I spent three hours of my past weekend laughing at the smart and wickedly funny Catastrophe (now streaming on Amazon Prime). Starring a comedian I have expressed my appreciation for previously, Rob Delaney, and Sharon Horgan (of the UK’s Pulling, IFC’s deliciously awkwardThe Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret, and a cameo on Moone Boy), it tells a sweet and quietly hilarious story of an ad executive and a teacher brought together by an unexpected pregnancy.
I love this show a great deal, six episodes in (Britain, we have GOT to talk. I need more now please). But what I love even more was how it came about. I recently finished Powers of Two, Joshua Wolf Shenk’s meticulously researched and insightful chronicle of creative partnerships, and I couldn’t help but draw connections between his stages of collaborative work. Both Delaney and Horgan are brilliant in their own right, but together? They’ve created something equally emotionally and wildly funny.
Stage One: Meeting
As someone who has used social media to make many meaningful connections professionally and personally, I love that this collaboration started in much the same way. Delaney, once named “the funniest man on Twitter,” reached out to Horgan largely as a fan of her work. The relationship that they cultivated as a result of that initial outreach led to talk of collaboration, development of a pilot, and now a show- currently filming its second series in London. My takeaway from this? Reach out if you like someone’s style, or admire someone’s work. I’ve mustered the courage to do this a few times, and am so pleased with the results that the strategy has provided.
Stage Two and Three: Confluence + Dialectics
Shenk talks about starting the process of creative partnership by identifying your “person.” He says, “find a stranger who gets you or a friend you think is strange.” If you’re familiar with Delaney or Horgan separately, you’ll find that their senses of humor are (a) very different from their contemporaries, and (b) very different from one another. But their confluence on the show yields a beautiful mix of frankness and sweetness– caring without seeming artificially constructed, and truthfully funny without seeming gimmicky. Be they mutually understood strangers or strange friends (I suspect the former evolved into the latter), the resulting relationship created a tone for the show that is unlike other shows of the same ilk.
As an example, consider its British contemporary Pramface, a show with a similar premise but younger characters. Setups and tropes that bring the characters’ families together and challenges the main protagonists’ romantic relationship are noticeably absent on Catastrophe:
“I think that [normal romantic] stuff makes our hair stand on end, and it’s about finding ways to show the romance without hammering it home and the way you can do that is sneaking it in or using more creative ways”
In their place is a more realistic portrayal of what could be happening in these characters’ lives: when you move for a relationship, who do you hang out with and how do you work? What do your current friends think about your relationship? When an unexpected event brings you together, how do you sort out what you mean to each other? These are next-level questions that most comedies address in a more flippant way. But much of the emotional heart of the show comes not from standard sitcom setups, but the questions that most comedies in this genre simply fail to address. It’s a unique conversation that was an agreed upon principle that the show has excelled at. As you aspire to collaborate on creative work, think about how you can make the conversation around your chosen pursuit, a unique one.
Stage Four: Distance
As with any relationship, time apart is healthy- Delaney gets his through nationwide tours and standup, while Horgan gets hers through acting and writing on other projects. The distance and difference of background, as well as diversity of experience while creating the final product, makes the work richer and allows inspiration to seep in from a number of places. Just as solo work benefits from closing the laptop and walking away for a few hours (or days…or weeks), creative partnership is better for the other pursuits that each party elects to engage in. Horgan and Delaney both admitted to mining their respective lives for material to inform series one. So Rob, Sharon, in the highly unlikely event that you’re reading this…you have my (unsolicited and unneeded) permission to take the time. Series two will be better for it!
Stage Five: Interruption
Presently, interruption isn’t in sight for Horgan and Delaney. Series two is in production right now, so we’ll be getting more Catastrophe. However, this is not the case for all shows. I think about partnerships that have ended acrimoniously (as with Neal Brennan and Dave Chappelle, a creative pair that eventually could no longer collaborate), as well as ones that came to a natural end (more so the case for John Lennon and Paul McCartney, despite persistent rumors). But if I had to speculate how Catastrophe would come to an end, I feel like the creative pair responsible for its creation, will have as much control over its conclusion- and will end it on their own amusing but touching terms. In the meantime, as you examine your own creative relationships, I would encourage you to take similar control over your own fate. Some partnerships will reach a natural conclusion, and can end without contention or explosiveness. Take stock of the work, take stock of the relationship, and decide if you have one more in you. Odds are, the world needs it just as much as I needed the three hours of laughs that Catastrophe gave me.
Who are your creative “better halves”? What are you working on? And have you watched Catastrophe? I need someone to talk to about it!