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Don't Be Fooled By The Talking Horse — 'BoJack' Is A Sadness 'Sneak Attack'

TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we conclude our series of interviews with Emmy nominees. The award ceremony is Sunday September 22. The Netflix animated series "BoJack Horseman" is nominated for Outstanding Animated Program. Our first interview today is with the creator of "BoJack Horseman," Raphael Bob-Waksberg. He's also the showrunner and a writer on the series. "BoJack Horseman" satirizes Hollywood and deals with issues like success and failure, ego, power, addiction, relationships and sexism. The latest season, Season 5, is set in the era of the #MeToo movement.


GROSS: "BoJack Horseman" takes advantage of the kind of characters that you can pull off in an animated series. It's a world that's a mix of people and talking animals with human characteristics. BoJack is a horse who became famous as the star of the '90s sitcom "Horsin' Around." But when Season 1 of "BoJack Horseman" begins, BoJack is washed-up. His celebrity has faded, and he spends a lot of time drinking feeling, sorry for himself and watching old reruns of his sitcom "Horsin' Around," admiring how great he was on the show back then.

So how did you come up with the idea of starting a series with a horse that can talk and walk on two legs and dress and be bitter like a human being and have him be the washed-up star of a family sitcom?

RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, the idea for the show really started from my friendship with Lisa Hanawalt, who is a brilliant illustrator and cartoonist, and I have been friends with her since high school. And when I was, you know, in Los Angeles, pitching shows around, she was living in Brooklyn at the time. And one thing she was doing was just drawing these animal people on her own and posting them in her blog and on the Internet. And I thought they were just so gorgeous, these designs of these characters which were human from the neck down, more or less, with these animal heads. And so I started thinking about, is there a show that I could write with these animal people? So that's kind of where the animal people part comes into it.

Where the bitterness and isolation and melancholy and cynicism comes into it - I guess that would be my half of the equation. I was living in Los Angeles and I just moved here from New York myself, and the first place I ever lived here in L.A. was, like, a friend of a friend's house I'd somehow, you know, found a connection to. And it was, like, this tiny little closet of a bedroom in this gigantic, gorgeous house in the Hollywood Hills, and I remember there were rumors amongst the other people living there that it was the third highest elevated house in all of Hollywood, that Johnny Depp had lived there once. And it was this very, you know, fancy, very L.A. house with a pool and a deck overlooking the city.

And I got there, and I was this nobody, and I didn't know anybody in town. And there was this winding, treacherous road up to get there, which I was terrified of taking. And I felt so disconnected from everything, and that idea of feeling simultaneously on top of the world and also never more alone and isolated was the beginning of this character for me. And I wanted to make a show about a character who'd had every opportunity for success and still couldn't find a way to be happy, and then mixing that with Lisa's animal drawings was the pitch.

GROSS: So BoJack is a horse who's raising three human children in the sitcom "Horsin' Around." Is that inspired by, like, "Diff'rent Strokes" about a white, wealthy businessman whose wife is deceased? He's living on Park Avenue and he drops his late housekeeper's two children who are African American, and so it's this, like, unusual blended family that all the comedy is built around.

BOB-WAKSBERG: It's actually based on a lot of things. I mean, "Diff'rent Strokes" is certainly an inspiration. "Full House," "The Brady Bunch," "Step By Step" - I mean, I think in the '70s and '80s and '90s, there were a lot of sitcoms about different family units and blended families and odd configurations of families and different ideas of what makes a family, so it felt very appropriate that in our world, where we have animals and people coexisting, that there would be a show about a horse bachelor raising three human kids and learning how to make a family together.

GROSS: Since BoJack is a horse, did you ever watch "Mr. Ed?" You're too young to have grown up with it, but was that an influence at all? And he, too - like the "BoJack Horseman" series within the series "Horsin' Around," he, too, had a theme song that kind of explained the premise of the show - that he was a talking horse.

BOB-WAKSBERG: You know, I have seen a little "Mr. Ed." It is slightly before my time, but I think the nature of being my age is that when I stayed home sick from school, I didn't have cable, so I would just watch whatever was on TV, which was often older reruns. So I do have a bit of pop culture knowledge outside of my own experience, and certainly part of the original pitch was, what's "Mr. Ed" like behind the scenes, right?

GROSS: (Laughter).

BOB-WAKSBERG: What is - when Mr. Ed goes home after shooting, who is he really? And that was a helpful way to think about the series.

GROSS: That's really funny. When I first started watching "BoJack," I thought, oh, this is such a funny show about the tropes of popular culture. And then, like, the deeper I got into it, I thought like, wow. There's some really emotionally upsetting things that happen in this. You know, BoJack is an alcoholic. He's mean. He's sexist. He has this ongoing monologue - self-destructive monologue in his head about how much he hates himself and how much he knows he's always doing the wrong thing, and so what he does is drink more.

And things sometimes get, like, really dark, and at the risk of giving something away from an earlier season, I'll say that Sarah Lynn, who is the actress who plays BoJack's daughter - adopted daughter on BoJack's sitcom "Horsin' Around" - after she gets out of rehab years later and he invites her to get high, which he should never have done - she just got out of rehab - she ends up ODing, you know, toward the end of the episode. And it's kind of shocking. I mean, you know, it's a comedy, it's animated, but you're really emotionally unprepared for that.

BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah. I think the pitch for the show, you know, when I went into Netflix, was always that it's going to start like your typical animated comedy, and it's going to feel like, as you're watching it - like, oh, I get this. I get what it is. And over the course of the first season, it was going to reveal itself to the audience as being something more and darker and more interesting. And kind of the goal was, by the time you get to the end of the first season, you're thinking, oh, my God. I care about these characters. When did that happen? They tricked me.

And so that transition was really exciting to me and the idea that - oh, people aren't necessarily going to know what this is going in. And one thing we've really found is that it is a very silly cartoon universe, but it can also, I think, maybe because of that, go to some very sincere, dark, melancholy and even tragic places. And that maybe in a live-action show, some of these story beats would feel maudlin or saccharine or, you know, misery porn-y (ph), but because it's animated and it's, like, a horse and it's bright and colorful, it just takes on a different feel, and you can kind of sneak-attack into sadness and some fun, surprising ways.

GROSS: I like that - sneak-attack into sadness in some fun ways (laughter).

BOB-WAKSBERG: In some fun ways - exactly.

GROSS: That's the kind of sadness I like - the fun version.


GROSS: One of the episodes that you have in the current season - Season 5, which you wrote - is an unusual episode because it's one long monologue. BoJack's mother has died. She was never a nice mother. She was always mean to him. And during the last period of her life, she had really bad dementia. And BoJack does not feel warmly toward her, so this episode is all his eulogy for her.

So he's at a podium, at a mic. Her coffin's at the side. And he's not trying to paper over what their relationship was like. He's talking about all these horrible things that happened in his family and how he was mistreated by his parents and how his father was mean to his mother and they were both mean to BoJack. I want to play a brief part of his eulogy. And this is Will Arnett as BoJack Horseman.


WILL ARNETT: (As BoJack Horseman) I used to be on this TV show called "Horsin' Around." Seriously though, hold your applause - well held. It was written by my friend Herb Kazzaz, who's also dead now. And it starred this little girl named Sarah Lynn. And it was about these orphans. And early on, the network had a note. Maybe don't mention they're orphans so much because audiences tend to find orphans sad and not relatable. But I never thought the orphans were sad. I always thought they were lucky because they could imagine their parents to be anything they wanted. They had something to long for.

(As BoJack Horseman) Anyway, we did this one season finale where Olivia's birth mother comes to town. She was a junkie, but she's gotten herself cleaned up. And she wants to be in Olivia's life again. And of course she's, like, a perfect grown-up version of Olivia. And they go to the mall together and get her ears pierced like she's always wanted. And anyway, the horse tries to warn her - be careful. Moms have a way of letting you down. But Olivia just thinks the horse is jealous. And when the mom says she's moving to California, Olivia decides to go with her.

(As BoJack Horseman) And the network really juiced the cliffhanger. Is Olivia gone for good? But of course, because it's a TV show, she's not gone for good. Of course, because it's a TV show, Olivia's mother had a relapse and had to go back to rehab. So Olivia had to hitchhike all the way home getting rides from Mr. T, Alf and the cast of "Stomp." Of course that's what happened because what are you going to do, just not have Olivia on the show?

(As BoJack Horseman) You can't have happy endings in sitcoms, not really because if everyone's happy, the show would be over. And above all else, the show has to keep going. There's always more show. And you can call "Horsin' Around" dumb or bad or unrealistic, but there's nothing more realistic than that. You never get a happy ending because there's always more show - I guess until there isn't.

GROSS: And as he's saying until there isn't, he's looking at his mother's coffin. You know, his mother had told him earlier, you were born broken. You're BoJack Horseman. There's no cure for that. So he really had a bad relationship with her. And when he says early in that clip that he envied orphans because they could imagine their parents any way they wanted to, what made you think about that?

BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, you know, I think a big part of this episode and a big part of the larger story of his relationship with his mother and his relationship with his parents is about this idea of, can you forgive people who have done nothing to earn your forgiveness? And can you find peace with this woman who is so damaging to you but is gone now and will never hurt you again - and even in the last year of her life was a frail, scared woman herself.

And I'm really interested in that idea and that that question of, you know, what do we owe the people in our lives as far as forgiveness goes? And I think what's really interesting for me is the tension between that and too easy forgiveness of public figures. Right? And I want to believe on a personal level that nobody is irredeemable or so far gone that they can't find a way to be better and be forgiven.

And how does that track with me, where I also think some of these, you know, famous garbage men who've hurt so many people and done so many terrible things should just go away forever and not be allowed any sort of redemption? And I don't know how I reconcile those two ideas. And that tension for me has been at least really interesting to explore over the course of this last season but also the show in general.

GROSS: So in this era of the #MeToo movement where so many men have so much to apologize for, one of the funny things that you've come up with for the series - you and the writers - is the We Forgive You Awards. You created a whole awards ceremony for people who need to apologize for something. Would you describe the Forgivies (ph) - the We Forgive You Awards?

BOB-WAKSBERG: Sure. The We Forgive You Awards, as presented on the show, are awards that celebrities get when the industry has decided to forgive them. So we have a character we've made up called Vance Waggoner who's gotten into some trouble in the past and he's being presented a We Forgive You Award from, I think, four-time Forgivie recipient Arnold Schwarzenegger.

And one of the sad/funny things about this comedy/drama and the making of it is when we first started writing this season last year - last summer - we were talking about how sad it is that our industry is so quick to forgive these, you know, really terrible men who do awful things. And they're able to just kind of like slink back into the limelight. And we wanted to satirize that.

And then over the course of the last year, it started to feel like, oh, wait a second, maybe there's been, like, a huge sea change in our industry. All of a sudden it feels like we're holding men accountable and we're kicking them out of the industry. And then just in the last month or so, it started to feel like, oh, no, wait, maybe we're forgiving everyone again (laughter). I don't know. Maybe this is sadly relevant anew.

So it feels like, oh, we're really, you know, on top of the last month of pop culture news when, in fact, we were describing this thing that's been happening for years and years.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded last October with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator and showrunner of the Netflix animated series "BoJack Horseman." The clip we heard is from the episode that's nominated for an Emmy in the category Outstanding Animated Program. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator and showrunner of the Netflix series "BoJack Horseman," which is nominated for an Emmy as Outstanding Animated Program.


GROSS: So you've said that you regret some of the jokes from the first season and some of the ways BoJack's bad behavior, like sleeping with his co-stars, being drunk all the time, being mean to people - you just kind of regret turning some of those things into jokes. Can you talk about that a little bit?

BOB-WAKSBERG: Sure. Well, I - you know, I think regret is maybe a strong word. And I don't know what a better word would be, so we can go with regret. And it - it's not necessarily that we had BoJack doing these things because I think it is part of the character. And I do think that we have fully investigated these actions, and I think we've taken great pains to try not to glamorize who BoJack is. But I think I have a firmer understanding of the power of narrative and the power of humor.

I think, in the context of the show we were making and in the context of animated shows in general, and at the time when the show came out, and also just TV shows about, let's say, bad dudes or, you know, dirtbags, I think there is a kind of joke where it feels like you're, like, holding someone to task. But really, you're playing it as, like, kind of cute or funny. And I don't know if we always landed on the right line of that.

But I think there are moments in Season One where maybe it feels like we're not just letting him off the hook but kind of taking his perspective on things. Right? So if he says a sexist thing or if he, you know, dismisses somebody, the obvious joke is not, oh, he's a boor, and he shouldn't be saying this. It almost feels like we're saying, oh, isn't it - it's kind of cool and funny that he's saying this, even though we know we shouldn't be saying it. Like, don't you kind of wish that you could say these things too? You know what I mean?

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

BOB-WAKSBERG: And that wasn't intentional, but I think it - it's slippery. I think that happens sometimes without us meaning to. And I think there are a lot of comedy writers - and I would include myself on this - who sometimes think we have a better handle on what we're saying than we actually do. And there's a kind of comedy that I think you could call ironic sexism or post-racism or, yes, our character is saying this thing, but we, you know, the voice of the show, don't agree with it. And I think that distinction is maybe more slippery than people allow themselves to believe.

I don't know if you have the control over that that you think you do about how that goes out into the world and how people internalize that humor. You know, I grew up in the era of "South Park." And I think "South Park" is a brilliant show, and I think there's so much that they do well. And I - there - they've made me think about a lot of things in new ways. But I - they also have a lot of jokes about Jews. And I remember being in middle school and high school and people, like, making jokes about me that they got from "South Park."

And obviously, if you asked Matt and Trey, they would say, well, Cartman is not a role model. Like, you're not supposed to think he's, like, cool or funny or charming. But I think middle school or high school me who is the butt of those jokes would say, well, what's the difference? You know, what does that mean to me? And I think I am also guilty of making jokes like that in the mouth of BoJack or some of our other characters and not always thinking about what are the longer ramifications of this on our culture.

GROSS: Is there an example you can give of that, of a joke that you maybe you regret or wish you had placed differently, in a - contextually?

BOB-WAKSBERG: Sure. I can give a couple examples. You know, I think a big one, which I feel very comfortable talking about, is a lot of the Jewish jokes we have had throughout the show. And it's something that I myself as a Jew feel some ownership of and feel comfortable with. And there's a lot of Holocaust jokes. And I think maybe I believed in Season One and Two that we were past anti-Semitism. And I think now I look around the world, and I think that was naive on my part. And I think we were not as past it as I'd convinced myself that we were and thought that we were, and now some of those jokes in the early seasons just hit me a little differently.

Another joke about somebody that I am not is we have a joke in Season Two. And BoJack is a very boorish character. And we had a gag where he's going on this press tour, and everyone's worried that he's going to say something offensive. And they're going to Alaska. And he has a line about, we're going to Alaska. What am I going to say that's going to offend a bunch of inbred Eskimo blubber munchers? - is the line.

And, you know, on paper, I can defend that joke. And I can say, no, the joke of that is not on the Alaskans. It's about how stupid BoJack is and how he doesn't realize - and clearly, the way it's set up is, oh, he is saying this offensive thing and not even knowing that it's offensive. So I feel like, technically, we are in the right on this joke.

But someone tweeted at me a couple of years ago and said, you know, I am a native Alaskan myself. And I was watching your show. And there is not a lot of representation for my people on television. And to watch this show make this joke about my people and knowing that this was the only reference in the show of my people and knowing that nobody who works on the show is of my people, it hurt.

And I cannot then say, no, but you are wrong because I did it correctly. (Laughter) I - you misinterpreted it, so you are wrong to be offended. I have to hear that note and go, oh, you're right. Maybe we weren't as careful about that as we should have been.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded last October with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the showrunner and creator of the animated series "BoJack Horseman," which is nominated for an Emmy as outstanding animated program. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And we'll hear from Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the creators and stars of the comedy series "PEN15." They're nominated for an Emmy for outstanding writing in a comedy series. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator and showrunner of the animated series "BoJack Horseman," which is nominated for an Emmy in the category Outstanding Animated Program. It's a satire about Hollywood, success, failure, depression, addiction and the human condition in general, although many of the characters aren't human; they're talking animals with human characteristics.

Your parents were involved with Jewish culture. Your mother ran a Jewish bookstore. Your father helped Russian Jewish immigrants in the U.S. Tell us a little bit about the bookstore your mother used to have. Like, what kind of books were there? And did you read any of them?

BOB-WAKSBERG: So my mother owned a Jewish gift and book store called Bob and Bob, and it was kind of a hub of Jewish life in the Bay Area, or at least, you know, my section of the Bay Area, Palo Alto and the surrounding area. And so I really - you know, I would go and visit the store, and I'd sit in the kids section or sit at her desk and leaf through the books.

And I was surrounded by Jews all the time. I went to a Jewish day school. It never felt extraordinary or special to be Jewish. I never once felt like a minority in the communities that I was in. She would always bring home stuff from the store. Often, it was defective stuff that she couldn't sell, so we had a lot of menorahs that were chipped. We have a banner that we put up every Hanukkah that says Happy Haukkah (ph). It's missing an N. So we kind of have the misfit toys of Hanukkah. It just felt very normal that - to have a Jewish life and to be kind of swimming in this stuff.

GROSS: Was there a disconnect between being told about anti-Semitism and living in this culture that was a majority Jewish culture?

BOB-WAKSBERG: A hundred percent. It felt like a thing of the past. It felt like, oh, the Holocaust happened, and that was terrible, but now we live in sophisticated times. You know, now it's OK to be a Jew, and, you know, there are people who still have this, like, anti-Jewish rhetoric, but they're, you know, really on the fringes. And it's really been a wakeup call in the last few years to feel like, oh, not only are they not in the fringes, but there are some of them running the country.

You know, as a Jew, you hear the story of the Holocaust over and over and over growing up, and the story of the Holocaust is people didn't see it coming. They were swimming in it, and they thought it was a passing thing, right? There were Jews who felt like, well, I'm not Jewish. I'm German. These are my people. They're not going to turn against me - who were shocked when their own neighbors started, you know, throwing rocks into their shops and stabbing them and cutting off their beards. And so it is a scary time for a lot of reasons, and anti-Semitism is unfortunately still one of them.

GROSS: Are you now officially one of the Jews who control the media?

BOB-WAKSBERG: I guess I am, right? But even that kind of joke I would feel comfortable saying five years ago, and now I kind of feel like, oh, no. There's people who believe that, right?

GROSS: That's why I said it - because there's people who believe it.


GROSS: And they're surfacing. Yeah.

BOB-WAKSBERG: And I would say - a couple of years ago, I'd be like, oh, yeah. We do control the media. Isn't that hilarious? And now I think, yes, I am a Jew, and I have some power in the stories that I put out. And I'm very glad of that power, but we don't maybe have the power that people think we have.

GROSS: So your mother and grandmother ran a bookstore. You were diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, so was it difficult for you to concentrate long enough to read books?

BOB-WAKSBERG: Yes, sometimes, you know? I could always read books that I was interested in, and some people can't even do that. And I was lucky that I had a form of ADHD where, if there was something that really interested me, I could focus and do it. You know, the problem is, in school, you have to focus on a lot of things that you're not interested in. And there was a while where I wasn't diagnosed where it felt like something is wrong with me, and no one quite knew what. It felt like, oh, I'm just a troubled child. I just don't behave.

And, you know, I think there was a misunderstanding at the time that I took a pride or a pleasure in it or - you know, like, oh, look at this kid. He's - you know, he loves making a scene. He loves being the center of attention. And I did enjoy sometimes being the center of attention. And sure, like any kid, you know, I loved an audience and I loved making people laugh. But a lot of it, too, was I had trouble understanding what was appropriate behavior, and I just didn't know. And I would try to fit in, and I couldn't.

GROSS: What was something inappropriate that you did that you didn't realize was inappropriate?

BOB-WAKSBERG: You know, like, one time in math class, I remember standing up and dropping my pants so everyone can see my underpants.

GROSS: Inappropriate.

BOB-WAKSBERG: Inappropriate. And I remember at the time, I didn't do it thinking, oh, I'm being edgy here. I'm pushing the boundaries. I did it because I thought, oh, this would be a funny thing. And then I was mystified that - oh, now I'm in trouble and this was an outrageous action to take. You know, or just shouting out stuff in the middle of class - if I had a funny joke, I would just say it, you know, whether or not it was disruptive or not because I thought - I have - I want to say this thing so I'm going to say it. And I had a really hard time understanding the distinctions and navigating when it was OK to disrupt the class and say this funny thing and when it was not OK.

GROSS: I thought that was more of a symptom of being a comic than attention deficit disorder.

BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, I think those things are related a little bit, for me at least. I don't necessarily know the difference. I think it's hard to say, yes, am I a comedian because I have ADHD? Or do I have, you know, comedian's disease that was diagnosed as ADHD? And what are the overlaps, and what does this mean? I still am not quite sure.

GROSS: Was TV, like, a safe space for you where you could, like, immerse yourself in television and be really comfortable? Like, did you live more in the world of what you were consuming than the actual world? And the reason why I ask that is that, like, there's so many pop culture references in "BoJack Horseman," and some of them, like, just, like, whiz by you, and they happen so quickly you can barely, like, catch them of them. So it made me think, like, you must have just, like, absorbed pop culture all the time when you were growing up.

BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah, well, TV made sense to me. And, you know, there's a correlation-causation chicken-or-egg conversation to have here, but on TV, when someone thought of a funny thing, they said it - right? - even if it was maybe an awkward situation, maybe especially if it was an awkward situation. So there definitely was a period in my life where, if I thought of the funny thing, even if it was mean, even if it was inappropriate, if I thought it would get a laugh from an imaginary audience who didn't exist, I would say it. I would make the scene that I was living in feel like the scenes that I was seeing on television, and that was a real lesson that I had to learn.

And I think what's been helpful is being a writer and having an outlet. And now if I am in a situation and I think of the funny thing, I can write it down and say, oh, I'm going to hold onto this, and I'll have a character say it later. I don't need to say it to this person in this moment. So having those outlets has been tremendously helpful for me.

GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

BOB-WAKSBERG: It is my pleasure. Thank you so much.

GROSS: My interview with Raphael Bob-Waksberg was recorded in October. He's the creator and showrunner of the Netflix series "BoJack Horseman," which is nominated for an Emmy as outstanding animated program. After we take a short break, we'll hear from Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the creators and stars of "PEN15." They're nominated for outstanding writing in a comedy series. Their series is about the anxieties and embarrassments related to middle school and puberty. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLISON MILLER'S "SHIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.