‘These days female comedy sells, and people want to watch it’ – In the old days there was ‘French and Saunders’. Now there’s Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, not to mention Horgan herself, with ‘Psychobitches’ and ‘Catastrophe’. Does comedy need quotas?
In 2006 the TV comedy series – when it came to women, anyway – was a genre suffering from a vacuum. We scoffed at Sarah Jessica Parker’s ability to afford Manolo Blahniks on her freelance-journalist salary. (Even if we still watched Sex and the City.) The whipsmart Channel 4 sketch show Smack the Pony had ended. And the monochrome, monoclass Friends limped on in endless E4 repeats. But then along came the BBC series Pulling, about three single female flatmates. Sharon Horgan was not just one of the actors but also, with Dennis Kelly, wrote the series.
Horgan sits in a hotel room in Kilkenny and casts her mind back. “Pulling came about because Dennis and I wrote three female characters – but they could easily have been male, because we were talking about a specific time in someone’s life. We were both penniless and living in London and trying to capture the sense of living in a vibrant city where everything’s happening but it’s happening to other people. “When people started watching the show we realised how great it was that the women were telling the jokes and not just being fed a line for a guy to deliver the great punchline. We were happy that we’d written characters that were monstrous and not just the loving girlfriend or understanding wife . . . That really winds me up,” she says, laughing.
Comedy, Horgan says, was not something that initially interested her. The plan was to be “a serious actor”, even though she hadn’t been to drama school. She was born in Hackney, but the family – which includes her rugby-playing brother, Shane, and Second Captains producer Mark – moved back to Ireland when she was seven. Her parents ran a turkey farm, and she remembers, growing up, seeing the kind of television comedy that would influence her. “I watched Porridge, Rising Damp . . . all sitcoms with brilliant central characters, and then Blackadder and The Young Ones. It was always broader, and bigger characters.”
Horgan eventually made her way back to England and thought about what she wanted to do. “I knew I had to get out. I didn’t know anyone in London, so it felt easier to fail where no one was watching. I think I would have found it harder in Ireland, and I didn’t even come back for a few years, because I hadn’t yet done anything,” she says, laughing again. “There was a bigger pond and freedom to fail.” She began writing with Kelly (whose most recent TV project is the cult show Utopia), and in 2001 they jointly won the BBC New Comedy award for sketch writing. The pair met at a youth theatre; when they began working together they realised there was always a comic undertone, even to their more serious efforts.
“We made each other laugh and made a couple of rubbish sitcoms together before we knew how to do it properly. At the time the pool of female comedy writer and performers was smaller, so you swam your way to the top quicker than if you went the dramatic route.” Much is made of the fact that, from writing to stand-up and panel shows, comedy is heavily dominated by men. It’s a discussion that women in comedy gamely field questions on; Horgan says there is a distinct difference between the acting-and-writing strand and stand-up. “Female comedy sells these days, and people want to watch it – it’s proven itself, it’s not a niche thing. “That said, I’m not part of the stand-up scene, and it is an issue there, and panel shows get to feel that if there’s one woman on the panel they’ve covered their female quota.”
When Horgan was growing up there were definitely fewer women in both comic roles and stand-up. Watching French and Saunders, she identified it as some of the best comedy she’d seen. “I think about those women and know that I’d be as happy watching them as watching Tina [Fey] and Amy [Poehler]. Because they made such a strong impact I wasn’t thinking, Where are the rest of the women? I was thinking, This is the funniest thing on TV.”
Since Pulling Horgan has been consistently busy, with 2012’s Dead Boss, and more recently with Catastrophe, a new Channel 4 series with Rob Delaney. Her next project is a return to Psychobitches, the irreverent sketch show in which famous women from history undergo psychotherapy. The large cast also features Katy Brand, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Meera Syal and Zawe Ashton. Horgan has been turned into Cleopatra, Leni Riefenstahl and Virginia Woolf – and when it comes to costumes, they go all out. For Madame de Pompadour her wig was home to mice. For the Black Beauty author, Anna Sewell, Horgan endured “a horse chewing at my feet”. In the second series she takes on Grace Kelly, Lucretia Borgia, Simone de Beauvoir and Bonnie Parker. There’s also a dance routine by the Mitford sisters, and Carmen Miranda.
Horgan’s sketches were shot quickly, which was tricky because of the wardrobe. “I try to keep all the voices in my head, and because of scheduling issues I did them all in a week. For Carmen Miranda I had so much fruit on my head that it gave me a bad back for about two months. But I loved every minute. I’ve been waiting all my life to do a show like this. It’s what comedy is all about it: getting to play daft characters and dress up.”
The new series of Psychobitches starts on Sky Arts on Tuesday
This article was originally published in The Irish Times on November 22nd, 2014