'Bojack Horseman' Showrunner Talks Season 4 (And How Jessica Biel Asked Him To Be Meaner) [Interview]

"Where's Bojack" is the mystery of Bojack Horseman's fourth season, and also the feeling of fans who've been waiting since they binge-watched season 3 last summer. Last season featured the landmark episode "Fish Out of Water" in which Bojack (Will Arnett) attended an underwater film festival, featured Bojack finding out he had a long lost daughter, and introduced Mr. Peanutbutter's (Paul F. Tompkins) plan to for office.

/Film has been pursuing Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg for several years now, so we had a lot to talk about when we finally spoke by phone. We spoke vaguely about season 4, so that you could read this either before or after you watch the season, and discussed general questions that have been percolating about the show for four years.

Was it a big risk to introduce Bojack so late in season four?

It's not that late. We did talk a lot about how much do we want to keep him hidden, and how much do we want to keep him not in L.A. There were talks of could he go half or most of the season up in Michigan or driving around going from place to place? We definitely considered that, but we also thought we teased the idea of his daughter character in the end of season three. That's also a really rich story we want to get into and if he's driving all around, we can't really explore that relationship. For the benefit of that story, which we think ultimately is going to be a deeper, more interesting story than whatever he's doing in these other places with these strangers, it makes sense to get him back to L.A. somewhat quickly but we cover a lot of time in those first episodes. In world, he's been gone for a full year but the audience isn't missing him too much. Did it feel like a risk to not have him in the first episode at all?

I was wondering how far you'd push it, but I was ready to spend that time with the other characters. 

I think it's interesting too because I think a lot of the audience's perception is going to be shaped by the marketing. We're really pushing the "Where's Bojack?" of it all. There might be some disappointment of, "Oh, I thought it was going to be the whole season." Or it might end up helping it feel like more time because they're already wondering now where's Bojack. We'll see. It felt like a fun thing to try, to have a show called Bojack Horseman and have no Bojack Horseman for an episode. Yeah, that's the kind of thing we do. Let's go for it.

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Did you already have the political story for Mr. Peanutbutter when you set up his campaign at the end of season three?

No. We didn't know what we were going to do with it. We just thought, "Oh, that would be a fun thing to explore." I think if we'd thought ahead for even a second, we might have predicted that maybe by 2017 people would be sick of following stories about politics and it won't be the most enticing thing to do. I like to think we did a good enough job to make it feel fun and interesting and not feel like it's rehashing a lot of the vitriol and torture of what the last 16 months have been. As we were working on the story, we tried to say okay, what if it's less about politics and the personal relationships. What does this campaign do to Mr. Peanutbutter's relationship with Diane and what does it say about him and his ex-wives?

It sort of fell into your lap that you had a candidate who never thought he'd actually get elected.

Right, but what I'll say, while we were making the season, there was a lot of talk of where is this going? Do we want him to win or not and what does that say? I think that changed as stuff was happening in the real world. Is this funny or is it horrifying and what does that mean, what is the precedent for it? It shifted a little bit so I think we were very conscious not to too closely ape anything specific from the election. We didn't want to just be like this is like this and this character is like that guy. Certainly I think what was happening in the world definitely seeped in because we're humans and we have thoughts about the world and the way it work.

Did you always know the history of Mr. Peanutbutter's House or was that all new this season?

No, sometimes what's fun about this show is we'll write stuff in as a throwaway gag and then we'll return to it and go, "Okay, what does this actually say about the world?" The very first season of Bojack, you see a clip of Mr. Peanutbutter's House. At the end, the credit pops up: Created by David Chase and Steven Bochco. We're like oh, that's a funny gag if those two guys wrote Mr. Peanutbutter's House. So then when it was time to show the flashback to it, we were like, "Do you think we could get David Chase or Steven Bochco?" David Chase was like, "Yeah, I'll do it." It was a really fun way to start the season I thought. A lot of the backstory of these characters we're finding as we go which is fun. We're making the story forwards as well as backwards. This season there's a lot of backstory, especially with Bojack's family. That was really fun to dive into, stuff we've hinted at before or intimated before. I was like, let's really explore that and what was that and how did that work?

Is episode 11 this season's "Fish Out of Water?"

I don't know. I guess that's for the audience to decide. I don't necessarily think of it that way. When we go into every season, we're not necessarily trying to top ourselves or match certain things, like okay, we've got to have this kind of episode and that kind of episode and this kind of episode. It really is more like what sounds fun for us this year? I'm always excited to see which episodes pop with the audience. It's not always the episodes that I expect to so it's fun. I'm excited to see what people think about all of the episodes.

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You address that Margo Martindale is still lost at sea. Didn't all the spaghetti strainers catch her?

No. She's still missing and presumed dead perhaps.

Even though Sarah Lynn is gone, was it important that her catchphrase ("Suck a d***, dumb sh*ts") still lives?

Yeah, that felt like a nice way to pay tribute.

It's my favorite thing to say.

Good. Well, be careful who you say it around.

When Bojack meets Eddie, was that a nice chance to introduce a tragic character for a single episode arc?

Yeah, that was really fun. We talked about who does Bojack meet and in what ways is this character a reflection of what Bojack has gone through? Even though his backstory is very different and distinct, can Bojack see in him a model for what he would like to be and/or not like to be. We thought he made a really interesting foil for Bojack in that moment. Colman Domingo's an amazing actor we were lucky to get, and to have him sing is pretty incredible. He's a Broadway star which a lot of people don't even know about him. They've just seen him on Fear the Walking Dead. That was really cool for me. I was like, "I saw you on Broadway in Passing Strange and now we wrote this song for you to sing."

Was Lin-Manuel Miranda a Bojack fan?

I don't know if he was a fan, but we asked him to do the show and he said yes. Either he was a fan or his agent thought it'd be good for his career. He was also very sweet, very friendly. One of our writers is a huge Lin-Manuel Miranda fan so Lin-Manuel recorded a little message for them which was really nice.

There's a joke in the finale about a Matthew Perry SNL sketch that's really poignant. I won't give away the joke but did it take a long time to figure out how to describe a sketch we don't see? 

It actually came from a very old bit I had way back in college from my own sketch comedy group. I was trying to write the finale and I was stuck on this one scene. I couldn't figure out how to move from one thing to the other. So of course I was procrastinating. When I write, I try to turn my internet off so I can't procrastinate through the internet, but then I just get deeply involved in whatever I have just on my computer. So I was going through old documents and pictures and looking at stuff just so I wouldn't have to think about the episode. Then I found this joke that I thought, "Oh, I bet I can do something with this." So it turned out my procrastination helped me unlock a piece of the puzzle.

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The episode about mass shootings has so many things going on it. It's about what's going on and it's a reversal of the female empowerment they're pushing with Courtney Portnoy's action movie. What can we say about that in advance of the premiere?

I would say there's definitely a lot going on there. Part of it for me, or at least my way into it, what we were talking about in the room, is: what is Hollywood's, in the real world, or Hollywoo in Bojack's world, what is our responsibility in this? Do we have any culpability when we put out these violent movies? Should we take any responsibility for ourselves or are people adults who can make their own decisions? In what ways are we forwarding certain narratives that are not helpful? Is it too easy maybe to say, "Look, we're just making entertainment and people are responsible for themselves" when we also argue that our work is important and we're influencing people and we're doing good in the world by telling these stories? I just thought that was really interesting and juicy. It was less about the mass shootings per se and more about what it says about the stories that we tell and how we tell them.

Is the journey ultimately to make Bojack a good person?

I don't know if I believe in good people and bad people. I think we're all just doing our best and we can all stand to do a little better, but I don't necessarily think you turn a corner and then you are a good person and before that you were a bad person. I think that kind of thinking is actually very limiting and unhelpful. With Bojack we are seeing him on this journey. I think we're hoping for him to find a way to be more gracious and kind and positive and better to people in his life and better to himself, but I don't know if I necessarily frame it as he was a bad person and he will become a good person.

Wow, that makes me completely rethink my whole question. Even if I said "make him a better person" that's still a little shallow.

Yeah, better to whom? What does that mean exactly? I think as soon as we start thinking of ourselves as good people, that's when we start letting ourselves off the hook which is bad. I think we should always be trying to be better but that doesn't mean we want to be good. I think you need to think of yourself as a flawed human being with aspirations for goodness and never start to think, "Oh, I am a good guy. These other people are bad guys. They're dumb, I am smart." I think that's when you let yourself off the hook because saying, "Okay, I'm a good person, therefore that thing that I did wasn't that bad" and you justify and you rationalize. I think it's better to say, "Okay, I am trying to be a good person or a better person. Therefore if I did this bad thing, I need to improve and work on that."

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Do you or all the writers come up with the tongue twisters that usually Princess Caroline has to say?

They definitely come from all of us. I would say I have a passion for them which is probably why we do them. And I think we normally give them to Amy Sedaris because she hates them the most so it's the most fun to make her do them, but she's great at it. It's so funny to hear her say these things. I definitely feel like we've gotten more and more brazen with each season. It actually feels like we're cheating sometimes, like it's too easy because we can make up names that then become part of tongue twisters. We're not finding these tongue twisters in nature. We're creating Neal McBeal the Navy SEAL and Hank Hippopopalous' Hip Hop Cosmopolis and all the stuff this season about Courtney Portnoy. Yeah, we just made this character up to be a part of tongue twisters but we enjoy it and we're going to keep doing it.

Are there any rules to the celebrity name drops, when you'll reference a real person?

No. I think we figure out as we go. If we can think of a funny joke involving a celebrity, we'll put it in. I do think I'm trying to challenge us as we go of what is mean and who deserves it? I think when I was just starting out, there was this idea of punching up vs. punching down. When we were just starting out, every celebrity was punching up. We were this nothing show and if I wanted to take a jab at Eric McCormack, I'm going to take a jab at Eric McCormack. He's doing okay. Now I think as we've gotten more popular and successful, in some ways it feels like oh no, there are some celebrities who are going through a rough time right now. It's kind of mean for us to pick on them. I am starting to think more of does this person really deserve that? What are we really saying here? Who's side are we on? There are definitely jokes throughout the run of the show, even in season four, that I go, "Oh, that's a little mean. That was a low blow." But if it makes me laugh, I'll put it in. I don't know. If someone came to me and said, "Look, you made that joke about me and that really hurt my feelings," I would feel bad. That is not our intention with a lot of these celebrity jokes. Some of them, yeah, screw that guy, he deserves it. Most of them are just we were reaching for something funny and we found your head in a pile of coconuts so we jammed it open.

The late Garry Marshall did his own voice for you, so was he self-deprecating about his own movies?

You know, I didn't ask. It did not come up. If he felt his character was a parallel with his own work or his own philosophy on filmmaking, if he did notice something, he did not say anything. He was delightful and great. Jessica Biel we had on the show. She asked us to go meaner because she felt like we were pulling punches. She said, "I want you to get the writers in the room and really go to town on me." So we did. No one that I know of yet has really been upset by what we've said. Most celebrities probably have good senses of humor about themselves.

There was a whole scene where Garry reacts to Bojack dismissing his work so I figured he got the levels of that.

Maybe, I don't know. In any case, he was a joy to work with and I feel pretty lucky that we got to.

Are all of the animal gags in the intro and outro of scenes scripted? Do the animators pitch them?

Most of them are not scripted. Occasionally we'll write one into the script as part of the writers room but usually it comes from the storyboard artists will throw them in or come up with some new way to get into a scene. I think there's a lot of freedom on the show for that kind of collaboration, pitching jokes off each other and trying to find the best thing. I think also they've gotten really good at finding background jokes and intro/outro jokes that don't distract from what's happening in the scene, that just add an extra layer to it. I think there's a balance that's hard to find, especially at first. It's like oh, that's really funny but we're actually trying to tell a story. We have our own jokes that are going on that you're kind of stepping on because your eye is always going to go to the big moving frog in the corner eating a child. So I feel like they've really adjusted in a really great way and understand how to help the show. It's really cool to see what they bring to it.

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Who pitches the movie posters?

That can come from anywhere. Phylicia [Fuentes] designs a lot of those herself. I will write some. Again, the background designers or the storyboard artists.

Do you update the opening titles every year with new scenes for the season?

I don't personally but we do. I talk to Mike Roberts who directs them. What do we want the middle section to be and also who's meandering around the house? What do we want to be on the TV screen in the party? Other small things like that and then as we go through the season, the ottoman gets destroyed, the D gets torn from the Hollywood sign. What are other fun ways to update this background and tell the story through the opening credits?

Did Grouplove do a new mix of their end titles?

Yeah, they actually did this last year too with the episode that was back in 2007. The song goes, "Back in the '90s, I was on a very famous TV show." So we thought it would be fun to ask them, "Could we do one about the show in 2007?" They went, "Yeah, sounds great." So then again this year, we had the episode that's all about Mr. Peanutbutter, we thought well, he was also on a famous TV show back in the '90s. Can Grouplove do a song about him? And they were more than happy to jump on that as well. They've been amazing collaborators, really up for anything and really fun.


Bojack Horseman season four premieres September 8 on Netflix.