Explain a bit about Catastrophe – what’s it all about.
A man and a woman fall in lust – an Irish teacher and an America advertising executive. They have an affinity for each other. They have a little dalliance – an affair that lasts a week – and she falls pregnant. And because they’re not 22, he decides to uproot himself from America and settle here, and they make a go of it.
Where did the idea come from?
Sharon and I are friends – we’re both married, we both have two kids each. We’re both happy, but we’re at similar points in our lives, where we’re trying to maintain a marriage, trying to maintain parenting, trying to do so with a modicum of grace from time to time. When I say that, I’m talking five minutes of your week – if you’re able to sit down for those five minutes and savour them, that’s a victory. If it’s not total, total mayhem at all times – which for me it is, my kids are one and three, hers are older – then it’s a victory. Our show, which is crazy, is not as crazy as the things which we come in and tell each other each morning when we go to work, the stuff that happens in our families. Anybody can raise kids – not well, but the biological imperative makes you wiggle around and grunt with other adults, and then kids happen. And if you don’t do a passable job looking after them, they’re going to die. But you can just totally run a relationship into the ground and treat another adult like garbage. You have no obligation to be nice to your spouse. Unless you want it to keep working. And the skill-set required to do that is harder than anything I've ever done. I've run marathons, I've been in jail, I've been in a wheelchair – being married and maintaining it is harder than any of those things by a lot. And we wanted to write about that. So it’s a show where the stakes of the relationship are high right out of the gate, and we want the characters to like each other sometimes and love each other sometimes and want to kill each other with a hammer sometimes. We wanted to show something real, something bloody and painful, with glimpses of beauty once in a while. Polluted with jokes, of course. We wanted the joke content to be intoxicating and suffocating.
How did you and Sharon become friends?
We met on Twitter a few years ago. I was a huge fan of Sharon, I think she’s the funniest person alive. Maybe Richard Pryor is funnier, but he’s dead. I was crazy about all her shows, couldn't watch them enough, and I saw she’d followed me on Twitter. I wrote to her and said “Maybe your computer has a bug and you followed me by mistake, but I’m a giant fan.” And she said “No, I know who you are, you foolish little comedian,” and we became friendly. And if I was in London or she was in LA we’d meet up, and we hit it off. And, as I say, we’re at similar junctures in our lives, married parents doing the best we can.
Why did you decide to give the characters your own names?
At first we just did it because we knew we were going to be in it, and we were writing it, so it was just easy to do that. And initially we thought we’d end up giving them different names. In retrospect, I’m glad that we didn’t, because in writing it and brutally mining our own personal lives – the show is semi-autobiographical for both of us, in some aspects – it just seemed to make it easier to put it all out there by using our own names. And after we’d written it, we kind of went “Oh, we never changed our names.” Maybe when the show comes out, we’ll regret it, because people will think it’s all really us.
You’re teetotal. Was it important to you to make your character teetotal as well?
No, not at all. That was Sharon’s idea, I couldn't care less. I happen to not drink, but I don’t think that’s interesting, and I've seen enough movies and TV where that’s sort of a big factor. But I’m also biased, because I think we might look at aspects of our own lives and think “That’s not interesting!” Sharon thought it was. So I usually defer to other people’s opinions when it’s stuff that I’m closer to. I don’t proselytise it. It just so happens that I don’t drink, but I don’t not drink because alcohol is bad. I don’t drink because my own personal history showed me that I probably shouldn't. But I couldn't care less who drinks and who doesn't.
Your mum is played by Carrie Fisher. That is brilliant!
Just unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that we got her. Even still. We got her, we’re editing it, I’ve seen everything we shot of her, many times, as we edit. But I still can’t believe it. When she came on to the set, we were just agog. What a coup!
The show’s already been praised by the Radio Times as possibly the comedy hit of 2015. That has to go down as a great start.
Yeah. I don’t know if people will like the show. Enough people have seen the first episode and liked it that I’m optimistic about people liking the first episode, but there’s still quite a few more after that. But we’ve made the show that we wanted to make. We did capture the feel and the tone and the character, and espouse the ideas and beliefs that we wanted to, so we’ve made what we wanted to make. So if people don’t like it, they’re saying they don’t like us, and who we are as people, on a molecular level. [Laughs]. But of course I’m grateful that Radio Times liked it.
You’ve got a huge following Twitter, and you were named the funniest person on Twitter by Comedy Central. That’s some achievement, on a medium where you’ve got millions of people who are trying to be funny all the time.
Yeah, I’m really grateful that people like what I do on there. It’s weird, Twitter is such a crazy, big, powerful tool. It’s like a bulldozer: It can clean up hurricane damage at an amazing rate, but it can also run over a family having a picnic. It’s such a big, weird thing, but I’m glad people have embraced the manner in which I use it. I’m happy I fell into a groove with it.
Did that then cross over to you having a higher profile as a stand up?
Oh yeah, without question. I would never downplay the role that Twitter has played for me. Sure, I might have been writing and performing for years before Twitter, but it has opened a tremendous amount of doors for me. It’s an indispensable building block in my little hut that I’m building, for sure.
Is stand up still the purest form of your art for you? Is it something you want to stick with, no matter how successful the writing and acting becomes?
Yeah, stand up makes me very happy. I have a dream partner with Sharon, because we have so much fun, and we get to make something bigger together. We get to collaborate and bring the best out of each other. So doing this show has been magnificent. But I think, for me, the purity of getting onstage with a mike and just going… I don’t know how to live without that. It brings me perfect peace. I have the stand-up’s sickness that when I get on the stage with a mike, it feels to me the way a normal person feels when they get into a Jacuzzi. Something’s aberrant with my brain. I have to do stand up, so yeah, I’ll keep doing it.
How did you find it working on a British show? Do we do things differently here?
What I love about British sitcoms is that generally one or two people write every episode of the series. If people like the show, that’s so great for Sharon and me. If people like a show in the US, that’s still great, but you have to divide that by 13 staff-writers. That’s an aspect of British television that I really like. That’s why this has been the most gratifying television experience that I’ve ever been a part of. By many multiples.
Do you think there’s a difference in the British and American sense of humour?
There’s a higher value placed on comedy, culturally, in the UK. If you sliced a British person in half with a sword, you’d find that they had a more developed comedy organ in them than the average American. That doesn’t mean that incredibly funny things don’t come out of the US. But here, the guy who comes over to fix your boiler in the UK, there’s a higher likelihood that he’ll say something funny than his American counterpart. I think British people recognise comedy as a vital lubricant to any human transactions.
Catastrophe starts on Monday 19th January at 10pm on Channel 4