'BoJack Horseman' Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg On How The Show Changes The Animation Game [Interview]

Fans of Bojack Horseman don't have to be sold on Emmy consideration anymore. For four seasons, they've watched the Netflix animated series deliver a scathing commentary on Hollywood and the world at large through the lens of anthropomorphic animal celebrities and interspecies romance.

We'd previously covered Bojack Horseman's fourth season, the one that is currently eligible for 2018 Emmy nominations, when it premiered in September. At the time of the launch, we didn't want to spoil too much of the details of Bojack's mother's dementia flashback episode "Time's Arrow" or the scathing reaction to mass shootings with Courtney Portnoy's kickass action heroine movie delayed every time there was another shooting. But now, all spoilers are on the table.

Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg spoke to /Film before the Netflix #FYSEE panel for Bojack Horseman, which hopefully got the show on the minds of Emmy voters. Season 5 will arrive on September 14 and we got to go deep into exactly how the show is paving a new way for television animation.

Are you submitting a specific episode for Emmy consideration?

Oh God, I don't know. I'm sure, yes. We're actually submitting in a lot of different categories because there's Best Animated Program. There's also Best Voiceover Acting, Best Writing, Best Storyboards, Character Design. So I think we try to spread the season and submit different people in different categories.

Could "Time's Arrow" be the submission for Best Animated Program?

Maybe, I'm not sure. I know tonight we're showing "Stupid Piece of Sh*t" but that's also because the panel has Paul [F. Tompkins] and Alison [Brie] on it. So we didn't want to show an episode that they're not in which would be 11. I'm very proud of the whole season so I don't remember what we're submitting. This interview is going great so far.

Well, live-action has blurred the line between half-hour comedy and drama. Was that your goal with Bojack too?

Was my goal to actively blur the line? Let's say yes, it was my goal. I do think that the world of animation, particularly adult animation, has so much room to explore as far as genre and tone and character. I think that's less true now than it was five years ago. Certainly there have been other shows that have taken advantage of that and have pushed things in different directions. You're going to see over the next five years that continue to expand. It feels like a very exciting time to be in animation. If you look at children's animation, there are so many different kinds of shows that there can be. Even Eastern animation, but when it comes to Western animation, I feel like the last 20 years or so has been very much defined by The Simpsons and South Park, which are both shows that I love and am obviously indebted to. But I think they cast a long shadow. A lot of shows have fit in that rubric so one thing I was really trying to do with the show was can we keep a foot in that world but also put a fit in the new world and explore different kinds of things, tell different kinds of things in animation.

What's an example of something in Bojack that couldn't exist in a Simpsons or South Park

Well, I think the fact that we are so serialized. Actually, South Park has become more serialized in the last few years as well. That was a big thing for me in the beginning. A lot of these shows have a status quo they keep bouncing back to. One of the things we really wanted to do from the beginning, one of the things that made our show special from the beginning is there's no snapback. At the end of every episode, the damage that is done retains and the next episode will carry over the emotional story. It'll carry over even literally. If someone punches a hole in a wall, the next time we see that wall, there's going to be a hole in it. The world doesn't get fixed automatically. I think Netflix gave us an amazing opportunity to do that. We knew people were going to watch this show in order. No one's going to accidentally bounce into the eighth episode of the season. We can really build over the course of the season and tell this longer form story.

And when someone dies, they stay gone and impact the story.

I think that's exciting. I'm not a sadist but it does feel fun to have an idea in the room and be like, "Oh, this is surprising and this is interesting. I think this is going to make people feel something." And then once you have that idea, it feels kind of foolish to shy away from it. Certainly with Sarah Lynn, there was some concern of once you pull this lever, it's not going to go back the other way. You have to commit to that decision. But I feel, good is a strong word, I'm proud of it and I think it worked for the story we were telling. I think it resonated. We don't want to feel like we're just killing people left and right and it becomes like nothing matters anymore. That's kind of the opposite problem when you have a show like this where oh yeah, tragedy can happen any times. But if it happens too much, it suddenly doesn't feel like tragedy anymore. It just feels like oh, they're doing that again. So I think we've really tried to make any bad things resonate, have weight and continue to linger. Even things that you think, "Oh, they kind of resolved that," it can still pop up again. That was one of the exciting things for me about the "Stupid Piece of Sh*t" episode where we hear Bojack's inner thoughts, to hear him ruminating about some things you thought maybe had been resolved already or we hadn't addressed in a while. Oh no, they're still in there. They're in the back of his head and they're still playing, he's still working his way through them and they kind of always will be in there.

Was it a hurdle with Netflix to do an animated show that is not just a comedy, that has some drama to it?

No, I think that excited them. Yeah, it's going to start out very broad and cartoony and it's going to feel like other animated shows. Then gradually over the course of its first season, it's going to become this other thing. I think that was really exciting and it was part of the initial pitch, and they were onboard from the beginning. I think that's actually what helped me sell the pitch, this idea of it's going to be the same but different. That's kind of how every show is sold in this town. If it's too the same, nobody wants it. If it's too different, nobody wants it but we pitched it as the same but different.

Does animation allow a kind of storytelling that live-action just can't do, like "Fish Out of Water" and "Time's Arrow?"

Yeah, I think those are great examples. I think animation does a lot. I also think in some ways animation allows us to be a little more naked or a little more vulnerable in a way because it creates distance. I've seen people talk about teenage shows are really fun to write for because teenagers just say whatever they're feeling all the time. They don't have to worry about subtext as much. They get to these grand emotions that are harder to buy with adults saying them. I think genre is the same way. I think in a science fiction show or a fantasy show, you can go to some more melodramatic places that express true feelings the way people feel, that you can't necessarily do in a more grounded show. I think our wacky animated world allows us the same kind of wiggle room. We can go to these darker places because we're cutting them with these very silly jokes and this very silly world.

Voice-wise, is this allowing Will Arnett and Amy Sedaris to do this layered soulful work that the industry tends not to let comedians outside of the comedy box?

I would like to think so. I love our actors. I perhaps foolishly think they're doing the best work of their careers if I'm allowed to say that on my show. I think Will is an incredible talent and I'm really thrilled that we have this showcase for him because I think generally he is thought of as a comedic actor. He doesn't get the opportunity to go to these darker places and he's really good at it. So is Alison and Paul and obviously Aaron [Paul] comes from drama, that's not a surprise.

Alison too has gotten to do live-action drama.

Yes. I think one of the things we discovered early in the first season and more and more was that every time we push our actors they rise to the occasion so there's always a question of oh, what if we did this thing. Do you think our actors can pull it off? They always can. It's a real gift to right for them because I don't have to be worried that they're comedic actors, they can't do this, because they can. If other people aren't going to take advantage of this, I'm happy to do it.

BoJack Horseman Season 5

Are you able to find more humanity in animals?

I think it helps. I do. It again creates that distancing effect a little bit. Scott McCloud talks in his book Understanding Comics about the use of iconography and that by making things less realistic, sometimes you make them more universal. I think by making Bojack a horse, it allows an audience to project themselves on him in a way that if you were looking at a picture of Will Arnett, you might not be as inclined to. There does exist an odd universality to these animals. By making them more foreign, they become more relatable.

What were the conversations about tackling topics like abortion and mass shootings? 

I think the conversation there is always do we have something interesting to say about this? And not just to do it for the sake of doing it or not just to shock an audience like oh, we're going there, they're doing it. Especially some of these more taboo subjects are interesting because they're more taboo, meaning there haven't been as many stories told about them. If I wanted to tell a story about trying to get my daughter into a good preschool, we've seen that before on television. But if I want to tell a story about oh, this is our character's fifth miscarriage, that's a little less common. So that's interesting and exciting to me. So then it's a question of how do we tackle this sensitively and in a way that doesn't just feel like we're exploiting the shock of it but saying something interesting. Then the conversation is: what do we want to be saying about this? What is our point of view and what is our perspective? If I feel like we have a strong point of view and a strong perspective, then we move in that direction. We just keep checking in, like are we telling that story? Are we communicating what we want to be communicating and not just being like oh yeah, we went there. I feel more or less that I can stand by those episodes and feel like we've been saying things that I'm glad we're saying. Even if, by the way, they don't always line up with what I personally believe. That's kind of the fun thing about making a TV show. Sometimes I'll be like, "Well, I really think this" but does this character really think this? Maybe not and so let's explore this other version, or what does this perspective do? How can we bring this up that would cause a conversation, not necessarily say this is the truth and this is what we're trying to preach at you or make you believe.

Did you have any further thoughts about mass shootings after Las Vegas and Parkland happened?

I don't know. The sad thing is not much has changed. I love what the Parkland kids have been doing. I hope it does cause lasting change and a real example, but it still feels like people are using the phrase "thoughts and prayers" as a way to not think about stuff. A big part of that episode also was about Hollywood and the stories we tell. What is our responsibility versus what is our desire to tell violent stories? I'm not sure we have really taken the good look at ourselves as an industry that perhaps we ought to. I'm not saying censorship or regulation or that it's violent video games, but I do think that the work we create has influence. I don't think I'd make a TV show if I didn't believe that. So I am very sensitive to thinking okay, what is that influence? If I believe that influence can be a good one, and I feel like I have seen my show be an influence for good in some of the reactions I've seen, people who have reached out to me over Twitter or through e-mail or people I've met on the street who are fans of the show have talked about very positive ways that my show has made a difference. I also think well, if that's true then that also means that we can make a negative difference. I think it is very easy to wash our hands and go, "No, it's not our problem. The problem is the government. The problem is regulation of guns. The problem is other stuff." I think the problem is other stuff but I also think that things we can be doing on our own, not even as an industry but just as individuals to look at the work we are creating and think about what is the message here? What am I saying and do I feel good about that? I think when we have to postpone the premieres of our shows or movies because they're superseded by real life violence in a way that reflects badly on our work, what does that say about our work in the first place? How can we stand by that work if it's not appropriate now but it's going to be appropriate in two weeks? That's a message that I still feel strongly about. Again, I think that's an individual thing. I don't think it's a thing that the president of a studio is going to trickle down to all the projects, like no more of this or we have to do this. I do think it's something for development execs and also writers and directors to really consider and think about what is this work we're creating and what does it mean? It's something I do think about. I don't think I always necessarily hit the mark or succeed at living up to my ideals, but I think it's a priority worth considering.

What are the things regular people have told you Bojack helped them through?

When I am proudest of my show, which has happened a couple of times, is when people have told me, "I talk about your show with my therapist to describe how I am feeling. Your show gives me language to identify the way that I see the world that before now I was unable to articulate." That is not necessarily our mission when we write every episode because I don't think that's a good way to write television if that's what you're aiming at. But the fact that that is a result does make me very proud and it is something that makes me feel good about the show that I'm making when other times I don't necessarily feel good. That is something that I feel like yes, we are making a show that resonates with people in this way and connects with them and doesn't just make them depressed and makes them feel like a bummer. If our show can be a way for people to go, "Oh, I'm kind of like that part of it too, even if the whole thing doesn't apply to me but that part of it speaks to me. What does that mean about me? Are there ways to change that and who can I talk to about that now that I see that this is a thing that is not just about me?" I think that is a good thing.

You've addressed what happens when humans and animals procreate. Was that a lingering question?

Not for me. I've known from the beginning. It's funny, we have some rules, some are looser than others, but to me I think are very clear. Then sometimes I see audience confusion and I'm like, "Well, obviously." We've established before that when two animals procreate, it's usually one or the other. We don't have progressive mixes of animals because by this point it would be very strange. You'd have something that's 1/8 elephant, 1/8 giraffe, 1/4 human, 1/4 dog and 1/16 zebra. So we try to keep it simple by saying it's one or the other.

How do you decide whether you're going to have a fake celebrity like Jurj Clooners or the actual celebrity or the animal equivalent?

I don't know. It kind of comes down to however we're feeling. The Jurj Clooners thing I think just felt silly. Someone pitched it in the room and we all giggled about it and said okay, we're doing that. With celebrities that are animals, we try to keep it 50/50 and not go too heavy one way or the other. It just comes down to when we're writing that scene, what do we want this to be? What do we think this celebrity cameo we're trying to get, what do we think they'd be willing to do and how would they be willing to debase themselves?

When you first came up with the fake shows Horsin' Around and Mr. Peanutbutter's House, did you ever think that the shows they were spoofing would come back?

[Laughs] No, but everything comes back, right? The Brady Bunch came back. Most things do come back in some way or another, so it's not entirely surprising. It certainly gave us a fun little story for season three to have them work on the Horsin' Around sequel series.

Ethan Around.

So there's inspiration everywhere.

Have you started season five yet?

Yeah, all the scripts are written. They're all recorded. We're animating them now. I'm excited for people to see it. I think it's another exciting season. It's odd for me now to do these interviews about season four because I'm like, "What happened in season four again?" because my brain is so much in season five. I'm enthusiastic about it. I think people are going to really like it.

What are some things you want to deal with in season five?

Oh, I don't know if I'm allowed to talk about it yet. I haven't prepped myself on what my talking points are for season five. It's still very fresh in my mind and very messy. I think we go to some fun places and some dark places. It's more of the show that people like and/or don't like but I hope in some new surprising ways.

Is Bojack's relationship with his mother resolved after season four?

In some ways but I also think there's more to explore there. I think Bojack is someone whose relationship with his mother will never quite be fully resolved.

As most people's aren't.

As many people's, yes.

What about Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter?

We're going to have to see, won't we?

Has that relationship been a roller coaster for four seasons?

It has and that's something that's been really fun to explore. Really every season we go into it being like, "Okay, how are we feeling about this now? Where do we want to go with it?" It's actually really exciting for me to work on the show and work on stories that don't have a predetermined idea of what I'm trying to say or what this means, but just feels like okay, based on the story we've told so far, where does that land us here? A lot of times on TV, you do see stories about couples where it's like okay, this is the good couple and we love them and we're so excited for them and we want them to be together and work out their problems. Or, this is the bad couple, it's not working, we want them to just break up. I think the fun thing for me about Diane and Peanutbutter is they've kind of been both, which feels more real to me. It's not just this example of a kind of couple. It's this very specific couple and the way these two interact with each other. My opinions about it have shifted over the years as we've seen how they continue to relate to each other. We explore that more in season five and I think we'll continue to explore it and it's very exciting.

Have Princess Caroline's relationships been exciting to explore in the same way?

I would say she's been a delight to explore. I think again, Amy is so good and it's so fun to find different things for her to do or different things for her to play. I think she's an amazing woman, an amazing character so it has not been hard to find men that don't quite measure up. I think what has yet to be discovered if we can find a man who will measure up, but it's been fun playing her with different people in different seasons and that we have the flexibility to do something as serious as the Ralph arc which was a pretty straightforward romantic arc for her with real drama, but then also we have the Vincent Adultman arc which is one of the silliest things we've ever done. I love that our show fits in both worlds.

Is the Ryan Seacrest type dead for good?

Well, not in the new season.

Oh, did he already come back?

Oh you mean because he got hit with a car. I thought you meant because of the allegations about Ryan Seacrest. Yes, in the show he was still alive because also it's unclear if each time we see a Ryan Seacrest type if it's actually the same guy or other Ryan Seacrest types.

And is character actress and fugitive from the law Margo Martindale still alive?

You know what? That is something we'll have to discover in season five although I believe she's already done interviews where she's spilled the beans on that. As far as I'm concerned, my lips are sealed.