Bob’s Burgers is in the middle of a highly successful sixth season on Fox. While other shows flounder to find new and exciting material after such a long time, this critically-acclaimed fan favorite about a man, his high-strung wife, and his three progressively strange children, continues to make audiences laugh. It’s one of those shows, like South Park and The Simpsons that endures season after season, making episodes fun to watch even after repeated viewings.
I’ve been a huge fan of the show since its first episode. It’s gotten me through several holiday seasons and even through my final semester of grad school, when I’m pretty sure I chose to re-watch episodes of Bob’s Burgers instead of finishing the papers I was supposed to write. Recently, I had the chance to speak with the show’s creator, Loren Bouchard, known not only for giving the world Gene, Tina, and Louise Belcher, but also Home Movies, and Lucy, The Daughter of the Devil. His career spans decades of cartoon hilarity and includes writing, producing, and directing credits on such shows as Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and Science Court, a show that’s gone, but certainly not forgotten by those of us who watched it in the late ’90s. (Several episodes are on YouTube. Check them out!)
Bouchard and I spoke about the current season of Bob’s Burgers, the show’s beginnings, and this season’s holiday episodes. On the phone, Bouchard is warm and thoughtful, although not as raucous as you’d expect from someone who thought up Linda Belcher, her sister Gayle, and a plot that revolves around paintings of animal butt holes and the havoc they wreak. And, because of a scheduling gaffe earlier in the week, Bouchard actually gave me much longer than the allotted time I was supposed to have with him, taking almost his entire lunch hour to answer everything I had, both serious questions about the show, and several queries that were really just questions from a Bob’s Burgers super-fan.
Tell me about the upcoming holiday episodes.
We’re really excited. We always enjoy doing Thanksgiving and Christmas, I have to say. We’ve had a good run so far, we generally put our good foot forward on those holiday episodes, and hopefully, these won’t feel any different. This Thanksgiving, there’s this crazy blizzard, which happens occasionally in real life on the East Coast, where you get a freak Thanksgiving snowstorm. In this case, it means that Bob has to go pick up Linda’s sister, Gayle, and bring her back to the house because she’s supposedly spending Thanksgiving with them, but she said she’s sprained her ankle, so she can’t drive.
This is the beginning of this blizzard-based misadventure, where Bob ends up basically dragging Gayle through the snow on a little inflatable kiddie pool. Linda and the kids have to cook the meal that Bob was going to cook. That’s it. That’s the whole story, and one of Gayle’s cats is involved. In a way, it’s my favorite kind of story to tell because it’s just a very few characters and a very simple premise. It’s just a chance for the characters to bounce off each other.
I know people ask you about the main characters a lot, but Gayle has always been one of my favorite characters. Where did you get the idea for Gayle? Is she based on someone?
No. She’s not based on anyone in real life. I love the character, as well. I love, love, love Megan Mullally. I love writing for Gayle, and I think everyone on staff feels the same way. I love that she can sing. We’ve had her sing since almost the very beginning.
Grease spill! Oil spill!
Yeah. Oil spill because that was Megan as, yes, as our sort of Tori Amos character.
It was definitely Tori Amos, right?
Yeah. We never said, but let’s be honest.
We all knew.
Once I learned that Megan could sing, then we started writing songs for her, such as the Topsy musical that the kids put on. Then, we wrote this whole “Purple Rain-Union” episode around the idea of Linda and Gayle having been in this band when they were in high school.
You want to have that crazy aunt, right? Everyone wants to have the crazy, maybe unmarried, aunt who brings a little chaos into the life of her nephews and nieces and, of course, Bob and Linda.
When the show started, it was considered really vulgar. A lot of reviewers said, “This is vulgar. We don’t need another Family Guy.” For me, there has never been any crossover in theme or in feeling between Bob’s Burgers or Family Guy. Did you see Bob’s Burgers as a vulgar show?
No. Speaking for myself, and I think speaking for everyone here, we were really surprised to see any of those early reviews throwing that language around. It was, I think, partly accidental. We had a couple jokes in the pilot that were a little off-color, and I think that got combined with what the reviewers expected of a show on the same network that brought you Family Guy. We weren’t really even thinking of the jokes as particularly off-color or vulgar. Obviously, there’s a cannibalism joke that runs through the first episode. Then, there was Tina saying, “My crotch is itchy.” It happens to be the first thing out of her mouth. I suppose that doesn’t help our case.
We didn’t then and don’t now think of it as a crude or vulgar show. It was surprising to see that. Thank God those reviews didn’t spell the death of us. I love the fact that we survived despite maybe not putting our best foot forward.
I’m going to disagree with you about your own show. I don’t know if that wasn’t the best foot forward. I think one of the things that kept me watching was the fact that it was a show where Tina scratches her crotch and Louise makes a child molester burger. It’s strange, sure, but I think you guys have always stayed away from really racist and really anti-gay humor. Was there any temptation to go down that path?
Thank you for saying that. Here’s what we never, ever, ever were going to do and wouldn’t do and even couldn’t do, because we wouldn’t even be good at it: anything mean. I respect the rights of any show, and particularly animated shows, to do that if they want to do that, if they are particularly good at it. I’m thinking of South Park. They have razor-sharp claws, and they are good at their mean stuff.
I don’t think I would be good at it, and I don’t think we would be good at it as a show. Secondarily, it’s just not something we were interested in doing at all. Mean humor can be funny for sure, but it just was never going to be the right fit for us.
I do appreciate that maybe the first episode was a good first episode, what you’re saying, if you’re right, is that our pilot was just the right pilot. I do like the possibility that what came through was a show that maybe took a few chances and was willing to be “offensive.” Actually, if you look at the material, nobody was the butt of those jokes.
You mentioned Tina’s crotch itching. I’ve watched the test pilot in which Tina was male. Do you think that there would have been a different reaction to the pilot if Tina had remained male? I imagine it must have been weird for many people to watch this cartoon teenager talking about her sexuality.
Yes. I do. I think, for some people. For other people, it was exciting and fun and a nice change of pace. I do think that perhaps a slightly more conservative reviewer who was used to hearing those kinds of words come out of a boy character’s mouth did maybe get a little uptight hearing it come out of a girl character’s mouth. I feel like that’s an opportunity for them to examine their feelings. It wasn’t something we were going to shy away from. We wanted to Tina be as rounded and as interesting a character as she could possibly be. For us, that included the beginning of her sexuality.
It felt like it made her a well-rounded character as opposed to a joke.
I agree. We got lucky there. It’s an old trick for me, in terms of shows I’ve worked on before, to have men voice female characters. It can be interesting right out of the gate. One of the great things about animation is that you can fool around with that stuff—have an adult voice a kid, have a male voice a female, have a female voice a male. All of that is available to you.
When it goes well, like it did with Dan Mintz giving voice to Tina, you get a little electric charge out of lines that you might not have otherwise. Secondarily, it helps you write better; That is to say you write differently for those characters because you’re reminded not to fall into some bad habits that writers have when they write for female characters.
The characters end up being helpful. I don’t know what to call it exactly.
Like they’re there just to further the plot along?
Yeah. There’s that and all kinds of clichés about how people write. You get a little second chance when your actors aren’t the sex that they’re playing. You as a writer end up rising to the challenge a little bit, too.
Do the actors give any input? I don’t know how much they ad-lib.
They absolutely do ad-lib. We always invite them to improvise. They’re always, always, always welcome to give feedback on a line or ask a question about a line. Even more so, if something funny pops out of their mouth, we are almost addicted to gathering that stuff up and protecting it, too.
If they say a little something that’s just to make the other actors laugh, very often we’ll go after it. We’ll say, “Wait. Do that again, and let’s build some lines around it so we can actually use it, or clean it up.” If they used a swear word or whatever, because they think it’s just a throwaway, we’ll often go back and say, “No, no, no! That could be great!”
We did choose actors who we knew could do these characters. They almost were these characters or, at the very least, it was a voice that we’d heard them do before. That’s the other thing: You’re basically already trying to write for the actor, even before you fully know who the character is.
Do you have an example of a line that came out of nowhere and that you thought, “This is brilliant, I wish I had written it!” that an actor just made up??
Oh, there’s so many examples. I would say going back early on, in episode two, there’s this great little run where Bob’s in the wall, and Bob’s talking to his kids about about Narnia. Then, Gene says it’s by Salman Rushdie. Bob says, “It’s not. It’s not by Salman Rushdie.” Gene defends his little factoid. He wants to be sure. He’s quite sure that it’s by Salman Rushdie. That is a perfect example where I wish I had written that. I strive to write those kinds of strange lines, and I love it when the actors give us stuff like that. Then, hopefully, in future scripts, we do start to write that way.
I have to say the most horrible curse that there is in the world is thinking that you’ve written the line that an actor would’ve said if they were improvising, because inevitably, you get into the recording booth, and they say the line, and it dies. You say, “Oh, no! You would’ve said that!” Of course, there’s two fallacies there: One is maybe you’re wrong. Maybe it’s not exactly quite as great as you think. Two, it doesn’t matter, because they didn’t think of it. There’s something about an actor coming up with a line on the spot that gives their line read a different kind of life.
Often what you get with improv is not just the material but the delivery. That’s another important little moment of humility. You can’t fake improv. You have to get good people who are funny on their feet, and then you have to get them in the mood. Once you’ve got all that happening, then, potentially, you might get some good stuff, but you can’t just count on actors to come into the booth and write your script for you. You have to write the best script you can and then hope for an opportunity to improve it with a little bit of the improv.
A lot of people ask “Is Gene gay?” or “Is Louise a psychopath?” Where do you see the characters moving if they got older on the show, or maybe off the show?
Let me start by saying the plan is not for them to grow up. Animation is special, and one of the things that’s different about it than live action is your characters don’t have to age. You don’t have to write for that. In live action, you have to assume that, if you’re successful, if you’re going to be on a bunch of years, your kids are going to age.
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a show where that was fun to watch. As satisfying as it is in real life to age, I think on TV it can be a little unfortunate. A good show can evolve; the show has to keep growing. But I don’t think that the characters do. In fact, I think they shouldn’t. The growth of a show is organic and should almost be invisible to the people making it, I think. We are trying to make the same show over and over in a way that’s not repetitive.
If there’s a person out there who loves Bob’s Burgers in season one, we want them to love it in season two and three and four and five. Our goal is to never disappoint that person. That’s what we live in fear of: Any possible moment the fan who loved it to begin with comes back and says, “I no longer love this show.” Then, we will all want to kill ourselves because somehow we failed.
Don’t do that yet!
Good. We won’t do it yet. As you gain an appreciation for a character over years, you can start to play with certain aspects. Obviously, we know our audience has watched a lot of Gene horsing around. There’s a certain pleasure in this “is-he-or-isn’t-he” gay vibe that’s so great. Answering that question would be disappointing. It’s more fun to live in that wonderful space in between, where he’s undefined. It’s just more satisfying and fun for us simply because it’s more interesting. He’s 11, and he could be 11 forever. Obviously, the whole thing gets complicated by the fact that they are never going to age, but they’ve had six Christmases. That will make you crazy if you start to try to think it through. There’s enough precedent in the world of storytelling of either sitcoms or also comic books, where people can hold multiple realities in their head at one time.
Speaking of the holiday episodes, I loved seeing the cast perform one live. I actually sat in the front row at the show and Eugene Mirman yelled at me. I was so excited when he came on that I just started yelling “THIS IS ME NOW” and he yelled “Are you just going to yell, sir? Are we all just going to yell?” Then he had the entire audience start yelling. It was so much fun. Is that something that everybody enjoys doing? Do you ever use these shows as a way to test new material for future episodes?
Yes. The cast loves doing Bob’s live. That is a real pleasure. It was conceived simply as a way to get them together to do what they do so well, and to put a little money in their pockets, and to celebrate them as a group of stand-up comedians and as actors of themselves, live on stage and in the flesh.
The second they stop enjoying it, we’ll stop doing it. If you see us out there, it’s just because we’re trying to give them a fun, new, different format to fool around with and to play with. I won’t get into the economics of it, but it is truly just for them to do if they enjoy it. If you see us out there, it means that they’re still having fun doing it.
What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened at one of these shows? At the one I went to, there were just a lot of people asking if Kristen Schaal would give them a hug.
On the last tour, we had this funny thing where people started proposing to each other. First, we did a live Q&A in the first show, and there was a proposal. Then, we switched to people submitting their questions so we could go through them beforehand and vet them a little tiny bit, and there was another proposal. This person wanted us, they put on their card, “I want to ask my girlfriend to marry me.”
We arranged it. We brought her up on stage, and then we brought him up on stage. We hid our tracks a little bit. We were very, very excited to allow them this opportunity. Then, afterwards, it was a little confusing. They turned out to be already engaged, maybe. Then, we started this thing where we planted proposals in the cards. We pretended there was a proposal at every venue, but actually it was just Jon Benjamin proposing to Dan Mintz.
Okay, I know I should have been asking about the Christmas episode all this time. Please tell me about it.
If you’re a fan of the Bob’s‘ Christmas episodes, we’re making it for you. This one, Henry Winkler is the guest star. He plays a mall Santa. In the very first scene, the kids bicker with him a little bit over a massage chair in a Brookstone-like store. As a result, Louise gets spooked. This mall Santa implies that he sends a report into headquarters about kids who were being good and kids who were being bad.
Louise takes this to heart and starts to worry that she’s going to be on the naughty list this year. She and her siblings spend the rest of the episode trying to get in front of this mall Santa and make amends and clear the air after this unfortunate massage chair incident. That is tricky because, of course, he sees hundreds of kids a day, and they don’t have a lot of time with him at Santa’s Village there.
Then, they decide they have to put on an Ice Capades type of ice show because there’s a little tiny skating rink in front of Santa’s Village. They figure if they can get his attention, they can put on a show and turn this thing around. The episode’s called the “Nice-Capades.” The whole thing turns into this big ice show. She enlists help from Mr. Fischoeder, who’s played by Kevin Kline and his brother Felix, who’s played by Zach Galifianakis. She enlists help from Teddy, who, it turns out, plays on a Jewish hockey league called “The Mighty Schmucks.”
I didn’t even know he was Jewish.
He’s not. He doesn’t want Bob and Linda to tell any of the guys on the hockey team that he’s not Jewish because he really wants to play on the team. Not that he would be excluded. Of course, those guys are conveniently available on Christmas Eve to come in and do some skating in this ice show.
I know you’ve been doing this for six seasons, and I bet you have been asked every question ever. Is there any question you wish someone had asked you but they haven’t or something you’d like to say about the show that you haven’t had a chance to say as much?
Huh. That’s interesting. [Long silence.]
Are you still there?
Yeah. Sorry, I was just thinking.
I guide almost all the conversations I ever get to have about this show towards the actors and towards the production of the audio because my heart is very much there. That’s where I’m most focused most of the time. I wish I had more opportunity to talk about the visual artists who work on the show because they are really, really talented people. I have now seen moments in the show that were funny purely because of what the artists put on the screen visually.
We have one guy who works with us in particular. His name is Bernard Derriman. He’s our Supervising Director. He touches almost every image you see of every episode. He’s just one of those extraordinarily talented board artists, animator, director-types, and he can design characters. He draws stuff effortlessly, and whatever he draws is always funny. He’s one of those guys. His hand is the equivalent of Jon Benjamin’s mouth.
When Teddy gets his wrist caught in the snare in the refrigerator in the Thanksgiving episode two seasons ago. that was all Bernard. It was so funny. He’s just going crazy with his wrist caught in this refrigerator, and it just made me so excited that we can do that, that we’ve survived long enough to start to find our own visual style of storytelling and to know where we’re going to be able to get laughs just visually.