BoJack Horseman is the modern-day sad-faced clown, eager to stand on his head for the LOLs, yet so locked in self-loathing he drinks to pass out; a tragic figure designed to appeal to the sympathy of his audience. The show, as any review will tell you, is equal parts slapstick and soul-crushing. It is this stirring melange of gags and feels – and, to my mind, a funkalicious intro song – that has made the Netflix animation a knockout.
“I think with The Simpsons, my favourite episodes have a little bit of sadness to them,” says Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show’s creator and showrunner, over the phone during his Sydney tour to promote the forthcoming Season 4. “My favourite dramas, like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, [The] Sopranos, are all very funny. I think some drama writers think you can’t be funny, and some comedy writers think you can’t show feelings or that softens your edges. I think the opposite is true. I think, ‘Why not? Let’s go into many lanes; let’s explore all the lanes.’”
Raphael, 33, hails from San Mateo, California, a city in the tech enclave of Silicon Valley. He attended Bard College in New York as a playwright major, and was a member of the sketch comedy group Olde English (the characters he conceived at the time were deemed by classmates as being “extremely unlikeable”). At the age of 25, he upped from NYC to Los Angeles, where he began to flesh out the premise for BoJack Horseman with production house The Tornante Company. Three years later, he secured a fateful meeting with Netflix (in which he pitched them the entire first season). Lisa Hanawalt, the show’s co-producer and production designer, and Raphael’s high school friend, recalls the first time he floated the idea for BoJack by her. “He was like, ‘I have this idea about a sad horse…’”
BoJack, why so blue?
BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) is a washed-up fiftysomething actor living in LA. He was the star of ’90s sitcom Horsin’ Around and new movie Secretariat, so his Twitter bio once read. BoJack is royalties-rich, selfish, broken. He lives in a Hollywoo (someone stole the “D”) hilltop mansion and bucks away from anyone who offers him love or loyalty. It would be safe to say that anyone reading this is better adjusted than BoJack.
Last year, I came across a quote by Jim Carrey, who, judging by his cable-knit beard and 2015 appearance on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, has gone full new-age. He said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of, so they can see it’s not the answer.” BoJack has suffered the same lesson. For The New York Times, Stephen Rodrick writes that this Pop-Tart-loving anti-hero represents “a specific kind of modern unhappiness”, making the show a balm for people who suffer, or have suffered, from depression. “I think a lot of the feelings that are expressed on the show are maybe quiet feelings that people have, that they didn’t necessarily realise are more universal than they thought,” says Raphael. “I don’t want to be pretentious and say it’s literature. But I think, in a way, we mean for it to be digested and thought about; analysed. It’s not disposable.”
The show’s light comes from Lisa Hanawalt’s charming illustrations of talking animals, and a gleeful shitcanning of the entertainment industry. In BoJack’s world, celebrity puns abound – standouts being Maggot Gyllenhaal, Sextina Aquafina and David Pincer – and any cameos are often voiced by the actual actors, many of whom are happy to poke fun at themselves (Jessica Biel phoned Raphael directly, complaining his jibes about her failed acting career weren’t savage enough).
Despite its setting, the show is decidedly un-Hollywood, in that within this world of humans and anthropomorphs, happiness is rare, felt almost exclusively by BoJack’s arch-frenemy, Mr Peanutbutter. Even then, his joy seems to be more a product of his shallow, canine nature than through effort or experience. What’s sure in each episode of BoJack Horseman is that we are all – to a scary degree – alone, and that each of us must walk the slippery path to accepting it. Raphael included. “I think I took a long time, but I’ve learned to be okay with being alone. If you try to solve loneliness by being around other people, you’re not going to fix it,” he says. “You need to solve it by making yourself into a person that you like being around.”
“I’m a big dummy”
To write, Raphael prefers to be someplace he doesn’t know the Wi-Fi password. To write with others, he says, “I really try to listen to the people in the room, and use them. I hired them because I think they’re all smart people who are different than me. I’m a big dummy, I don’t know what I’m doing. I really benefit so much from collaboration.” One leadership lesson he’s learnt is that it’s very easy to forget that not everyone cares about the work as much as you do, nor should they. “[At times], I will let the other writers go home and work on it myself, because I get paid the big bucks,” he says. “I’m the one that everyone wants to interview, I’m the name at the beginning of the show, I get the glory, so I need to do the heavy lifting here.”
Appearing at Video Junkee last month, Raphael said, “Hollywood has a very inflated sense of its own progressive-ism and its own goodness,” referring to diversity in the industry. In his own writers’ room, Raphael holds himself to a 50-50 female-male writing staff, and to date, there has not been an episode without a person of colour actor, he says. I, for one, additionally give props to a show that pronounces Nguyen correctly (hint: it is not disyllabic).
Only the alone-ly
Over the previous three seasons, as BoJack has carved out a series of crescendoing screw-ups (sleeping with the only woman Todd has ever loved; being caught in a compromising manner with his former flame Charlotte’s 17-year-old daughter; going on an epic bender with Sarah Lynn, which leads to her fatal overdose), one begins to wonder, is there any hope for this guy? Must every little progress be followed by a TMZ-worthy gaffe? And, selfishly, once BoJack does “get his shit together”, as anyone watching is silently rooting for, will that spell the end of the show? To this, Raphael responds, “I think the danger goes the other way too, right? If he continually f*cks up, then that gets boring. We’ve really tried to have evolution in small ways without completely changing the character. Especially in Season 4, we’ve looked for ways to expand who he is, who he can be, but [that] don’t contradict what came before.”
As Season 4 opens, there’s no BoJack in sight. After the death of Sarah Lynn, he disappears for a year and a half to spare everyone he knows the poison of being near him. By the time he returns, Mr Peanutbutter is campaign-deep in his run for Governor, and Princess Carolyn is ovulating with intent, now that she wants a baby with her mouse beau, Ralph Stilton. For self-loathing BoJack, family suddenly becomes an important pillar he can’t run from, and if you look closely, you will see our equine “hero” is trying.
“It’s also realistic,” says Raphael. “People don’t really change who they are entirely all that much, right? People do gradually change – I believe that people are able to change if they’re willing and they put the work in – but it’s a long, slow process. I think that’s a hill he has to climb. He needs to figure out for himself how to be okay.”
Season 4 of BoJack Horseman premieres on Netflix September 8.