TV

How ‘Bob’s Burgers’ Found The Perfect Gene Episode Thanks To A Talking Toilet

The talking toilet episode began as a nightmare. “I have these recurring anxiety dreams where I’m out in public at a party or a similar event and I slowly realize that the only toilet available to use is in the middle of the room in full view of everyone,” Bob’s Burgers writer/producer Wendy Molyneux told us. Not one to waste a bad dream, she took it to her sister and writing partner Lizzie Molyneux, saying, “is there something about a toilet being in a place that’s unexpected? And that was just the nugget.”

From that nugget came the 2013 Bob’s Burgers episode, “O.T.: The Outside Toilet,” one of the series’ most memorable installments. An homage to Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, “O.T.” squeezes everything Bob’s Burgers does well into 22-minutes, balancing silliness with warmth via the story of a central character’s unexpected friendship with an expensive (and unexpectedly companionable) stolen commode. The 15th episode of the series’ third season, “O.T.” arrived as Bob’s Burgers was hitting its stride.

After debuting to mixed reviews as part of FOX’s Sunday line-up of animated shows in the winter of 2011 and at first, facing an uncertain future, the show had picked up a following that grew only more devoted thanks to third-season episodes like “Bob Fires the Kids” (in which Tina, Gene, and Louise Belcher, the children of burger shop owners Bob and Linda Belcher, unwittingly begin working for a cannabis farm) and “Broadcast Wagstaff School News” (in which Tina investigates a “serial pooper”).

Even amidst these, “O.T.: The Outside Toilet” managed to stand out. It’s the sort of joke-packed, endlessly quotable, yet emotionally substantive episode that can turn casual viewers into dedicated fans. The episode probably couldn’t have happened earlier in the run.

“As we all got to know each other more and we all got to record more and more and as the writers got to know us and the characters, it [turned into a] richer and richer show,” comedian Eugene Mirman, who voices Gene Belcher, says. It certainly couldn’t have happened in the earliest conception of the show, which imagined the Belcher family to be cannibals, a detail creator Loren Bouchard dropped early in the development process.

“Do you really want it to be cannibals every week?,” Mirman remembers FOX asking Bouchard, to which he replied, “Actually, I think I don’t.”

Mirman had collaborated with Bouchard before, providing voices for the animated series Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist (on which Bouchard served as a writer and producer), Home Movies (which Bouchard co-created with Brendon Small) and Lucy, Daughter of the Devil (created by Bouchard). Like the rest of the core voice cast, he became involved with the series early in the process. His comedic persona, and that of co-stars H. Jon Benjamin (Bob), John Roberts (Linda), Dan Mintz (Tina), and Kristen Schaal (Louise) helped shape the personalities of the Belcher family.

“With each of the characters, there was how they envisioned it and then the personality we brought to it,” Mirman says. “I brought a sort of exuberance and weird references. I think Gene isn’t as much what I was like as a kid as much as what I’d be like if I was a kid now.”

The Molyneuxs knew they wanted to join the team before an episode had even aired. Wendy had been working in television for a while, including a stint on future Bob’s Burgers recurring guest star Megan Mullally’s talk show, The Megan Mullally Show. Eight years older than Lizzie, she encouraged her sister to become a writer after Lizzie earned a positive response after pitching a project while interning at a film production company during her senior year in college. (“I was just like, ‘Uh… okay, sure,’” Lizzie remembers.) Before long, they became a team, mostly writing movies that never got made. That changed when they saw a presentation about Bob’s Burgers and landed an interview for the show.

“We got this interview for Bob’s Burgers and we loved the presentation so much that it was like in Notting Hill when Hugh Grant meets Julia Roberts and is like ‘There’s no way I’m going to wind up with this person. They’re a movie star,’” Wendy says. “It was our Julia Roberts. We were like, ‘No way is this show going to choose us because we love it too much already.’ And then we got hired and we were like, ‘Oh shit.’”

By season three, that “oh shit” feeling had faded and the Molyneuxs were deeply ensconced in the series. That didn’t mean they didn’t have to pitch their ideas. Recalling the third season, Wendy says, “I remember we pitched like five or six ideas because that’s how you would start the season each year, [you’d] go in and pitch to Loren and at the time Jim Dauterive [who developed the show with Bouchard]. So, Loren goes, ‘Well. I think we have to do the toilet one.’ So, that was it.”

By this point, a notion born of bad dreams had become a fleshed-out idea. But it took a while to get there.

“[At first] it was more like just a toilet,” Wendy says. “Maybe somebody just decides to start peeing and pooping out in the woods somewhere. Then from there, we discovered… Neither of us owns one of these very fancy toilets but we saw videos of these toilets and then we’re like, ‘Oh, what if they found a toilet that could talk back?’ And I think at that point is when we were like, ‘That’s a friend for Gene.’”

“I think it was sort of that the idea of a toilet you could interact with was really fun,” Lizzie continues. “And it played into that type of movie: E.T. or The Iron Giant or even Stand by Me. Just the idea of the kids going out into the woods and finding something special and feeling attached to it and having this adventure on their own without Bob and Linda being involved.”

Instead of his parents, Gene drove the action. The Belchers’ middle child, Gene had always been a reliably funny character but had less often served as the emotional heart of the show.

“If you look at the pilot,” Wendy says, “Gene was peppered in, but it was very focused on him kind of making noise with the keyboard and all of that stuff. I don’t know if in the pilot we were as focused on Gene’s wants and needs and who Gene is deep down.” Other episodes had changed that, but none had emphasized the middle Belcher child’s complexity quite like “O.T.”

“I think Gene is so okay with himself, but he’s also not always surrounded by friends,” Wendy says. “The Belcher kids are each other’s best friends. So finding what other kids they’re interested in has been kind of a journey. And for Gene it was sort of, oh Gene gets a little upset with himself at the beginning and finds a friend to nurture. But the friend happens to be a toilet. If they’re going to go outside of their sibling group, it has to be for someone special. In this case, the someone special is a toilet. It’s finding what did the toilet answer in Gene that made this so obviously a Gene episode.”

At a certain point, it became obvious that only Jon Hamm could provide the voice of the toilet. The Bob’s Burgers staff already wanted to have Hamm guest on the show, but only if they could find the right part.

“We knew that one of our staff members is quite close with Jon Hamm personally,” Wendy recalls. “And so we were always thinking, ‘What could we have Jon Hamm do on the show?’ Whenever one of us has a friend who’s a name actor, or we hear that someone who is a name likes the show, we all are aware. Our antennae are up [but] we don’t want to be weird and do stunt casting, because we don’t do that.”

Hence, the toilet.

“It felt like, okay, this is the part,” Wendy says. “If you did the math on it, Don Draper is the opposite of a toilet. So it was like, yes, he must play a toilet. This is the only answer for how we use Jon Hamm on this show.”

But before Gene could form a relationship with a Hamm-voiced toilet, the Molyneuxs had to create a need for that bond.

“The episode opens with them having flour babies at school and Gene messes his up and it points out to himself that he’s not good at taking care of things,” Lizzie says. “With every episode, we do with Bob’s, there’s always that emotional angle we’re looking for. It was fun to discover that vulnerable side of Gene. As Wendy was saying, he was comic relief in a lot of episodes, and it was fun to see that side of him. And what is the thing that Gene’s going to fall in love with and want to take care of? The joke is that it’s a toilet. But it was fun to see him have this relationship with it. When we were breaking the story […] we ended up with [the question of] of ‘How can we get him attached to it in a real way that’s more than just, oh, he likes the toilet?’”

Rewatching E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial provided the inspiration, leading the Molyneuxs to develop a parental relationship between boy and toilet. “We think of our toilets as our children,” Wendy says. She’s joking, but that doesn’t make the ties between Gene and toilet any less weirdly moving as Gene first bonds with the toilet by filling it with water when needed (complimented on his nurturing skills, Gene replies, “He’s just a really good toilet”) then fights to keep the toilet out of the clutches of the thief trying to retrieve him (voiced by Neil Flynn, Wendy’s improv teacher prior to taking central roles on Scrubs and The Middle). Along the way, the episode keeps finding one inventive variation after another on the idea of a talking toilet. From Hamm delivering jokes in a soothing baritone (“Knock knock” “Who’s there?” “Botany” “Botany who?” “Botany good toilets lately?”) to the limits of a voice recognition system that mistakes the phrase “easy money” for a request to play the music of Eddie Money.

As the episode progresses, Gene’s story expands to include first his siblings then the supporting cast of local kids, as Bob and Linda enjoy a date night courtesy of the newfound respect Bob found after putting on a fancy suit loaned to him by their mortician neighbor Mort (Andy Kindler). The Molyneuxs recall this B-story as the contribution of writer Kit Boss, later to work on series like The Tick and iZombie. (“He’s the one that got away,” Wendy says. “We all love Kit Boss. Can this whole interview just be us asking Kit Boss to come back to Bob’s Burgers?”) But it’s the relationship between Gene and the toilet that drives the episode. It’s a relationship that partly developed in-person. Though Hamm, having worked under the weather, later had to re-record his lines, he did the initial recording in New York with Mirman.

“It was fun getting to record with him and play around,” Mirman says. He speaks warmly of the process even when it doesn’t involve talking toilets, saying, “We record all this different stuff. We do what’s written, the writers throw out lines, Loren throws outlines, we improvise. And then they take what works best and make the episode. There’s a joy to it.”

By episode’s end, the toilet is on its way to being restored to its rightful owner, but not before Gene has a chance to bid it a proper farewell. From there, life returns to normal for the Belchers, and Gene resumes being the awkward, funny boy filled with the same oft-misplaced confidence that he was before.

“The thing that’s interesting with cartoons is, it’s all as if the whole world takes place within the same year,” Mirman says, “And so you stay the same but you become a richer and richer character with a bigger and bigger history.”

Sometimes that bigger, richer history involves learning to love a toilet with the ability to play the 1977 Eddie Money hit “Baby Hold On,” whether you want it to or not.

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