A frank, insightful and amusing discussion with the creator and executive producer of Netflix’s hit animated series.
I must admit, this one fell through the cracks. Not only did it take me some time to discover Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s hit show, BoJack Horseman, but once a fan, after seeking out and interviewing the show’s creator, for some reason it took too long to write it up and publish on AWN. Sincere apologies. Error rectified.
In retrospect, my discussion with Bob-Waksberg was one of the most enjoyable I’ve had in years. Both refreshingly honest and introspective, the creative genius behind the series about a 1990’s sitcom star fighting his inner demons, who by the way happens to be a horse, had no talking points or prepared sound bites, just frank thoughts about a show and a community he feels quite deeply about. Nothing canned or perfunctory. He even spoke at length of his own failed history in the business -- BoJack represents the first show he’s ever worked on that lasted more than six episodes – as well as his struggles to deal with unkind reviews and Internet trolls.
But most enjoyable was listening to his insightful and detailed breakdown of the show’s creative process, from idea to script to notes to boards to animatics to animation to finished episodes. We all know how inherently difficult and exhausting the animation process can be. It’s particularly nice to witness all that hard work result in a show that people actually watch. Because so many similar productions aren’t quite so lucky.
It’s one of the longest interviews I’ve ever published, as well as one of the most personally rewarding. I hope you enjoy.
Dan Sarto: Your show has continued to gain critical acclaim and audience. Congratulations.
Raphael Bob-Waksberg: Thank you. We are very proud of the show. We’ve worked very hard. It's wonderful to see that pay off, that people are discovering the show and loving it as much as we do. It's really great. It's very rewarding.
DS: There’s so much animation out there that’s not particularly to my taste. I look at it and say to myself, “They’ve got some good people on it, they’ve got good backing behind it, this should be a lot better than it is.
RBW: A lot of people said that about us at first too. We’ve really had to prove ourselves.
DS: In this business, everybody's got to prove themselves. Sometimes it takes a little time to find your creative footing.
RBW: Yeah. That's true, not just in animation. But it's kind of two-way thing. It takes a while for the audience to figure out what you are doing as well. You look at a show like 30 Rock for example, which is a show people think of, “Oh, that show got really good in the second half of the first season.” You watch the beginning of that show and you say, “No, they knew what they were doing from the beginning.” Sometimes, the audience isn't cued into what you’re doing with a show. Especially, for us, in a world of adult animation, there are a lot of built-in expectations, what an adult animated show is or should be trying to do. I think it took the audience about halfway through our first season to see, “Oh, no, this is what they are doing.”
DS: It’s not always love at first sight.
RBW: True, part of that is us finding our footing as well. I remember reading reviews of the first couple episodes, seeing things like, “For a show that's trying to be wall to wall jokes, there sure are some scenes that don't have that many jokes.” Well, yeah, that's not what we're trying to be. You know?
It's really great that Netflix is giving us the time to find our audience and that word of mouth really picked up in the first season. People would say to other people, “No, you gave up on this show too early,” or, “You thought it was this thing, when actually all along it was this other thing. Give it another look.”
It's been rewarding to see those people find the show again and go, “Oh, I was wrong. Actually the show is really smart.”
DS: That takes patience, and that's often in short supply in this business.
RBW: I know it's also because there's so much TV now, and it’s hard to give shows the benefit of the doubt and see where they go. I know that from my own experience as a TV watcher. I'm not going to put blind faith in a show and give it the benefit of the doubt unless I feel there is enough there that is sucking me in.
I think my expectation for people watching BoJack was like, “Oh, of course, they will give us the whole season and really get a sense of what we are trying to do.” That's the sample size. An entire season. When we were making it, I never thought of the first episode as being indicative of what the whole show would be - the idea was that you needed to watch the whole season. That's a lot to ask of an audience who has never heard of you and doesn't care whether or not you tried really hard on it. You know?
DS: Ultimately, you can’t expect people to care whatsoever how hard you worked.
RBW: I don't blame people for bailing after one or two episodes because they have other stuff to do. They have their own lives to live.
DS: You’re not just competing with other adult animation. You are competing with life.
RBW: Yeah, we are competing with “Spend time with your kids!” We are competing with “Read a book or go to work!” We’ve got to convince people we are worth their time.
DS: Speaking of worth their time, where did this all come from? What's the genesis of the character, the show, and where you've been taking the story?
RBW: It really came from two places at once. I apologize, I've told this story before. I should really come up with a new way of telling this. I think people might be sick of hearing me say it.
The first part of it is I had just moved to Los Angeles. I was living in this house with a friend of a friend of a friend. I was paying $400 a month for this tiny closet of a room in a gigantic beautiful house that overlooked all of Hollywood. There were rumors that it was the third highest elevated house in the entire area and that Johnny Depp used to live there. I remember that time in my life, not knowing anybody and looking out over the deck, down at the city and feeling simultaneously on top of the world and also never more isolated and alone and detached. That kind of gave me the idea for a character who lived in a house like this, who has had every opportunity to succeed and still can't find a way to be happy. That was the very beginning of the idea.
The other piece was just being a fan and friend of Lisa Hanawalt. She had been drawing these animal people characters for years, posting them on her blog and putting them in little comics. Part of it was trying to find something I could do with Lisa. I'm such a fan of her work and her art. Then I just put the two ideas together, that this would be one of Lisa's horse people as a former television star. That was the basic genesis.
DS: How did you coalesce from there to ideas, characters and story arcs for an animated series?
RBW: Part of it also was, I have a much, I don't know if I want to say sadder sense of humor than what I normally see on television, but I felt like there was more room for melancholy on TV. I am a big fan of melancholy. I've always believed that the best comedy comes out of sadness for your own perspective. Obviously, comedy is highly subjective but shows like The Office or The Larry Sanders Show, those are big touchstones for me. I thought there was room in the animated world to tell a much more grounded, sadder story than we normally see in animation.
I also felt because it was animated, that gave us more leeway. We could be really goofy and silly and cartoony, and we could also go really small and sad and grounded. The further you go in one direction, the further that allows you to go in the other direction. By having this silly, colorful horse say these really sad, poignant things that in a live-action show would come off as maudlin or indulgent, or feel a little too on the nose, there's actually some simplicity and texture here.
I remember seeing an interview with Shane Black talking about his movies, how all of them take place during Christmas. It's not because they are about Christmas, or have anything to do with the Christmas spirit. Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Iron Man 3, they all take place during Christmas, because if you have snow in the air and lights and Santa Clause and ringing bells, everything feels a little more festive and fun, and you can get away with more fucked up shit.
DS: Makes sense.
RBW: People's fingers can get chopped off, people can get shot and it doesn't feel dark or gory, it feels fun and light. We have the same approach with BoJack. The more cartoony we could get, the more introspective and sad we could get.
The other thing I was really interested in was the idea, and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about the season being the unit rather than the episode being the unit, that the show would change over the course of the season. At first, the show would seem like a more typical adult animated show and would get gradually darker and darker and darker, like turning up the heat on a frog boiling in a pot.
It would slowly slowly slowly get more dark until by the end of the season, people would say, “Oh my god, I care about these characters, how did that happen?” We were going to trick people into caring about these characters and at the end of the season they would feel more like a Louie, or Girls, or even Mad Men, some of the examples I used in the initial pitch. That it would be more of a dramedy than a comedy while still existing in this crazy cartoon universe.
DS: Tell me, as the executive producer, what are your primary duties? Are you doing a lot of the writing? Ultimately, what do you spend the majority of your time on?
RBW: I am the highest creative authority on the show. I work in the writers room with all the writers. I take a pass on every script. I steer the ship as far as what is the narrative of the season, what are the arcs of the characters, and I also work with Lisa on designs. She is such a brilliant artist, she is basically in charge of design, but I'll approve things, say, “Yes, this looks good,” or, “I don't know about this thing.” I make sure the whole show is consistent and also, I direct the actors. When the directors put their cuts together I will watch the edits and talk about changes, like saying, “What if instead of walking across the room…what if we played this in a super wide,” things like that. I'm one of the first people in at the beginning of the season and one of the last people out. That's my role.
Other executive producers are also creatively inclined but then handle more of the day to day stuff like the budget and scheduling and payroll, things I have no interest in and I am not capable of dealing with.
DS: No skill or interest.
RBW: No skill or interest. I'm very blessed that I have people who are working with me who support me and allow me to not think about that.
I read interviews with other show runners who talk about, “Oh, I have to also budget this or deal with that,” and I'm like, “Oh, thank god I don't have to deal with any of that because that has nothing to do with my skills or why I am good at my job. I'm glad I don't have to worry about that.”
DS: From a writing standpoint, you start with a script, I'm assuming you do some storyboarding. Do you then cut animatics? Tell me the process.
RBW: To say we start with a script is very generous because it takes a lot of work to get to the script. First, we spend a lot of time in the writers’ room talking about the arc of the season, what the story is we are telling and what the journey is of these characters. We really drill down one episode at a time. What is this episode about? What are the themes of this episode? What are we trying to say? Then the nitty gritty begins. What are the different beats? How do we go from scene to scene? Are we servicing Mr. Peanutbutter enough? We haven't really dealt with him in a couple episodes. We have to ping the Todd BoJack relationship here because that hasn't been addressed in a while. We have this cliff hanger at the end of last episode. We may have to make sure we pay that off here.
A writer will write the outline and we will all give feedback. The writer will write the draft. We'll all give feedback on the draft. The writer will write a second draft. I'll do my pass on that draft. That would go to Netflix and we’ll get Netflix’s notes. Then we'll all punch it up again and get another draft out. Then we'll do a table read. Then we'll get another round of notes from Netflix and we'll do another round on it ourselves and then we have the record script. That's a huge process on its own.
Then we record all the actors. Everyone comes in separately, one at a time. I work with the actors and get the performances that I need. All our actors are phenomenal. I can't say that enough. It almost goes without saying how great our cast is. Anyone who watches the show can say this is really some marvelous talent. I always say there are three kinds of actors. There are actors who are just as good as the material you give them. There are actors you have to write around and figure out what they excel at and how to write jokes for them. Then there are actors who can do everything and make anything better. I feel like that's our cast. Our cast knows how to land a punchline, they know how to make the setup as funny as the punchline and they really get the emotional moments as well. They always knock it out of the park. It's such a joy to work with them.
After record, we get together a radio play, which is just the episode without anything to see. It's as if you are hearing the episode. If you close your eyes and watch a whole episode, you can get most of what's happening on one level. First step is making sure that radio play really works and the voice acting is there and it's selling what we need to sell and everything is in place.
Once we have the radio play, we go into the thumbnail storyboards and look at those loose, very rough boards. From there we go to animatics, which are much sharper and tighter. We are still wiggling and finagling things all the way through the process. Then we have an animatic that we send to Korea, and its worked on for a few months until it comes back animated. Once it comes back, we still work on it more. We have a team of animators here in LA who adjust and fix things. If a scene comes back and it's not working, we're going to change it. We're not going to say, “Well, that's the breaks, we gotta get it in.” We really take a lot of pride in the show and we want to put out work that we’re proud of.
Mike Hollingsworth, our supervising director, is so brilliant and funny. He comes up with most of the background animal jokes in the show. They all come from him and his team. He's really guided the show in a beautiful way since the beginning. One of the things he always says is that the process of making animation is like working in slow drying cement. When it's really early, it's very easy to move things around and make changes. The further along you get in the process, the harder it gets as it starts to stick and congeal and get harder. But if we get the final animation back and we look at it and say, “This scene isn't working,” we'll change it. Even if it's really hard.
DS: Because comedy is so dependent on timing, a look, or a setup and especially with animation, the physicality, there are many elements that have to come together to make something funny. You’re working through this long, arduous iterative process to create each episode, where you may begin with something you think is absolutely hilarious, but as you start getting farther and farther along, you feel is less and less funny. Conversely, opportunities can just appear at any point that now seem perfect for some humor. How do you arbitrate these opportunities, sticking with some you hope get funnier, developing others completely new that were not there previously?
RBW: A lot of it is just a gut feeling this is working or not. Sometimes it's hard to remember because you've worked on something so many times and you are so sick of it at that point. You've seen this joke a hundred times. Is this funny? I don't even know any more. You have to just feel it out and trust it. I think we are blessed having so many talented collaborators on the show and I think that it gets better at every step in the process.
I talked about the great writing staff and I talked about the actors. Just the act of recording it makes it funnier. We find jokes sometimes in the record that aren't in the script. “What if you said this like this or gave this a little bit of edge?” Sometimes we will add a line here or there to find more of a moment that we didn't notice from looking at the script.
Once it goes into animation, storyboard artists are incredibly clever and funny and they are always finding new background gags and other sorts of physical things to put in. Sometimes you have to remind yourself what the point of the scene is and make sure we're not stepping on something else. Sometimes there will be a physical gag that's happening at the same time as the dialogue gag and you say, “No, we have to kill that background gag because it's stepping on the foreground gag.” A lot of it is just being open and thinking how can we keep making this show better, clearer, more specific, funnier and more surprising. I don't know if there really is a trick for that or a rubric we use. We just feel it out as we go.
Part of it is trusting yourself too. Knowing I know this show and I know what's good. You can second guess yourself forever if you…it's always like, well, is this funnier than this? I don't know but let's go back to this other thing. Somebody has to go, “No, no, I thought this was right at some point and even if now I feel a little lost, I have to stick with that and make sure I know what I'm doing.”
DS: Over the arc of the production so far, what have been the biggest challenges for you in your role?
RBW: Part of the challenge early on was communicating what the tone of the show was and what I was going for. I remember when we first brought the writers in, it took a little bit to say it's this, not this. They weren’t inside my brain. They didn’t know. It was a challenge. I can't really explain why I like this kind of joke and not that kind, but that's just the way it's going to be. It was a challenge to do that process all over again when the animation started coming in, and saying, “No, I don't like that kind of physicality,” or, “I don't like that kind of framing and here's why” and get everyone on the same page. Now, everyone is and it's wonderful. Everyone gets what the voice of the show is. Early on it was a challenge to make sure we were all working toward the same goal.
With Jesse [Novak the show’s composer], who writes the music, he came in and again I had to explain this is the kind of thing I'm looking for. It really challenged me to talk in new terms because I don't know how to talk about art. I don't know how to talk about music. It's not naturally in my wheelhouse but I had to learn. I had to learn how to communicate that. That was a challenge.
Part of it too, is the frustration of people not getting it in the broader world which I wish I didn't care about. I wish I could just say, “We made a show and I think it's great and I think we did a great job and that's it.” I think I would be a lot happier if I could just leave it at that. Part of me wants other people to like it. Like I said, that is the artist thing. We are hoping it connects on some level and it's been so rewarding to see people who do connect and get what we are going for.
It’s been a challenge dealing with some people’s reaction. When people say, “Eh, it's not for me,” I get so sad. I get so bummed out. I think, “No, I think it could be for you if you really gave it a shot!” But the show isn’t for everybody and that's by design. It's this special kind of weird show and we're not trying to appeal to a mass audience.
I can go on Twitter and see ten really nice positive tweets but that single tweet that's says, “BoJack Horseman, eh,” I'll just obsess over that one. It's taken me a while to learn not to do that.
DS: That's a tough one. That's very, very tough. Someone will make one comment on something I’ve written and that’s the one I focus on. It doesn't matter what anyone else said, it’s that one.
RBW: That's the one.
DS: Knowing there’s someone out there that thinks I’m lame…can we just... let's have a coffee…how can I change your mind?
RBW: If you got to know me, you'd see what I'm trying to do.
I think one of the harshest things when we were first starting -- the perception of the show has changed and I don't worry about it anymore – was reading reviews of people saying similar things to what you were saying at the beginning of this conversation about other shows. “Oh, they didn't try very hard,” or, “He thought if he gets Will Arnett and Aaron Paul in a room he doesn't really need to write jokes for them.” It's like the show is lazy. That killed me because we worked so hard on that first season.
I wanted to tell people, “If you don't like it, that's okay, but it's not because I didn't try very hard,” or, “You can think this is a bad show and that's fine, but if you do it's because I worked really hard on a show that you think is bad.” So much care and energy went into this.
DS: I will admit, one of my criticisms about a lot of work I see is that to me, the humor is just lazy. Mostly low hanging fruit.
RBW: I want to push back on that, if I can. Make you change the way you think because, true that it might feel lazy as you are perceiving it, but that doesn't mean it was lazy. I worked on shows that have been terrible. I've definitely worked on bad shows but everywhere I worked, whether it's a great show or an awful show, everyone worked really hard to make something good. A lot of times the reason it wasn’t good was not because people didn't care or people weren't trying, it was because people were trying in opposite directions, there was no cohesive vision and people didn't always know what they were supposed to do. Some people were pulling one way and some people were pulling another way and you ended up with this mish mosh, this mess, or this weird compromise thing. Some of the jokes feel like they've been done before or it doesn't feel particularly fresh. But I can guarantee you it's never because of laziness.
Nobody gets into this business to phone it in or sell out. Everyone is really trying to make something special and good and connect with people. Otherwise, you wouldn't do it. There's not enough money for the sellouts and the hacks to really encourage that. There's so much struggling and suffering.
DS: I appreciate that. When I've made that type of criticism, it's not based on the effort that went into getting that project done. In fact, it’s because I know how hard the process is that I level that criticism. For me, it goes back to the heart of a lot of the humor. To me there's a laziness to it because they are shooting for the lowest common denominator of humor - that's what they think is funny. It's much more of an intellectual laziness than it is a laziness in effort. They’ve put considerable effort into, and succeeded in creating something that seemingly aspired to be so not-funny.
Your point is very well made. Everything that goes on the screen for these types of shows is very deliberate, the result of a tremendous amount of hard work. That's why it annoys me sometimes because so much hard work and so much good effort went into something that seems so misguided from the outset. So few shows get made and there are so many talented people dying for a chance to participate. Sometimes it feels these efforts are mere squandered opportunities.
RBW: In the service of that, people worked so hard for this? Why?
DS: Exactly. There you go. You've just hit it on the head. That's exactly my feeling. You guys should know better. Last thing. What's next with the show? What do we have to look forward to next?
RBW: We are working on season three right now. We've just finished writing all the scripts. We had our last table read before Thanksgiving and now we are in production. I'm really proud of it. I think it's a fun season. I think there's a lot of surprises for people. I've never done a show’s third season before...I've never worked on a show that lasted more than six episodes. This is a first for me - I'm running a show in its third season.
DS: You are breaking new ground every day.
RBW: I am. Every day. I remember on the first season of BoJack when we got to episode seven and I realized this is longest that I've been working on a show where the network we were working for still liked the show we were making. How amazing that is.
Today, I think the challenge we've found in season three is how to keep it fresh and reinvent ourselves while still being the show that people love. How can we have one foot in the kind of things we've done before and the stuff that people love about the show but another foot facing forward and trying to push in new directions and do different things. I think we've met that challenge in really interesting ways. I think season three is going to feel to a lot of people the same but also different in ways that some people will like and some people will be like, “Ech,” and not like it. And that's okay.
DS: It’s all okay.
RBW: I am going to learn to be okay with that. I'm going to try to get to a Zen place by the time these episodes come out. Whether a lot of people like them or a lot of people don't, I can be okay with that.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.