As a comedian, Rob Delaney has a favourite punchline. He’s called Rob Delaney.
‘There are some comedians who want to be cool,’ the 43-year-old tells Weekend over breakfast in London. ‘I’m not among them. I’ve got no interest in seeing a stand-up who’s like, “Hey, let’s celebrate how organised I am, or how well I did that thing.” That would be weird. But if someone gets up and says, “I screwed up”’ – he gives an apologetic shrug – ‘that’s something we can all identify with.’
Delaney’s new stand-up special, Jackie – currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video – is a case in point. Recorded last year at London’s Hackney Empire, it features a lengthy inventory of his personal shortcomings – as a physical specimen, as a husband, as the worst possible chaperone to send on a school field trip – served up for our entertainment. And possibly as a form of therapy, too (he hopes that, by making himself the butt of his own jokes, he might be inspired to ‘do better tomorrow’).
At one point in the show, Delaney estimates the weight of all the times he’s apologised to his wife Leah would add up to ‘700 metric tonnes’ – while she’s never once said sorry to him. Though he concedes there may have been a bit of rounding up and down for comic effect. ‘Of course my wife has said she’s sorry. But do I say it a thousand times more? Yes, because I offend both God and man more than she does.’
Not all the jokes in Jackie (the title is a tribute to the latest love of his life, his pet bearded dragon) are at his own expense. The Boston, Massachusetts native also talks about adjusting to life in Britain – a country where ‘the sun sets just after lunch’. He came here in 2014 to film the first series of Catastrophe – his sublime sitcom with co-writer/star Sharon Horgan, about a couple whose one-night stand escalates into a full-blown accidental family – and never left. After six years in London, then, would he say he’s becoming more British, or more bewildered? ‘A little bit of both,’ he considers. ‘There are certain things about British culture, and the UK’s respect for tradition, that rankle my American spirit – where I’m like, “Tradition? But it must be smashed!”
‘There are vast similarities between the US and the UK, but also differences,’ he adds. ‘The percentage of the populace who want to take care of the most vulnerable is a little higher here, so that’s nice.’
In recent years, Delaney has devoted increasing amounts of time and energy to political activism. A vocal supporter of outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, he’s now backing Bernie Sanders to take on Donald Trump for the US presidency. But with voters on both sides of the Atlantic rejecting socialism at every opportunity, does he never lose faith?
‘I don’t fight to win,’ he insists. ‘I fight because there’s a fire inside of me that’s been fuelled by having a disabled child, having a child die of cancer, and being around people who are materially less fortunate than me experience those same things. Am I going to quit? No, because I think in terms of the lifetime horizon, not a five-year horizon.’
The child he’s talking about is his son Henry, who died from brain cancer, aged two, in January 2018. ‘Two years on, it’s incredibly painful and I think about him every day,’ says Delaney. ‘I miss him. I just want to hold him and kiss him and care for him.
‘I mean, I have to work out my relationship with him, because he’s still my son, I’m still his father. I don’t know where he is. I do know that he’s in my heart. I do know that he receives 25 per cent of my parenting energy and attention. I say 25 per cent because I have three other kids [all boys, the youngest born 18 months ago]. So I’m still sounding it out and figuring it out. It’s a painful work in progress.’
Since Henry’s death, Delaney has been vocal both about his grief, and other people’s struggle to handle and properly respond to that grief. But he feels it might be time to move on from that. ‘I don’t think I’ve anything new to say about it, nor do I feel an overwhelming responsibility to talk about it for others. Anyone whose child died less than two years ago will tell you it feels like it happened yesterday. So I have to be very careful, for me and my family, how and when I talk about it. I hope that when I do, it can help other people. But that is not my primary concern, and maybe never will be.’
I have to work out my relationship with him, because he’s still my son, I’m still his father. I don’t know where he is. I do know that he’s in my heart.Rob Delaney
Even in the depths of grief – when he was too broken to carry out basic functions like replying to emails – Delaney somehow managed to keep writing comedy; it’s something he’s likened to ‘a vital sign’. Of late, he’s also been chipping away at the Hollywood coalface, turning in a series of scene-stealing minor roles in mega-blockbusters like Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw and the recent Bombshell, alongside Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie. Presumably his mobile contacts have become increasingly A-list? ‘It really is pretty insane,’ he says, shaking his head. ‘Even I can look through my phonebook and be like, “Jesus!”’
He’s relieved, though, that success didn’t come sooner. A drinker since the age of 12, he spent his early years combining alcohol abuse with a failing comedy career – a lifestyle that came crashing to a head when, aged 25, he drunk-drove his car into the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building. With a broken arm and wrist, and both knees ripped to the bone, he was patched up, placed in a wheelchair and packed off to spend the night in jail.
Rehab eventually sorted the drink problem, while his jokes finally found an audience via social media, earning him Comedy Central’s inaugural Funniest Person on Twitter Award in 2012. It’s also where he met his future TV wife, sowing the seeds for Catastrophe and all the life changes that followed. ‘I was sober, married and had two kids by the time I got on television with any regularity,’ he says. ‘So I’m grateful that it happened when it did, and not a moment earlier.’
He became a fan of Sharon Horgan through her sitcom Pulling. ‘We hit it off as friends at first, and then when we started to work together, thank goodness, it gelled,’ he says. Last year’s final series of Catastrophe ended with Rob and Sharon swimming out to sea. ‘But I’m sure we’ll work together again.’
Slightly improbably, he has a degree in musical theater from New York’s Tisch School of the Arts. Was he sorry not to bag a role in the Cats movie? ‘When I heard it was being made, and who was in it, I was upset not to be among those names,’ he admits. ‘Now, I think I’m okay not being a part of it. But I really do want to do a musical soon, and I’m working to make that happen.’
In interviews when Henry was sick – but before his illness was public – Delaney was still claiming to be an optimist by nature. ‘Did I say that?’ he puzzles. ‘I wonder if I was lying. I must have been whistling past the actual graveyard.
‘I’m not an optimist, nor am I a pessimist,’ he says. ‘I love life, and I love being alive. But bad things, painful things, will happen, and things won’t always work out.’
Through it all, though, that vital sign remains: for Rob Delaney, it’s important to keep laughing. Especially at himself.
Jackie is streaming on Amazon Prime Video now.
An edited version of this article was published in Waitrose Weekend on March 5, 2020.