Of grief, Delaney says, “I’m not going to say, ‘It’s going to be O.K.’ But I can say, ‘That happened to me. Here’s what I did. Do you want to share some cottage cheese with me?’ ”
Rob Delaney’s first claim to fame was his Twitter feed, which Vulture once described as “a steady stream of jokes so demented and filthy as to be unprintable here and almost everywhere else.” He is best known for his television series “Catastrophe,” a messy, humane, and hilarious show about marriage that he co-wrote and co-starred in with Sharon Horgan. “Catastrophe” aired its final episode in February; Delaney’s upcoming projects include an Amazon standup special called “Jackie” and a role as Megyn Kelly’s producer in the film “Bombshell,” coming in December, about the disgraced Fox News C.E.O. Roger Ailes. Delaney has also spoken in moving detail about getting sober in his twenties and of his two-and-a-half-year-old son, Henry, who died of a brain tumor in January of 2018. He spoke with Emily Nussbaum, the television critic for The New Yorker, about his beginnings in musical theatre, the cinematic influences on “Catastrophe,” writing while grieving, and why he wants to “smash and destroy” private health insurance in the United States.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
I read your memoir, which is a wonderful mixture of funny and sad, and I realized a lot of things I didn’t know about you. One of them is that you used to be big into musical theatre.
Yeah, I have a bachelor of fine arts from N.Y.U. Tisch School of the Arts’ musical-theatre program. I graduated in ’99. My first job was as Sir Lancelot in a touring production of “Camelot.” That’s what I thought I was going to do. But then I found comedy.
Did you turn against musical theatre? You wrote in your book about wanting to live your life as a musical.
I didn’t turn against it. In 1998, [the writer and comedian] Julie Klausner worked at St. Mark’s Bookshop, which I think is not even there anymore. I didn’t know her, but we started talking because I was buying a book, and she told me, “There’s these guys, the Upright Citizens Brigade, you should see them.” So I did. I saw Amy Poehler and Tina Fey and others, and was, like, Yeah, I’m going to do comedy now.
Did you join one of the classes?
I signed up, but I could never take them, because of various—I’d get another job, or I would be drunk. But I did ultimately take [classes] at ImprovOlympic in Los Angeles.
Tell me a little bit about that switch into comedy. You did your first open-mic night a year after you got sober.
I was doing a national tour of “Camelot,” and our bus broke down. We were going to be late getting to our theatre that we were performing at in West Virginia that night. We had to do sound check at every new theatre, so King Arthur would do sound check, then Guinevere, then me. We would always do lines of dialogue and a few bars of a song. But we got there later than the audience did, because of our bus breakdown, so there were twenty-five hundred people in the theatre. Arthur gets up and does some lines of dialogue, then Guinevere, and then I got up and was, like, Wait, these people are about to see us do the play—I don’t want to spoil the legend of Camelot. So I’ll just tell them about our day. I told them about the bus breaking down and people laughed, and, when I heard people laugh in a theatre because of a thing that I thought and said, I was, like, Fuck musicals.
There were twenty-five hundred people there? That’s unusual for a first comedy performance.
I wouldn’t have been funny if I’d known that was coming. I was off-the-cuff, and I was, like, Look at my chill performance style that made everyone so happy. Then, when I specifically went to do standup, the audiences were just, like, “You should kill yourself.”
What were your first standup experiences like? Did you bomb?
Oh, God, yeah. I still do, sometimes. I was bad and not funny. Funny enough here and there that I was, like, I guess I’ll do it again. But it just takes forever to get good.
This was a year after you’d gotten into a major accident in L.A. while blackout drunk and gone through rehab. So you were doing your first comedy sober, and relatively newly sober. Did that affect your comedy?
I don’t think so. I know people who are, like, “Oh, if I get sober, will I still be creative or weird?” For me, the answer is yes. There are lots of things to joke about other than drinking or not drinking. It’s still terrifying whether you drink two beers or not—standup is a ridiculous, stupid thing to do.
In your comedy, you talk a lot about your butt. Why?
You’d think I might not have an answer for that. We all have bodily functions; we’re all embarrassed about them. They’re a great entry point—no pun intended—but they’re a great place to start, because we can all relate. It’s shorthand for any type of emotional shame we might have. Your worst, most embarrassing memory is probably some sort of interpersonal or interfamilial horror, romantic shame, but we can all bust into that faster if we just talk about the time you shit your pants. Then we’re all embarrassed and we can start to do the real work of comedy.
You met Sharon Horgan through Twitter?
I was a fan of her amazing show “Pulling,” and I noticed that she followed me on Twitter. I wrote to her—now ten years ago—and said, “Hey, I love your show, and you, and will you be my friend?” We wound up meeting for coffee and became friendly; we introduced our families to each other and stuff. A few years later, we wrote the pilot of “Catastrophe” together.
One great thing Channel 4 did was: we started the show with [the protagonists Sharon and Rob] already married, and Channel 4 was, like, “What if we see them meet?” And we thought, Surely, that’s like half an episode. Turns out it’s a whole season. Thank you, Channel 4. Sometimes network notes are good.
I was fascinated that you didn’t do any improv on the show—you guys have talked about carefully crafting all the dialogue.
The way we would write is: we would talk, imagine the scenes, transcribe what we were saying, and then read it out loud again, many times, to make sure it really sounded like stuff that would come out of a human mouth, because we were both turned off by shows that sounded too scripted. You’ll hear stuff in some shows, and you think, All right, that’s clever, but it sounds to me like it’s being read off a page. We did work hard to make it all seem realistic and spontaneous, but we didn’t do it through improv.
Also, Sharon and I thought of ourselves as every character in the show, so we wanted to selfishly have all the fun with all the other characters, and then have people come in and just recite what we’d written. Mostly, we wanted to have as much fun as possible writing it, and then we were, like, “Oh, my God, we have to shoot it, too? Oh, O.K.”
The show changes so much as the years go by. It begins as very much a romantic comedy, and it has so much sadness and drama and addiction in it. Did your goals for the show change over the arc of making it?
In some ways. I get frustrated when people say that it’s a comedy-drama, or a “dramedy,” or lump us in with shows that really are comedy-dramas, because we try to have a high joke-to-page ratio. We wanted to have as many jokes on a page as an episode of “I Love Lucy” or “Seinfeld.” And if we could shade the parts that weren’t hard jokes and make it feel realistic, then great, but we always felt our primary responsibility was to make it funny. I guess I’m glad, though, that our natural, bone-deep sadness and darkness made the show stink of tragedy as well.
We wanted to produce a realistic meal of life that had all the ingredients in it. I don’t like things that are one-note—it’s crazy if you watch a drama and it has no laughs in it. Why did you waste your time? Or a comedy that’s all wall-to-wall jokes? Like, even in “MacGruber,” it’s unbelievably funny, but then there’s a part where MacGruber is telling Ryan Phillippe, “Fuck me in my ass.” It’s so pathetic that it’s sad, but it’s also hilarious. Anything that’s all funny is stupid, and anything that’s all sad or guns is also stupid.
You filmed a fair amount of sex scenes in “Catastrophe,” often with you as the nude one. What have you learned from filming so many nude scenes and so many scenes of actually having sex?
We always wanted them to be realistic: messy, grunty. One time, when I was nineteen or twenty, a friend of mine was, like, “I filmed my girlfriend and me having sex. Do you wanna see it?” And I was, like, “N—” and he hit Play. I was so upset. It was so awful and awkward and horrible. It was the worst thing I ever saw in my life. But it was absolutely what people look like having sex. In a way, it’s good that he showed me that, because then I knew that we had to make our stuff look terrible. The effort that must go into a real movie love scene is insane—it’s just not like that. Sex is weird. You get a cramp. A noise happens. We wanted to show the audience: we see you; we know. We wanted it to seem like a necessary bodily function, like, “Oh, God, do I have to do this again?”
One of the inspirations when you were making the show was the “Before” movies—
Specifically “Before Midnight.” I saw that when we were writing the first season, and I immediately called Sharon and I was, like, “Don’t write another syllable!” At that time, I lived in California and she lived in London, so I would write while she was asleep and she would write while I was asleep—we were like a sweatshop. We were brazenly influenced by that film, which is such a stunning portrait of a marriage.
Talk to me about the final image in the series finale.
We knew it would end that way when we started writing the fourth and final season. We’re in the water. Our references were the beginning of Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice,” because they’re in the go-fast boats and the camera’s coming out of the water, and “There Will Be Blood,” when they’re swimming off the coast of California in the scary waves. We just wanted scary water—that’s how we wanted to end it.
Did you have conversations about other endings, or were you just, like, “I think they should swim out deep into the water, and it will be a symbol of fear and mortality.”
We knew that’s what it was going to be. We didn’t think about anything else. We started writing Season 4 not long after my son Henry died. I only agreed to do a fourth season because I knew that if I did, I could afford to not work for however much longer he would be alive. I could just take months off. When we started to write it, I thought, I don’t even care if it’s good. And I thought, How the hell am I going to do this, you know? Over time, I began to enjoy it, and then I began to really enjoy it. And I found grief and work to be compatible. I never stopped being sad, even if I was happy. I think that might have had something to do with the very ending of the show. I was happy for the ending to be ambiguous and difficult, because life is ambiguous and difficult. And because I was a different person, because my family’s lives had been so fundamentally changed.
It would be the three of us [Delaney, Horgan, and the writer’s assistant Chrissy Drucker] in a room, writing. It’s weird to think of writing jokes while grieving—I didn’t think I would be able to do it. And, as I said, at the beginning, I was, like, “I don’t care—I don’t give a fuck. What am I, fuckin’ gonna make a fuckin’ sitcom after the death of your child?”ch It just didn’t seem important. But my perspective of TV, art, anything, became quite right-sized, which is to say it made me realize that making TV is not more important than driving a bus or making a table and chairs out of a stack of wood, but it’s also not less important than that. People need their stories at the end of the day, after you’ve been driving the bus or making tables. You don’t just want to enjoy yourself; you kind of need to. That craft approach to it, thinking of it that way, helped me.
You’ve talked a lot about Henry’s death online in a powerful way. One of the pieces of advice that you give people—not people who have lost children, but people who know people who have lost children—is to ask their child’s name and to talk about them. Can you tell us what Henry was like?
Oh, God. That’s such a wonderful—thank you. Henry had a brain tumor next to his brain stem, on his posterior fossa. That created for him physical disabilities—cranial nerves were messed with. But his frontal lobe—where all the fun stuff and the action was, the laughs and the curiosity—was fine. He was funny and clever and mischievous, and so fun to be with. He spoke sign language—before he turned two he had already picked it up, and, by the time he died, he was amazing. So we all learned sign language for him. He was a little bit of a Yoda type of person. He couldn’t walk but he could shuffle around. He couldn’t talk, because he had a tracheotomy, so he was silent. But his eyes were so blue and bright and beautiful. Just aesthetically, I get really angry that nobody will get to see his eyes anymore. Because they were so beautiful.
He was a curious-looking little fellow, so you’d have to go up to him and get his attention and play with him, because he was perfectly interested doing whatever he was doing, drawing spiders or whatever. . . . There was something special about him. Yeah, I’m biased. It had something to do with his physical vulnerabilities that made you have to get in there with him. . . . He caught your heart and held it. That’s a little bit of what he was like.
Why have you found it valuable and necessary to talk about this with other people? You’ve said that it’s not a therapy thing for you; it’s about creating connections with other families and making them feel heard.
The only people who understand are other people who have lost children. This is sad for me to say, but my parents, who are alive, and wonderful people, when my child died, they became nice adults that I know. They can’t help me with this. They can love me, and I love them, but they can’t get into the core of our pain, my wife and I. But other bereaved parents can. And they don’t even have to say anything. They can just sit next to me. I have a mouthpiece and I’m in the public eye, so I talk about it just because—I live in central London. There’s support for bereaved parents there. What if you live in a suburb of Ames, Iowa, and you don’t have that? If I say something online, it might make that bereaved parent’s day a little less lonely.
In a theatre this size, there are going to be one or two people who have lost a child, or will lose a child. . . . I just want people to know they’re not alone. I’m not going to say, “It’s going to be O.K.” I’m not going help you “get over it.” But I can say, “That happened to me. Here’s what I did. Do you want to share some cottage cheese with me?” And we can do that. We won’t not be sad anymore, but we’ll be sad together.
You’ve had two major health catastrophes in your life, one in the United States and one in the United Kingdom—you were severely injured in the car crash, when you were twenty-five, and then what you’ve been through with Henry. I know that health care is central to how you think about things, and I wonder if you can talk about the difference between the experiences with U.S. health care and U.K. health care.
The short version is it’s better to get sick in the U.K. than here. I’m a pretty vocal advocate for Medicare for All in the U.S. and for support of the N.H.S. in the U.K. I had private health insurance that I paid for back in 2002 when I had my accident—this was pre-A.C.A., or Obamacare—so, when I started to generate fairly sizable hospital bills, my insurance company just dropped me, which they could do back then. So I was paying for surgeries with credit cards. People in this room have done that—maybe they’re doing it right now.
So I knew something needed to change here. I knew my dad and my stepdad get care from the V.A., and I knew if you were very poor or over sixty-five there was something for you. I just thought, it’s really weird that some people get health care from the government and some people don’t. And then I went to the N.H.S. in the U.K., and I remember walking into our local general practitioner to sign up my family and being, like, [breathing heavily] “So what do you need? Do you need a retinal scan? What fluids from me do you need?” And they were, like, “What’s your address?” And I was, like, “O.K., now what else?” That’s it. Now we can go to the doctor. It’s not free—your tax dollars pay for it—but, if you get sick in the U.K., you don’t immediately begin to stress out. What’s the story with my deductible? Was my private prescription plan sold three weeks ago without my knowledge to another company, so I got dropped because I didn’t answer an e-mail? The stress that you have when you get sick in the U.K. is so much less than over here because the financial element isn’t a part of it. You’re still sad or angry because your knee fell apart or something’s wrong with your butthole, but you don’t have the ancillary stress of what’s going to happen to my wallet.
We had the worst possible outcome in the U.K. Our son died. He would have died here; there’s nothing you can do for this type of tumor in a kid that young. What we didn’t have to do was spend hours, days, weeks, months on the phone with billing offices or insurance companies making sure this M.R.I. would be covered. And that was time that we got to spend with our son, the little boy that I just described, rather than with some actuary on the phone in Indiana.
So, yeah, I want to abolish private health insurance in the United States. I want to smash it and destroy it. We have to do it, because the amount of money we spend on health care for people in Medicaid and Medicare and Tricare—we’re doing that, and then we’re paying private health-care companies, C.E.O.s who are making hundreds of millions of dollars, and spending money on advertising. “Your choice! Get the plan that’s right for you”—what the fuck is that? The plan is go to the hospital and it’s covered. There’s your choice. Yeah, I’m a zealot on that one, and I won’t stop until you can go to the hospital without fear of going bankrupt.
Having gone through this, I’m curious how it’s changed your creativity and your sense of humor. When I was asking people what I should ask you, they said, “Does he find some things unfunny now because he’s been through a tragedy?”
Plenty of funny stuff happened in the hospital or at home. I can think about my older boys helping Henry set up his nightly feed into his feeding tube, and dropping a bottle of hospital-grade feed everywhere. . . . My six-year-old going, “Daddy, can I have a sip of it?” I said, “Yeah sure,” and he took a sip, and he immediately vomited. I mean, that’s funny. Henry thought it was funny. And now I have to laugh. It used to be, “I really like to laugh.” Now I have to. Nothing is off limits.