The central character in the Netflix animated comedy series BoJack Horseman is a former sitcom star struggling with depression and alcohol addiction — who also happens to be a horse. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg likens his series to that other show about a talking horse, Mister Ed.
Part of the original pitch for the show, he says, was, "What's Mister Ed like behind the scenes? When Mister Ed goes home after shooting, who is he really?"
The answer to that question turns out to be pretty dark. The series, which is written for an adult audience, is now being syndicated on Comedy Central. It satirizes Hollywood using a mix of human and animal characters to address issues of failure, ego, power, addiction and relationships. The current season is set in the midst of the #MeToo movement.
Bob-Waksberg says the show's format gives it a wide latitude: "Because it's animated and it's, like, a horse and it's bright and colorful, it just takes on a different feel," he says. "And you can kind of sneak attack into sadness and in some fun, surprising ways."
On how he got the idea for BoJack Horseman
The idea for the show really started from my friendship with Lisa Hanawalt, who is a brilliant illustrator and cartoonist. ... One thing she was doing was just drawing these animal people on her own and posting them in her blog and on the Internet, and I thought they were just so gorgeous, these designs of these characters which were human from the neck down more or less with these animal heads. So I started thinking about: Is there a show that I could write with these animal people?
So that's kind of where the animal people part comes into it. Where the bitterness and isolation and melancholy and cynicism comes into it — I guess that would be my half of the equation. I was living in Los Angeles and I [had] just moved here from New York myself, and the first place I ever lived here in LA was, like, a friend of a friend's house I'd somehow found a connection to, and it was like this tiny little closet of a bedroom in this gigantic gorgeous house in the Hollywood Hills. ...
I was this nobody and I didn't know anybody in town and there was this winding, treacherous road up to get there ... and I felt so disconnected from everything. That idea of feeling simultaneously on top of the world and also never more alone and isolated was the beginning of this character for me. I wanted to make a show about a character who had had every opportunity for success and still couldn't find a way to be happy, and then mixing that with Lisa's animal drawings was the pitch.
the fictional '80s sitcom that made BoJack famous
Diff'rent Strokes is certainly an inspiration. Full House, The Brady Bunch, Step by Step. I think in the '70s and '80s and '90s there were a lot of sitcoms about different family units and blended families and odd configurations of families and different ideas of what makes a family, so it felt very appropriate that in our world where we have animals and people coexisting that there would be a show about a horse bachelor raising three human kids and learning how to make a family together.
One thing that I really enjoy exploring on BoJack Horseman is our culture's relationship with these ... some might say cheesy sitcoms of the '80s and '90s, and also BoJack's own relationship with being a part of it — that even in BoJack's ambivalence about being on this show ... there are real people who come to him and say, "This show meant a lot to me," and it means something and I like that.
On exploring themes of forgiveness — in the context of family and in the context of the #MeToo movement
A big part of the larger story of [BoJack's] relationship with his mother and his relationship with his parents is about this idea of can you forgive people who have done nothing to earn your forgiveness? And can you find peace with this woman who is so damaging to you, but [who] is gone now and will never hurt you again? ...
I'm really interested in that idea. That question of what do we owe the people in our lives as far as forgiveness goes? I think what's really interesting for me is the tension between that and too easy forgiveness of public figures. I want to believe on a personal level that nobody is irredeemable or so far gone that they can't find a way to be better and be forgiven.
How does that track with me, where I also think some of these famous ... men who've hurt so many people and [done] so many terrible things should just go away forever and not be allowed any sort of redemption?
I don't know how I reconcile those two ideas, and that tension for me has been at least really interesting to explore over the course of this last season, but also the show in general.
On how he handles viewer feedback about offensive jokes
Sometimes there are challenges in your job or your career and you have to, like, learn how to take them, and I think it's a good thing and I think this means that more people are being heard. ... I think it is a challenge to challenge your own preconceived notions of what is OK, or what is funny, or who are you making your comedy for? I think if you are a comedian who doesn't care about that, then fine, make the comedy for the people that will not be offended and that will be your audience.
I want to make comedy that people who are perhaps disenfranchised or marginalized can enjoy. I don't want my comedy to exclude them. So it's a challenge that I take on.
It's sometimes hard to get that feedback when people say, "Hey, this really hurt me," because my ego wants to say, "No it didn't." I want to feel like, "No! I am smart. I am good. I'm a good guy. You don't understand! I have good intentions," but I think hearing that really helps me.
I don't want to get to a place where I'm not hearing those notes, or I feel like I don't have to hear those notes — because I think it makes me a better, more sensitive and more interesting writer.
Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Netflix satirical animated series "BoJack Horseman" was created by my guest, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who's also the showrunner. Season 5 is now on Netflix. Comedy Central is now showing the first season. The series satirizes Hollywood and deals with issues like success and failure, ego, power, addiction, relationships and sexism. Season 5 is set in the era of the #MeToo movement.
"BoJack Horseman" takes advantage of the kind of characters that you can pull off in an animated series. It's a world that's a mix of people and talking animals with human characteristics. BoJack is a horse who became famous as the star of the '90s sitcom "Horsin' Around." But when Season 1 of "BoJack Horseman" begins, BoJack is washed up. His celebrity has faded and he spends a lot of time drinking, feeling sorry for himself and watching old reruns of his sitcom, "Horsin' Around," admiring how great he was on the show back then.
Let's start with a clip from the very first episode of "BoJack Horseman," when BoJack is a guest on the "Charlie Rose" show.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOJACK HORSEMAN")
PATTON OSWALT: (As Charlie Rose) In 1987, situation comedy "Horsin' Around" premiered on ABC. The show, in which a young bachelor horse is forced to re-evaluate his priorities when he agrees to raise three human children, was initially dismissed by critics as broad and saccharine and not good. But the family comedy struck a chord with America. It went on to air for nine seasons. The star of "Horsin' Around," BoJack Horseman, is our guest tonight. Welcome, BoJack.
WILL ARNETT: (As BoJack Horseman) It is good to be here, Charlie.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK. Raphael Bob-Waksberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. Time changes how we see things, doesn't it? (Laughter).
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: (Laughter) Yes. Thank you.
GROSS: When you did that Charlie Rose opening, you probably had no idea that he would be accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and that would lead to the loss of his job. So let's just start with the surprise of that for you. Did you think of that opening episode when the women stepped forward?
BOB-WAKSBERG: It really dates the show, doesn't it, to have Charlie Rose be the voice of sober reason that - you know, look at BoJack, who's such a mess and a Lothario and unprofessional. And Charlie Rose, played in this clip by Patton Oswalt, is our straight person in the scene. And, yeah, when the allegations against Charlie Rose came out, I don't want to say my first thought was, oh, no, my show. Because it wasn't. It was truly, oh, no, Charlie Rose and all the women that he allegedly targeted. That's terrible. But it is interesting now to go back to that first episode and look at it and think about how times have changed.
GROSS: So how did you come up with the idea of starting a series with a horse that can talk and walk on two legs, and dress and be bitter like a human being, and have him be the washed-up star of a family sitcom?
BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, the idea for the show really started from my friendship with Lisa Hanawalt, who is a brilliant illustrator and cartoonist. And I have been friends with her since high school. And when I was, you know, in Los Angeles pitching shows around, she was living in Brooklyn at the time. And one thing she was doing was just drawing these animal people on her own and posting them in her blog and on the Internet. And I thought they were just so gorgeous, these designs of these characters which were human from the neck, down more or less, with these animal heads.
And so I started thinking about, is there a show that I could write with these animal people? So that's kind of where the animal people part comes into it. Where the bitterness and isolation and melancholy and cynicism comes into it, I guess that would be my half of the equation. I was living in Los Angeles, and I'd just moved here from New York myself. And the first place I ever lived here in LA was, like, a friend of a friend's house I'd somehow, you know, found a connection to. And it was, like, this tiny little closet of a bedroom in this gigantic, gorgeous house in the Hollywood Hills. And I remember there were rumors amongst the other people living there that it was the third-highest elevated house in all of Hollywood, that Johnny Depp had lived there once. And it was this very, you know, fancy, very LA house with a pool and a deck overlooking the city.
And I got there, and I was this nobody and I didn't know anybody in town. And there was this winding, treacherous road up to get there, which I was terrified of taking. And I felt so disconnected from everything. And that idea of feeling simultaneously on top of the world and also never more alone and isolated was the beginning of this character for me, and I wanted to make a show about a character who'd had every opportunity for success and still couldn't find a way to be happy. And then mixing that with Lisa's animal drawings was the pitch.
GROSS: So BoJack is a horse who's raising three human children in the sitcom "Horsin' Around." Is that inspired by like, "Diff'rent Strokes," about a white, wealthy businessman whose wife is deceased? He's living on Park Avenue, and he adopts his late housekeeper's two children who are African-American. And so it's this, like, like unusual, blended family that all the comedy is built around.
BOB-WAKSBERG: It's actually based on a lot of things. I mean, "Diff'rent Strokes" is certainly an inspiration. "Full House." "The Brady Bunch." "Step By Step." I mean, I think in the '70s, '80s and '90s, there were a lot of sitcoms about different family units, and blended families, and odd configurations of families and different ideas of what makes a family. So it felt very appropriate that in our world, where we have animals and people coexisting, that there would be a show about a horse bachelor raising three human kids and learning how to make a family together.
GROSS: So did you grow up on those TV shows?
BOB-WAKSBERG: I did. Yeah. I'm a big fan of those shows. The "TGIF" ABC lineup was a big part of my childhood. I grew up Jewish. And, you know, we could never go out on Friday nights so we would stay in and watch family television together. And those shows mean a lot to me. And, you know, one thing that I really enjoy exploring on "BoJack Horseman" is our culture's relationship with these, you know, some might say cheesy sitcoms of the '80s and '90s, and also BoJack's own relationship with being a part of it, that even in BoJack's ambivalence about being on this show that he knows it's not the height of art and sophistication, but there are real people who come to him and say, this show meant a lot to me. And it means something, and I like that.
GROSS: While we're on the subject of cheesy, "Horsin' Around," the show that BoJack starred in, had a theme song. And not many TV shows have theme songs anymore that explain the premise of the show.
GROSS: And so I love that, that "Horsin' Around" actually has a theme song explaining what the show is about. So I thought we could listen to the theme song.
(SOUNDBITE OF "HORSIN' AROUND" THEME SONG)
JESSE NOVAK: (Singing) Three little orphans - one, two, three - without a home or a family tree. Until this horse said, live with me. And now we've got a new family. We're laughin' and learnin' and lovin' a lot. Every new day is a dream. We were lost, and now we're found. And we're horsin' around.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)
GROSS: So that's the theme song for the show within a show on "BoJack Horseman." So Raphael, why did you want a theme song for "Horsin' Around"?
BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, you know, like you said, you don't hear theme songs - certainly not expository theme songs - so much in this day and age. But it does feel like a staple of those shows. Like, "The Brady Bunch" is the perfect example of, oh, in case you're just tuning in, here is the premise of the show. This is who these characters are. This is how it works. And it felt like a really fun way in. Like, I thought if you heard this song, you would immediately know what kind of show this is.
GROSS: Since BoJack is a horse, did you ever watch "Mister Ed"? You're too young to have grown up with it. But was that an influence at all? And he, too, like the "BoJack Horseman" series within the series, "Horsin' Around," he too had a theme song that kind of explained the premise of the show, that he was a talking horse.
BOB-WAKSBERG: You know, I have seen a little "Mister Ed." It is slightly before my time, but I think the nature of being my age is that when I stayed home sick from school, I didn't have cable. So I would just watch whatever was on TV, which was often older reruns. So I do have a bit of pop culture knowledge outside of my own experience. And certainly part of the original pitch was, what's "Mister Ed" like behind the scenes, right?
BOB-WAKSBERG: When Mister Ed goes home after shooting, who is he really? And that was a helpful way to think about the series.
GROSS: That's really funny. If you're just joining us, my guest is Raphael Bob-Waksberg. And he's the creator and showrunner of "BoJack Horseman," an animated comedy-tragedy that's both really funny and sometimes really, really sad. So we're going to take a short break, and we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JESSE NOVAK'S "SHARK CHASE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Raphael Bob-Waksberg. He's the creator and showrunner of the Netflix animated comedy drama series "BoJack Horseman." And it's now in Season 5. All of Season 5 was recently released on Netflix. When I first started watching "Bojack," I thought, oh, this is such a funny show about the tropes of popular culture.
And then, like, the deeper I got into it, I thought like, wow, there's some really emotionally upsetting things that happen in this. You know, BoJack is an alcoholic. He's mean. He's sexist. He has this ongoing monologue - self-destructive monologue in his head about how much he hates himself and how much he knows he's always doing the wrong thing. And so what he does is drink more. And things sometimes get like really dark.
And at the risk of giving something away from an earlier season, I'll say that Sarah Lynn, who is the actress who plays BoJack's daughter - adopted daughter on BoJack's sitcom "Horsin' Around," after she gets out of rehab years later and he invites her to get high - which he should never have done, she just got out of rehab - she ends up ODing at, you know, toward the end of the episode. And it's kind of shocking. I mean, you know, it's a comedy. It's animated. But you're really emotionally unprepared for that.
BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah. I think the pitch for this show, you know, when I went into Netflix, was always that it's going to start like your typical animated comedy. And it's going to feel like, as you're watching it, like, oh, I get this. I get what it is. And over the course of the first season, it was going to reveal itself to the audience as being something more and darker and more interesting. And kind of the goal was, by the time you get to the end of the first season, you're thinking, oh, my God, I care about these characters. When did that happen? They tricked me.
And so that transition was really exciting to me and the idea that, oh, people aren't necessarily going to know what this is going in. And one thing we've really found is that it is a very silly cartoon universe, but it can also, I think, maybe because of that, go to some very sincere, dark, melancholy and even tragic places and that maybe in a live-action show, some of these story beats would feel maudlin or saccharine or, you know, misery-porny, but because it's animated and it's like a horse and it's bright and colorful, it just takes on a different feel. And you can kind of sneak attack into sadness in some fun, surprising ways.
GROSS: I like that, sneak attack into sadness - and in some fun ways.
BOB-WAKSBERG: In some fun ways, exactly.
GROSS: That's the kind of sadness I like, the fun version.
BOB-WAKSBERG: Me, too. Me, too.
GROSS: And BoJack is in such despair afterwards and feels so responsible. He's driving. And he closes his eyes and nearly drives off the road, but then opens his eyes just in time to save himself. And I think that's a suicide attempt, as opposed to him falling asleep at the wheel.
BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, it's a lazy suicide attempt, right? It's a suicide attempt with plausible deniability. Like, he's not actively killing himself but, he's allowing the universe to take its course. You know what I mean? It felt like an important but maybe minor distinction to us that he is so despondent and despairing that he is willing to do this, but not so much that he is going to actively do it himself.
GROSS: One of the episodes that you have in the current season, Season 5, which you wrote, is an unusual episode because it's one long monologue. BoJack's mother has died. She was never a nice mother. She was always mean to him. And during the last period of her life, she had really bad dementia. And BoJack does not feel warmly toward her. So this episode is all his eulogy for her.
So he's at a podium, at a mic. Her coffin's at the side. And he's not trying to paper over what their relationship was like. He's talking about all these horrible things that happened in his family and how he was mistreated by his parents and how his father was mean to his mother. And they were both mean to BoJack. I want to play a brief part of his eulogy. And this is Will Arnett as BoJack Horseman.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOJACK HORSEMAN")
ARNETT: (As BoJack Horseman) I used to be on this TV show called "Horsin' Around." Seriously, though, hold your applause. Well held. It was written by my friend Herb Kazzaz, who's also dead now. And it starred this little girl named Sarah Lynn. And it was about these orphans. And early on, the network had a note - maybe don't mention they're orphans so much because audiences tend to find orphans sad and not relatable. But I never thought the orphans were sad. I always thought they were lucky because they could imagine their parents to be anything they wanted. They had something to long for.
(As BoJack Horseman) Anyway, we did this one season finale where Olivia's birth mother comes to town. And she was a junkie, but she's gotten herself cleaned up. And she wants to be in Olivia's life again. And, of course, she's like a perfect grownup version of Olivia. And they go to the mall together and get her ears pierced like she's always wanted. And anyway, the horse tries to warn her. Be careful. Moms have a way of letting you down. But Olivia just thinks the horse is jealous. And when the mom says she's moving to California, Olivia decides to go with her. And the network really juiced the cliffhanger. Is Olivia gone for good?
(As BoJack Horseman) But, of course, because it's a TV show, she's not gone for good. Of course, because it's a TV show, Olivia's mother had a relapse and had to go back to rehab. So Olivia had to hitchhike all the way home, getting rides from Mr. T, Alf and the cast of "Stomp." Of course that's what happened because what are you going to do, just not have Olivia on this show? You can't have happy endings in sitcoms, not really because if everyone's happy, the show would be over. And above all else, the show has to keep going. There's always more show. And you can call "Horsin' Around" dumb or bad or unrealistic, but there is nothing more realistic than that. You never get a happy ending because there's always more show I guess until there isn't.
GROSS: And as he's saying until there isn't, he's looking at his mother's coffin. You know, his mother had told him earlier, you were born broken. You're BoJack Horseman. There's no cure for that. So he really had a bad relationship with her, and when he says early in that clip that he envied orphans because they could imagine their parents anyway they wanted to, what made you think about that?
BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, you know, I think a big part of this episode and a big part of the larger story of his relationship with his mother and his relationship with his parents is about this idea of, can you forgive people who have done nothing to earn your forgiveness? And can you find peace with this woman who was so damaging to you but is gone now and will never hurt you again and, even in the last years of her life, was a frail, scared woman herself. And I'm really interested in that idea and that question of, you know, what do we owe the people in our lives as far as forgiveness goes? And I think what's really interesting for me is the tension between that and too-easy forgiveness of public figures, right? And I want to believe, on a personal level, that nobody is irredeemable or so far gone that they can't find a way to be better and be forgiven.
And how does that track with me, where I also think some of these, you know, famous garbage men who've hurt so many people and done so many terrible things should just go away forever and not be allowed any sort of redemption? And I don't know how I reconcile those two ideas. And that tension for me has been at least really interesting to explore over the course of this last season but also the show in general.
GROSS: So in this era of the #MeToo movement, where so many men have so much to apologize for, one of the funny things that you've come up with for the series - or you and the writers - is the We Forgive You Awards. You created a whole award ceremony for people who need to apologize for something. Would you describe the Forgivies, the We Forgive You Awards?
BOB-WAKSBERG: (Laughter) Sure. The We Forgive You Awards, as presented on the show, are awards that celebrities get when the industry has decided to forgive them. So we have a character we made up called Vance Wagner, who's gotten into some trouble in the past. And he's being presented a We Forgive You Award from, I think, four-time Forgivee (ph) recipient Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And one of the sad/slash funny things about this comedy/drama and the making of it is when we first started writing the season last year, last summer, we were talking about how sad it is that our industry is so quick to forgive these, you know, really terrible men who do awful things. And they're able to kind of, like, slink back into the limelight. And we wanted to satirize that.
And then, over the course of the last year, it started to feel like, oh, wait a second. Maybe there's been, like, a huge sea change in our industry. All of a sudden, it feels like we're holding men accountable. And we're we're kicking them out of the industry. And then just in the last month or so, it started to feel like, oh, no wait. Maybe we're forgiving everyone again? (Laughter).
I don't know. Maybe this is sadly relevant anew. So it feels like, oh, we're really, you know, on top of the last month of pop culture news, when, in fact, we were describing this thing that's been happening for years and years.
GROSS: What makes you think that people are being forgiven again?
BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, it was announced that Mel Gibson is co-writing and directing a new movie for Warner Brothers. And I don't know if we have - I guess we've forgotten his anti-Semitic remarks, his homophobic remarks, his threats against his domestic partner, the allegations that he beat her, his use of racial slurs. It mystifies me in this era that we're in, where we're claiming to hold men accountable, that it still feels like we are not.
You know, Louis C.K. did a stand-up set a little ways back and got a standing ovation. There are reports that Garrison Keillor and Matt Lauer are planning their comebacks. I think that there is work that those men can be doing to better themselves, and I would personally love to hear about it. I would be happy if they wanted to come back and do an interview and reflect on their misdeeds and talk about what they've learned. And then I think from there, maybe we can, you know, think about their professional development. And I feel like we're going about this backwards. And I find it tremendously upsetting.
GROSS: My guest is Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator and showrunner of the Netflix animated series "BoJack Horseman." After a break, he'll tell us why he has second thoughts about some of the jokes from Season 1. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new collection of Eleanor Roosevelt's advice columns. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PATRICK CARNEY'S "BOJACK'S THEME")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the creator and showrunner of the Netflix animated series "BoJack Horseman." It's a satire about Hollywood, success, failure, depression, addiction and the human condition in general. Although many of the characters are not human, they're talking animals with human characteristics. Season 5 is currently on Netflix, and Season 1 is now being shown on Comedy Central.
So you've said that you regret some of the jokes from the first season and some of the ways BoJack's bad behavior, like sleeping with his co-stars, being drunk all the time, being mean to people - you just kind of regret turning some of those things into jokes. Can you talk about that a little bit?
BOB-WAKSBERG: Sure. Well, you know, I think regret is maybe a strong word. And I don't know what a better word would be. So we can go with regret. And it's not necessarily that we had BoJack doing these things - because I think it is part of the character. And I do think that we have fully investigated these actions. And I think we've taken great pains to try not to glamorize who BoJack is.
But I think I have a firmer understanding of the power of narrative and the power of humor. I think in the - in the context of the show we were making and in the context of animated shows in general - and at the time when the show came out, and also just TV shows about, let's say, bad dudes or, you know, dirt bags, I think there is a kind of joke where it feels like you're, like, holding someone to task. But really, you're playing it as, like, kind of cute or funny. And I don't know if we always landed on the right line of that.
But I think there are moments in Season 1 where maybe it feels like we're not just letting him off the hook but kind of taking his perspective on things, right? So if he says a sexist thing or if he, you know, dismisses somebody, the obvious joke is not, oh, he's a bore, and he shouldn't be saying this. It almost feels like we're saying, oh, isn't it - it's kind of cool and funny that he's saying this even though we know we shouldn't be saying it. Like, don't you kind of wish that you could say these things, too? You know what I mean?
And that wasn't intentional, but I think it's slippery. And I think that happens sometimes without us meaning to. And I think there are a lot of comedy writers - and I would include myself on this - who sometimes think we have a better handle on what we're saying than we actually do. And there's a kind of comedy that, I think, you could call ironic sexism or post-racism or - yes, our character is saying this thing. But we, you know, the voice of the show, don't agree with it. And I think that distinction is maybe more slippery than people allow themselves to believe. I don't know if you have the control over that that you think you do about how that goes out into the world and how people internalize that humor.
You know, I grew up in the era of "South Park." And I think "South Park" is a brilliant show. And I think there's so much that they do well. And I - they've made me think about a lot of things in new ways. But I - they also have a lot of jokes about Jews. And I remember being in middle school and high school and people, like, making jokes about me that they got from "South Park." And obviously, if you asked Matt and Trey, they would say, well, Cartman is not a role model (laughter). Like, you're not supposed to think he's, like, cool or funny or charming. But I think middle school or high school me, who is the butt of those jokes, would say, well, what's the difference? You know, what does that mean to me? And I think I am also guilty of making jokes like that in the mouth of BoJack or some of our other characters and not always thinking about, what are the longer ramifications of this on our culture?
GROSS: Is there an example you can give of that, of a joke that you maybe regret or wish you had placed differently in - contextually?
BOB-WAKSBERG: Sure. I can give a couple examples. You know, I think a big one, which I feel very comfortable talking about, is a lot of the Jewish jokes we have had throughout the show. And it's something that I myself, as a Jew, feel some ownership of and feel comfortable with. And there's a lot of Holocaust jokes. And I think maybe I believed, in Season 1 and 2, that we were past anti-Semitism. And I think now - I look around the world, and I think that was naive on my part. And I think we are not as past it as I had convinced myself that we were and thought that we were. And now some of those jokes in the early seasons just hit me a little differently.
Another joke about somebody that I am not is we have a joke in Season 2 - and BoJack is a very boorish character. And we had a gag where he's going on this press tour. And everyone's worried that he's going to say something offensive. And they're going to Alaska. And he has a line about, we're going to Alaska. What am I going to say that's going to offend a bunch of inbred, Eskimo, blubber munchers? - is the line. And, you know, on paper, I can defend that joke. And I can say, no, the joke of that is not on the Alaskans. It's about how stupid BoJack is and how he doesn't realize - and clearly, the way it's set up is, oh, he is saying this offensive thing and not even knowing that it's offensive. So I feel like technically, we are in the right on this joke.
But someone tweeted at me a couple years ago and said, you know, I am a Native Alaskan myself. And I was watching your show. And there is not a lot of representation for my people on television. And to watch this show make this joke about my people and knowing that this was the only reference in the show of my people and knowing that nobody who works on the show is of my people, it hurt. And I cannot then say, no, but you are wrong because I did it correctly (laughter). You misinterpreted it, so you are wrong to be offended. I have to hear that note and go, oh, you're right. Maybe we weren't as careful about that as we should have been.
GROSS: I know some comics feel it's become actually very difficult to do comedy because there's always somebody calling you out for saying something politically incorrect. So I'm wondering how you've changed the writing on the show with this kind of sensitivity that you feel you didn't have in the first season and that you're trying to have now.
BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, I mean, first of all, who says comedy should be easy? Like, why do you get a free - like, oh, this is making my job harder. Yeah, boohoo.
BOB-WAKSBERG: That's what happens in life. Sometimes, there are challenges in your job or your career, and you have to, like, learn how to take them. And I think it's a good thing. And I think this means that more people are being heard because I don't think all of a sudden, just because I saw that tweet, I don't think that means that people were not offended or hurt by my humor before. It just means now I can see it. And now I am aware of it.
And I think that is a good thing. And I think it is a challenge to challenge your own preconceived notions of what is OK or what is funny or, who are you making your comedy for? And I think if you are a comedian who doesn't care about that, then fine. Make the comedy for the people that will not be offended, and that will be your audience. You know, I want to make comedy that people who are perhaps disenfranchised or marginalized can enjoy. I don't want my comedy to exclude them. So it's a challenge that I take on. And it's sometimes hard to get that feedback when people say, hey, this really hurt me, because my ego wants to say, no, it didn't, you know?
BOB-WAKSBERG: Because I want to feel like...
GROSS: That's right.
BOB-WAKSBERG: No, I am smart. I am good. I'm a good guy. You don't understand. I have good intentions. But I think hearing that really helps me. And I don't want to get to a place where I'm not hearing those notes or I feel like I don't have to hear those notes because I think it makes me a better, more sensitive and more interesting writer.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who is the executive producer, creator and a writer and the director of "BoJack Horseman," which is an animated comedy drama series on Netflix. But reruns starting from the first season are now being shown on Comedy Central. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us my guest is Raphael Bob-Waksberg. And he's the executive producer, creator and showrunner of the Netflix animated comedy-tragedy series "BoJack Horseman," which is now being shown on reruns on Comedy Central.
So watching the series, especially, like, after the eulogy episode, I would have thought that you were a bitter man who had a very troubled childhood. Reading about you a little bit, my impression is that was not so. Your parents were involved with Jewish culture. Your mother ran a Jewish bookstore. Your father helped Russian Jewish immigrants in the U.S. Tell us a little bit about the bookstore your mother used to have. Like, what kind of books were there? And did you read any of them?
BOB-WAKSBERG: So my mother owned a Jewish gift and bookstore called Bob and Bob. And it was kind of a hub of Jewish life in the Bay Area or at least, you know, my section of the Bay Area, Palo Alto and the surrounding area. And so I really - you know, I would go and visit the store. And I'd sit in the kids section or sit at her desk and leaf through the books. And I was surrounded by Jews all the time. I went to a Jewish day school. You know, even after high school, I went to college at Bard, where there were plenty of Jews. I went down to New York, where there were plenty of Jews. It never felt extraordinary or special to be Jewish. I never once felt like a minority in the communities that I was in. She would always bring home stuff from the store. Often, it was defective stuff that she couldn't sell. So we had a lot of menorahs that were chipped.
BOB-WAKSBERG: We have a banner that we put up every Hanukkah that says happy Ha-ukkah (ph). It's missing an N. So we kind of have the misfit toys of Hanukkah. It just felt very normal to have a Jewish life and to be kind of swimming in this stuff.
GROSS: Was there a disconnect between being told about anti-Semitism and living in this culture that was a majority Jewish culture?
BOB-WAKSBERG: A hundred percent. It felt like a thing of the past. It felt like - oh, the Holocaust happened, and that was terrible. But now we live in sophisticated times. You know, now it's OK to be a Jew. And you know, there are people who still have this, like, anti-Jewish rhetoric. But they're, you know, really on the fringes. And it's really been a wake-up call in the last few years to feel like - oh, not only are they not in the fringes but they're, some of them, running the country. And they have a lot of power, and there are a lot of anti-Semitic sentiments still floating around out there and doing a lot of damage.
And that's been very scary to me but also scary how little I recognized it or was aware that it was happening, especially for someone who - you know, as a Jew, you hear the story of the Holocaust over and over and over growing up. And the story of the Holocaust is that people didn't see it coming. They were swimming in it, and they thought it was a passing thing. Right? There were Jews who felt like - well, I'm not Jewish - I'm German; these are my people; they're not going to turn against me - who were shocked when their own neighbors started, you know, throwing rocks into their shops and stabbing them and cutting off their beards. And so it is a scary time for a lot of reasons. And anti-Semitism is, unfortunately, still one of them.
GROSS: Are you now officially one of the Jews who control the media?
BOB-WAKSBERG: I guess I am. Right? But even that kind of joke, I would feel comfortable saying five years ago. And now I kind of feel, like - oh, no - there's people who believe that. Right?
GROSS: That's why I said it because there's people...
GROSS: ...Who believe it.
BOB-WAKSBERG: Like, I...
GROSS: And they're surfacing, yeah.
BOB-WAKSBERG: And I would say - a couple of years ago, I would be like, oh, yeah. We do control the media. Isn't that hilarious? And now I think - yes, I am a Jew. And I have some power in the stories that I put out, and I'm very glad of that power. But we don't maybe have the power that people think we have.
GROSS: So your mother and grandmother ran a bookstore. You were diagnosed with attention deficit disorder when you were in high school?
BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah. That's about - I don't actually remember if was middle school or high school but somewhere around then.
GROSS: So is it difficult for you to concentrate long enough to read books?
BOB-WAKSBERG: Yes, sometimes. You know, I could always read books that I was interested in. And some people can't even do that. And I was lucky that I had a form of ADHD where, if there was something that really interested me, I could focus and do it. You know, the problem is, in school, you have to focus on a lot of things that you're not interested in.
And there was a while where I wasn't diagnosed where it felt like something is wrong with me, and no one quite knew what. It felt like - oh, I'm just a trouble child. I just don't behave. And you know, I think there was a misunderstanding at the time that I took a pride or a pleasure in it or, you know, like - oh, look at this kid. He's - you know, he loves making a scene. He loves being the center of attention. And I did enjoy sometimes being the center of attention. And sure, like any kid, you know, I loved an audience. And I loved making people laugh. But a lot of it, too, was I had trouble understanding what was appropriate behavior. And I just didn't know. And I would try to fit in, and I couldn't. And it was actually...
GROSS: What was something inappropriate that you did that you didn't realize was inappropriate?
BOB-WAKSBERG: You know, like, one time in math class, I remember standing up and dropping my pants so everyone could see my underpants.
GROSS: Inappropriate (laughter).
BOB-WAKSBERG: Inappropriate. And I remember, at the time, I didn't do it thinking - oh, I'm being edgy here; I'm pushing the boundaries. I did it because I thought, oh, this would be a funny thing. And then I was mystified that, oh, now I'm in trouble. Like, it did not occur to me that there'd be a cause and effect to this action that would lead to me being sent to the principal's office and that this was an outrageous action to take, you know? Or just shouting out stuff in the middle of class - if I had a funny joke, I would just say it, you know, whether or not it was disruptive or not because I thought, I have - I want to say this thing, so I'm going to say it. And I had a really hard time understanding the distinctions and navigating when it was OK to disrupt the class and say this funny thing and when it was not OK.
GROSS: I thought that was more of a symptom of being a comic than attention deficit disorder.
BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, I think those things are related a little bit (laughter) for me at least. I don't necessarily know the difference. I think, you know, the problem with ADHD and other mental or learning disorders is it's not necessarily a quantifiable diagnosis. You know, it's not - oh, you have this thing, therefore you're this. Or we're going to give you this pill, and you're going to stop doing this precisely. It does feel like a science of gray areas. And it's hard to say, yes, am I a comedian because I have ADHD? Or do I have, you know, comedian's disease that was diagnosed as ADHD? And what are the overlaps? And what does this mean? I still am not quite sure.
GROSS: Was TV, like, a safe space for you - where you could, like, immerse yourself in television and be really comfortable? Like, did you live more in the world of what you were consuming than the actual world? And the reason why ask that is that, like, there's so many pop culture references in "BoJack Horseman," and some of them, like, just, like, whiz by you. And they happen so quickly, you can barely, like, catch some of them. So it made me think, like, you must have just, like, absorbed pop culture all the time when you were growing up.
BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah, well, TV made sense to me. And, you know, there's a correlation-causation, chicken-or-egg conversation to have here. But on TV, when someone thought of a funny thing, they said it, right? Even if it was maybe an awkward situation - maybe especially if it was an awkward situation. So there definitely was a period in my life where, if I thought of the funny thing - even if it was mean, even if it was inappropriate - if I thought it would get a laugh from an imaginary audience who didn't exist, I would say it. I would make this scene that I was living in feel like the scenes that I was seeing on television. And that was a real lesson that I had to learn.
And I think what's been helpful is being a writer and having an outlet. And now, if I am in a situation and I think of the funny thing, I can write it down and say, oh, I'm going to hold onto this, and I'll have a character say it later. I don't need to say it to this person in this moment. Or if I think of the funny situation, I - you know, oh, wouldn't it be funny or awkward if I did this thing or if someone came in here and did this? I can save it and go, you know, why would I give us away for free in this moment? I'll get paid for it by putting it in a story later. So having those outlets has been tremendously helpful for me.
GROSS: You know, I'm thinking. Now that Comedy Central is running "BoJack," which is a Netflix series. Now, that Comedy Central is running it starting with Season 1, what's that like for you? - because you, in retrospect, feel like some of the jokes in Season 1 were misguided, and now, it's getting like a brand new life (laughter) on cable.
BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah. You know, it's been interesting because we're actually editing some of the episodes down to, you know, add commercial breaks...
GROSS: Oh, yeah.
BOB-WAKSBERG: ...And to make sure they're the right time for Comedy Central. And, you know, we obviously want them to keep their dignity as an episode of television - not edit out anything too important. But as we are looking for cuts, one of the things I'm looking at is, is this joke still funny to me? Or would this scene work without this moment? And if it does, sometimes we'll take those moments out.
But I also think, look. This is the show. And it has to exist on its own terms. And hopefully people, you know, as they have embraced the show on Netflix, will embrace the show on Comedy Central. And if there are flaws with it, they will see those flaws for what they are, and, you know, we'll see what happens.
GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
BOB-WAKSBERG: It is my pleasure. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Raphael Bob-Waksberg is the creator and showrunner of the Netflix series "BoJack Horseman." Season 5 is now on Netflix. Season 1 is being shown on Comedy Central. After a break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new book collecting advice columns written by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GARY BURTON'S "MOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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