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Raphael Bob-Waksberg & Lisa Hanawalt—BoJack Horseman—8/14/2014


Comedian and television writer Raphael Bob-Waksberg did stints perfoming at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater in NYC, with his troupe Olde English and writing the web comic Tip Me Over, Pour Me Out for graphic artist Lisa Hanawalt. Bob-Waksberg and Hanawalt met as students at Gunn High School in Palo Alto. Now they're, respectively, the creator and character designer of BoJack Horseman, Netflix's first adult-oriented animated series (its twelve Season One episodes premiering in toto on August 22). I spoke to Waksberg by phone, and checked in with Hanawalt by email.

Groucho: This is Peter from Palo Alto Weekly.

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: Hey Peter! How are you?

Groucho: So how did you, comedy writer and performer, find yourself the creator of Netflix’s first animated show?

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: Umm, that’s a good question. You know, it kind of happened that I came up with this idea and I pitched it and they liked it and so we got to make it. Umm, I wish I had a more interesting answer to that.

G: (Chuckles.)

Raphael Bob-Waksberg: But actually, the idea really started with my friendship with Lisa Hanawalt, which is actually a Palo Alto story because we both grew up in Palo Alto, went to Gunn together, and you know, we stayed in touch all these years, and she’s an artist and I’m a writer. And we were really looking for something to do together. And she draws these amazing animal characters. So I was going to a pitch meeting, and I didn’t have any ideas, and so I just grabbed a couple of her drawings, and I came up with an idea in the car about this sad horse character who used to be on a sitcom. And I pitched it and people seemed to like it. And now I get to make this show with one of my oldest friends, and it’s a great treat.

G: Now that you have maybe a little distance on that, quick sort of unexamined process of instinctively developing this in your car, looking back do you kind of—where do you think this sprung from—this character, or this idea?

RB-W: Yeah, well, when I first moved out to L.A., you know I grew up in Palo Alto, and then I lived in New York for a few years and I came out to L.A. And I was staying with some friends in this big house in the Hollywood hills. I had this tiny room in this giant house. And there was a rumor that it used to belong to Johnny Depp and that it was the third highest elevated house in all of Hollywood and I just moved out here—I didn’t really know anybody, didn't have any friends—I just remember looking out over the deck of this house and seeing the city below and feeling like “Oh, I’m on top of the world. And I’ve never been more lonely or isolated.” That was kind of the impetus of the character of BoJack, to me. This guy who has had every success—you know, gets to live in this gorgeous house, and everybody loves him but he still can’t find a way to be happy.

G: Is he at all like you on your worst day, or is his self-absorption pure imagination on your part?

RB-W: Umm, it’s not pure imagination. I would like to think that even at my worst I’m better than BoJack. But people who know me might say otherwise. I definitely have some of BoJack’s qualities, unfortunately.

G: Is he named for the fighter or the DragonBall Z character? Where does that name come from?

RB-W: You know, I don’t know where it’s from. I should—I get asked this question a lot. I should probably make up a story. Because I think I just—to me BoJack just feels like a horse name. It's a name that's not quite—you wouldn’t call a human BoJack. But it kinda makes sense to call a horse BoJack. And I said it once, and it kind of felt right, so I just called the character that.

G: Yeah. Now tell me a little bit about your history with Palo Alto and how growing up there maybe influenced your writing or your sensibility in any way.

RB-W: Yeah. I feel very lucky that I grew up in Palo Alto and went to Gunn High School. For me, anyway, it was a very warm environment. I was a weird kid, but I always felt that there was a place for me. You know, I think kind of the standard line on growing up in Palo Alto—it’s very competitive...and people are stressed out all the time, but like, I don’t know, I never got good grades, and it didn’t really bother me very much.

(Both laugh.)

/content/interviews/403/2.jpegRB-W: And now I get to make my own TV show. I don’t know. Don’t worry about that, kids. I feel like I always had a home there. Lisa and I both were big in the theater department. Of course, the great Jim Shelby was a really big influence early on. And I always felt like the green room of the Studio Theater at Gunn was a safe place. And I remember Lisa and me sitting in that green room talking about cartoon ideas together, and it’s kind of a trip. Every once in a while, I'll pass by her office, and I'll say, "Can you believe we’re doing this?" It’s pretty crazy.

G: Tell me about what it means to do a show for Netflix. It sounds like a dream.

RB-W: It’s great. I mean, I’m such a company man now. I have no complaints. You know, first of all, they're really hands off in the best possible way—that they really support my vision. And they trust me. And I've worked on other shows where it feels like the network buys one thing, and they try to craft it into something else--but from the beginning, Netflix has been really adamant that "We want you to make the show that you sold—we want you to make the show that you want to make." And all their notes come from a place of "Is this the kind of show you want to do? Is this the voice you want to say?" And we're "Oh, no, you’re right." But they’re really great and supportive. For me, one of the appeals of pitching to Netflix is they have this different model than other places. You can do things you can’t do on other channels. For example, the idea that all episodes are available at once and that one can watch them on their own time is really appealing. Because it means you can serialize things or connect things in a way that you couldn’t necessarily if people were watching week to week. You know, one of the nice things—like I don’t have to worry that, in episode seven, people aren’t going to know what’s going on; I have to reintroduce all the characters. No, on Netflix, no one is going to watch episode seven until they’ve watched episodes one through six. There’s no reason to pop in for an episode in the middle. That gives me a lot of freedom to connect things and build stories. And actually if you watch the whole piece, it does kind of tell one long story in a really, I think, interesting way. And that you can lay stuff down in episode four that then pays off in episode nine. You don’t have to worry that your audience is going to be lost.

G: Right. Right. And it works even better in the binge-friendly universe of Netflix.

RB-W: Exactly. And we really leaned in to that. One of the things that I love is the idea of a television show where characters change and grow, and their actions have consequences—especially in animation, you don’t see that so much. Animation is really based usually in a world where we reset every episode. Which I really love. And there’s other shows that do this too. But I really love seeing a show where, no, this thing that happened, we’re not just going to sweep under the rug and pretend it didn’t happen. This happened, and now the characters have to deal with that. I think is really fun. And Netflix offers us a great opportunity to pursue that.

G: Yeah. And it’s also, I think, unusual for the genre of animated storytelling to do that. I really enjoyed the forward momentum of that.

RB-W: Thank you. I don’t want to toot my own horn too much and say, "We invented this idea." Because I think Archer does that pretty well...Rick and Morty this year is starting to connect things. I just feel like there’s a shift in animation, that people are starting to do this in cool ways. I'm really excited to be a part of that movement.

G: Yeah. I also detected a little bit of an Arrested Development influence—maybe because of Will Arnett.

RB-W: (Laughs.) It might be the actor! It's the coolest thing. I mean, I love Arrested Development—I’m a big fan. You know, one of the cool things about working for Netflix is that Mitch Hurwitz took me out for coffee right after they bought the show to kind of welcome me to the Netflix family. And that was just such a dream to hang out with one of my heroes.

G: That’s cool. So tell me about the opening titles.

RB-W: Sure. Yeah, that’s Patrick Carney featuring Ralph Carney. And one of our animation guys, Mike Roberts, designed the whole thing. I'm really proud of it. I think it really sets an interesting tone for the show that people might not be expecting, in that it’s a little darker than maybe what would be your typical animated main titles. The music is so evocative and interesting.

G: And is there a specific homage there? I keep thinking it’s maybe Spike Lee or Requiem for a Dream or something—that style of having the character right in front of the camera and sort of drifting through the space.

RB-W: Yeah. No, I mean, there's not a specific thing we were looking at. We talked about almost like a GoPro camera like the people who make mountain-biking videos who strap the camera on and go on a little adventure. It’s definitely not a concept we invented. But it tells—I think the idea—what does a day for BoJack Horseman look like? And you kind of see that everything’s kind of the same. He’s like stuck in this rut. And then towards the end of the opening main titles, we go to more surreal places—we’re kind of floating through space and drowning in a pool. We were trying to think of a way to explore BoJack's mindspace, and as a weird kind of break from a lot of the rat-a-tat comedy of the show, to kind of like take this minute of like, okay, let’s get into this space.

G: Yeah. You’ve got a hip cast here and guest stars. Do you have any good stories or testimonials you want to give about the actors?

/content/interviews/403/1.jpegRB-W: Umm, any good stories?! I mean, they are all fantastic. It’s really cool for me to get to work with all these actors from some of my favorite TV shows of all time. I mean, just in the main cast alone, you have representatives from Arrested Development, Breaking Bad, Community, Mad Men, Mr. Show with Bob and David, Strangers With Candy. Some of the guest actors we’ve been able to get have been pretty amazing also. You know, we have Oscar winners, Tony winners and Emmy winners kind of coming in and out throughout the season. I think an early highlight for me was one of our first guest actors was Keith Obermann. He plays kind of like a whale version of himself.

(Both laugh.)

RB-W: Or like—not himself—that’s mean. So a whale version of a bombastic news anchor. And he’s really cool. But he called in from New York, we're over the phone, and I got him..."Oh my God, that’s Keith Obermann, doing my stupid lines." Then at the end of the record, we were like "All right, now we need you to make some whale noises."

G: (Chuckles.)

RB-W: And so here was Keith Olbermann's on the phone going like "Weeeoooo! Weouuu!" I was just like "All right, this is an amazing job." To bring in these amazing, important people and make them do dumb animal noises.

G: Yeah. (Laughs.) So what was the production for this first season of twelve episodes?

RB-W: It was pretty crazy. We sold the show in November, and the question from Netflix was "Can this be done by the summer?" And we said, "Yes it can." And then we tried to figure out how we were going to do that. It was kind of an insane schedule, and we were kind of all on top of each other: we were writing, we were recording, we were animating all at once. But I have an amazing team here, and we were somehow able to pull it all off. It was a very, very fast-paced schedule. I think part of what helped is I had a strong roadmap going in of what I wanted to do with the season. When I pitched the show, I pitched twelve episodes, and so we didn't spend a lot of time figuring out "Okay, who are the characters? What’s the season?" I had a very firm idea of the stories I wanted to tell, and how the characters acted. So kind of got right into writing scripts immediately.

G: Mm-hm. So what about renewal? How does that work in the Netflix world?

RB-W: Umm, I don’t know! (Laughs.) We’ll find out about that. I think, at some point, hopefully we’ll be making more episodes. And that’ll be that. But it’s kind of nice: you don’t necessarily have to worry about first-week numbers or—it’s all kind of based on whether Netflix thinks we're a good fit for the brand. And then I guess we get to keep making more.

G: All right. Well, good luck to you. It was nice talking to you.

RB-W: Well, thank you so much. I’m glad you got in touch.

[I also conducted a brief email interview with Lisa Hanawalt, reproduced here:]

G: How did Palo Alto help to shape your sensibility? What about Gunn High School? Any particularly influential teachers? What do you remember of Raphael then, and what kind of kid were you?

/content/interviews/403/4.jpgLisa Hanawalt: Palo Alto was a great place to grow up because intelligence, subversive thought, and creativity were all encouraged, to a degree. I was a weird art kid for sure, but I also felt well-liked and valued for my talent. I knew who Raphael was starting in middle school, because he was loud and funny and he was really good in children’s theater productions. As soon as we were in the same theater class in high school, me and Raphael and all the other funny kids become close friends. Raphael would make up voices to go with the weird drawings in my sketchbook and we would invent fake tv show ideas to entertain ourselves. Our drama teacher, Jim Shelby, was the most influential teacher I’ve ever had. He challenged me, helped me overcome my shyness, and wasn’t afraid to tell me when I was being an idiot.

G: In addition to serving as a primary inspiration for Raphael creating the show, what does your design work entail on an ongoing basis?

Lisa Hanawalt: I do value technical skill, because of course I want to make things that are visually appealing and eye-catching! That said, I think the most important parts of my work are curiosity and play. I like to overthink things. If I design a cute cat character for the show, I want her to also be a little bit creepy or uncanny, and to dress her in whatever sort of clothing a cat would actually want to wear (a fish-print dress, in Princess Carolyn’s case)!

G: Anything else you want to be sure to mention about the BoJack Horseman experience?

LH: Working on BoJack has been really fun and new, and I feel very lucky that for my first scary attempts at designing for animation, I got to collaborate with Raphael and all the other brilliant people who worked on BoJack. That sounds cheesy but I mean it!

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