Rob Delaney on love, loss and married life: ‘No, my wife is not having an affair with her karate teacher’

The star of Catastrophe and Home Sweet Home Alone answers your questions on everything from family tragedy to the value of comedy

Rob Delaney – comedian, actor, writer, tweeter, activist – co-wrote and co-starred in the Channel 4 sitcom Catastrophe with Sharon Horgan. Now he has a starring role in the film Home Sweet Home Alone. He has also written and spoken movingly about the death of his two-year-old son, Henry. Here, he answers questions from readers about all of this, as well as being an American in London – and how he keeps his hair looking so great.

When you were offered the role in Home Sweet Home Alone, did you hesitate and think that maybe another remake of a successful movie would be pointless? Bernard Hautecler, Brussels, Belgium

And similarly …

What part of the new Home Alone seemed like a good idea? It’s a Christmas classic, loved by millions worldwide; why did you feel it was appropriate to star in a carbon copy? James Burgess, Lake District

Those are entirely legitimate questions. When I heard they were going to make a new Home Alone film, I thought: well, that’s not necessary. But when I was sent the script I thought: sure, I’ll read it. I love to read scripts, good or bad – they help me as a writer.

I was immediately won over – the script was gorgeous and hilarious. If anyone doubts me, I would just say watch some Saturday Night Live sketches written by these guys, Mikey Day and Streeter Seidell. That should put your concerns to rest. They are wildly clever and inventive. Yes, you have all the wonderfully violent stunts that you would hope to have in a Home Alone film – but the story is genuinely original.

‘Genuinely original’ ... watch the trailer for Home Sweet Home Alone.

It’s perfectly understandable to be terrified or angry that they are making a new Home Alone film – until you see it. I am at peace with questions like that, because I used to be like those people.

How’s that lizard of yours? David, Sheffield

Very well. Jackie the bearded dragon is alive, happy. We live in a tall, skinny house and she’s too many storeys up to go and show you, but Jackie is doing great.

As a fresh set of eyes, do you feel the NHS is an outdated model of care, or an under-resourced gold standard? Solomon Kamal-Uddin, Amersham

Despite the efforts of some, the latter – under-resourced gold standard – and I feel I can say that with some authority. I moved here at 37, so I had nearly four decades of the American healthcare system and then discovered the NHS, which we were just wowed by even before our son got very sick and had a very long, almost two-year, experience with the NHS.

If you have a fairly small thing like the flu, you go to the local GP, you get taken care of, you’re not charged and it is dealt with. If you have a catastrophic event like a brain tumour or a heart attack, even if you’re in a private hospital, then they immediately get you in an ambulance to an NHS hospital where you will be treated with an amazing standard of care.

The trouble is – and this is stuff people experience especially when they age – if you need knee surgery that isn’t urgent, you’re going to be waiting a while. That’s when you can feel that it is a political choice by parliament. They say: oh, that’s not an emergency, even if you are in crippling pain. So it’s a funding issue, a political choice that is made each morning by the people in power.

Rob, you have done us a huge service by speaking and writing about aspects of your personal life. Your writing about the loss of your beautiful son Henry has been raw and incredibly valuable to people. How do you and your family [Delaney and his wife have three other children] decide what to share and what to keep private? And how do you protect your mental health while sharing these painful parts of your life? Nancy, London

As a family, we are very concerned with things like children’s hospices, and we do a lot to raise money for kids and families with life-limiting illnesses, but I don’t just trot it out. My family’s grief isn’t a commodity to fill airtime or space – it’s more precious and when used consciously can really help people.

What if someone lives in a really rural area? I live in London; I can go to a bereaved parents’ group once or twice a week if I want. What if someone lives in a tiny town in the Yorkshire Dales and it’s not readily available? Then it might be great, if they have lost a child or have a child who is dying, to hear my family’s experience with that. It might be of genuine use to them. And I know, because of how other bereaved parents’ stories have been useful to me.

Your character in Catastrophe, Rob, became very intense, almost hostile, towards the end of the series. How much of your personality did Rob contain? Makbul Patel, Bolton

Rob (Rob Delaney) and Sharon (Sharon Horgan) in Catastrophe
‘The characters continually make the choice to stay together and work it out’ ... with Sharon Horgan in Catastrophe. Photograph: Mark Johnson/Channel 4

I like that question. You can really divide Catastrophe: the first two series we made when all my family was alive and healthy, the third series we made when Henry was in the hospital post cancer diagnosis, post massive brain surgery that crippled him, and then the fourth season was written and shot after he died.

We never, ever lost sight of the fact that it was a sitcom; for Sharon and me, our prime directive was to have the show be funny. That said, within that framework, I was in an incredible amount of pain; there was a lot of anger, there was a lot of hostility in my heart and mind during the last two seasons – and that absolutely went into the show. And I’m glad it did, because I think it made the show truer and better.

I saw the relationship between Sharon and Rob in Catastrophe as honest, loving, witty and, to some degree, aspirational. My boyfriend said it was a toxic relationship that should probably end. With whom do you agree? Christine, London

My wife and I have been together for 17 years. We have learned and we continue to learn about the work that a relationship requires and the humility required to nurture love and a close relationship. So, for me, Catastrophe is a great example of two people who, of course, have faults and foibles (and we sharpened the edges to make it funnier TV), but we tried to keep them as real people – real people who fall in or out of love. The characters continually make the choice – even when the odds are against them – to stay together and work it out; that is an expression of how real relationships are and what they look like.

So, I’m strongly in the camp of the questioner, not her boyfriend.

Rob Delaney
‘Social media is a tool that is frequently used for bad, like a machete.’ Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

I’m sorry to be the one to bring this up, but has it ever occurred to you that your wife may be having an affair with her karate sensei? Marc, Sunderland

Sometimes on Twitter I pretend my wife is clearly having an affair with her karate teacher and I am oblivious. It’s a long-running gag that I don’t know if anyone else enjoys, but for some reason it makes me laugh. In real life, my wife doesn’t take karate – and if she is having an affair with any kind of trainer or person more athletic than myself, she’s doing a good job hiding it.

What are the books that you have loved and recommend? Mary Buck, Virginia, US

My favourite writer is Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer. I discovered her at the beginning of lockdown and she has dethroned every other favourite writer I have ever had, because of her ability to twist your guts with deceptively simple domestic stories.

Delaney’s mum, Nancy, is visiting from the US and briefly joins the video call to deliver a cup of coffee. Sadly, there are no reader questions for her, but she says that Delaney is a wonderful son and always has been. As a kid, he was inquisitive, thoughtful and funny; on car journeys, he would entertain them all. One thing that could be worked on? “Like me, he could have more patience. But I don’t know: I’m a fan, I think he’s the best.”

Rob, if you had been born British, which aspects of you would be different? Grant Evans, Mumbles

Mmm, I don’t know. I really enjoy scary nature. It’s difficult to find an animal in Britain that could kill you, whereas in California there’s rattlesnakes and mountain lions – that was always thrilling about going on a hike. Here, there aren’t too many beaches with waves that could absolutely end your life quickly; in Malibu, there are.

But the thing is, I know a lot of British people who are really adventurous and find that stuff anyway. So, I was going to say maybe I would be more averse to big, scary nature, but I know so many British people who love to do the craziest stuff. So I’m not sure what would be different about me.

I don’t think this is a great answer.

You’ve been here a few years now. How different do you find the UK from the US, and what do you think about the direction America is heading? Anthony, Lancashire

I think the US and the UK suffer from many of the same problems. The root of it all is income inequality and the widening gap between the super-rich and the poor masses. It’s easy and fun to point to the US and say: oh, what a disaster, but the fact is, if you die of poverty in the UK, you still get incinerated at a similar crematorium or buried at a graveyard that looks just like the one in the US. The real endemic problems in both societies are pretty similar.

That said, gun culture in the US is a massive blot on the nation and the people who run it. And there is still a stronger social safety net here.

I lament the direction the US is headed in politically. Biden is the definition of mediocrity and the Senate is a nightmare – it’s such an obstacle to necessary progress. There are things that are wonderful about America – millions of incredible, beautiful people, wonderful nature. I can’t slam the US wholesale, but the US’s billionaires and senators are doing a good job of ruining things for a lot of people. I should say the proof is in the pudding: I am American, but I choose to live here.

Do you feel that the way you look at life and your sense of humour is more accepted in the UK than in your own country? David Gow, Edinburgh

No, I don’t. I feel comfortable making jokes here and I feel accepted as a person of humour. But the idea that my comedy would appeal to one populace over another makes me physically sweat. In Catastrophe, which was most watched in the US and the UK, we would always try to make sure that jokes would work in both places – unless we found one that would be such a home run in one place that we didn’t care what the other place thought.

Are there any British quirks that you still struggle to understand? Lee Lugard-Davies, Maidstone

British people make holiday plans psychopathically early, so if we try to do something for half-term and it’s a mere nine weeks before, everything will be booked. Will you relax, British people!

Do you ever find it difficult to reconcile your political views with the work you do as an entertainer? And can anti-capitalist art ever exist, undiluted and sincere within a media culture driven by profit? Jonathan Evans, Oxford

Any socialist model aspires to create significant swathes of time for people to consume and enjoy and make art, so I think entertainment is entirely compatible and necessary. The only show I wrote that made it to television was Catastrophe and we really endeavoured to make Rob’s work [advertising for a pharmaceutical firm] look awful. I was pleased – and I think this will support an affirmative answer to the question – when a friend of my dad who works in the pharmaceutical industry asked me: how did you nail what it is like in the pharmaceutical industry? Who did you consult? I was like: oh, we just tried to think up the most cash-hungry, monstrous people and scenarios that we could.

I feel that Catastrophe would comfortably fit in the canon of … you know [Robert Tressell’s 1914 novel] The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists? That book would be like the Bible and Catastrophe would be like a starter pamphlet for idiots. In the pantheon of good anti-capitalist art, they would sell copies of Catastrophe outside that pantheon.

Throughout lockdown, your hair always looked fabulous in social media posts. How did you keep your mane looking so terrific while you were stuck at home? Paul Tandy, London

How kind of that person to ask that. I guess just not cutting it? And certainly not washing it with any kind of frequency. All those natural oils – and just letting it be what it wanted to be.

In this age of the hairless, metrosexual man, have you ever been tempted to wax or shave your body hair? Jackie Hughes, London

No. And I think we have equalised a bit there – where there was a big rip-all-your-hair-off thing for a while, I think people now are like: that’s a lot of work, and the pendulum has swung back in the right direction. I never thought I should shave my body or anything like that. Never felt it, never did it.

When historians look back on this period, how do you think they will judge the influence of social media – something that was a force for good or for bad? Frank, Germany

A force for bad, on aggregate. Let’s use America as an example. Somebody in West Virginia – you know, a low-income voter for Trump – and me – a comedian, previously Los Angeles and now London – there’s just so much less difference than we are led to believe by the media. They sow division so that they can control us – and it works. Social media has been a successful tool in creating that division where we really police ourselves and police each other and subscribe to one camp or the other.

I should say it is a tool that is frequently used for bad, like a machete. A machete can clear a path through the jungle to get medical supplies to people who need it, or it can be used to hack somebody apart. And so people use it incorrectly. Whereas I use it beautifully.

Home Sweet Home Alone is exclusively on Disney+


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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