Raphael Bob-Waksberg: Straight From the Horse’s Mouth

September 8, 2017
We talk animation, expectations, and marrying comedy and tragedy with the creator of Bojack Horseman.

You’ll pardon the pun, but Raphael Bob-Waksberg  is a very animated guy. When we catch up with the creator of Bojack Horseman, the 33 year old showrunner is excited to be in Australia for the first time, and to be talking to fans of the hit cartoon he masterminds, whose fourth season hits Netflix today.

“I’ve done a few things like that back in the states,” he says. “It’s always a lot of fun. It’s nice to meet the fans and interact with people. I really enjoy it.”

Waksberg is in Sydney to participate in a Q&A session at Video Junkee 2017. It’s an extremely popular element of the inaugural pop culture festival, although Bob-Waksberg is at pains to point out that the people clamouring to see him are not fans of him, per se, but rather fans of his work. It’s the show that draws ’em in – he’s just the man behind the curtain.

“I don’t feel like I have fans, I feel like the show has fans, which is nice,” he muses. “It’s nice to have people like a thing I did, and have people talk about that thing, but I’m not like a pop star where everyone’s obsessed with me and talking about me – we keep it in the third person, about the show, and that keeps it pretty level.”

And what a show it is. Set in an off-kilter version of Hollywood populated by both humans and anthropomorphic animals, Bojack Horseman charts the ongoing travails of the titular former sitcom star, voiced with deadpan self-loathing by Will Arnett, as he attempts to navigate the second act of his life, pursuing fame and happiness but hobbled by crippling insecurities. Bojack debuted to middling reviews on Netflix back in 2014 (the first season has a 60% Rotten Tomato approval rating), only to find critical and popular acclaim in its second and third series.

However, it’s not so much that the show found its stride, more that audiences began to pick up what Bob-Waksberg and his team were putting down. Rather than another willfully surreal Adult Swim-alike, Bojack is a much more thoughtful affair, mixing absurd humour with insightful and often wrenching meditations on depression, anxiety, and human relationships.

“It takes a little while to get people into it,” Bob-Waksberg admits. “And I think part of it is the way the show itself is actually built. I think intentionally we wanted to start very light and funny and then get gradually darker as the season progressed. I think people watch the first couple and go ‘Oh, I get what this is.’ No, no, you don’t! You think you do, but you don’t! But I think it’s also to do with the history of adult animation – you come in with certain expectations. But the first episode has a two minute conversation between Bojack and Diane (Alison Brie) on his deck about the fleeting nature of happiness. No one talks about that in the first episode, they say ‘Oh, he has sex with a woman and he vomits.’ They really home in on the stuff which is more adult-cartoony, because that’s the framework you’re seeing the episode in.”

But it’s the funny animal silliness that allows the show to explore more complex territory, he avers. “One thing I’ve said about the show in the past – which I have to retire because it doesn’t quite make sense – is that we have two feet: one foot in the world of the crazy, silly, cartoonish, and one foot in the world of the very grounded, realistic, serious, and that the farther one foot goes in one direction, the farther the other foot can go in the other direction.

“It’s a bad analogy,” he shrugs. “Because that’s not how feet work, but one thing we’ve found more and more with the show is that the farther we push into the silly, the farther we can push into the dark, the sad, the gritty and that rather than give you whiplash it kind of compliments it in a weird way, like a salted caramel – a little bit of sweet and a little bit of savory, and it works well.”

It also attracts a diverse audience. For every person watching for the puns and pop culture references, there’s one watching for the often searing human (equine?) drama that is the engine of the series. “It’s a show that has a lot of different levels to it, that works for a lot of different people. There are people who really enjoy the comedy of it, who are not moved by the emotional stuff at all, and kinda sit through the emotional stuff but just want more dopey wordplay about animals, and that’s fine – if that’s what you get out of it, great! And there are other people who do not think the show is funny, it doesn’t make them laugh, but they love the emotional stuff and they relate to the characters and find that it speaks to them on a level, but they can do without any of the comedy – they don’t need it. And part of the challenge of making the show is continuing that balance and finding a way to appeal to all these different people.”

In trying to meet that challenge, Bob-Waksberg has crafted a show unlike any seen before in animation – one that steps beyond the three-jokes-a-minute rule and tries to dig a little deeper and expand what is possible with the form. It’s not necessarily a quantum leap, but the difference between Bojack and the big guns of adult animation – The Simpsons, Family Guy, the Adult Swim stable – are marked. Bob-Waksberg didn’t set out to do anything so hubristic as revolutionise the medium, but he does admit to wanting to demonstrate the too-often-ignored narrative possibilities of animation.

“Adult animation has been dominated by one kind of thing for so long,” he says. “I mean, within that one kind of thing there’s been lots of different versions. I think Adult Swim have worked with many different colours in the Crayola box, but it’s still only one box of Crayola and it’s still so limited compared to the vast possibilities of what a story can be, and what an animated story can be. In some ways in animation you have more freedom than you do in live action, and yet we’ve been so constricted by tone and subject matter and by sense of comedy and character. I’d like to think Bojack has cracked the door open a little bit on what animation can be, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the shows that come after Bojack.

Season Four of Bojack Horseman hits Netflix today.

 

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