The funniest man on Twitter moves to TV: Rob Delaney takes a dirty, messy, realistic look at parenting and marriage

Salon spoke to the prolific comic about "Catastrophe," his brand new Amazon sitcom, premiering June 19

Published June 5, 2015 11:00PM (EDT)

Rob Delaney in "Catastrophe"    (Channel 4)
Rob Delaney in "Catastrophe" (Channel 4)

If you follow Rob Delaney on Twitter -- and, with a robust 1.16 million followers, there's a good chance you do -- you might get the sense that he's a bit of a wild man. Hailed as one of the first comics to truly embrace Twitter's potential as a comic medium, Delaney's 140-character comedy (much like his stand-up) is relentlessly absurd, unabashedly foul-mouthed and obsessed with all manner of gross bodily functions (sample: "Cheap date idea: cut open a pack of hotdogs & squeeze the juice over your lover’s body then summon a peregrine falcon with your mind”). It has also turned him into a veritable comedic legend, along with accolades like being the first person to win "Funniest Person on Twitter" at Comedy Central's Comedy Awards.

But in "Catastrophe," his new show coming to Amazon on June 19, a mellower side of Delaney is on display. Written alongside Irish comedian Sharon Horgan (who was also behind the acclaimed British sitcom "Pulling"), the show is about a couple, aptly named Rob and Sharon, who decide to have a baby together after Sharon gets pregnant during a week-long fling. The show manages to have a genuine romance and sweetness to it, while still being deeply unsentimental about marriage and pregnancy (as an acquaintance advises Rob on the show, giving birth is akin to a "little troll come tobogganing out of your wife’s snatch on a wave of turds"). "Catastrophe" shares some similarities with its fellow Amazon show "Transparent" -- of which Delaney is a huge fan -- in its ability to balance scathing humor with a sensitive and realistic depiction of life's hardships, a tone Delaney refers to as "honest and vicious and kind and humane and messy, in equal measures" (there's some potty humor in there too, natch).

Two weeks before the show's Amazon premiere, we called up Rob to chat about the show, his legendary online presence, and casting Carrie Fisher as his mom -- NBD. As he puts it, excitedly: "I still don’t believe it. I forget that it happened because I can’t store it in my long-term memory... So ridiculous."

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you come up with the premise for the show?

Well, Sharon Horgan and I, we’re both married to different people, we’ve got five kids between us and marriage and kids are things that we think about the most and laugh about the most, so we wanted to make a show about that. But we wanted it to feel real; we didn’t really think that the sitcoms that people are familiar with have really done a good job of looking at what marriage and parenting really felt like, so we kind of wanted to do our scumbag version. We wanted to do it our way because so many sitcoms about parenting and marriage are such garbage, and I mean that in the nicest way. We just wanted to make it dirty and messy and realistic, so that’s what we set out to do.

Do you see it as a distinctly British show?

Yes, it’s definitely a British comedy, even though she’s Irish and I’m American. We made it over there; the rest of the cast is all British. It’s British before it is anything else, I guess, even though we each sort of had the reins and so what does British mean? I’m not necessarily sure.

Do you think there’s a difference between British and American styles of humor, or a difference in what British and American audiences might find funny?

No, I really kind of don’t because there’s so much cross-pollination right now. We watch their shows, they watch ours. I think if anything, it’s good for us that we’re doing a show that we knew would air in both countries because it forced us to do stuff that would definitely be funny in both. So hopefully we benefited from the fact that it is sort of a multicultural show as far as the English-speaking world goes.

People familiar with your Twitter account might have the impression that you’re pretty wacky and out there, but your character on the show is really very sweet and mild-mannered. How much is the character on the show based on you and who you are in real life?

Sharon and I have worked out that it’s about 49 percent autobiographical for both of us. Yeah, I certainly have a lot in common with that character, and then there are some things that are different. In real life, I’m pretty mild-mannered and measured or whatever. When I’m doing stand-up, of course, I’m more of a crazy person and that’s the type of show I’d rather see. I am crazy about Todd Barry, for example.but my real life is probably more like Todd Barry’s stage persona than it is like me on stage.

What were you going with in terms of tone, did you have something specific in mind?

Well, for better or for worse, I think we sort of achieved the tone that we wanted to, which is to say honest and vicious and kind and humane and messy, in equal measures, I guess. We just wanted it to feel real. Life is so much more nuanced and interesting than it typically is on a sitcom.

The show is a romantic comedy, but not a traditional one. How do you feel about the genre of romantic comedies in general?

I like good stories first, and if they happen to be a romantic comedy, great. I feel like our show, there’s romance in it and there’s comedy in it. Is it a romantic comedy? I guess by definition it sort of is, but I don’t know, I don’t watch a lot of romantic comedies. I didn’t think “I’ve got to make a romantic comedy!” But I wanted to make a story about a marriage and a relationship under duress, and I guess Sharon and I like to laugh so much and make funny things, and I guess it became something whose primary ingredients are romance and comedy. We in a way sort of made it a romantic comedy by mistake.

What is your writing process like? What is the division of labor when it comes to creating the script?

It’s most fun to write together. We prefer to be in the same room, but a lot of our first drafts we’ll write separately and send stuff back and forth because of various responsibilities and stuff. We might be in different cities doing other jobs, so first drafts are often written separately, and then we get together and refine and make them better together. We could definitely lose the part where we’re not in the same room, but it’s impossible; we would never write anything really good if we weren’t in the same room.

Are there any areas of comedy where your sensibilities really diverge?

Our sensibilities are pretty similar, and of course we’re starting to rub off on each other, but definitely there are things that we’ll do that she thinks are funny and I don’t, or vice versa. I think one thing we’re very good at is we keep a loose grip and stuff like that. We fight for what we believe in, but we also know when to relax. And when we’re trending toward having a good time using each other's ideas liberally, that’s good enough. It doesn’t matter.

Your Twitter mines a lot of humor from gross bodily functions. Is that going to be a large feature of the show?

I wouldn’t say a large feature, but a feature. Sharon generally finds that stuff delightful, so she’s happy to indulge in that stuff. And she comes up with plenty of it on her own, so we have fun. And then of course, we’ll try to think up the grossest thing we can possibly think of in the room to make each other laugh, but that won’t make it into the show or the story, but it’s definitely fun to horrify the other one.

Was there anything that you wanted to include that got nixed by the producers?

Oddly no. They were like, “Build it up!” They would often be like, “How about this?” And we’d be like, “Ew, gross!” So they were total filth-bags, in a delightful way.

What was it like having Carrie Fisher play your mom?

Unbelievable. Who would ever dare think you could get Carrie Fisher in the show? I still don’t believe it. I forget that it happened because I can’t store it in my long-term memory. And then people will be like, “Hey, Carrie—” and I’ll go “Oh, my God! You’re right! She was on!” So ridiculous.

Were you a fan of hers growing up?

Oh of course, yeah, my God! Obviously “Star Wars” and, like, the “Blues Brothers” and so many things. Her books — I mean, she’s a legend.

I know you’ve spoken and written a lot about your struggles with alcoholism in the past, and your character on the show mentions early on that he doesn’t drink anymore. Are these themes that you’re going to explore further?

Yeah, it’s spoken about more. It’s funny, it’s like I wasn’t planning on making him be sober, but Sharon actually wanted to do that. I was like, “Well, I don’t know, is it interesting?” And once we figured we could get some laughs out of it I figured, yeah, we could do that.

You’ve also written a lot about comedy as a way to cope with depression and sort of as a cathartic outlet. Do you see this show as fulfilling that deeper purpose for you?

Yeah, definitely, because now as the husband and the dad, my life is more intense that it ever has been, so it is nice to have a show that deals with those themes, so that I can sort of process what I’m going through now. Yeah, definitely it helps process real life stuff for sure.

Do you feel that your comedy has evolved a lot in the past decade, going through parenthood and stuff?

Good God yeah, big time. Big time. This has been the most intense change in my life. I’m responsible for so much more, these little fascinating people in my life now. The ante has been upped suddenly.

I recently interviewed Kevin Pollak who directed the documentary “Misery Loves Comedy,” which you participated in. Having written a lot about your own depression; is that a thesis that you think is fair — that a lot of comedy comes from a place of tragedy?

Yeah, we have to laugh. You’ll go insane if you don’t laugh. I think it’s a really healthy way to deal with pain. There are probably plenty of comedians that had happy childhoods. I did. Happy would be up there with the adjectives I would use to describe my childhood. So it happens. I got dealt the alcoholic card and dealt depression as well, but I’m certainly not unique in that regard, and for me, comedy is indispensable. So if you do deal with depression or alcoholism or some fun combination of both of them, it’s something one deals with; I do think comedy is a wonderful thing to be involved with even if you’re just consuming it.

Is there anything else on TV right now that you would compare “Catastrophe” to? What is your target demographic?

Our target demographic is the entire human race. On television, I don’t think that there’s anything we could compare it to. But we were very influenced by Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, particularly the last one, “Before Midnight.” We saw that after we’d written most of the first season, and we were very happy that something like that had been made because that was a pretty magically honest beautiful picture of a marriage. I saw it first, my wife and I watched it and we were screaming laughing at how funny and realistic that movie is. And then I showed it to Sharon and we just were like, “Whoa. That’s the North Star.” It’s easy to put love on the screen. It’s easy to put a new relationship on the screen with authenticity. But a marriage? That’s hard, and Linklater and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy collaborate to make something just stunning. That is the type of thing we aspire to do.

How do you feel about the show airing on Amazon?

I’m so excited because we signed the deal with them and were happy, but then “Transparent” came out, and we were just beyond thrilled because that show is so amazing that to be even on the same shelf as that show is just such a treat. So, really really happy that on Amazon when our show finishes, or whatever, it’ll be like: “Try this!” People will then have the opportunity to watch “Transparent” or "Catastrophe"; that’s exciting to us.

You have been hailed as one of the first comedians to really make use of Twitter as a medium and to make a name for yourself on it. How do you view your Twitter comedy career in retrospect?

I definitely got off the bus at the right stop. I’m really glad that I did sign up when I did. Of course I never could’ve predicted how well it would work out, but I’m very glad that it did. I’ve had a lot of fun. To me, it does not get old posting ridiculous jokes that make people laugh. I’m very happy to do it.

Lately there has been a lot of conversation about the, shall we say, dark side of Twitter; for example, the awful trolling that takes place on there.

Well, do you know how it used to say on video cassettes “be kind, rewind?” I do think it’s a good idea to be kind online. If it’s a terrible waste of time — I sort of go off and be like, “Did I learn about it online? Then it’s not real, and I can’t get angry about it.” If you find out about something online and you get upset about it, then it’s kind of like shame on you. The way that we feel at any given moment is the way that we’ve decided to feel. So do you want to get all batshit because some of some crazy thing some nutjob said online? I mean, I don’t. And then there’s the perpetually offended who obviously get a nearly sexual charge from complaining and being offended, and we have to keep those people in business, so it’s important to say terrible things online for them, but they’re a minority even though they’re vocal; I wouldn’t want them to feel as if their day online was wasted by not hurting their, quote, “feelings.” I don’t know, I mean, if you find something online you don’t like, go outside, leave your phone in the drawer.

What are your thoughts on the whole Trevor Noah tweet fiasco — do you think that was overblown?

Even if it were like a numbers game, and somebody then — I don’t know off the top of my head how many tweets I’ve said, but one can imagine 20,000 or something. Let’s imagine those things form a facsimile of my consciousness or something. If 17 of 40,000 are unsavory and weird, that would probably be a pretty good mental health [indicator], so I can’t be bothered. Can you imagine having the assignment from an editor to go trolling through tweets to find something to get upset about? That, I feel, is silly. And particularly with Trevor Noah; he’s got some amazing standup that is really really humane and mind-opening and kind and sensitive and thoughtful. But you’re going to be scrutinized like insane if you’re going to be taking over for Jon Stewart. But yeah, that was quite silly to me.

Oh, I live in London now, and there’s the girl who just became the youngest member of Parliament in over 300 years. And so, they were looking back a few years to when she was like 16 or 17 and she had some tweets that were, in the eyes of what I’ll call trolling journalists, unsavory in their tiny little opinions. That’s crazy! She was a kid! She just got elected to Parliament. Going through people’s old tweets to find something -- that says more about you than it says about them, even if you find a tweet that says “I killed a guy and buried his body.”

By Anna Silman

MORE FROM Anna Silman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Amazon Catastrophe Comedy Editor's Picks Rob Delaney Sharon Horgan Tv Twitter