Ever since college, Raphael Bob-Waksberg has been searching for a sense of creative balance.
As a playwriting major at Bard College, Bob-Waksberg dove into dramas but was buoyed by humor as a member of the sketch comedy group Olde English. He never valued one over the other. Bob-Waksberg wanted to bridge the two art forms together into something more nuanced than a drama that’s occasionally funny or a comedy with hints of gravitas. What he’s been chasing instead is work that’s grounded in the bleak, yet truthful, depths of raw emotions, amplified against the backdrop of an inherently lighthearted universe.
And Bob-Waksberg found his place in the form of a washed-up, self-destructive cartoon horse.
“I was doing this really wacky sketch comedy but at the same time writing these dark, cerebral plays about characters coming to grips with their loneliness and heartbreak. My dream job has always been a way to combine the two,” Bob-Waksberg says. “I would say BoJack Horseman is the culmination of all of that.”
BoJack Horseman centers on its titular character, the former ’90s sitcom star of the fictional hit Horsin’ Around. With fame long behind him, BoJack (Will Arnett) is trying to navigate his way back to relevance with his burnout roommate Todd (Aaron Paul), agent/on-again-off-again girlfriend Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), frenemy Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), and his biography ghostwriter Diane (Alison Brie), who are all along for a ride punctuated with barely suppressed inner demons and torrents of booze.
As a Netflix original show, all 12 episodes of season one were released at once, and the binge-watching format helped frame Bob-Waksberg’s vision for a reality where humans coexist with anthropomorphic animals. Because Bob-Waksberg knew audiences would watch BoJack Horseman episodes in chunks, he was able to create a tightness and continuity you don’t see in many cartoons: If something changes or is destroyed (like the “HOLLYWOOD sign losing its “D”) it stays that way (welcome to “HOLLYWOO”).
Bob-Waksberg recently talked to Fast Company about the evolution of cartoons, tempering serious with silliness, and his creative process.
How does the binge-watching format and focus on continuity help your concept of the show?
The idea is that these actions have consequences, these characters grow and change, these relationships shift. By the end of the season, you couldn’t do an episode two again–that story couldn’t happen in this new world. We’re working on season two right now and we have to start over a little bit. The characters have changed; the setting is different; how they look at the world is altered.
Should more cartoons aim for a sense of realism?
There’s a bit of a sea change that’s happening. For me as an audience member, it makes the characters more relatable and interesting if they’re evolving and changing–it makes them feel more real in a way. But not every cartoon is trying to be real.
What’s really interesting about [BoJack Horseman’s] premise is you have this goofy, crazy world where animals are people and anything can happen, and if you undercut that with this grounded energy and these real emotions and feelings, you have this nice mix–it’s never feels like too much of one or the other. I think people are starting to discover that you can actually go darker, more melancholy, and introspective in a cartoon because you earned it with all this silly wackiness.
How did the idea for BoJack Horseman even come about?
I just moved out to L.A. from New York. I really didn’t know anybody. I got this tiny room in this big house in the Hollywood Hills. I remember sitting on the deck and looking out over Hollywood and feeling like, “Oh, my god. I’m on top of it all–this is the dream.” But I felt so lonely and isolated. So the idea for character kind of sprung from that: Someone who’s gotten every opportunity in life and has had every success imaginable but still can’t find a way to be happy.
For a show that’s constantly changing, how do you find your center?
It’s a hard thing because the balance is always shifting. The beginning of season one is very silly but it gets progressively darker with real emotions. A story doesn’t always have to be interesting because it’s funny–it can be interesting because you’re feeling something. We’ve had scenes that came out as a mix of both and we had to pick a direction. We’ve taken jokes out of scenes because we’re trying to keep the moment pure.
In episode six, you have these dueling monologues when BoJack is leaving a message for Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter is proposing to her at the same time. Mr. Peanutbutter’s speech has a few jokes in it like, “You’re a catch, Diane–and you know how much I love catch.” But BoJack’s monologue is actually very sincere. There are a few versions we played around with that had more self-deprecating humor in it but at the end of the day we said if we’re going to go for this let’s go for this and feel the moment. So we let it play very straight.
What can we expect from season two?
Right now I’m writing the first episode and it’s like I’ve never written a script before! I want to see things and try new stuff. Some people have the mentality of, “Alright, guys–we gotta figure out what works and do that.” But my instinct is, “You’ve figured out what works, now what else can we do?”
With Olde English, we always did new material to a fault. We hated performing sketches live we had already performed. We never workshopped things or made them better–it just felt so boring to revisit this material we already did. I would rather go crazy in season two and go off the deep end than be repetitive and feel like we’re running in circles.
Creativity is about process, practice, passion, and play. What do each of these mean for you?
Process: It’s much easier for me to think in terms of character movement and emotion and story rather than, “What are some wacky hijinks we can throw together?” I’m always thinking, “What is this episode about?” Once I figure that out, it’s easier to put in place–at least you know that’s the most important thing.
Practice: It’s been a real learning experience running this show. I’ve never had a staff working under me. At first it was very difficult to trust other people. It’s hard because you have this baby and you bring this room full of writers in and they start poking holes in it. Your first instinct it to get defensive and lock yourself in your office saying, “I’m just going to do it all!” But then you realize these are people you hired to help and it’s okay to say, “Let’s figure this out together.”
Passion: I guess my passion is my process! Especially in this last year, I really put everything into this one gig. I’m proud of the work and I feel very connected to it. I’ve definitely been at jobs where it feels like this is “just a job” and this does not feel this way–this feels like an expression of what I want to say and who I am.
Play: I love to go on road trips. That’s one thing I love about being in L.A. and having a car. In New York, you can get around on the subway but you can’t really go anywhere. But there’s a danger in believing that where you are defines you.