Why Sarah Jessica Parker called Sharon Horgan about her new TV show on divorce
Girls on the pull, unplanned pregnancy - it was only a matter of time before writer Sharon Horgan tackled divorce, reports Anne Marie Scanlon.
When the former Carrie Bradshaw, Sarah Jessica Parker, decided it was time to return to series TV, for the first time since the end of mega-hit Sex and the City, she called Sharon Horgan (45).
It’s hard to believe that it’s only a decade since Horgan’s breakout Pulling, which established her as an actor, comic and writer. In that decade Horgan has gone from struggling wannabe to a force with whom to be reckoned within the entertainment industry.
Horgan is lying on a green velvet couch. She has a severe headache. I’ve given her some super-strong tablets but she still appears to be suffering. I’m worried that the tape recorder won’t pick up her voice, as she’s speaking quite softly.
In person, Sharon Horgan looks exactly like Sharon from Catastrophe. That might sound like stating the obvious, but it’s rare. Faces that we know well from film and TV always look different in real life. Not Horgan — she looks like herself, but she doesn’t sound like herself. I certainly wasn’t expecting somebody so reserved. But she does have a bad headache.
“I went to New York to meet her,” she tells me about SJP. “She’d read a couple of my scripts. The story she was interested in making was about a long-term relationship and the breakdown of a long-term relationship. We talked about those sort of themes and then I went off and had to come up with something.
“What I was interested in,” Horgan continues, “was the kind of dark industry that springs up around two people who are having the worst time of their lives but really it’s all about the dollar. I didn’t know anything about divorce, and the reason why is that people don’t really talk about it. I don't know why, whether it’s because there’s a kind of shame attached … Also,” she says, “if someone is having the worst time of their life, you’re not going to ask them questions. So unless you’ve been through it, most people don’t know and I thought it was something more people would like to know about.”
The result, Divorce, stars Sarah Jessica Parker as Frances, a career woman married to Robert (Thomas Haden Church), and mother of two. Watching the pilot and first episode, I was struck by the total lack of common ground between the two characters. Later, in a phone call with Paul Simms, the New York-based writer who collaborated with Horgan on some episodes, he reveals this was entirely deliberate.
As the story evolves, Simms tells me, the nature of the relationship will become clear. “Eventually, you see that when it worked between them, it worked really well.”
Simms has been married “seven or eight years, it still feels like a brand new thing,” he says and then adds laughing, “I wish my wife was here to hear me say that.”
He has never been divorced and argues that while the show centres on a divorce, and the process of divorce, that it’s really about relationships and conflicts in relationships.
“We hate the people we love at times,” the former Girls writer tells me. “Anyone who’s been in a relationship will see that. Anger and difficulty go hand in hand with love.”
Horgan, who has previously mined her own life and experiences for material, has never been divorced either. The hit show Catastrophe was in part inspired by the fact that she had a surprise pregnancy just six months into her relationship with Jeremy Rainbird. The couple have now been married 10 years and have two daughters, Sadhbh (12) and Amer (8).
Without her own experience of divorce to draw on, I ask Horgan if friends will see themselves in some of the characters and situations. She laughs before replying, “Well, there’s really only one friend who I sat down and asked for some detail from, so she knows.” After a short pause, she adds, “I’ve used her life a few times. The show I just made for the BBC, Motherland, one character is fully her, so she knows.”
Just like Catastrophe, Motherland struck a chord with many parents as the coalface of motherhood can often be difficult and unpleasant. How much do you hate the school run? I ask. Horgan laughs. “I don’t hate it. I just get in and get out.” (For those of you who don’t have school-age children, saying that you like to get in and get out is code for hating the school run.).
I ask Horgan if, having created and written much of Divorce, she was tempted to write a role for herself. “No, it’s a big old show. There’s 10 parts and there was an awful lot to do [Horgan is also one of the executive producers]. It wasn’t about finding a way to shoehorn myself into the show, it was about making the best possible show. And it was really nice to not have to sit in the make-up chair for two hours every morning. It’s nice to just concentrate on the story and casting and make it the best show possible.”
The Divorce cast is outstanding, especially Molly Shannon, who plays Frances’s self-obsessed friend Diane. It is Diane’s disastrous 50th birthday party that prompts Frances to end her marriage. Horgan describes Shannon as “wonderful”, adding, “I’ve admired and loved her for years.”
Although Horgan was born in London, her family moved back to Meath when she was four. The writer is the second eldest of five children — she has two sisters and two brothers, one of whom, Shane, played rugby for Ireland.
“I think if you come from a big family then you have to find a way to get the attention,” she tells me. So were you the funny one? “All my family are funny. They all make me laugh, anyway.”
Horgan is by now sitting up on the green velvet sofa announcing that she thinks the super-strong headache tablets are working. Hoping that as a result she’s feeling kindly towards me, I ask her a question that I know will annoy her, about the under-representation of women in comedy.
“I feel like the more people talk about the women in comedy question, the more people are going to feel it’s a thing, and it’s not really. Certainly in the stand-up scene they are still under-represented but, to me, it feels like it’s not an issue (in television). I don’t think it will stop being an issue until people stop asking about ‘women in comedy’.”
It certainly isn’t an issue for Horgan because right now she is the woman in comedy.
- Divorce, Tuesday, Sky Atlantic, 10.10pm
Ellen E Jones: reasons why we love Sharon Horgan
She’s as busy as a Tube station in rush hour
The dawn of 2015 seemed to light a fire under writer-performer Horgan. She’s had successes before but in the 21 months since the first series of Catastrophe arrived on Channel 4 she’s become a non-stop masterpiece machine.
There’s been a second series of Catastrophe (series three is coming next year), a pilot for BBC2’s working parent-sitcom Motherland (a full series has just been commissioned) and HBO’s Divorce arrives on Sky Atlantic on Tuesday. Horgan completists will also want to track down dinner party-set social satire The Circuit on demand.
The Week Before Christmas is also essential viewing if you want an insight into how growing up on a turkey farm in Co Meath shaped Horgan’s humour. Meanwhile, married-with-kids Horgan is also waist-deep in the co-parenting trenches that provide inspiration for much of her comedy. How does she do it all? Horgan’s work makes us rightly ashamed of such sexiest clichés, but in her own unusually prolific case, the question seems justified.
She spends too much time online
Horgan is a prolific tweeter and a more recent Instagram convert (which makes her TV output even more impressive). Still, if anyone can justify whiling away the hours on time-thief social media, she can. After all, it was through Twitter that her most fruitful collaboration was formed, with Boston-born stand-up comedian and Catastrophe co-creator Rob Delaney.
She makes middle age look cool. Or at least funny
The great Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley, Scott & Bailey) gave us all something to look forward to with her septuagenarian love story Last Tango in Halifax, but for a long time TV viewers have had to put up with the fiction that nothing interesting happens between the ages of 30 and 70. Horgan has shown that the “Sandwich Generation”, all but crushed by familiar responsibilities to both young children and ageing parents aren’t just the invention of demographers. They’re real people with real feelings and there are some very funny jokes about bodily fluids.
She gets men as well as women
While some comedians feel most comfortable riffing on the experiences of their own sex, Horgan’s male characters are just as fully fleshed out — and mercilessly dissected — as her female ones. Partly this is down to her great taste in male collaborators: Dennis Kelly, with whom she co-wrote Pulling and The Circuit, is the genius behind conspiracy thriller Utopia; Graham Linehan is revered for Father Ted; and perhaps Judd Apatow will be next? But Divorce, on which Horgan alone has a “creator” credit, proves it’s not just her collaborators. The delightfully downtrodden Robert, played by Thomas Haden Church, leaves a lasting impression from his very first scene. Thus Horgan’s work is among surprisingly few programmes on television that genuinely appeal equally to both genders.
She’s brutally honest
So while you could watch along with your significant other, if you want to avoid some awkward questions, you might be wiser not to. It was once accepted wisdom in TV-land that audiences switch on in order to switch off.
When we’re unwinding in the evening, the last thing we want is to watch something that feels too close to home — or so the thinking went. In fact this notion led to some very dull television, so it’s lucky for us that Horgan has so spectacularly up-ended it. Her oeuvre features dementia, boring office jobs, manic school runs, bad biannual sex and all the other terrible tediums of daily life, miraculously repackaged for your entertainment.