Back in the ‘90s
I was in a very famous TV show
I’m BoJack the Horse (BoJack!)
BoJack the Horse
Don’t act like you don’t know
And I’m trying
To hold on to my past
It’s been so long
I don’t think I’m gonna last
I guess I’ll just try
And make you understand
That I’m more horse than a man
Or I’m more man than a horse
BoJack Horseman, whose fourth season drops on Netflix Friday, has earned a loyal cult following and countless critical accolades for its searing examination of show business, self-loathing and the meaning of happiness…as seen through the eyes of a cartoon horse.
For those who haven’t caught the show yet - and all past episodes are available to binge - the eponymous BoJack is the former star of a TGIF-type family sitcom called Horsin’ Around in an alternate version of Hollywood…er, make that “Hollywoo,” after an unfortunate incident with the sign…where animals tend to walk upright and talk like people. BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett), sleepwalks through an existence of wealth and fading fame, fueled by enough drugs and alcohol to kill a hor…um, a very large, tough creature. But his bitterness and sarcasm mask a loneliness and lifetime of regrets, and his often-misguided efforts to fix his personal and professional lives offer moments of real poignancy, drama and the occasional scream of “No! Don’t!” at the screen.
Co-starring a murderer's row of voice talents including Alison Brie, Aaron Paul, Paul F. Tompkins, Amy Sedaris and such guests as Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale as Esteemed Character Actress Margo Martindale and Jessica Biel as Jessica Biel, BoJack Horseman’s tackled everything from the absurdity of life in an undersea city to the poignancy of missing out on an opportunity to connect... often in the same episode, or even the same scene. It’s also got a look that should be familiar to fans of alternative cartoons, with a design team led by artist Lisa Hanawalt of My Dirty Dumb Eyes and Hot Dog Taste Test fame.
With the new season dropping now, Newsarama had a chance to speak to series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg about the evolution of BoJack Horseman, the secret to happiness, and what his animal counterpart would be.
Newsarama: Raphael, congratulations on the new season. How do you feel the show’s evolved since season one in 2014? It feels like there’s been a real evolution in storytelling and visual style with each new batch of episodes.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg: Yeah! I mean, I think we’re very conscious of that. From the very beginning, part of the architecture of the show is that it grows and changes. We’ll be writing the show, and in the room, someone will pitch a joke, and someone else will go, “No, that feels like Season One BoJack, not Season Four BoJack.” There’s things we can’t do anymore, because the world has changed and the characters have changed.
For season four, one of the things we wanted to explore is what BoJack is like outside the influence of some of the other people in his life. At the end of season three, we kind of burned a lot of bridges, blew up a lot of relationships, and we didn’t want to rush immediately back into the, “Everything’s back to normal! Everyone forgives each other!” We wanted to give those relationships some space, and also explore some new relationships for BoJack.
And also, we wanted to see how BoJack is dealing with the previous three years of his life that we’ve seen, and in what ways is he licking his wounds, and in what ways is he trying to grow and trying to be a better person than what we’ve seen before.
In season four, we continue to see him struggle, and there’s some hard-fought struggles, and some setbacks, but in the end, we feel like it’s a real season of growth for BoJack.
Nrama: It feels like it’s become more of an ensemble show than it was at the beginning - every character has their own path, and their own demons.
Bob-Waksberg: Yeah, definitely. Season one was pretty much “The BoJack Horseman Show,” where every character was kind of defined by their relationship to BoJack. You know, we had a Princess Carolyn episode, but that was still all about BoJack.
In season two, we started to give the side characters more of their own plots and their own arcs. And we’ve gotten to where we feel like, “Okay, we can do episodes where the main characters don’t interact at all.” There’s like one moment in the entire season where all five main characters are in the same place.
But in general, they’re off on their own things - and in some ways, that makes it more meaningful when you have BoJack and Diane in a room together when they haven’t seen each other in several episodes. It makes it much more powerful. And that was a really fun thing to play with this season.
Nrama: Well, with Will Arnett voicing BoJack and the main characters not sharing screen time and the show airing on Netflix, there’s a whole Arrested Development Season Four joke in there…but it seems like it’s for very specific storytelling purposes.
Bob-Waksberg: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of storytelling possibilities, both comedic and dramatic.
Nrama: How many seasons do you see this running, ultimately? Because it feels like this is a story that has an ending.
Bob-Waksberg: Um…I don’t know! [Laughs] We kind of go season-by-season, and each time we tell the story we want to tell. I think when we run out of stories, we’ll run out of seasons! But for now, I think there are still plenty of rich things to explore.
I keep coming up with ideas, and asking myself, “Is this a BoJack story?” And the answer is almost always “Yes!” [Laughs] We have five different characters, who have five different ways of expressing themselves, of approaching the world, different avenues of exploring what the world is.
On the show, you can go for very big, societal stories, or very small, interpersonal stories - it really scratches a lot of itches for me as a creator. And I don’t necessarily believe we’re barreling toward one particular destination - the show is something that grows and changes with the characters. I’m excited to see where we’re going.
Nrama: The characters seem very real to you -as they do to a lot of fans.
Bob-Waksberg: Yeah! I mean, we try to keep them real. I think of them as nuanced, three-dimensional characters, and I love finding new ways for them to surprise me. That’s one of the joys of the show - knowing what a Diane plot might look like, but being able to go, “What if she did this instead? What would this mean? What would it say about the character that we didn’t know before?”
Nrama: I must ask about working with Lisa Hannawalt, and what it’s like working with her to develop the look of this world.
Bob-Waksberg: Well, she’s brilliant. And in my 16, 20 years of knowing her, my experience has been, the more rope you give her, the more she’s... going to use it to hang some beautiful art? That metaphor got away from me.
How about - the more leeway you give her, the more brilliant subjects she’s going to come up with. It’s always great to give her a plot, and see what amazing things she comes up with for it.
And, you know, she has a whole team of artists working under her, and also, we have a whole team of amazing storyboard artists and animators and directors who are always pitching jokes and adding stuff. Mike Hollingsworth is our supervising director, and he added so many of the background animal gags that we use to get in and out of scenes and kind of pass through. It’s really a delight to collaborate with all of them.
That’s one of the perks of the show - I get to work with these amazing writers and artists and actors and animators, and it’s not just my thing, I get to be constantly surprised and delighted and entertained by all the talented people I get to collaborate with.
Nrama: And I imagine that collaborative process lets you do more experimental episodes, like “Fish Out of Water.”
Bob-Waksberg: Oh yeah. That was a big one, I think, for our artists. They were very excited about that one, because we’re a very dialogue-driven show, and a lot of the time, the art has to service the dialogue. There have been times where artists try to add jokes, and I have to say, “No, this is stepping on the jokes that have already been written!” [Laughs]
So, it was great to get to give them a script that was all animation, and let them go to town with it! It was a real challenge, because there was a lot to do - it was all new locations, new characters. But I think it was a labor of love for everybody, and everybody really enjoyed doing it - I think it shows in the final product.
Nrama: If you had an animal counterpart, what would it be?
Bob-Waksberg: I feel like I should have a go-to answer for that at this point! It should be something somewhat pun-based, because that’s what we do when animals are based on real people, something to do with your name. Hmm. There’s “Raph-EEL…”
Nrama: See, that’s good. You didn’t automatically go for the Ninja Turtle gag.
Bob-Waksberg: No, no. Or how about… “Raphael Bob-YAKsford” might be what I would be? I think that has a little more dignity than the eel. So, I’ll say “Yak.”
Nrama: All right, then! Now we’ve put that out into the world.
Here’s a slightly deeper question - there’s a lot of exploration of addiction through the character of BoJack. In many tracts about addiction, they talk about the concepts of the “True Self” and the “False Self,” and BoJack often illustrates these concepts acted out to great extremes, and you see elements of these with other characters.
Many credit the show with using a showbiz satire as an entry point into a story about addiction and depression, but in other ways, it seems to be about how addiction and depression are based in universal struggles. What I’m most curious about is if you see the Hollywoo setting of show business as most conducive towards telling stories about the “False Self,” not just in acting, but in trying to fill some kind of public role or persona.
Bob-Waksberg: Um…yes. [Laughs] What if that was my whole answer to that long question, I just said “Yes?”
I would agree with a lot of what you’re saying. I’m not necessarily familiar with the concepts of the “True Self” and the “False Self,” and I’m not sure it can be that cleanly cleaved - I think we’re all just piles of mush that mix the positive and negative, and it can be dangerous to think of yourself as just, “This is who I really am, but there’s other stuff I do that’s not really me, and the real me is this good, virtuous person at my core that I need to return to.”
Because I think it’s all you. It’s all what you are, what you present to the world, and there’s no more to you than the space that you take up, and the things that you do, and the effect those things have on other people. Sometimes it can be dangerous to retreat to that belief of, “Oh, but the real me is this good, virtuous person, if I could just get rid of all this extra stuff.” It’s not extra stuff, it’s you, you know what I mean?
But I also do think, certainly, Hollywoo is a setting where people are encouraged to indulge in their baser behaviors and baser instincts, and take refuge in the idea of, “This is who I really am, and this is who I present to the world.” I think that split maybe feels more pronounced in this industry, even though it’s present everywhere.
Nrama: Not asking for the meaning of life here, but what have you found, through your own personal experience, to be the best path toward happiness, or at least some kind of contentment or satisfaction?
Bob-Waksberg: Connection with others. [Laughs] That’s the closest thing I’ve found to an answer.
Nrama: Do you feel the show’s affected the way you approach life? Because you’re dealing with these very dark issues, and some very heavy questions.
Bob-Waksberg: I think, in some ways, this show has kind of expunged some things in me. I feel like I can channel some of my more cynical, negative impulses into the show, and it almost exorcises me of them in a way. BoJack is maybe the part of my brain that is a little more toxic, and by putting that into the show, it frees me not to be that way in my day-to-day life.
If you ask the people who know me, I think they’ll say I’m probably more happy-go-lucky and cheerful than I’ve ever been, and by using this show to explore maybe some of my darker areas, it frees up the rest of my life to not explore those areas, if that makes sense.
Nrama: I see we’re almost out of time, so I’m just going to wind down by asking a really stupid boilerplate question about whether we’re going to get any more Vincent Adultman.
Bob-Waksberg: Um…you know, I think anything’s possible. But, it seems less likely every season, doesn’t it?
Bob-Waksberg: Part of the challenge for me with Vincent Adultman returning is that I really pride myself on the show kind of existing in real time, and the characters getting older. And part of what I love about the Vincent Adultman gag is that it’s never 100% revealed whether he’s really three kids under a trench coat or one adult man. And I think, if time moves forward, and presumably those kids are aging, then you have to answer that question one way or another. So, I’m happy to let the mystery be. So that’s the stumbling block for me in terms of ways to re-use the character.
Nrama: I like that you kind of quoted the song from The Leftovers there, “let the mystery be.”
Bob-Waksberg: Yes! Exactly! That’s my go-to song, the song from The Leftovers, when it comes to describing Vincent Adultman. [Laughs]