When BoJack Horseman arrived on Netflix in the summer of 2014, those expecting a pun-filled romp about humans and human-like animals interacting in the industry town of “Hollywoo” would not have been disappointed. BoJack, which followed the story of former sitcom star BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett) as he attempted to make a comeback, was colorful, funny, bizarre, and yes, full of animal puns. But critics and audiences keenly watching those early episodes noticed it was something else, too: dark and at times deeply, deeply sad.
Some abandoned ship, or slapped it with lukewarm reviews, not quite knowing what to make of the happy-sad vibes, but those who stuck with BoJack through the first season’s final episodes discovered something special: an adult animated dramedy that bravely dug into life’s lows – addiction, abuse, and generally s–tty behavior – with a sharpness and insight few live-action shows ever had. By the time season two arrived, BoJack was being heralded by some as one of the greatest shows of its generation.
Over six seasons, BoJack only grew more compelling and more daring, its storylines tangling with the likes of #MeToo, dementia, and death – all while never forgetting the absurd laughs. (We will always have a special place in our hearts for agent and cat Princess Carolyn’s (Amy Sedaris) ex, Vincent Adultman – who was actually three young kids standing on each other’s shoulders under a trench coat – or Henry Fondle, the sex robot created by lovable asexual moocher Todd, played by Aaron Paul.) BoJack delivered some of the most memorable episodes of television of the decade as it took on this dark material, many of which played inventively with form: “Free Churro” unspooled as a one-shot monologue as BoJack delivered a lengthy eulogy; “Fish Out of Water” took him undersea for an entire episode in which nary a word is spoken. Among fans, both eps – along with a handful of others – are considered masterpieces.
The final episodes of BoJack Horseman just landed on Netflix, and with the series coming to a wrap, Rotten Tomatoes sat down for an extended interview with the series creator and showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg. Here, he reflects on the lonely Hollywood experience that inspired the show, casting his central characters, and the development of some of the series’ most celebrated episodes. He also grapples with one of the series’ largest-looming questions, and one that – if we’ve learned anything over the past six years – we don’t expect any easy answers on from the last episodes: Is BoJack a bad guy – and is he forgivable?
Check out Bob-Waksberg’s oral history of BoJack Horseman below and in the video above, and let us know what you think of the series and its legacy in the comments.
“It started because I was friends with Lisa Hanawalt, who is a brilliant artist. We went to high school together, and we did plays up in Palo Alto at Henry M. Gunn High School. We would also just cut class and hang out for hours on end in the theater green room of our high school, joking about stuff and goofing off. We would joke about one day we’re going to make a cartoon together, and we had various terrible ideas.
Then she went to UCLA, and I went to New York for college, but we stayed in touch. We had a comic strip, an online comic strip for a while that I was writing that she was illustrating called Tip Me Over, Pour Me Out. Then we kind of switched places: She moved to New York, and then I moved down to LA, and I started pitching shows around. I started getting meetings at important companies, and everyone always wanted to know, ‘What do you got? What are your ideas?’ Eventually, I ran out of ideas. I went to Lisa’s blog, and I pulled a bunch of her drawings that she had made because she’d been drawing these animal people on her own. I downloaded a bunch of them, and I thought, ‘OK, what can I do with these?’ That was kind of the beginning of BoJack Horseman.”
“At the same time, I had just moved to LA. I was living in this house up in the Hollywood Hills that was like a friend of a friend of a friend’s house. I somehow was paying like $800 a month to live in this glorified closet in a beautiful mansion. I don’t quite know how it was arranged, but I remember there were rumors at the time, the rumors amongst the housemates, that it was the third-highest elevated house in all of Hollywood. That Johnny Depp had lived there once… It was on the top of this hill, up this very windy road that I immediately got into a car accident on. Then I didn’t have a car, and I was stranded up on this house. I remember looking out on the deck over all of Hollywood and feeling simultaneously on top of the world and never more isolated and alone. That was the beginning of the character for me, the idea of this guy who was living in a house like this who’d had every opportunity for success but still couldn’t find a way to be happy.”
“I’d be lying if I said I was not inspired [by The Simpsons], if I tried to play it cool like, ‘Oh, what’s that show? Never heard of it.’ That was a huge influence on me growing up. There’s the sense of the sensibility, the sense of humor. I particularly really liked the sad episodes of The Simpsons, the more emotional episodes like ‘Lisa’s Substitute’ or ‘Marge Be Not Proud.’ I remember always loving those and wishing they were all like that, and so that was kind of the tone I was going for early on with BoJack because I want it to feel like a sad episode of The Simpsons. I think what’s so great about those episodes in particular is they don’t sacrifice jokes for emotion – they are very funny and full of great gags, but they are also very moving as well and very melancholy.”
“I pitched it as a show that is going to start very fun and goofy, like most adult animated shows, but by the end of its first season, it’s going to turn into more of a dramedy along the lines of a live-action show, like a Girls or even Mad Men, which felt a little more unprecedented in the world of animation, to indulge that much in seriousness and emotion. We were going to trick people by making people think it was a typical animated sitcom, but actually by the end of the season, they’d be going, ‘Oh my God, why do I have feelings? Where did this come from?’. I always assumed the audience would join us on this ride and go from, ‘Oh, this is fun. This is silly,’ to, ‘Oh my God, I have feelings.’ It never occurred to me that some people might see the silly part and go, ‘Not for me,’ click and not even know that the rest of the show turns into this totally other thing. I think if I were doing it again, I might try to include more clues at the beginning that this was a more serious show. Even then, I think it’s hard to do because there are clues in the beginning: In the first episode of the show, BoJack and Diane have like a two-minute conversation on the fleeting nature of happiness, right? That’s the thing that everybody loved about the first season, that it did that change and that it was both of those things, that it wasn’t just one or the other. When we were working on season two, I definitely felt the confidence of, ‘Let’s go further in that direction because that’s what the show is. That’s the sweet spot.’”
“Andy Gowan is our music supervisor, and he kind of put the word out to a bunch of different bands and a bunch of different artists, ‘Hey, here’s a new show. We’re looking for some music.’ We got a lot of responses, and the two that kind of rose to the top for me were this very playful, sing-songy, Grouplove song and this very heavy, spooky Patrick Carney and Ralph Carney song. I remember there was a lot of debate over which song are we going to use, and then as we kept watching, director Mike Roberts put together this incredible sequence of BoJack going through his day, and we played different songs over it to see what felt right. We’d bring in people from the crew, we did focus groups, and it was pretty evenly split. People loved the Grouplove song, and people loved the Patrick Carney/Ralph Carney song. At the end of the day, we thought, ‘Could we do both?’ We ended up using the Patrick Carney, Ralph Carney song at the beginning… I think it is a little bit of a hint of what’s to come in the show. It does make you think like, ‘Oh, this feels a little more dramatic than like a typical animated, fun sitcom.’ Then I think the Grouplove song [used in the end credits], kind of the opposite, is so fun and bright, and at the end of some of our episodes, which are really downer endings, it almost feels like an ironic poke in the ribs. I’ve really enjoyed using that song as juxtaposition against all these different endings. Essentially as the show has gotten more and more serious, it’s kind of revealed itself to have new layers to it.”
“The character of BoJack was not written with Will in mind. I wasn’t thinking, ‘You know who’d be a great, washed up, sad, lonely actor? Will Arnett.’ It was written for this drawing that Lisa Hanawalt had drawn of this horse guy. Then once we were developing the project, we thought, ‘Before we pitch this around, it might help to have some talent attached.’ Linda Lamontagne is our casting director, and she kind of drew up a list: ‘Here are some actors I think would be right for this.’ As soon as I saw Will Arnett’s name, I was like, ‘Oh my God, yes, that’s the guy,’ because he’s so funny, but there’s also a darkness to him. I feel like in his gravelly performance, you feel like he’s lived a life, and there’s a sadness lurking underneath there. Again, he’s so funny. I mean, there are lines that we have made BoJack say that I would not have the chutzpah to give to an actor because they’re so dopey, but that I knew that Will Arnett could pull them off. I remember in the writer’s room, like looking at a line in a script being like, ‘Are we really going to keep this line in? This is so stupid.’ Then we do the table read, and Will Arnett reads it, and it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard. You’re like, ‘Oh my God, he took our dumbest stuff, and he spun it into gold.’”
“We’ve had a lot of incredible guest stars over the years. Usually, it just happens because we write a script, and then we think, ‘Who would be a good person for this script? Who would be the funniest person to be judging this booty competition reality show? What if it’s Felicity Huffman?’ Then we go to them, and they usually say ‘yes,’ which is crazy. Occasionally, we’ll hear something like, ‘Oh, this person’s a big fan of the show.’ Then we’ll keep them in mind if there’s a part for them to play.
When anybody likes the show, it’s a shock and a delight to me, and it feels great, and it makes me suspicious that they’re tricking me. Then when we’ve had people come on the show or people that I’ve seen, who have been heroes of mine, tell me they’re fans of the show, that completely blows my mind. To have Weird Al Yankovic, who I grew up with, come be a guest star on the show and tell me personally that he really loves the show, my brain can’t process that. I don’t know how to take that kind of compliment, and I quickly change the subject to something else.”
“I think a big turning point for our show happens in that first season at really episode seven and episode eight, which are called ‘Say Anything’ and ‘The Telescope.’ ‘Say Anything’ is episode seven, and that’s an episode that’s entirely told from Princess Carolyn’s perspective. Up to that moment, almost everything that’s happened in the show has been through BoJack[’s perspective]. A few episodes had small B stories or C stories, but they’re really heavy A-story episodes. Then to switch it and be like, ‘No, BoJack is the side story this time, it’s really focused on this other character,’ felt like a bit of a departure for us. BoJack kind of falls into some sort of wreckage and steps out and like dusts himself off and wanders into the next misadventure. We wanted to, through Princess Carolyn, explore what is it like being another person in this person’s life? What is it like attaching yourself to this kind of toxicity? That episode, ‘Say Anything,’ has the first really sad ending of the series. Everything up until then had been pretty light – or maybe we’d end on like a dark kind of joke – but ‘Say Anything’ really ends on a serious, kind of sad moment with this lonely character. That for me was a real sign of where we wanted to go.”
“One way that I really enjoy telling stories or thinking about telling stories is through format. What is the means in which we are telling this story? Sometimes I think that can be as interesting a way in as the character or the relationship or the drama of the episode. I think you need all those things before you finish telling the story, but the first inkling of it can come from anywhere. It can come from, ‘What if we told the story without any dialogue? What if we told the story that was just BoJack giving a monologue for the whole episode? What if we had two different episodes that were both set at the same time following two different characters and they kind of met up at the end?’ A lot of these ideas, which I think could be very gimmicky… I like to lean into the gimmick. Then what does that mean, and what would be the story that would necessitate that kind of storytelling?”
“That episode specifically, ‘Fish Out of Water,’ I came into the writer’s room, and I said, ‘I want to do a story where none of the characters talk.’ That was a challenge for the meeting because how do you justify that? You didn’t want to just be like, ‘Oh we’re in Charlie Chaplin land for no reason and characters are just kind of like looking at each other and Mr. Bean-ing it up,’ when it’s these characters that we’ve known for three seasons to have full auditory functionality. Kind of separately to that, Mike Hollingsworth, our supervising director, had been campaigning me to do an underwater story because at the end of season two, we had an episode with a boat at a dock. It was just like a throwaway scene. There’s a boat at a dock, and you see a gangplank of people from the dock walking into the boat, and there’s another gangplank going off into the ocean, and you see all these fish walking up the gangplank into the boat. That alluded to something going on underneath the water. Mike was really fascinated in that, like, ‘What’s happening in underwater world? Let’s tell a story about that.’ That also provided some complexity to me because I didn’t understand how you could tell a story underwater with our characters who are all land breathing mammals – air-breathing, land-dwelling mammals, right? How do you tell the story underwater with our characters who don’t live underwater? Then how would they even communicate to each other? I remember one night waking up in the middle of the night and I realized, ‘Eureka, these questions answer each other.’”
“Then the room tried to figure out how to do it, and that episode was written by Jordan Young and Elijah Aron, two brilliant writers. I said, ‘How do you write an episode like that?’ They said, ‘We don’t know. Let’s figure it out.’ We talked through the story, and we kind of put it up on the whiteboard like you do any other episode. Then when it was time to write it, they wrote the whole episode just without the dialogue, just stage directions: BoJack walks through the rooms of the hotel. He looks out. He sees a bunch of sardines cram themselves into a room. All these jokes just written out, but they didn’t know how long to make the script. Because on a show with dialogue, you have certain benchmarks. You have an understanding of how many words per minute, or three seasons in, you kind of get a sense of how long a script should be. We sent it to Mike Hollingsworth, our supervising director, who ended up directing that episode. Then he timed it out by acting it. He read through it and kind of did the motions and timed himself thinking, ‘How long is this going to take?’”
“‘Time’s Arrow’ in season four is also a big benchmark episode. I think part of it was structurally looking at the season, and up until that point, every episode 11 had been kind of a big bravura episode for us. In the first season, it was a crazy drug trip; in the second season, it was the sojourn to New Mexico; in the third season, it was a very tragic drug binge. In all of those episodes, they’re mostly about BoJack behaving terribly and ruining things, and it felt like four seasons in, we can’t go to that well again. We have to think of a new way to tell a story that still feels like a climax for the season but isn’t just about BoJack being a schmuck. Part of the idea was, ‘Well, can we reverse that a little bit? Can we give BoJack a bit of a hero moment?’ Which the end of the episode does actually provide and is a very cathartic climax for the season in kind of an opposite way of how most of our seasons operate. Then we were talking about this character of Beatrice, BoJack’s mother, who the whole season is suffering from dementia. We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to tell the story from her point of view and see the world as she sees it and is experiencing it?’ That a lot of the non sequiturs that maybe she’s been motioning to throughout the season, we’d get further context for them. We’d see her story and her life.”
“I think a big theme of the show is that nobody is just a hero or a villain. That all of us are complex, flawed individuals. To paint a picture of Beatrice, who up until this point had been pretty terrifying and awful and painted as solely a burden to BoJack in the present and a scarring influence on him in the past, but to try to draw her sympathetically and make people care about her, that felt like a really fun, interesting challenge. Meanwhile, that episode was written by Kate Purdy who had written on our show since season one, and is a brilliant writer. Kate and I were developing this new show, Undone, for Amazon, which plays a lot with time and people falling through time, unsure of where they are and what they are. In some ways, ‘Time’s Arrow’ was kind of a test run for Undone.”
[Editor’s note: In the season 3 episode “That’s Too Much, Man!”, Sarah Lynn (Kristen Schaal), who starred as a child on BoJack’s sitcom, Horsin’ Around, dies of a drug overdose after an episode in which she and BoJack go on a bender.]
“One of the tenants of the show, to me, was that it was not a typical animated show that snaps back to status quo at the end of every episode. I remember having a meeting very early on with some of the designers and the directors and talking about the look of the show and the feel of it. I remember saying that if BoJack has a big party in episode three and all the furniture gets screwed up, in episode four, the furniture should still be screwed up. I want that damage to linger. That kind of became a metaphor for the show itself and the emotional toll that the events of the show takes on the characters.
[BoJack is] not necessarily saying, ‘Oh, I still feel guilty over that thing I did four episodes ago,’ but we know it’s still in there, and occasionally there are reminders where things will bubble back up or he thinks about all the history that’s happened to him. I think a big part of that idea, or what goes hand in hand with that idea of the damage lingering, is that people will die, and that when people die, they are dead, and they’re not coming back. It felt important to tell that story. We wanted to play out the effects of these actions as we kind of put into place. Especially when you’re talking about the end of season three, it felt like we’ve been setting up these dominoes for a while, like really since I’d say the third episode of season one, and so by this point, we got to knock them over or what are we doing?”
“I think it is up to the individual viewer to decide for themselves if BoJack is forgivable or redeemable or deserving of that. I personally like to believe that we are all flawed people, and we are all deserving of forgiveness and redemption and grace, but we have to work for it. We’re not owed it. You know what I mean? We are worthy of it. Maybe ‘deserving’ is the wrong word, but it’s open to interpretation, and I grapple with it. I don’t always know myself. One of joys of making the show is presenting these questions and not always having the answers, because I think sometimes when you don’t have the answer but you feel like you need an answer and you put it in your work, it feels fake, or it feels forced. A lot of times, we’ll have questions, and we’ll talk about it in the writers’ room. We’ll go back and forth, and at the end of the day, if it feels like we don’t have a hard answer to this, we’ll just kind of leave the audience with the question, and it’s up to them.”
“My favorite reaction to the show has happened quite a few times now, and at first, I didn’t quite know what to do with it and now when it happens, I say, ‘Thank you.’ It’s when people tell me that the show has helped them articulate or identify something about themselves that they’ve never been able to recognize or verbalize before. That the show has helped them talk to a therapist, talk to a loved one, realize a truth that has always been there, but they’ve never quite had the words for it. Now they have something to point to and go, ‘Oh, it’s like that.’ That was not necessarily what we set out to do when we were making the show, but that feels so much more rewarding to me than when people say, ‘It’s the funny animals. It makes me laugh.’ I’m glad the funny animals make people laugh, too. That definitely is something we aim for, and we’re very proud of that as well, but I would hope that the lasting legacy of the show is that people continue to discover it, and it continues to articulate things for them about feelings they’ve felt or ways in which they’ve seen the world, and it allows them to maybe get help that they didn’t quite know how to ask for before.”