'BoJack Horseman' Rides Into The Sunset

Feb 1, 2020
Originally published on February 3, 2020 10:11 am

Netflix has just released the final episodes of its adult animation series, BoJack Horseman. The show premiered in 2014 and follows the life of the titular BoJack — a horse who also happens to be a washed up '90s sitcom star living in the Hollywood Hills.

It's a show about Hollywood; it often mocks celebrity culture and the movie business — but it also tackles serious issues like addiction, mental illness, sexism and trauma. And a number of critics have said it's one of the best TV shows of the 2010s.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg is the creator of BoJack Horseman. He's also an executive producer and writer on the show. Bob-Waksberg says that while he's never been a has-been TV actor himself, he did find Los Angeles "very isolating and alienating, mostly just 'cause I was new there and didn't know anybody," he tells me.

"But I took that to be a profound, all-encompassing observation on the place itself. And I wanted to tell a story about someone who lived in one of these houses that you see up on the top of these hills that that overlook the whole city and feel, you know, glorious and glamorous and at the top of everything, but are also very isolating and alienating."


Interview Highlights

On telling a relatively dark story in a bright, goofy cartoon setting

... the brighter and the sillier and the cartoonier we went, the more the audience was willing to go with us to these very melancholy places. - Raphael Bob-Waksberg

That was thing I was really nervous about at the beginning was, is this silliness and the goofiness of this world going to prevent us from going to darker, deeper, more introspective places? And the truth I found was really the opposite, was that the brighter and the sillier and the cartoonier we went, the more the audience was willing to go with us to these very melancholy places that maybe on a live-action show would have come off as indulgent or saccharine. And the darker we went, the more our audience was willing to follow us.

On the intersection of humor and despair

Yeah, well, it's interesting. I mean, I'm Jewish, and I think that's a very Jewish sensibility — to me at least, to make jokes in the in the midst of horrifying circumstances. And it's not that you're necessarily making light of the horrifying circumstances, just that you use your humor to survive. And certainly that is the thing with maybe non-Jewish comedians as well. But that's one that I definitely grew up with. And in my upbringing, and kind of where I come from, that is the thing of like, you have to laugh to stop from crying. And, you know, the absurdity of life and the strangeness of it is very comical, even when it is very sad too.

On BoJack and grappling with the legacy of beloved figures who've done bad things

This is not 'Friends,' but it's a show that's connected with people. - Raphael Bob-Waksberg

I think in terms of the show, we kind of come at it from two levels. One, is what is the redemption or forgiveness that BoJack is owed, or is seeking from the public at large? And then also, what are the private amends he needs to make, or how does he salvage the personal relationships that he has with the people in his life? And I think those are two different questions that require two different answers. And both of those answers are pretty complicated! You know, we try not to be too prescriptive with the show. I don't necessarily think I know all the answers, but these are areas I'm interested in exploring and talking about and trying to find solutions to. And I don't know if we as an industry, or a society, or as individuals have found satisfying answers to these questions. And that's one of the reasons I think they're interesting to write about and interesting to discuss on television.

On BoJack Horseman's success

It was not a show that set the world on fire. This is not Friends, but it's a show that's connected with people. And every time I meet someone who says, you know, your show meant something to me, your show changed the way I see myself. Your show helped me articulate a feeling that I had that I was never able to identify. I think, like, wow, we did it, you know, which is — it's tremendously encouraging.

This story was produced for radio by Tinbete Ermyas and Kira Wakeam, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The TV show "BoJack Horseman" follows the life of an unconventional character - an animated horse who also happens to be a washed up '90s sitcom star living in Hollywood. It's a comedy often mocking celebrity culture and the movie business. But BoJack Horseman, who's voiced by actor Will Arnett, also battles serious issues like addiction and mental illness.

Yesterday, Netflix released the final episodes of "BoJack Horseman." When I caught up with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show's creator and executive producer, I asked him about the contrast between the show's storybook feeling and the darkness of some of the issues his characters deal with.

RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: And that was the thing I was really nervous about at the beginning. Is the silliness and the goofiness of this world going to prevent us from going to darker, deeper, more introspective places? And the truth I found was really the opposite. The brighter and the sillier and the cartoonier we went, the more the audience was willing to go with us to these very melancholy places that maybe in a live-action show would have come off as indulgent or saccharine. And the darker we went, the more our audience was willing to follow us.

MCCAMMON: And even when the show goes to these dark places, exploring issues like addiction and depression, it never stops being funny and having this kind of razor-sharp sense of humor. Now, it's no secret - it's almost a cliche, right? - that comedians have a dark side. But I'm curious how you think about that - sort of the intersection between humor and maybe despair.

BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah. Well (laughter), it's interesting. I mean, I'm Jewish, and I think that's a very Jewish sensibility - to me, at least - to make jokes in the midst of horrifying circumstances. And it's not that you're not necessarily making light of the horrifying circumstances - just that you use your humor to survive.

And certainly, that is a thing with maybe (laughter) non-Jewish comedians as well. But that's one that I definitely grew up with. And in my upbringing and kind of where I come from, that is the thing - is, like, you have to laugh to stop from crying. And, you know, the absurdity of life and the strangeness of it is very comical even when it is very sad, too.

MCCAMMON: Some of the sad and difficult things that you explore in "BoJack Horseman" come from the real world and even sort of very contemporary things. Season 5 had a story, for example, that had echoes of the #MeToo movement. And this final season is no different. I want to play a clip where BoJack grapples with social media and cancel culture, as it's called.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOJACK HORSEMAN")

WILL ARNETT: (As BoJack Horseman) What's the point of working on myself and getting sober and getting better if no matter what, there are people out there just waiting to tear me down?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) BoJack, no.

ARNETT: (As BoJack Horseman) No. It's not fair. If you start listing every single thing everyone's done, then everyone's a monster.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Nobody's a...

ARNETT: (As BoJack Horseman) Who are these reporters anyway? They're so perfect. I'll bet there's dirt on them that we could dig up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I don't think that's it.

ARNETT: (As BoJack Horseman) That'll teach those bloodthirsty leeches what happens when they try to tear someone down over their past without even considering the possibility that he's changed.

MCCAMMON: I mean, this is something we're grappling with constantly, right? - just how to think about people we love, stars we've admired who've done really bad things. How do you think about that?

BOB-WAKSBERG: I think in terms of the show, we kind of come at it from two levels. One is, what is the redemption or forgiveness that BoJack is owed or is seeking from the public at large? And then also, what are the private amends he needs to make? Or how does he salvage the personal relationships that he has with the people in his life? And I think those are two different questions that require two different answers.

And both (laughter) of those answers are pretty complicated. You know, we try not to be too prescriptive with the show. Like, I don't necessarily think I know all the answers. But these are areas I'm interested in exploring and talking about and trying to find solutions to. And I don't know if we as an industry or a society or as individuals have found satisfying answers to these questions. And that's one of the reasons I think they're interesting to write about.

MCCAMMON: Your show "BoJack Horseman" premiered in 2014, back when Netflix only had a few original series. A lot has changed since then. Do you think that BoJack would have had a different level of success if it had premiered at a different time - maybe right now?

BOB-WAKSBERG: I consider myself very lucky that "BoJack" premiered when it did, where it did and had a chance to find an audience. And I really feel blessed that Netflix is willing to take a chance on this weird show and have such a young, inexperienced showrunner be given the reins to, again, a very (laughter) odd premise and a tough sell for a show.

MCCAMMON: But an anthropomorphic horse - what's weird about that?

BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah, exactly - a depressed, melancholy exploration of fame and depression through the eyes of a bright brown horse who lives in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. It's the most accessible thing in the world (laughter).

MCCAMMON: What was that pitch meeting like? I'm curious.

BOB-WAKSBERG: (Laughter) It was weird, man. I tried to explain what I wanted to do with the show. And, you know, I said I wanted - I want to take this very cartoony, bright, silly world and tell, like, real, emotional stories with it. And, you know, I kind of went into this pitch and the world of the show very cynically with, like, oh, this town is a tar pit, and it destroys people. And this industry poisons everyone who touches it, right? That's kind of the operating premise of the show.

And yet, I've come out of this show so much more optimistic and full of hope because I got the chance to tell this story and tell it the way that I wanted to tell it and connect with so many people through this story. So I've come out of this show so much less cynical and jaded than when I started, which I never would have expected.

MCCAMMON: But is that because your show has been successful?

BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, I - yeah (laughter). I mean, I - but successful by what metric, right? You know, we - it was not a show that set the world on fire, right? This is not "Friends." But it's a show that's connected with people. And every time I meet someone who says, your show helped me articulate a feeling that I had that I was never able to identify, I think, like, wow. We did it, you know? Which is - it's tremendously encouraging. So I - again, I feel so blessed and so lucky.

MCCAMMON: Well, I wish you all the best. Raphael Bob-Waksberg, thanks for joining us.

BOB-WAKSBERG: Thank you so much. What a treat.

MCCAMMON: Raphael Bob-Waksberg is the creator and executive producer of "BoJack Horseman." The show's final episodes are streaming now on Netflix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.