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Rob Delaney On Wrapping Up 'Catastrophe' And Working Through Grief

Comic Rob Delaney is co-creator and co-star of the comedy series Catastrophe, about 2 people who decide to marry after their wild fling leaves her pregnant. Delaney talks about being funny, even when life isn't.


Other segments from the episode on April 3, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 3, 2019: Interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.; Interview with Rob Delaney.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our next guest is comic Rob Delaney. He co-created, co-wrote and co-stars in the hilarious series "Catastrophe." All the episodes, including the fourth and final season, are now streaming on Amazon.

In the first episode of the show, an American man named Rob meets an Irish woman named Sharon at a bar in London. They have a six-day fling that becomes serious very quickly when Sharon finds out she's pregnant. Even though they hardly know each other, Rob moves to London so they can try to raise the child together. The series follows them as they get married, have children, lose parents, all the while trying to stay together, remain romantic and not kill each other.

Sharon is played by Sharon Horgan, who co-created and co-wrote the show with Delaney. He first became well-known through his really funny tweets. Delaney has since written essays about recovering from alcoholism and his bouts with depression. In January of last year, Delaney's 2 1/2-year-old son, Henry, died of brain cancer. Soon after, Delaney had to return to comedy, writing the last season of "Catastrophe."

Rob Delaney spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with a clip from the final season of the show. Delaney's character, Rob, is a recovering alcoholic who had relapsed and gotten into an accident while driving drunk, injuring himself. In this scene, he's back in recovery and is returning from a checkup where his neck brace was removed.


SHARON HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) So all good?

ROB DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) Yeah, I got the all-clear, got the clean full bill of health.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris, laughter).

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) You know, she even said that my weight loss has made my penis look bigger.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Did you tell her about the bed sweats?

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) Yeah. She wasn't worried about that.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Really? Did you tell her how it soaks the whole bed now? She not think that's weird and gross?

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) She didn't use those words.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Did you show her the brown thing that just grew on your leg?

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) First of all, it's beige. And does it bother you that I've been declared healthy?

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) No, it doesn't bother me that you're healthy. It's great. It's just interesting that you could spend 40 years inhaling sausage rolls and get rewarded with a clean bill of health. That's - you know, good for you.

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) Maybe you should get a checkup.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) I'm fine.

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) Well, how do you know? I mean, you look fine but could be a mess in there (laughter).

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) What are you laughing at?

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) No, I'm just thinking, you know, one day, each of us is going to go to the doctor and be told, I have extremely bad news.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Jesus Christ.

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) You know, I think I'm going to train for a 10K. Do you want to join me?

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) No.

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) Why?

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Because you fart when you run.

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) Well, if you ran faster, then you wouldn't have to huff them, slowpoke.

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: And that's a scene from the final season of "Catastrophe." My guest is Rob Delaney, who co-stars, co-created and co-wrote the whole show. Rob Delaney, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DELANEY: Thank you.

BRIGER: Many people are going to be really upset that this is the final season of "Catastrophe," myself included. One of the things I really love about the show is just having Sharon and Rob argue together, and it feels so real. And you know, these disputes, like, some of the worst ones just come out of nowhere. Like, they're having this tender moment, like, Rob is clipping Sharon's toenails (laughter), and then something - there's a misstep, and things just go so terribly wrong, and they're shouting at each other and yelling, and it's just - I mean, when that happens in real life, you're like, how did this just happen?

DELANEY: Yeah. Or you might even feel yourself in an argument thinking, oh, I think I'm about to do something stupid, and then you try to pull back, but you do it anyway. Yeah, it can really be a minefield, you know, even in a good marriage. And whenever people get - you know, if, like, younger people watch the show and think, oh, God, I don't want to get married after seeing that...

BRIGER: (Laughter).

DELANEY: ...And I'm like, wait, why not? They're a great couple, is what I think.

BRIGER: You have such a wonderful writing partner and star of the show in Sharon Horgan. How do you two write together?

DELANEY: It takes us about four months to write a season, and we outline like crazy people. Our outlines are very long and very detailed. And then we write a very bad first draft, and then we polish it and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. And we read it out loud constantly. One thing we always try to do is have the things that we say to each other really sound like human speech. So even though we've worked very hard on them and refined them, our worst nightmare is that it would sound, like, you know, written or literary.

BRIGER: There's a lot of sex on the show, and Rob and Sharon talk about sex all the time. And you know, in season four, they've got two kids. They're both exhausted.


BRIGER: They're not having as much sex.


BRIGER: And I wanted to play a scene where Sharon's dad has recently died, and her mom has sort of started seeing a new man who's this senior citizen male model, and Sharon thinks that her mom's moving on too quickly. So I want to play a scene where Sharon and Rob are talking about this.


HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) See the way she laughed at his jokes? It was obscene. Who uses their tongue to laugh? What was that? You think they're having sex?

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) I don't know, maybe. She still has her original hips, right?

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Oh, God. I don't know how I feel about that. I mean, we barely have sex anymore, and that's fine, but not if my mom's going to be doing it more than me. Oh, this is a wake-up call. Should we start making more of an effort?

DELANEY: (As Rob Norris) I don't know. I mean, here's how I feel about sex with you these days - on paper, it sounds amazing, but if you were to initiate it, like tonight, I'd just be angry. But I still have a fond feeling when I look at you. Maybe that's enough.

HORGAN: (As Sharon Morris) Damn it, it is enough.


BRIGER: (Laughter) You know, that's a very funny scene, and it gets to this idea that's incomprehensible to young people - that, you know, there might be a time where you're just too worn out to want to have sex. And I just was wondering - you know, these conversations that you're surprised you have as you get older, about things that you take for granted, and in this part, it's your romantic relationship with your partner. That just seems like an interesting issue to talk about.

DELANEY: Yeah. And I mean, I hope that people who have kids are still having sex from time to time.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

DELANEY: You know, we're not saying, you know, that they don't have sex anymore. But sometimes - I mean, like, in real life, for example, my wife and I are both reading a collection of short stories by Lucia Berlin, and so we'll be like - you know, we can be doing whatever we're doing - folding laundry or turning off the TV - and we'll look at each other and, like, raise our eyebrows and be like, hey, you want to go read a little Lucia Berlin?

BRIGER: (Laughter).

DELANEY: And that's, like, our flirty, go to bed and absolutely read together and go to sleep. And that's wonderful, you know.


DELANEY: So, you know, it's important to have sex, even after you have kids, but it's also important to do other things, you know. And yeah, your libido, you know, waxes and wanes over the years. And personally, I'm looking forward to, you know, maybe sometime around age 70, when my libido just dies, and then I don't have to be, you know, led around by it.

BRIGER: (Laughter) There's not a lot of nudity on the show, but when there is, it's generally provided by you, and...

DELANEY: Yeah, typically my buttocks, yeah.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yes. Were you at all nervous about being naked on the set?

DELANEY: Oh, definitely. But at the same time - you know, and plus, I'm a big person. Like, the first thing you notice when you see me among other people is, he's big, and so just a big, naked man is funny. And we never wanted any of the sex stuff to be - we didn't want anybody to watch it and be like, yeah, baby. We wanted people to watch it and be like, oh, God, this is...

BRIGER: (Laughter).

DELANEY: Because it's just, like, a - it's, like, another body function. Like, you got to do it, you know. And so we just wanted it to be just generally, first of all, funny and, second of all, you know, uncomfortable-slash-awful. Plus, nudity can really stop a story short. If there's naked people on screen, I'm not really paying attention to the story myself. But if it's a big, naked guy's hairy white butt, that's kind of funny. And so I'm happy to use my butt as a punchline. That might be the funniest naked part of a male or female body, is a silly, giant man's hairy, white butt.

BRIGER: Well, I wanted to talk about your physicality a little bit. I mean, you're - you said you're a big guy. You're, like, 6'3". But...

DELANEY: I'm 6'4". I'm 6...

BRIGER: 6'4", excuse me.

DELANEY: Yeah, come on.

BRIGER: I will have to correct that.


BRIGER: You are 6'4". But you - you know, you don't come across as looming or intimidating. You kind of come across as gentle and cuddly (laughter). And I was just wondering, like, if you thought about how to use your body as a comedian, as you were starting down that career?

DELANEY: You know, that's interesting, and I sort of think about that even when I'm just out in the world. Like, I know I'm big. I know I have, like, a heavy Cro-Magnon brow. So I know I'm scary - like, if you're walking down the street at night and you see me, it's - you're like, oh, damn it. And I feel bad about that, so I do try to sort of counter that with my attitude. I do try to sort of, you know, project a kind energy and a, hey, don't worry - you know, like the scary package, lovely, caramel center or something, you know? So I am aware of that, and definitely, yeah, there's aspects of Rob that are like a gentle giant.

BRIGER: I'm sure people have asked you all your life if you play basketball. On the show, there's this couple times where Sharon - your character, Rob, is not working, and he's looking for work. And Sharon a couple times suggests that you try out to be a big-and-tall model. And she's like, you know, you're handsome, you're big, and you're tall, so there you go. And that felt so real to me. Like, I was wondering if someone had actually told you that in your life.

DELANEY: Yeah, twice. What happened - once when I was in high school in Boston and another time when I was going to college in New York City. Both times, it was - I had a friend who, like, worked at a modeling agency, and they were like, I see the guys coming in there. I think maybe you - I can get you a meeting with the person, and I would be like, OK. Like, I would rather do that than work as, like, a barback or whatever, so I'll try. And so I went in, and both times with the meeting they set up, the people were like, wait, are you kidding? Are you kidding me? And, like, that person got chastised for even suggesting it. Yeah. So two times I went into modeling agencies, and they were like, oh, gosh, hey, thank you for coming in, but turn around, and why don't you walk out of here? And you don't need to come back. And - you know, which was just exquisite pain, you know, like, pins and needles, like, behind the eyeballs, like, walking out trying not to cry, being giant, you know, probably knocking over a plant on the way out.

BRIGER: Can't hide - you can't hide.

DELANEY: Yeah, you know, just awful. So I'm glad that when we did have him finally go into one in the third season, I think we did do a good job of conveying the utter horror of what that felt like.

BRIGER: He certainly tucks his head and...


GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with comic Rob Delaney, the co-writer and co-star of the series "Catastrophe," which is streaming on Amazon. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Rob Delaney, co-creator, co-writer and co-star of the comedy series "Catastrophe." All four seasons are streaming on Amazon.

BRIGER: You were writing this final season in the wake of losing your son to cancer. And, you know, it's hard for me to imagine what that must have been like for you to be grieving for your son but have to go to work and try to find humor in the world. Can you just talk a little bit about what that was like for you?

DELANEY: Sure. I only started to do the fourth season once I found out that Henry's brain tumor had returned and that he was going to die. And I knew I wouldn't start but I agreed - you know, I signed up to do the fourth one knowing I wouldn't be able to really begin until after he did die. And the reason I did that was because I have two other kids, and we have a third now. My wife was pregnant when Henry died. And I just wanted my kids to see their dad go to work, really. I didn't want to. I didn't want to do anything. I still often don't. But I love my other kids, and I love my wife, and I knew I had to sort of create some sort of scaffolding in my life that would keep me going and helping - to help me sort of fake it through and then maybe, you know, approximate normal behavior and maybe occasionally feel somewhat normal. And it was hard. It was very hard at first come in and work. Gradually, I started to enjoy it.

And I found grief and work to be compatible. It didn't mean that I - in no way was it a distraction from grief. I don't know that I could distract myself from the grief of losing a child, but it did sort of - like, the way that I've been doing grief is I must, you know, remain sober. I've been sober for 17 years. I must - if I'm not sleeping, I still have to be in a bed for seven or eight hours a night. I force myself to eat. I - my wife and I force ourselves to go on the odd date so that there - our kids have, you know - their parents have a relationship, and they know who each other are so that they can lean on us.

So I - and so work was a part of that because I just - I needed to put a support system in place so that grief could work through me and not kill me, you know? Because if you lose a child, you know, a part of you is like, oh, well, why the hell am I here, you know? 'Cause parts of me wish that they were dead and wish that they were with Henry wherever he may be, you know? Like, I don't fear death anymore. I'd like it to happen a long time in the future because Henry's illness and disability and death and being without him has not made me love his brothers any less or his mother any less. And I want to be here with them. But when it comes time for me to die, I'm going to tap dance. But, yeah, I mean, I have, like, a significant portion of me is - lives in another realm now and is with him.

BRIGER: Did you find support in the people that you worked with on the show?

DELANEY: Yeah. So in the room is Sharon, of course, and then our writing assistant Krissie Ducker, who's also wonderful and was with us for the third and fourth season. And so I just start crying at the desk, and then they'd start to cry. And they'd sort of take a cue from me as to when we could start up again. And by doing that, by sort of grieving at work in front of everybody - I don't know - it created sort of a more honest, healthy environment for us to work in, you know? And amazingly, we were writing a comedy - a joke-heavy comedy throughout this, which is insane. I mean, that's - I still can't believe that.

BRIGER: Rob attends AA meetings on the show. You've been pretty open in the past about your struggles with alcoholism. And it sounds like - in your memoir, you wrote about this - that you were trying to stop drinking for a while, but just couldn't. And then you had this terrible car accident where you blacked out. It seems like you would black out a lot when you were drinking. And...


BRIGER: ...You rammed a car - not your own car - into a - like, a municipal building in LA. And...


BRIGER: What did you break? How many limbs did you break?

DELANEY: I broke my left wrist and had to have surgery on that. I broke my right arm and had to have surgery on that. And then my knees - neither of them were broken, but they were - the skin - they were ripped open to the bone. So I had surgery on all four limbs, but only two of them were broken.

BRIGER: You said you were the most messed up person in your rehab house. And so you were kind of...

DELANEY: Physically, yeah.

BRIGER: Like - yeah, physically. And so you were, like, the mascot.

DELANEY: Yeah, I mean, 'cause I was the type of person you could see from across the street at night while it was raining out and be like, oh, he's - he has problems, whereas other people might've had an easier time hiding them. And I'm so grateful for that. In fact, the line in the first episode of season 4 where Rob says to Chris, you know, I realize that my drinking could kill other people - that's just something I would often say when I was first getting sober because like a lot of alcoholics, I didn't care if I died. But I didn't want to kill anybody else, my God. And so when it was really driven home for me that my drinking could and likely would kill other people, then it made it much easier to stop - I guess not easy, but maybe simple 'cause there was no other choice.

BRIGER: You know, addiction's actually a big part of the show. Your character, Rob, is recovering from alcoholism. There's a character, Dave, who overdoses and ends up in a coma and has...

DELANEY: The laugh a minute.

BRIGER: ...Cognitive impairment. It's the only show I know where two characters have cirrhosis. I mean...

DELANEY: (Laughter).

BRIGER: These - you know, these - it is - it's funny you're laughing 'cause these issues are, like, taken seriously, but they're also played for laughs. And in season 3, Rob is secretly drinking again. I was wondering if it was hard for you to play a character who'd fallen off the wagon.

DELANEY: It wasn't hard to play a character who'd fallen off the wagon. One of the things about "Catastrophe" that I enjoy is that since we write it and executive-produce it, as well - which means, like, we hire everybody and are, you know, really behind the look of the show and the music and everything - so we're always thinking about so many things. So when we finally go to shoot it and we put on our acting hats - if I'm in a scene of a show that I wrote and also produced and I've - am playing anything - it doesn't matter if I'm pretending to be weeping while drunk and begging our babysitter to forgive me for something, or I'm going into a store and buying a bag of potato chips - I am constantly thinking of things like, OK, we've got this much daylight left. Here - you know what would be a good cut opportunity that we didn't think about earlier, or be like, you know, we need - there's kids in the next scene, so I should probably finish this one up early so we can get to that one so that they - 'cause kids can only work a certain number of hours a day.

And all that stuff I find really useful as an actor because it makes me way less precious about my performance, you know? So I try to fully inhabit it and believe what I'm doing and stuff, but I don't - I'm also thinking so much about the bigger picture that I don't really stress out terribly. And I think that might be good.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with comic Rob Delaney, the co-writer and costar of the series "Catastrophe," which is streaming on Amazon. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview our producer Sam Briger recorded with Rob Delaney, co-creator, co-writer and costar of the comedy series "Catastrophe." All four seasons are streaming on Amazon.

BRIGER: You grew up in Marblehead, Mass., and went to NYU to get a degree in musical theater. It sounds like, though, when you were in college, you decided that what you really wanted to do was stand-up comedy. Do you remember your early routine - like, some of your first jokes?

DELANEY: Oh, God. I mean, the first time I ever did stand-up - I mean, just abysmal. I can remember going to an open mic, and I had, like, an atlas with me. And I held it up and pointed to Greenland. And I noticed that - I don't know what language they speak in Greenland, but there's a native name for it, which is, like, Kalit Nunaat (ph) or something is what it looks like phonetically. And I literally, like, pointed at the atlas on stage and then handed around. It was like, hey, that's crazy. That - it has a different name, and it's funny to me 'cause I don't know what it is. And people were like, what is - get off stage. How dare you? How - it's worse enough that you stole my money to see this, but you stole my time. And people were rightfully angry and - so I was very, very bad and then slowly got less bad.

BRIGER: So your career really took off because you started posting jokes on Twitter. Do you remember, like, how or when your account started becoming really big and what one of those first jokes were that hit an audience?

DELANEY: This is, like, sexual, but it's not - you can say it on the radio, I think. I think I said something like, sometimes if I get home from work before my wife does, I can get paralyzed deciding whether to masturbate or eat a whole pizza. And I remember people being like, hey, that was funny, and, you know, retweeting it and - or, like, I just did something like, you're damn right I'm still gardening.

BRIGER: (Laughter).

DELANEY: "The Constant Gardener 2," you know - garden zone. And - so just crap like that. And yeah, gradually, people started to pay attention. And the reason I used it exclusively for jokes was because I was trying to get hired as a late-night writer. So I was submitting joke packets to Jimmy Fallon, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Chelsea Handler and just trying desperately to get work as a joke writer. So Twitter worked pretty well for that. So I think I sort of hit Twitter with the right mindset at the right time that I was able to get enough followers that I was then able to say, like, hey, Bloomington, Minn., I'm coming to do stand-up, and then be able to sell enough tickets to justify it and stuff. So yeah, it was - Twitter was very helpful to me.

BRIGER: Did you, like, used to assess, like, how your jokes did - like, what kind of jokes worked best on Twitter and things like that - or did you just try to...

DELANEY: Only the way that an insane, sad scientist would. Yeah, only at that level of microscopic detail like a real basement dwelling psychopath. Yeah, so not much.

BRIGER: You moved to London to do the show. Do you think the U.K. audience responds differently to the show than the American one?

DELANEY: Not anymore. I think in the beginning, when we would really put Sharon and Rob through the paces, there's a more sort of fatalistic streak in British people or a more resigned quality where they'd be like, yes, of course another terrible thing has happened. Yes. Why would we have expected otherwise - whereas in America, people would be like, what? I tuned in for a sitcom. They can't do that. They're yelling at each other at the - it's the last episode. I - why aren't they tying it up in a bow? And - but now, four seasons later, Americans - they now know how we operate. So there's more, I'd say, parity in the response between the two places.

BRIGER: Rob Delaney, thanks very much for being here.

DELANEY: Thank you for everything. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Rob Delaney is the co-creator, co-writer and costar of the comedy series "Catastrophe." All four seasons are streaming on Amazon. He spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger.


GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll hear the interview I just recorded at a live event with Yannick Nezet-Seguin, the new conductor of the Metropolitan Opera and the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He's a charismatic young conductor leading two institutions with extraordinary histories. I think you'll love hearing him talk about music and conducting. I know I did. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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