastrophe) and before that about being single (Pulling).

Indeed, if you’re craving a fix in the wait for Divorce and a third, heavily hinted-at, but not yet confirmed series of Catastrophe, Pulling should be your next box set. First broadcast on BBC3 10 years ago, it concerns the lives and loves, careers, nights out and kebabs of three women in their 30s – ditzy Louise, man-eater Karen and  Donna,(Horgan’s character), the show’s self-obsessed anti-heroine who calls off her wedding in the first episode.

Horgan wrote Pulling ( aka  “hooking-up”) with Dennis Kelly, who went on to write the Broadway-conquering Matilda. The pair are now writing a new sitcom together (“It has taken just 10 short years for us to agree to work together again. It was a mistake,” they said when the pilot was announced). The Circuit, directed by Taylor, is about a couple who attend a dinner party with their new neighbors and so begin a descent into “hell and goulash.” Phil Clarke, who commissioned it for Channel 4 (the UK home of Catastrophe) said the pitch was “irresistible. The premise – that everyone hates going to dinner parties but goes anyway – is a great starting place for a comedy.”

Should Catastrophe make it to three series, it will mark a personal best for Horgan. Pulling ran for two series, won a Bafta nomination and a British Comedy Award for Horgan, and then it was pulled. At the time, she speculated that the stars’ “haggard old faces” didn’t fit with the BBC’s youth-oriented channel.

If that was the case, ten years later, aged 45 and courted by channels on both sides of the ocean, she is having the last laugh. We’re laughing with her.