Why the creator of BoJack Horseman embraces sadness
Raphael Bob-Waksberg on how he tells honest stories through his cartoon horse
One of the most affecting moments in the first season of BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s weird and surprisingly dark animated sitcom, is the titular man-horse asking his ghostwriter if he’s beyond redemption. “Do you think it’s too late for me?” he asks, waiting desperately for some confirmation that he’s, deep down, a good person. By then, we’d watched him binge on drugs, alcohol, and self-loathing. He burned bridges and all but ended his career. But at least he could finally admit his failings, right? No answer came, and no answer would come by season’s end.
Series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg would probably tell you that’s the point. There are no easy answers, just the hard work of living life from day to day. So BoJack enters the second season bent on trying to be a good horse (or at the very least a better one), and it’s literally an uphill battle. In a world inhabited by talking animals living in Hollywood, things certainly lean toward the zany. Dogs hosting game shows! Owls voiced by Lisa Kudrow! But at the show’s core, there’s a heartfelt and often arresting meditation on depression and self-improvement that Bob-Waksberg and his team have married to the silliness, making the show unlike any other cartoon on TV.
BoJack Horseman is a meditation on depression and self-improvement
BoJack Horseman just got renewed for a third season, so it’s reasonable to assume Bob-Waksberg will keep injecting his particular brand of comedy into the show for next year. That’s the kind of writer and person he is — someone who loves juxtaposing the bleak with the bright and hopeful. We spoke this week about the show, his inspiration for it, and where things can go from here.
Kwame Opam: By now BoJack Horseman has gone through a long spate of depression and, as of this season, a barely successful self-improvement arc. Why does the show end up being so unrelentingly dark?
Raphael Bob-Waksberg: Oh, is it unrelenting? I wasn't trying to be so unrelenting about it! I think it relents occasionally. I think to me, I wanted to tell a [story] that I felt was honest, and I think a lot of shows that I see are not honest about sadness. I wanted to talk about it, and how hard it is to not be sad for some people. So I think the best way to do that was a wacky cartoon starring a talking horse. I'm really interested in this idea of the very dark and the very wacky kind of rubbing up against each other. And that contrast to me feels very fresh and interesting. I really like the idea of going to really wacky places but also to really dark places and kind of pushing on both sides of "What is the spectrum that this show can be?" I think we've found so far that it's a very wide spectrum, and I'm looking forward to pushing the edges of that further in the next season and hopefully beyond.
BoJack digs pretty deeply into Hollywood personalities and the ruts that people get themselves into. What was the inspiration specifically into getting into this kind of material?
Well, I think the beginning inspiration of the show came from, when I was living in Hollywood, in Laurel Canyon, in a house not that different from BoJack's. I was staying with like friends of friends of friends in this super fancy house. I had like a tiny half-bedroom off to the side, and I [had just] moved to Los Angeles, and I didn't know anybody, and I remember looking out over Hollywood and feeling simultaneously on top of the world, but also never more alone or isolated. And that contrast was really interesting to me. So the first kernel of the idea came from the story of a guy who's had every opportunity imaginable, but still can't find a way to be happy, and what is that about for him? And I think one of the realizations he comes to at the end of the first season is "I haven't been good to the people in my life, and maybe that's the reason I'm not happy." So, a big part of season two was him trying to change his ways — "Can I be a better person, and is that going to lead me to feeling better about myself?" And the answer to that question is very complicated. And it took us 12 episodes to dive into.
Are some of these darker places places you’ve been to before?
I can say, for the record, that I've never attempted to sleep with the daughter of an old flame of mine from 30 years ago. That was created out of whole cloth for the characters on our show. But I think the outlook is something that I can relate to. It's that general feeling of "I don't belong here." I don't know if it's completely universal, but I hope that's a little more universal than just me. One of the ways I would describe his character when I first was pitching my show is he's someone who looks around at everyone at a party and simultaneously feels smarter and stupider then everybody there. He thinks he's the best person in the room, but he also thinks he's the worst. And that idea that "I am smarter then all these people, so why can't I figure out a way to be happy like them?" was one I was always very interested in exploring. In my most misanthropic, narcissistic moments, how I would look around a room of people and feel that way about myself.
What goes into making these complex and often damaged characters funny? You often go from very human (for lack of a better word) moments like the interplay between BoJack and Diane to bits with ridiculous characters like Vincent Adultman.
I think a lot of it is what was going to be fun for us to watch. And as writers, sometimes that's "Let's go really real with this moment and play it really real," and sometimes it’s "let's see how wacky we can go with this Todd subplot". And it's just a matter of feeling it out on our own. But we're always interested in getting to the truth. And we're interested in story first and characters first — I guess we can't be interested in both those things first, but they're kind of related — and comedy second. My thought was that I'm going to assemble a room of very funny comedy writers, and we're not gonna talk about jokes as much. We’re going to talk about story, and I'm thinking that in the writing it'll be funny, because we've worked those muscles. We know how to be funny, we know how to punch up a script, we know how to add jokes. But I'm not interested in being funny for the sake of funny. We're not just making jokes so that we can make jokes. I'm more interested in what are the characters going through.
Ultimately it seems like the overall message of this season is life is about hard work. There are no lessons, no happy ending to be had necessarily.
Well, I don't believe in endings. I think you can fall in love and get married and you can have a wonderful wedding, but then you still have to wake up the next morning and you're still you. Like, you can have the worst day of your life, but then the next day won't be the worst day of your life. And I think it works in a positive and a negative, that all these things that happen are moments in time. And that because of the narrative we've experienced, we've kind of internalized this idea that we're working toward some great ending, and that if we put all our ducks in a row we'll be rewarded, and everything will finally make sense. But the answer is that everything doesn't make sense, at least as far as I’ve found. Maybe you'll interview someone else today who's like "I've figured it out, here's the answer!" But I don't know the answer, and so I think it would be disingenuous to tell our audience "Here's the answer!" It's a struggle, and we're all trying to figure it out, and these characters are trying to figure it out for themselves.
Do you think some people are better equipped at finding moment-to-moment happiness? Are people like Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter just better at being happy?
Yeah, I think some people have different temperaments and some people are, their base level is happier than anyone else. But Todd also has moments of sadness, and so does Mr. Peanutbutter. These moments of darkness. And they are struggling like anybody else, and that perhaps part of their struggles are a little easier in certain ways but maybe harder in other ways.
"I don't believe in endings."
Do you get frustrated with narratives that tend toward "Ross and Rachel get together" neatness? Are you railing against shows like Friends?
I love Friends! Friends is a great show! I'm not going to take a stand against Friends! One thing that I found — and it was a struggle for me as a writer for awhile — [was] I can only write the kinds of shows that I write or tell the kinds of stories that I tell, and that I couldn't do Friends. I think it's wonderful that Marta Kauffman and her team could for so many years, but I've tried to write other kinds of things and I always end up writing the things that I write. I've tried to write things that were my [version of] It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, that were really acerbic and didn't have any feelings and was all about people being assholes. But then I couldn't help but like get some sentimentality in there, and I think that's kind of landed on my style, and this is the kind of show that I want to make. I think BoJack is really the purest expression of the stories that I am interested in exploring as a writer and as a viewer, but to me it's not a rebuke against other shows at all.
This season felt bigger than last season, with each character dealing with their own arcs and, as a result, their own hardships. Will upcoming seasons expand even more?
I don't know. I can't predict it, but my answer is probably no. I think we have our tight, five [character] ensemble and that's who the show is about, and one of the joys of season two was making more room for an amazing cast. And yeah, season one was all about BoJack's story and all the other characters kind of served to help him tell his story. Season two I was like "Let's give everybody a story," and sometimes those stories will interact with each other, but sometimes they won't. And that felt pretty good. I think we're going to keep exploring more ways to do that in season three, but I'm not making The Simpsons here. I'm not interested in going for 25 seasons and just expanding outwards and outwards and outwards. I want to tell our characters’ stories, and I don't want that to diffuse to the point where you can't keep track of anything anymore. I'm a very big fan of our Sloth Lawyer and our Pig Doctor and all the people who work at Vincent Adultman's Business Factory, but I don't want to sacrifice the time of our main characters to focus on them.