Monday 20 November 2017

Funny girl: how Catastrophe turned into a US triumph for Sharon Horgan

The Irish comic has been making a select TV audience howl for years, but now she's about to hit the big time

'Superhuman': After wowing the Brits, Sharon Horgan's latest project for HBO should be a hit Stateside
'Superhuman': After wowing the Brits, Sharon Horgan's latest project for HBO should be a hit Stateside
Sarah Jessica Parker in Horgan's HBO series 'Divorce'
Shane Horgan

Tanya Sweeney

Until recently, Sharon Horgan was Irish comedy's best-kept secret: a talent admired by a small but utterly evangelical audience.

In fact, one newspaper took to describing her as "the funniest woman you've never heard of".

Yet now that she's batting with the big boys at HBO, all that looks set to change.

Thanks to Horgan's latest coup, Sarah Jessica Parker is going from Sex & The City to… well, no sex and the city. In Divorce, co-produced by Horgan's company Merman's Films, Divorce will follow the trials and tribulations of a sexually dissatisfied wife angling for marital separation.

Sounds fairly careworn as TV projects go, not least among the glut of subtle domestic comedies flooding American screens these days, but Divorce finds itself in more than able hands.

Horgan will star in the show as Parker's neurotic pal, and will executive produce the series.

Molly Shannon and Sideways star Thomas Hayden-Church will co-star. Flight Of The Conchords star Jemaine Clement appeared in the pilot and could well show up again in the series.

Horgan finds herself sharing behind-the-camera duties with Parker, who will co-produce Divorce, just as she did on Sex and The City. It's a dazzling vote of confidence from Parker, who has by all accounts been hunting for a suitable TV project for some time.

"It was an area of particular interest for me because I'm married, and I love being married, and I'm happily married," Parker said of the project recently.

"I think marriage is wonderfully complicated and wonderfully interesting, and everybody conducts their marriage differently," Parker continued.

"We know almost nothing about people's marriage, because even those who we're most intimate with in friendships, we don't always share the good or the bad. And I just think that at a certain point, some people feel alone and lost."

But make no mistake: Horgan is nobody's idea of an overnight success, and neither is Divorce a bolt from the blue.

In fact, the Divorce commission comes after years of false dawns; several pilots have reportedly been created down the years for American audiences, but didn't make it to air.

"It's a dream to be making a show with HBO. And it only took eight years and one of the most famous women in the world for me to pull it off," said Horgan.

Regardless, Divorce comes hot on the heels of Horgan's last televisual coup, Channel 4's Catastrophe. The low-key, subtly incisive comedy, co-written with American comic Rob Delaney, was a resounding smash for the broadcaster: so much so that they ordered up a second series as the first one was airing.

The pair have such a wonderful chemistry, bringing untold amounts of experience and irreverence to their writing, that when it came to a collaboration, a sure-fire hit was something of a foregone conclusion.

"I tell her this to embarrass her sometimes, that maybe there are funnier people in the world - maybe - but there's no one funnier to me," Delaney says.

"She's vicious. She just attacks subjects. She rips them apart in the funniest way. She also has a work ethic that is superhuman. We're both workaholics to the point of self-harm. I love that too. That's kind of important in what we do."

It's pretty easy to see just why Sharon Horgan has been enjoying such a delightful winning streak.

Catastrophe is a comedy with a keen eye and buckets of charm, and they're hallmarks of Horgan's previous shows, among them Dead Boss and Pulling.

Much like Lena Dunham's work, Horgan's sword-sharp scripts are mined from personal experience.

Angelo's tackled the workaday grind from the vantage point of a London fast food restaurant. Catastrophe, meanwhile, charts the training-wheels romance of an American ad exec and an Irish teacher who enjoy a week of frantic sex in London and end up expecting a baby.

Honesty and white-hot candidacy are premium currency in TV land these days, but Horgan and her co-writer and co-star Rob Delaney are minted in this regard.

"That is what happened to me," says Horgan, "so it made sense to write about it."

After meeting her businessman husband Jeremy Rainbird, Horgan became pregnant unexpectedly six months into their relationship. The couple now have two daughters: Sadhbh (11) and Amer (6).

"(Rob and I) liked the idea of writing about how hard it is to stay in love and in a relationship when you've got kids, and how easy it would be to put an end to it," she told the Daily Telegraph earlier this year.

"It's hard enough dealing with that stuff in a steady relationship, but when you've only just met someone and you're older, everything takes on so much more significance. It's an unromantic look at a romance."

Unromantic, perhaps, but this lack of sentimentality and gilded streak of authenticity had the Twittersphere positively foaming at the gills during its broadcast.

Her relationship with Rainbird proved the inspiration for the seminal BBC series Pulling, too… a show that was inexplicably cut two series in, just as it found its sea legs. Yet while Horgan was writing the show, she dialled up memories from her own rudderless 20-something years, when she was "in a kind of no-man's land career-wise and relationship-wise".

"I think loads of people find themselves in that situation, especially in London where people come to have a go and get their lives on the road. It's not easy; there's no money to enjoy yourself," she said at the time.

Born in London in 1970, Horgan moved to Dublin at the age of seven, though was raised at her parents' turkey farm in Bellewstown, Meath.

In a recent interview, Horgan recalled how she would spend every Christmas plucking turkeys with her siblings. Her younger brother is Shane Horgan, former Leinster and Ireland rugby star (pictured), who is currently working as a sports pundit on RTE.

After attending the Sacred Heart Secondary School in Drogheda, a very brief stint in art school followed. But the bright lights of London, and the prospect of becoming an actress, proved too great a lure.

Yet the parts proved elusive in the beginning, and Horgan was forced to take a gig in a job centre to pay the bills.

Frustrated at the age of 27, she tried her hand at a creative writing course at Brunel University. It proved a fortuitous move: after sending some sketches (co-written with her writing partner Dennis Kelly) to the BBC, Horgan won the 2001 BBC New Comedy Award, the wheels of a steady career duly greased.

As a gigging writer, Horgan soon ratcheted up credits on The Catherine Tate Show and Channel 4's The Friday Night Project before being given free reign on her own projects.

"I have quite a lot of drive because I started late," Horgan has said.

"I spent a lot of my 20s doing nothing, and I suppose I wouldn't be as driven if I didn't realise that time's ticking on a bit. You've only got a short shelf-life as an actor and I want to make the most of it while I can."

Yet it frustrated, not to mention confounded, Horgan's loyal fans when her TV series fell by the wayside. Both Dead Boss and Angelo's - as brilliantly understated as they were underrated - survived for just one series apiece.

"With a smaller audience you're more likely to push back boundaries," mused Horgan in 2011.

"You can do a lot of things a mainstream sitcom would like to but can't for fear of not appealing to a wide and wieldy demographic."

For now, however, Horgan has struck gold; getting to create a comedy for a worldwide audience, on her terms.

It's likely she will bring this famously pin-sharp acumen to HBO, who have long been lauded for ground-breaking projects.

The big screen may well beckon in the future... already in the can is a part in new comedy Man Up, starring Lake Bell, Simon Pegg and Olivia Williams.

And, if she gets the time, a stab at a behind-the-camera film project could well materialise in the future.

"I've got a big old feature in me, and directing is the most satisfying thing in the world," Horgan said recently.

Watch this space, in other words.

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