‘BoJack Horseman’ creator breaks down the year’s best episode of television

BoJack Horseman, one of the very best shows on television, returned for a wonderful – and, somehow, darker than ever – third season on Friday, and Netflix ordered a fourth season later that day.

I’ll have an episode-by-episode breakdown later this week, but I’m first pleased to bring you this long conversation with BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg. (Note: We did this a week and a half ago, prior to the renewal announcement, so his last answer refers to the show’s fate being up in the air, even as he talks about plans for what he wants to do next with it.)

Originally, I had intended to only ask questions about the season’s remarkable fourth installment – one of the best episodes of TV I’ve seen all year – a largely dialogue-free installment set underwater, where BoJack’s attempt to promote Secretariat at a film festival on the ocean floor goes awry. But then I realized I couldn’t resist asking Bob-Waksberg about a lot of other aspects of this season, and the series in general – like the absence of Vincent Adultman this year, or how he and his writers decide when to make a new character be an animal or a human – and it turned into a more wide-ranging conversation, with full spoilers for season 3. That’s all coming up just as soon as I write some jokes in case I’m invited to the roast of January Jones…

I thought the fourth episode about the undersea world was remarkable. Where did the idea come from, both for that episode, and even for the idea of the BoJack universe having an undersea world?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: It kind of came from a few different places. On the one hand, a big way we come up with episodes on our show is asking questions, both about relationships with characters and about the world. In season 2, we did an episode that started with us asking, “Where does meat come from? Let’s explore how that works.” This season, we’ve established there are fish people, and in the scene with the giggle chef at the end of last season, you see a ramp coming up from a dock into the boat, and a ramp coming out of the water with people coming onto the boat. Clearly, there are fish people who live underwater, so what is that like, and how does that world work? And Mike Hollingsworth, who is our supervising director, has been obsessed with the idea. For three seasons, he’s been begging, “We’ve gotta do an underwater episode. It’ll be so much fun! There will be all those weird creatures. It’s going to be totally different, and totally cool, we’ve gotta do it.” Part of my issue from the beginning was, “I don’t understand how that works. None of our main characters breathe underwater, how would they get around? how would they talk to each other?”

Meanwhile, I’m more interested in formatic challenges on the show. Sometimes, conversations will start like, “Let’s do an episode like this.” Like an episode from Princess Carolyn’s perspective, or one that’s just a Horsin’ Around episode. For a while, the challenge was, “I want to do an episode that has no dialogue.” Because I know the visuals on our show can be so strong, and I think there’s a great history of silent cartoons, and a lot of fun to be had expressing things not through dialogue. But the challenge there was how do you justify that in the world, and how does that make sense? If our characters are hanging out in the living room, why aren’t they talking to each other? We didn’t want it to feel like Chaplin, or like we were going out of our way to do physical comedy when someone could just say, “Hey, look out for that banana peel!” So there were these two things, where I was wrestling with both “How can I justify a silent episode?” and “How can I do an underwater episode?” And one night, I woke up in the middle of the night, and thought, “Ohmigosh, the questions answer each other! This is perfect!” That was the beginning of it. There was a lot of talk about how it worked and if it was feasible. I went to Mike and said, “You got it, we’re doing an underwater episode. How do we do it?” And Mike went, “Oh God, I don’t know! I just thought it’d be cool. You guys write it!” But he had some really fun ideas about it. He said there’s two ways to do underwater: SpongeBob, where everyone’s walking around on the ground, and Little Mermaid, where everyone’s swimming around. We thought it would be more fun to play the more mundane SpongeBob route, where everything’s normal, and you’re ignoring the idea that that people could be swimming around and exploring this great, beautiful underwater world. Instead, everyone’s just trudging around on their feet like a dummy. And then play the moment where there’s the explosion and BoJack realizes he’s swimming almost as a Superman moment.

What did you think about in terms of the physics of the undersea world? Objects float, but people don’t seem to float, until BoJack goes out the factory window, and he can float and swim.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: The thing you have to remember about BoJack is that he’s very dense. Of course, he’s going to sink to the bottom. No, we didn’t really want to waste a lot of time explaining it. I think you can imagine everyone has ankle weights on, or technology, and there’s a reason that people aren’t floating around. But I also liked this idea that in this world, people forgot they can swim. The modern world weighs you down, there’s always emails to check, you’ve gotta go to your job and pay your mortgage. You’re not really thinking, “Oh, yeah, I can swim around.” BoJack discovering it is a big deal, and kind of fun. And I cannot really explain it scientifically, if that’s what you’re asking for. That’s part of the comedy, too, is we do have jokes throughout of hanging a lantern on the absurdity of the world. Like, when BoJack’s flying over the neighborhood, you see some houses have swimming pools in the backyard, and what does that mean? Why would there be a swimming pool underwater? But we thought it was funny. And it was also fun thinking, “How do people drink in this world if they have those helmets on? is there fire? How do people eat? Do they go to the bathroom? There was one scene that was cut of BoJack at a urinal trying to understand how he would urinate, but I didn’t want to get into that.

It was fun figuring out the science of the world as much as we wanted to figure out, and then playing fast and loose in other places. Which we do with our show in general. One of the things we love about the show is that we can always fall back on, “It’s a ridiculous cartoon.” And it is! It’s a serious, relationship-based grounded character tragedy, but it is also a ridiculous cartoon. I don’t think those things necessarily discount each other, and it’s fun to sometimes remind our audience, “Yes, this is a ridiculous cartoon, and we’re going to do some cartoony things, and you’re just going to have to go with it. So buckle up.”

Was Lost in Translationan influence on it?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: Oh, definitely. I could pretend no, but why would I do that? That’s something we talked about. Also, on the first episode when he goes to New York, and the season as a whole. That movie says something interesting about the alienation of being a stranger in a strange land, but also of being a celebrity. That kind of feeling of not being in the same strata as everyone else. We didn’t want to evoke it too heavily. We were very careful to not make any statement like, “The underwater people are like Japanese people!” But certainly, in the Mr. Peanutbutter commercial for the seahorse milk, that was influenced by a very specific actual Japanese commercial, possibly starring Nicolas Cage. I’m not sure if I remember exactly who it was. I have to give so much credit to the people who made that episode: Mike and his team, and Jordan (Young) and Elijah (Aron), who wrote it, and did a phenomenal job of it. Most of us in the writers room are primarily dialogue writers and not comfortable working without it. BoJack especially is a very dialogue based show. A lot of the comedy comes from conversations, and a lot of story comes from misunderstandings and people trying to connect with each other, and there was a really interesting challenge trying to write a script with no dialogue. I don’t know if I could have done it. So I’m really amazed with what Jordan and Elijah did.

I have to ask about the joke about “Character Actress Ann Dowd” and how that mirrors the Character Actress Margo Martindale running gag. What’s the story behind that?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: I know you and Daniel (Fienberg) have a running gag about Ann Dowd vs. Margo Martindale. And everyone’s kind of aware that there are multiple character actresses out there who fill a similar niche. But that joke specifically came out because of a table read we did in season 2. I feel a little bad telling this story, because this is Brian Huskey’s story to tell, but I’ll tell it. We had a table read for episode 209, which is the heist episode, where Margo Martindale and friends break into the art gallery and it turns into a whole thing. Table reads are a lot of fun on this show, because it’s one of the few times all the actors are together. Before the table read, people were mingling, and Brian Huskey, who in that episode played Alan the Panda, and also the security guard who thinks he might be the son of Richard Nixon, walked up to Margo and decided to introduce himself and said, “I’m a really big fan. I love what you’re doing on The Leftovers.” And Margo says, “Uh, that’s not me.” Brian was so embarrassed. And then we do the table read, and in the episode, there’s a scene of people who recognize Margo and aren’t so sure who she is. So during the table read, she has a line, like, “Oh, sure, you’re a fan of my work, but not a big enough fan to stick around to the credits to see what my name is… RIGHT, BRIAN?” And Brian sunk under the table. And we thought that was really funny: that even in the context of that, she’s still mistaken for Ann Dowd. So we had to throw a reference in to a similar scheme involving an off-brand “Margo Martindale stops Todd’s rock opera” story.

Vincent Adultman doesn’t appear at all this season. Was it just that you felt you had written him out when Princess Carolyn broke up with him, or did no one have a good Vincent pitch this season?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: In a certain way, sometimes it does feel like we say goodbye to a character, and we don’t want to bring them back unless we have a good reason. But even in season 2, we had the big breakup with Princess Carolyn, and in the very next episode, we had a throwaway joke about Vincent being Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter’s business manager. We left the door open if we wanted to use him more. I always think it’s better to leave the audience wanting more. I know people will be bummed he’s not back this year, people will be bummed that Wanda’s not back this year. But I think it’s good to leave people with the memory of that being a great character. And if we have a reason to bring him back, we’ll bring him back. Vincent is tough, because as the show moves forward, time is moving forward, and our characters are aging, and I don’t know how long Vincent works if, potentially, he’s going to have to be bigger, or if that ruins the joke, or how long we can keep the ambiguity going over whether or not Vincent is three small boys stuck under a trench coat. It felt like that was a good time to put this character to bed for a little bit. We have such a deep bench of guest characters that I didn’t feel we necessarily missed him this year.

I have to admit, the first few times we saw a glimpse of the Closer’s gloved hand, I thought, “You know, there couldbe a mannequin hand underneath that…”

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: (laughs) Anything is possible in this universe. It could be that you turn the chair around it’s just a glove handcuffed to a bomb, like in Inspector Gadget.

Did you guys have an idea in your head of who and what the Closer was?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: I think the idea was, we wanted to experience her more or less as BoJack was experiencing her: as a voice on the home. We didn’t want to see the face, didn’t want to know who this person was more than just how she talks to BoJack and how their conversation goes. People could insert their own pictures onto what that person is, just like BoJack imagining for herself who this woman is. One of the things I’ve found really interesting about the show is that a lot of people really relate to our animal characters, more than we thought they would. Part of that is, because they are animals, people project themselves onto them. If BoJack just looks like Will Arnett, people go, “Oh, I know who that guy is. That’s a Will Arnett type.” But because he’s a horse, people can go, “Oh, I’m kind of like him in some ways.” I feel like the Closer’s almost an extrapolation of that: we’ll show you a hand, and you can decide who it is. In the script, the character’s not even gendered, we looked around at male and female actors, not even knowing which way we were going to go with it.

One of the season’s running jokes is Mr. Peanutbutter insisting there would be a good payoff to the spaghetti strainers being in his house. Did you know right away what that payoff would be, or did you have to figure it out much later?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: The beauty of Netflix is that you can figure out a good part of the season before you get started. You’re never in the hole of, “Oh, we’ve already released the first four episodes, and now we gotta make the finale, and we’ve already promised this.” We knew the spaghetti strainers would come back to some kind of ocean/spaghetti rescue. And part of the joy of the season was finding more things to clip onto that: “Oh, Margo takes the boat here, she can be responsible for the crash later,” and, “Oh, we introduced these mirror ads, and we can put one on a blimp and cause the spaghetti to cook,” and, “Oh, we have this Italian maitre’d, let’s have him storm out and start his own restaurant and order the spaghetti.” So it was really fun, as we were going, to keep putting things away in a folder to use. It felt like setting up dominoes, and once we all set it up, you could just watch them go and let it happen.

Even now, I’m sometimes surprised when a particularly rough celebrity cameo is voiced by the actual celebrity, like Jessica Biel.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: Jessica Biel is a really interesting case. She actually called us after the table read and said, “You guys should go meaner.” She pitched us, and said, “Look, I know there are a lot of things to make fun of me about. I don’t want people to think you’re pulling punches. Please, dive in.” I said, “Are you sure, because we are professional comedy writers.” She said, “Yeah, nothing is off-limits,” and we asked, “Could we tell a joke about your friend and mentor Stephen Collins?” And she said, “Well maybe not so much in that area. As long as the jokes were about me, I’m game for everything.” And she was, and she was so funny, and she was great to have in the room, and delightful, and in the recording, we were throwing alts to her, and she was doing them. She’s a really good actress! Very funny. I go, “Oh, right, this is why you’re a successful actress: because, despite the punchlines, you know how to tell a joke.” But I was amazed at the people we got this year. Linda Lamontagne, our casting director, is really good at getting people. This year, we have this joke in the premiere, Jill Pill has this weird performance art piece, about the tragedy of Greg King Lear, which was all these Greg Kinnear jokes, and Linda said, “I think we can get Greg Kinnear,” and I went, “I don’t know if we need Greg Kinnear,” and she goes, “No, I want to get him. I think we can get him.” And she got him, and he was also totally game to talk about how he was washed up and make these jokes about these things he’s done with his career. In episode 2, we had a throwaway joke where BoJack is talking to Jorge Garcia about Lost, and it’s just one line, and Linda says, “I think we can get Jorge.” And he called in from Hawaii! It’s been amazing to see who we can get and what we can make them do.

Why is that? Is it just that the show has been around long enough that people in the business know it and like it?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: I think so. Some of it is fans. Daniel Radcliffe was actually a fan of the show and excited to be on it. Some of it is we’ve gone long enough that we’re legitimate. Even if they don’t know the show, they know we are a show and not some weird thing that’s going to go away. Also, the more celebrities we get, the more it feels like a club to be in: “If Naomi Watts will make a fool of herself, I guess I can make a fool of myself, too.” And also, it’s a fun show to do, and that gets around. It’s easy, especially for a lot of actors who don’t do a lot of voiceover. No makeup, no wardrobe, they really just come in, the lines are right there, we goof around for a half hour, and I think it feels like, “Oh, yeah, this is why I got into this business: to play around and have some fun.” There’s no paparazzi, most of them don’t do any promotion for the show. it’s the fun part of acting, without the other stuff. I feel blessed that we get such amazing people.

How do you decide when a new character, whether it’s a celebrity or not, will be an animal or a human?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: It varies. A lot of times, it’s, “Have we done too much of one or the other, and do we need to balance it out?” Sometimes, it’s about who they’re going to be in scenes with. If it’s going to be a scene of three or more people, we like it to not be all animals if we can help it, but as more and more characters combine in different ways, it’s harder to be strict about that. It’s a thing, like, “Who is this character, and what’s the funniest version of this character?” For Cuddly Whiskers this year, we thought we were going to have this self-important artist character, so let’s make him a big cuddly hamster, which is funny on its face. But it also distinguished him from Herb, who was a human. Sometimes, it happens in the character design. Sebastian St. Clair was never defined in the script as anything other than a billionaire philanthropist/adventurer calling Diane. And then Lisa Hanawalt, who does all our character designs, decided he should be a snow leopard. It’s a “you’ll know it when you see it” kind of thing. We often ask, “Do we have enough humans?” Because it’s always fun to come up with an animal, but it begins to feel like overkill.

So suddenly, Princess Carolyn’s assistant Judah is human.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: Exactly. Last season she was interacting with a rabbit, so lets give her a human to bounce off of. Especially if we have a good sense of what the character is and where to find the comedy of the character, that helps too: we don’t have to rely on animal jokes for this one. Judah will be a straight to a fault kind of character who doesn’t show a lot of emotion, and we built the comedy out of that.

What were some of the other pitches in the room for the joke about what was on that Sopranos finale footage that Todd accidentally stole?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: I don’t know! I think “Tony marries Dr. Melfi” was the first thing we came up with. We knew we weren’t going to beat that as the stupidest, silliest thing that could have been the missing final reel. It’s hard to imagine how you would have justified that within the show, how you would have gotten from where that episode leaves off to get to Tony marrying Dr. Melfi. It really tickled all of us. I don’t know if there were other pitches on that.

Where did the idea for the running gag about Diane’s ringtones all being voiced by public radio personalities come from?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: That’s part of the fun of a show that lasts three season. these things can take on a life of their own. In the first season, we needed a very specific story purpose, in episode 5, BoJack is worried that Diane isn’t the right person to tell his story because she’s very buttoned-up and square and normal. The Ira Glass ringtone was a way to sell that story before we meet her family: yes, this is the kind of person who donates money to public radio. It seemed like a good joke for that story on its own. And then in the second season, in the finale, we knew we were going to have this scene where Peanutbutter calls Diane, which was going to be a straight scene, not a lot of jokes in it. So we thought, “Alright, this will be a good opportunity for another ringtone.” And we thought, “Let’s see if Sarah Koenig wants to do it,” and she did. For the third season, we thought, “Alright, how can we push this even further?” At this point, we’ve established Diane’s ringtone, so we no longer have to justify it within the ringtone – “Thank you for donating to public radio; here’s your ringtone” – so this one is much sillier, it doesn’t make any sense: two people having a conversation about how they are a ringtone. It’s been really fun. It’s really cool to get these guests on the show: not just actors, but, “Can I get Jonathan Lethem on my weird talking horse cartoon show to talk about how growing up in Brooklyn, he always dreamed of being a ringtone?”

You’ve somehow wrung three great years out of this ridiculous idea. BoJack’s life has gotten worse and worse, and this year, Todd even calls him out about how he can’t keep having these epiphanies and then go back to treating people awfully. Do you have a sense yet of how long you can take this concept, this world, and this show?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: It’s a good question. I don’t know necessarily. I do think that this is the end for a certain chapter for BoJack Horseman. I’m not sure how long the show goes, but I think we’ve played the card of “BoJack’s a terrible person, and he knows it, and people start to forgive him and he fucks them up all over again.” I feel like we had to tell that story completely. Last year, even at the time that would have felt like BoJack hitting rock bottom, to me, it felt like, “We can go worse.” Especially given the stakes of our show, and speaking in a meta way about the universe, the first two seasons, he really blows up with these people, both Herb and Charlotte, who are important figures in his life, but not the most important figures in the show’s life. So it felt like this season, let’s really tear at the seams of this universe have him have a real falling out with Princess Carolyn and with Todd, these two characters who have really stood by him, even when he’s fucked them over and been an asshole with them. Let’s burn those bridges and then to finally culminate in him basically being responsible for Sarah Lynn’s – although that’s debatable how responsible he is versus the universe or herself. It felt like, “Okay, now we’ve found the bottom, and where do we go from here?” We haven’t really talked about the next season – or even if there’s going to be one. I don’t know where we’re going, but this does feel like a good opportunity to break off and ask, “Okay, now what’s next for this character?”

I am wary of repeating myself too much. Even in the first three seasons, we try to let the characters or grow or shift, and a season 3 episode doesn’t feel like a season 1 episode. And that’s very intentional. In this age of Netflix, as a Netflix show, if you want to go back and watch a season 1 episode, you can do that easily. I’m not interested in repeating the same story beats over and over and over again. But part of the truth of this story is about how much he repeats himself and these patterns that are difficult to get out of. That does feel like a true statement to those characters and the world. I’m trying not to be evasive about that. I’m not using that as an excuse. I think that’s convenient to fall back on as a TV writer: “Oh, it’s a show about stagnation.”

But I don’t know if that’s the best story for BoJack, long-term. I do love the world, and I love playing around in it and it feels like an elastic enough world that, any story I want to tell, I can tell about these characters in this world. I can talk about parents and children, husbands and wives, the troops, or Hollywood. It does feel like an endless playground at this point, it would be a shame if we cut it off early for fear of repeating the same things over and over again. But I am looking to move the story and character somewhat. I want each season to feel new and special. I don’t want it to feel, “Oh, more of this.” That’s something that’s easy to do in the first three seasons, and harder to do as you go. I’d rather err on the side of blowing up everything and being like, “Why did you do that? There was more story to tell there,” and moving the family to Mexico like on Weeds, instead of people going, “Oh, we’ve seen this already. We’re tired of this.” That’s a hard thing, too, because everyone has a different line of where that comes. So I think there will be people who watch season 3 and go, already, “Again with this? Enough, this is exhausting!” And I can’t necessarily blame those people. But hopefully, we’ve done enough new things in season 3 that it feels fresh and different and exciting. We are pushing our characters in new directions, and I’m excited to see what comes next.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com