Made to Order: The Secret Recipe Behind 'Bob’s Burgers'

Series creator Loren Bouchard and illustrator Jay Howell share their thoughts on the origins of Fox’s Sunday night hit.

The Belcher Family at play. All images except where noted copyright © 2013 FOX Broadcasting Company.

If you find yourself craving a snack on Sunday nights, rest assured you’re not alone.  Millions of viewers with an appetite for comedy have been ending their weekends with a stop at the delightfully off-kilter diner known as Bob’s Burgers.  While the daily specials listed on the blackboard have certainly proven memorable – thanks to items like the Roquefort Files Burger and the Child Molester, which comes complete with candy – a fair portion of the animated show’s success can be chalked up to good old fashioned visual appeal.

Illustrator Jay Howell.That may be why, at last month’s New York Comic Con, series creator Loren Bouchard and members of his cast couldn’t help but sing the praises of illustrator Jay Howell, who first cooked up the designs of the kooky characters that have become household names.  According to Howell, the fun all began back when he worked at a San Francisco café frequented by Bouchard.  “I was doing some personal comics and stuff and would hand them over the counter to him because he lived around the corner, and then as time went on we just kept the relationship going.  One day he was like, ‘Hey, do you want to start maybe working on something together?’”  Bouchard’s premise, however, came as a bit of a surprise.  “‘I have these ideas about this family of cannibals but they’re totally normal,’ he said, and I was like, ‘okay cool…but I don’t know how you draw cannibals!’  I was pretty much going to draw some crazy natives or something,” he laughs.  Naturally, as the project developed, “the cannibal thing just got dropped ever so lightly,” leaving Howell and Bouchard to focus on a family of five attempting to keep their struggling restaurant afloat.

One of the centerpieces of the show would prove to be Linda, Bob Belcher’s excitable wife.  The character was inspired in no small part by the comedy of John Roberts, who found fame on YouTube by donning a wig and caricaturing his mother Margie’s accent and behaviors.  Linda, as conceived by Howell, was originally intended to have a slightly more shocking look than the one that ultimately made it to television screens.  “I used to have Linda wearing an apron all the time that was covered in blood, like she’d been in the back cutting up meat.  I really wanted her to have a really violent apron but a funny personality.  I thought that would be a cool thing to have, but you know, you can’t have blood on TV,” he laments.

The evolution of Linda Belcher. Art by Jay Howell.

The original and final designs for Louise. Art by Jay Howell.

The design of Linda’s youngest child Louise, meanwhile, managed to incorporate a less controversial trademark element.  Drawing inspiration from his work on a web comic called The Forest City Rockers, Howell sought to give Louise a signature headpiece.  “I just really wanted to do another cool animal hat in Bob’s Burgers and so I put it on the little girl.  At the time I was really stressing out.  I wanted to do a really good job and have every character be memorable and I think in her case it worked out.  The hat’s really cute!”

Bouchard and the cast of Bob’s Burgers pose with cosplayers at NYCC 2013.

NYCC attendees agreed, with many showing up for the official Bob’s Burgers panel dressed in homemade pink bunny ears.  As much as fans may appreciate Louise’s sense of style, however, their hearts clearly belong to Tina, the soft-spoken eldest Belcher child.  During the presentation, comedian Dan Mintz found himself on the receiving end of requests for hugs and was even asked to read a fan-written script.  His deadpan performance as the awkward girl in blue has made the character a favorite, even though he was originally signed on to play a boy.  Daniel, who appeared in the test pilot used to help sell the series to FOX, underwent a sex change before the official launch of the show.  “I was really surprised when Loren told me they were changing him and I just thought they would recast it,” Mintz shares.  When he learned he’d get to keep his job without any real alterations to his performance, Tina Belcher was born.  “I was excited because it makes the character so much more interesting, I think.  I wasn’t sure it would work but I was like ‘okay I’ll do it’.”  Humble as ever, he’s quick to add, “I can’t really do other voices.”

From Daniel Carver to Tina Belcher. Art by Jay Howell.

Howell can see why the character has caught-on with viewers.  “I think she turned out super good.  I think Loren was like, ‘don’t make her look too much like Enid Coleslaw from Ghost World’.  I think he said something about that, but I think she turned out kinda like that.”

Bouchard wouldn’t change a thing about that design, calling it “perfection”.  Bob’s hairstyle, however, is another matter.  “It kills me.  [His hair] looks great in three quarters and then he turns to the front and I’m always like, ‘I don’t know – why is it going like this when it was just going like this?’”

The cast as seen in the test pilot and the final series.

From the sounds of things, he’s open to the possibility of tweaking certain aspects of the models.  “I would say the visual design of the show is, in a perfect world, an ongoing thing that we could still adjust,” Bouchard states.  “In a perfect world we get to keep modifying them if we’re lucky enough to be around long enough.”  His vocal cast, however, are doubtful their characters will mature significantly as the show moves forward.  “I don’t think Loren’s going to age anybody,” Roberts forewarns, in spite of Tina’s birthday having previously figured into the series.  “[Expect] everyone to stay their age.  Linda’s just going to keep singing and annoying everyone.”

Series creator Loren Bouchard.Overall, Bouchard is grateful for the time he spent slowly nurturing the style of the series with Howell.  “[Networks] put you in development, if you’re lucky, for maybe 18 months.  It’s a big long process, so while you’re writing scripts and adjusting the tone of the show, you’re simultaneously doing a lot of versions of the characters.  We started with these great original designs by Jay, and they had these wonderful dick noses that just hung down right in front of their mouths and that is so Jay!” he laughs.  “They had these big goofy smiles, and these sort-of floppy Muppet faces with no teeth and you just sort-of try to pick and choose what’s going to work.”

“The eyes had to get bigger.  Television is all about the face and the eyes.  There really isn’t much else,” he explains.  “Their arms could be little T-Rex arms, and it almost doesn’t matter what they do with their bodies, but you gotta get the face to really work, even zoomed out in a wide shot.  So we couldn’t use the little Jay Howell eyes.  They had to get three, four, five times bigger. Then, you want to differentiate yourself from The Simpsons.  You don’t want to accidentally do Family Guy.  So we were trying to just find the right design, the colors, and again, it was custom fit.”

And in spite of popular opinions, sometimes networks do offer constructive criticisms that serve to improve a show’s look.  “FOX, one of the things they said to us, and it’s funny because not everyone follows this rule, they said ‘don’t get too cool with the colors.  Don’t do muted man colors.  It’s a cartoon,’ and I was so appreciative and so glad to hear that because I’m like a regular guy.  I just put earth tones and make it look kinda like relaxed…but it’s the wrong instinct, and if you have somebody smarter than me who says  ‘no – bright colors, it’s okay, don’t worry about it, we’ll work out a palette that looks good together’, that’s the way to go.  I see muted colors in cartoons now and I always [think] ‘ahhhh – you’re a little too cool for school’.  It’s going to look great in the design.  When you look at it on a print-out, [you’ll think] ‘that looks great!’, but it’s going to fade on TV.  It’s going to look kinda weathered.”

Tina, Gene, Louise and Bob observe a ghastly sight in this week’s all-new episode of Bob’s Burgers.

Though the series has amassing a dedicated following, earned Emmy nominations and been renewed for a fifth season, Bouchard is still crossing his fingers that more people will tune in and like what they see.  “Everything I’ve ever done has been for a relatively small audience.  I’d never done anything for broadcast and I didn’t know what that was going to be like, so no, I didn’t expect necessarily to thrive and survive on FOX, but that was the plan,” he says, saying the show was conceived with the network in mind.  “We really wanted to make a show that would fit after The Simpsons.  I wanted those people to be watching The Simpsons and have a pleasurable experience if they stayed in front of their damn televisions and that’s still the goal.”

Howell’s Sanjay and Craig. Image courtesy of Nickelodeon.

Howell, now hard at work on the second season of his Nickelodeon series Sanjay and Craig, is happy to be free to, as he puts it, “make my noses as big as I want!”  Still, he regards the experience of making Burgers with Bouchard as a professional highlight.  “He’s super talented and smart because he knows exactly what he wants, and then he surrounds himself with people that he just knows can do what he wants, too.  He just knows how to put all the pieces together.  He’s one of those rare people who can do it all.  He’s pretty brilliant.  Whether he knows it or not, I totally think of him as my mentor.”

Bob frats it up, karaoke-style.

The fourth season of Bob’s Burgers continues this Sunday night, with Bob becoming the resident cook at a fraternity.  Look for Linda to reunite with her High School band – the Ta-Tas – in an upcoming episode and for the season to wrap with a multi-episode musical arc.

More information on Bob’s Burgers and Sanjay and Craig can be found at http://www.fox.com/bobsburgers/ and http://www.nick.com/shows/sanjay-and-craig/ .  For more of Jay Howell’s art, visit http://jayhowellart.blogspot.com/ .

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James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.

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