BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg spins sadness and pathos into comedic gold
'I always felt like the best comedy came out of sadness'
By Brent Bambury
In the just-released fifth season of BoJack Horseman, the star is getting something he doesn't deserve: another chance.
His new TV show, Philbert, is an edgy hit, so he's no longer washed up. But his personal life is another story.
BoJack is still a sad, addicted mess.
"You know, we have some very dark characters," the show's creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, said in an interview on Day 6.
None of them is darker than BoJack, his half-man, half-horse star.
BoJack has a ton of baggage. He's a self-destructing serial betrayer. He behaved inappropriately with a teenage girl. His narcissism and entitlement make him just as dangerous as any predator taken down by #MeToo.
But while Bojack isn't oblivious to the damage he inflicts on others, he's in denial about all of it.
Confronted by his friend Diane in Season Five, BoJack argues that the biggest victim in the drama of his life is him.
"I know that it's not the woke, progressive, intersectionally-appropriate thing to say, but I would say — 'Yeah! I'm the one who suffered the most because of the actions of BoJack Horseman,'" he states.
"You've suffered?" Diane asks. She's incredulous. Diane is his biographer. She knows how many people he's hurt.
If this sounds dire and grim, it is. But BoJack Horseman is also a comedy — and by many critics' accounts, it's hysterical.
'It's a very goofy show'
No other show on television draws comedy from material as dark as this. But as deep as BoJack goes into abuse and moral ambivalence, it consistently snaps back with jokes and cartoon gags. In the show, fish drive cars and pugs wait tables.
"I think a lot of the listeners who are not familiar might be surprised to hear the show about the talking animals is primarily interested in sadness, because by all appearances it's very goofy show," Bob-Waksberg said.
It's a wicked satire of Hollywood, and the environment is surreal.
[Sadness is] a thing to be that can be celebrated without being fetishized."- Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman
"I think if the world of the show looked a little grittier or felt more realistic some of the things we do might feel maudlin or self-indulgent. But there's a fun kind of sweet and savory interplay."
The candy coloured animation and the more convivial characters — like Aaron Paul's Todd Chavez — deliver the comedy as the show goes for the jugular.
"I like to think that we have lots of silly goofy jokes but then we also have some very serious conversations and introspective monologues," Bob-Waksberg said.
only took 5 seasons to get me on the cover watch it on netflix <a href="https://t.co/3hN2NIObSt">pic.twitter.com/3hN2NIObSt</a>—@BoJackHorseman
'Beating a dead horse'
One of those monologues spans an entire episode. It's a 25-minute eulogy, delivered by BoJack at his mother's funeral.
In a masterful voice performance by Canadian Will Arnett, BoJack stands next to a casket and reveals his traumatic backstory. It's riveting. And it's funny.
"Knock once if you're proud of me," BoJack deadpans to the closed casket beside him.
Asked when he first became so enamoured with misery, Bob-Waksberg said that he's always believed sadness is universal — and not something to be ashamed of.
"It is, in fact, a thing to be that can be celebrated without being fetishized."
"I always felt like the best comedy came out of sadness, and some of my favourite shows growing up — a lot of my influences — have these very sad characters and treat that sadness seriously while also being very funny."
"And so that's always been the thing that I've been interested in exploring on TV."
A love letter to TV
Bob-Waksberg grew up with television and understands its power.
With BoJack Horseman, he's created a TV show that loves TV. The eulogy episode winks at an old episode of Maude that broke format and gave Bea Arthur a dramatic monologue.
BoJack's ticket to fame was a sitcom called Horsin' Around, analogous to Full House or Family Affair.
"I think in many ways our show is kind of a love letter to those shows, while also poking fun at them," Bob-Waksberg said.
"And I think it's very easy to take the cynical look and say, 'well, they're kind of empty and they're not necessarily as good as, you know, other things that are really serious or well written or well-acted.'"
But Bob-Waksberg thinks popular TV plays an important role in the culture.
"The best of those shows at their best, I think, had goodness and warmth that I think is very important," he says.
I would like to think even a soul as lost as BoJack can somehow crawl his way toward redemption.- Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman
In BoJack Horseman's 3rd season, Diane reminds BoJack of the powerful impact his show had on her life.
Bob-Waskberg described Diane telling BoJack that "'When I was a kid, I used to watch you on TV. And you know I didn't have the best family. Things weren't that great for me. But, for half an hour every week, I got to watch this show about four people who had nobody, who came together and became a family. And, for half an hour every week, I had a home, and it helped me survive.'"
"I came from a very good home, unlike Diane. I had a family full of love, but even I, I think, got something from seeing that on television," Bob-Waksberg said.
"I will say there was a lot more Christmas [on TV] then I got in my household as a Jewish boy. I was led to believe that people who looked like Ben Savage would celebrate Christmas, yet I got to do Simchat Torah instead."
Crawling toward redemption
Bob-Waksberg has no plans to end BoJack Horseman any time soon.
"I know I'm still enjoying working on this show and people are still discovering and enjoying watching it," he said.
But he admits he imagines a day when it will be time to put BoJack out to pasture.
"It does occur to me that at some point it feels like we're torturing the characters," he said with a chuckle.
But with all the second chances and entitlements and advantages that BoJack has enjoyed, has he proven himself irredeemable?
"I would like to see BoJack find some sort of peace," Raphael Bob-Waksberg said. "I don't know if happiness is the right word; I don't know if he deserves that ... But I would like to think even a soul as lost as BoJack can somehow crawl his way toward redemption. And I think we've seen some steps in that direction."
"We've also seen a lot of steps backwards in the opposite direction ... you know, time will tell, and we'll see where the show goes."
To hear the full interview with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.