By his own admission, Rob Delaney was once a catastrophe. Then came Twitter stardom, smash-hit stand-up tours and Catastrophe. Andrew Lowry meets the man who wants to make everybody laugh. And he means everybody.
Just after the photoshoot for the cover of this magazine, Rob Delaney and I are on our way to find somewhere quiet to have a chat. It’s east London so, of course, some joker has scrawled a C bomb on a wall in oddly jaunty cursive. Liking the look of it, Delaney gets me to grab a snap of him grinning next to it on his phone. He tweets it. By the time we’re sitting down in a pub it’s been retweeted 112 times.
Having recently relocated to London from LA with his young family, Delaney has achieved super-success in a way that would have been impossible only a few years ago. Already a comedian, he joined Twitter in 2009 and his seemingly endless capacity to come up with elaborately surreal imagery of sexual mishaps – and to savagely wind up corporate accounts – quickly led to a truly monstrous following. He’s parlayed this into a succession of smash stand-up tours, writing gigs for TV, a memoir so funny and poignant broadsheets fell over themselves to extract from it and, most recently, the acclaimed TV comedy Catastrophe, which he co-wrote and co-starred in with Sharon Horgan – a transatlantic romance at once bracingly frank, sweet and hilarious. Much like the majority of his work.
Or, his work now, at least. Not everything Delaney’s done has been funny.
HERE’S THE THING
At the heart of Rob Delaney is a redemptive narrative. He’s 38 now, and until he was 25 he was a serious alcoholic. “Even when I was 16 years old,” he says, “I thought, ‘Wow, how come all my other friends can just have fun with it?’ I was starting to black out even then, which is bad. It sucks to wake up and be like, ‘What did I do?’, and then be told and just be disgusted.” A wake-up call eventually came when, after a few attempts at shaking the booze, he crashed his car into a building while driving drunk, injuring himself to the point of multiple surgeries, and landing himself in jail.
“I asked the police from my hospital bed if I’d killed anyone,” he says. “They said no, but when I realised I could kill other people with my drinking, that paradigm shifted. I was cool if I died, but I just wanted to hurt myself, not other people. And I was already hurting people in relationships, and hotel staff whose beds I’d soaked like a sponge with p*ss. But when I realised I could end people’s lives, I could kill a family in a minivan, I thought, ‘Oh, OK, time to flip the coin. I don’t want to be that.’”
Next came rehab, a halfway house, depression, therapy – the kind of lucky escape that takes years (he’s drinking water in this pub, by the way). But what also came was a deep compassion and generosity. Unlike the Boyle-schooled comics who crowd British panel shows and reduce comedy to a d*ck-swinging contest for jackals, Delaney comes across as shy and thoughtful – he pauses to think of answers, and signals he’s done with a meek half-smile. He’s built like an NFL player, dressed like a friendly lumberjack and is hairier than Burt Reynolds’ soul, suggesting blood that is four-parts testosterone to one-part plasma. That said, I’ve met Friesian cattle that have come across as more aggressive. He’s not the type of comedian to do a few lines and go on stage ranting about ‘some broad’ who wronged him. He seems wise. And how many people do you meet that seem wise?
And yes, if you look through all Delaney’s work – from the tweets that made his name to his articles for Vice – there’s a sense of something fresh about the material even if it does deal with grandmothers’ clitorises, diarrhoea and yodelling into vaginas. Masculinity is in flux, as usual, and Delaney is a pioneer in squaring the circle between being able to grow a beard in mere hours and reading Andrea Dworkin – the progressive alpha male, or as he puts it, “One thing that’s nice about today is that a blustery alpha male can say, ‘I’m a feminist, and if you don’t like it, you can blow me,’ to a room of straight men." Amid all the filthy gags, there’s no judgement – all our bodies are funny, and they’re all equal.
NO HECKLING, NO TROLLING
But while the internet has got him to where he is today, has it not also given a platform to misogynists and trolls?
“To me, it’s been a positive thing. A girl in Egypt sent me a picture that she took of herself holding my book in front of the Pyramids in her hijab. That made me cry. I mean, what the f*ck? How did that happen? That was beautiful. On the internet you can find whatever you want, and it’s all confirmation bias. People like men’s rights activists, for me they don’t exist. I know there are people they’ve given an extraordinarily hard time to – death threats and things like that – but they’re operating out of fear and small-mindedness. A girl from a different culture in a different country holding up a book – to me, that’s the stuff. The internet is what you make of it; who you choose to follow says a lot about you.”
Delaney’s not into the kind of comedy that is basically trolling with a microphone. He was even palpably uncomfortable in a recent appearance on the reasonably cuddly Have I Got News For You. He’s a living rejoinder to the kids on Call Of Duty calling people fags online, and the idea that being nasty equals funny.
“It’s not like I think about which community a joke will land with,” he says. “Like Richard Pryor, he was funny if you’re black, if you’re white, if you’re rich, if you’re poor, if you’re American, if you’re British. Even if you’re Canadian. You want your stuff to cover all those bases. I would like women, I would like gay people, I would like people with disabilities to be able to come to my show and laugh. If something’s funny to somebody who’s not in a wheelchair and isn’t funny to someone who is in a wheelchair, it’s not f*cking funny. You lose that joke. Not because you care about their feelings, but to be a mercenary joke hunter, you want everybody to find your jokes funny. I can’t tell a joke that white people like and black people don’t – there are too many black people around for me to not contort myself to make them laugh. Because I want people to enjoy the show. And I’m a very needy comedian.”
Isn’t this framing ethics and decency as pragmatism?
“Ethics are pragmatic. That’s why the NHS in Britain is a good idea even if you’re a greedy c*nt. Because if you take care of your people, they can take care of you. Businesses are made of people. If you want the next Google to be in your country, then have national healthcare, because you don’t want them stressing if their people can afford f*cking leukaemia treatment for their daughter, you want them free to do something. Ethics are pragmatic, and I think a lot of people don’t realise that, especially in business and politics. Which is why they can all do calisthenics to get their tongue ready so they can clean my asshole with it.”
NOT POLITICS AS USUAL
So this is a muscular, practical liberalism – not just avoiding Jim Davidson’s jokebook because it’s, you know, wrong, but accepting that being an entertainer means entertaining everybody, rather than being the spark that lights pitchforks. Because it’s your job. Call it professional progressivism. You can be a lad making fart gags, but also a thinker. Not that this means becoming Bill Hicks and ranting about whoever won an election most recently.
“I talk more about body politics and sexual politics,” he says. “Whoever is in power or a policy – unless it’s super-widespread – it’s not going to be evergreen. I want what I talk about to last – if there are people visiting from 10 years in the future or 10 years in the past, I want them to feel comfortable with my show. I really try to cater to the time-traveller demographic.”
But what of the struggles of life? Delaney’s had his share of rough road (take it from this drinker, you don’t end up in a cell unless you’ve turned pro at indulgence), but he rejects the tortured comedian archetype that has prevented so many troubled guys seeking help.
Anyway, ordinary life, the kind where your shoes don’t have permanent vomit stains, is tough enough.
“Between now and when I go to sleep,” he says, “I’m going to change a bunch of nappies. I have two kids in nappies. And I wear nappies. I sh*t into a bag that I wear. It’s just easier. I mean, I’m not a helpless baby – it’s a choice. I don’t talk about the message of what I do, but I do try to tell my story from the vantage point of turning really dark sh*t into, if not gold, maybe brass. My life on paper might seem like I just go home to my family, but it’s, like, brutal. Yeah, I was in jail for a while, but I got out. The life I have, I only get out when I die, and I hope the people I care for will be alive and set up for life. That’s heavy sh*t. The responsibility. Sitting in a jail cell for a while, that sounds like a vacation.”
So, changing tack completely for a light-hearted finish – for someone who made their name through social media, what’s the trick to Delaney’s popularity?
“All my tweets come to mind very quickly,” he says. “If I struggle to think of one, it’s never funny. My drafts folder of aborted ideas is so unfunny that if anyone read it, they would think there was something wrong with me. And if a joke comes to mind with a turn of phrase that’s too disgusting, I send them to my friend who I exchange jokes with that are not OK to be put out in public.”
But where’s the line? Is he not wary of overstepping the mark? Because iTwitterstorms, however short they are before the mob’s attention moves to its next target for overcooked outrage, are never pleasant things to be caught in the middle of.
“Well, I don’t tweet drunk. Which is an advantage.”
Rob Delaney is touring the UK in June. For details go to robdelaney.com
(Images: Matt Holyoak/Michael Cargill/Rex)