Sharon Horgan is not, in fact, divorced. She is happily married, with two daughters aged 12 and 7. But the 46-year-old British executive producer and creator of HBO’s new series “Divorce” — starring “Sex and the City” luminary Sarah Jessica Parker, in her highly anticipated return to TV — has made a career out of marital comedies with a brutally honest touch.
Most Americans discovered Horgan through Amazon’s “Catastrophe,” which she and Rob Delaney write and in which they star, playing a couple struggling with married life after an unplanned pregnancy. But the comedy that launched her career was the BBC’s “Pulling,” about a woman who calls off her wedding the night before the big event. So you might say that “Divorce,” which debuts Oct. 9, is the final chapter in Horgan’s trilogy of the wryly observed life cycle of a relationship.
“It’s quite nice that there’s a pattern, because it makes me look clever when I’m not,” she jokes.
Humility aside, Horgan’s keen perception into the human condition is what caught the eye of HBO comedy executive Amy Gravitt, who reached out to her after seeing “Pulling.”
“She writes real people, real women,” says Gravitt. “I think that comes from using her own life as source material.”
So much so that when her husband saw the pilot for “Divorce,” the color drained from his face, Horgan recalls. “He was,” she admits, “visibly very shaken up.”
“Divorce” was born on a blind date.
Parker, who has a first-look deal with HBO, had been mulling the idea of a series about marriage and relationships; Gravitt knew Horgan had been working on scripts with a similar theme. The executive thought the two might have chemistry.
For their momentous first “date,” Horgan dressed to impress the famed fashionista; Parker, Horgan recalls with a laugh, showed up in workout clothes. They quickly fell into an easy rapport.
“She wasn’t going to do something just for the sake of being on TV,” says Horgan. “She wanted to do something that she felt was important to talk about.”
It wasn’t until after that meeting that the shock of realizing she would be the architect of Parker’s return to TV truly sunk in for Horgan. “I just sort of wandered off, went ’round to my friend’s house, a bit dazed, going, ‘I think I’m being asked to write something for Sarah Jessica Parker.’”
It’s been almost 20 years since Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw strode the streets of Manhattan in her Manolos. But Horgan couldn’t let herself think about any of that.
“It’s mental!” she laughs. “I don’t know how I managed to convince myself that it would just be this small show. I had to think, ‘I’m just writing a small show, like all my shows are small. I just happen to be writing a small show for one of the most famous women in the world.’”
Parker plays Frances, a corporate recruiter living in the New York suburbs who announces early on that she has cheated on her husband, Robert (Thomas Haden Church), and wants a divorce. But nothing is as it seems — and loyalties shift as secrets get revealed over the course of the series.
“It’s not the most original idea in the world, but if you haven’t been through a divorce, no one knows what goes on,” says Horgan. “You just see people come out the other side of it. They look like they haven’t been ravaged, but generally they have.”
Both HBO and Parker were on board quickly, knowing that Horgan’s bright, discerning voice was appropriate for such a potentially touchy subject. “I think the fact that she brings the funny to the area gives the series legs,” says Gravitt. “The fact that Sharon approaches it in a heightened tone made it interesting for us and made it interesting for Sarah Jessica.”
Adds Parker, “The HBO stars aligned, and I was fortunate to meet Sharon, who had so much to say about marriage, relationships, and being a woman that was completely in line with the story we had been wanting to tell for years.”
The challenge for Horgan proved to be the writing process — she’d never written alone before. “Catastrophe” is a close collaboration with Delaney — they’d met over Twitter, and for the first two seasons exchanged scripts back-and-forth over email and Skype, polishing and editing as they went. Now, as they work on season three, they’re finally together in London, where the show is set.
“We just sit in a room and talk for hours and just write down what we say,” she says. “Then eventually that finds its way into our story, but generally it always just starts with conversation.”
“Divorce” was different. After her fateful meeting with Parker, back in London and tasked with writing the pilot, Horgan was “terrified.”
“When you’re back-and-forthing with someone else, it can feel like a proper conversation, and so what comes out on the page has a realness to it. How people talk doesn’t necessarily sound like it’s constructed by a bunch of clever people who make TV.”
So she tapped into the world around her; for example, inviting over a close friend who’d recently gotten divorced. “Usually, I’m a little bit sneakily watching from the outside, but because this was so specific, I just asked her to come ’round to the house.”
Indeed, the art of weaving real-life situations into her scripts has become Horgan’s trademark skill set. “Yes, I’m married and happily married, but shit happens within those relationships,” she laughs.
Despite her early misgivings, Horgan delivered a pilot script that HBO quickly greenlit to series.
“She just knows how to take those big life events and turn them into a show that a lot of people can relate to,” says Gravitt. “Her characters are the masters of their own fate. They’re the architects. She lets these people dig the hole. And then the fun is the audience watching them climb out of it.”
There was just one 3,000-mile catch: HBO decided to set up a writers’ room in New York, and “Catastrophe” was moving ahead with season three in London. Says Horgan, “I was feeling like, on the one hand, I must be the luckiest girl in the world, and on the other, how the fuck am I going to do this?”
Paul Simms (“NewsRadio”) was brought on as a showrunner for “Divorce,” as Horgan adapted to transcontinental life. While the writers’ room proved another adjustment for Horgan’s writing style, Simms reports that it took her about three days to settle in, as the staff exchanged stories about their personal tribulations to inform Frances and Robert’s on-screen drama.
Parker, too, proved a valuable collaborator, and a tough critic, as an executive producer. “If you go for an easy laugh, she’ll sniff that out a mile off,” Horgan notes.
“I think they’re both such truthful artists,” adds Gravitt. “Sharon will expose her life as a jumping-off point all for the sake of comedy. And S.J., in her performances and the way she approaches her characters — there’s just not a false note there.”
Horgan sees the series not as a cautionary tale about marriage gone awry but as one about escape. “I hope people watch it and feel a little bit more comfortable in their own disasters and mistakes,” she says. “When you see Sarah Jessica Parker and Thomas Haden Church making them, I think people will feel a little bit of relief. Mainly, I just want people to laugh.”
That is her greatest skill, says Delaney. Yes, she’s prolific, and yes, she’s got tremendous natural curiosity. But it’s her wicked sense of humor that sets her apart.
“The simple thing, of course, is that she is Olympic-level funny,” he says. “She is as funny as Usain Bolt is fast.”
He adds, “There might be somebody in a suburb of Birmingham, Ala., who’s funnier, but they’re lazy, so we might never know.”
Horgan never wanted to be a writer. Growing up in London, she dreamed of being an actress. But through her 20s, she had limited success and struggled to land roles.
“Thank God I wasn’t getting any acting work, or I wouldn’t have started writing,” she says. “Because that’s really changed everything.”
What made her eventually break out from the “conveyor belt” of actresses, she says, was comedy. “There were lots of me’s all over the place. To find that thing that makes you stand out is the trick.”
Though fans of “Catastrophe” praise her on-screen chemistry with Delaney as their characters bicker over everything from how he lists her in his cell-phone contacts to what to name their baby, she doesn’t miss being on camera for “Divorce.”
“It’s really kind of liberating,” she says. “I enjoy watching other people do their thing. You don’t have to sit in the makeup chair at 4 in the morning. You’re not learning lines every night. It felt nice to not do that for a while, and a bit like a privilege.”
She appreciates her success, and how far she’s come since those days when she was struggling to land acting roles. And she’s happy to have found outlets in Amazon and HBO, which embrace her voice as a writer.
“It really is all about quality. It’s not about appealing to a certain demographic. They just want to make a good show, and they both trust you.”
Should “Divorce” be renewed, she and Simms are crafting plans for a continuing storyline. “Season two, both figuratively and in reality, there will be a thaw, and we will see some warm weather,” promises Simms, joking about the production in snow-covered Hastings, N.Y.
Meanwhile, Horgan and Delaney are deep at work on season three of “Catastrophe.”
“We’re literally picking up the second after we left them in series two,” she says. “We’re going to join them right after the disaster of him finding the receipt.” (Spoiler alert for those not caught up on season two: Sharon had an ill-advised one-night stand, and Rob found her receipt for the “morning-after pill.”)
And under the aegis of her production company, Merman, Horgan has got her sights set on even more. “I want to keep making good TV. I want to help other people make TV.”
Perhaps even a film. “I want to try and crack that,” she muses. “The dream would be to make a film that people talk about, that manages to capture what Rob and I did with ‘Catastrophe.’ It doesn’t have to be a romantic comedy, just something that people relate to. But I have to wait a little bit. It’s a little bit busy at the moment.”