When Raphael Bob-Waksberg steps out of his writers’ room to call me, the third season of his devastatingly funny animated series BoJack Horseman is less than 24 hours away from its release on Netflix. “I’m excited and nervous and nauseated and thrilled and pumped and terrified and all those things at once,” he says. “Also kind of bored. Every possible emotion I could be feeling, I’m currently feeling simultaneously.”
Bob-Waksberg and his team of writers and animators have been working steadily on the new season for close to a year and they are already back at work on the just-announced fourth season of the show, due out sometime next summer. But for now, he’s looking forward to sharing the new episodes with fans, saying he hopes they “enjoy them as much as we enjoyed making them.”
The new season finds the title character, the anthropomorphized horse voiced by Will Arnett, in the middle of an awards campaign for his comeback film, Secretariat. The only problem is, as we learned late last season, the studio decided to replace him with an almost entirely CGI-ed horse. Now he is on the verge of being rewarded for a performance he didn’t even give.
In our edited and condensed conversation below, Bob-Waksberg discusses Hollywood’s “childish” awards culture, along with some of the season’s bolder choices, including an episode that takes a rare and honest look at abortion, albeit through the PR nightmare of a dolphin popstar named Sextina Aquafina. Warning: Minor spoilers for Season 3 ahead.
When we spoke back in January, you promised a “frustrating” and “punishing” Season 3. Do you think you delivered on that?
[Laughs] Well, you know, I think that’s for the audience to decide. We’re not trying to necessarily devastate people, that’s not the goal of making the show, as much as some people tend to believe that. We’re trying to make a nuanced, textured season of television that takes you to a lot of places, that sometimes will be delightful and sometimes will be upsetting. And will hopefully reflect the broad spectrum of experience that is life itself, to speak non-pretentiously about it. If I want to go pretentious, I can really dial it up to 11, but let’s start there.
As always, there are a lot of new voice actors on the show this season. Who were you really excited to work with? And who surprised you in terms of what they brought to the table?
Oh, God, well, Angela Bassett is unbelievable. We kind of crammed her in at the end of Season Two, thinking if we get Angela Bassett we’ll find something to do with her. And I was always really delighted by the choices she made with the character [Ana Spanakopita, Oscar Whisperer]. She brought to life what I think could have been kind of a flat, predictable character and I think really found the nuance in her and made her surprisingly likable doing some of her more unlikable things. She’s also just really friendly and it was fun to see her every week. She’s a delight. If anyone ever has the opportunity to work with Angela Bassett, I would advise not passing that up. Oh, and Jessica Biel was amazing, which I’m not surprised by. She was one of the few actors to play themselves who asked for there to be meaner jokes about them. We did the table read and she called me and said, “I think you can go meaner. And I want to go meaner.” So we cranked up the comedy room and said, Jessica Biel jokes, go! And then even while recording she was riffing and coming up with new ones. She definitely has a great sense of humor about herself and her career.
There are some really ambitious episodes this season, including the flashback to 2007. What was it about that year that you felt was so ripe for comedy?
We knew we wanted to tell the story of BoJack’s last attempt at a comeback. So it had to come some time after Horsin’ Around ended. And also I think there was some fun in the idea of not going too far back. Doing a nostalgia flashback episode about a time that wasn’t that long ago really tickled me personally. The way that Grease was made in the ’70s or The Wonder Years was made in the ’80s and ’90s, could you do something like that but only go back nine years? And it felt really fresh to treat 2007 as a nostalgia object and overplay how different things were back then and how wacky and backwards the past was, when most people watching it feel like that was just yesterday. But the more research we did, the more it kind of felt like that was a long time ago. It’s a world before iPhones and before President Obama, which kind of feels like a different universe. In the next 20 years, there are going to be more and more period pieces set in the mid-2000s, and so to be the first ones on that beat felt really exciting. We’re going to be the first ones to make references to The Hills and the HD-DVD player.
There’s also the mostly silent underwater episode, which seemed at first like it might be a Lost in Translation parody, but ended up being different and much more trippy. How did that come about?
It is a Lost in Translation riff in some ways. And it certainly felt like one of those situations where form met function. The best way to tell a story of BoJack’s alienation and isolation and feeling kind of lost under the weight of this publicity tour he’s going on was to remove dialogue from that and play up his otherness within that. It felt like a really juicy match-up. And then to ultimately use the story to talk about connection and both his connection and lack of connection with Kelsey [Secretariat director, voiced by Maria Bamford] and also with this child that he finds and befriends. And to get out of the way of the dialogue and hit those emotional beats more clearly and more cleanly. We were all really excited to dive in, so to speak, and play around in that arena.
The show is so heavy on verbal jokes, but also visual jokes and this seemed like a chance to do more of the latter.
Yeah, we have such a phenomenal team, headed up by our production designer Lisa [Hanawalt] and our supervising director Mike [Hollingsworth], who directed this episode himself and so the idea of giving them a real sandbox to play around in and to push them to do the heavy-lifting for an episode—though they do heavy-lifting in every episode—but to really take center stage, was really exciting for all of us. And I never had a doubt that they would deliver us something phenomenal. I’m really proud of the work they did with their teams. Nothing was taken for granted and I think they did a real bang-up job.
If last year’s Cosby-inspired episode got the most attention, this year it might be the abortion-themed episode. Can you talk about why you wanted to tell that story?
I wanted to explore the idea that Diane [Nguyen, voiced by Alison Brie] didn’t want children in a way where she didn’t have to say, “I don’t want children.” So to kind of skip right to the abortion felt like an interesting way to tell that story. This is a conversation she’s already had with Mr. Peanutbutter [her husband, a labrador retriever voiced by Paul F. Tompkins]. We’re not looking for ways to be shocking or controversial, but we are looking for ways to tell stories that haven’t been told that often. Is there a new way of telling a story about abortion? And for us, it seemed like there has to be, because there aren’t that many stories about abortion. Obvious Child is a phenomenal movie. I think Citizen Ruth is a great movie. And there have been a handful of drama episodes here and there that have explored it. And maybe some comedy episodes, but not a lot. We didn’t have to worry about, “Has The Simpsons already done this story three times?” It’s possible they’ve done it once and I don’t know about it—I would not put it past them—but we can carve out our own story here.
So once we decided we wanted to explore that area, the question was, what is the episode about? Where does the conflict come from? To me, it was much more interesting to explore the way people talk about abortions or the way abortions are perceived, more than the idea of abortions themselves. It’s not really going to be fun to have Diane defend her abortion to her friends. I don’t want Mr. Peanutbutter to say to her, “Well, have you thought about the baby’s soul?” I think we’re past that. So many women in this country have abortions, safely and legally. And I think the more surprising story to tell about that is how often it happens and how non-controversial it is. So for Diane, we really wanted to tell a story about a woman who knows what she wants to do and she does it and it gives her some feelings, but she never has doubt about it. But if you’re going out of your way to make this feel as mundane and natural and non-controversial as possible, then where does the story come from? And I’m really glad that we bumped into this idea of Sextina Aquafina—this thing accidentally gets tweeted and she becomes the center of attention. And Diane can have some problems with the way she feels Sextina is inappropriately talking about the issue.
The Oscars play a big role in the story this season. I was surprised you didn’t go harder on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Was it a conscious decision to stay away from that issue?
Part of it is, the question with every season and every episode is how timely vs. timeless do we want to be? And it’s hard to predict necessarily, are people still going to be talking about this five years from now, 10 years from now? Is this going to make any sense? But also, it’s somewhat difficult to talk about race on our show, because it’s full of animals, which changes things a little bit. If we talk about black people on the show, is BoJack white? He certainly is in some ways, but I think the beauty of our animal characters is that they are not a specific human race, even though some of them might reflect the privilege, as we understand it in our world, of certain subsets of our population. They are, on another level, animals. Something we are talking about in the writers’ room is, what are the ways race plays a factor in this world?
If race wasn’t the focus of your commentary on Hollywood awards culture, what are your feelings about it that you wanted to channel on the show?
It’s all silly, it’s all dumb. It feels like a lot of work and sweat and worry and concern put into this question of, do other people like me enough to give me an award? If you got into this business because you wanted to win awards and go up on a stage and talk about yourself, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who did, that strikes me as not the right reason to be in this business. I don’t think that’s why most working actors and writers and directors are interested in making the things they make. But every year, this season kind of comes up and just swallows the industry whole and it’s hard to avoid it. I’ve had friends who’ve been up for big awards and I see what it does to them. And it isn’t pleasant. Maybe I’m just a part of the everybody-gets-a-trophy generation, but I feel like, why are we ranking each other? It feels really dumb and childish. I don’t know if that comes across in this season, but I do not have a lot of respect for all of it and the effect that it has on the people that it consumes. But as a spectator? I love it. I watch the Oscars every year. I enjoy a horse race.
Well, for what it’s worth, I was disappointed to not see the show in the Emmy category for animated series this year, but I’m glad to know that you think it’s all bullshit anyway so it doesn’t matter.
I appreciate your disappointment, but I don’t really care. It is a weird thing, because we do campaign for awards, and the question for me is always why exactly? If it’s to get more publicity for the show so more people will watch it, then that is a worthy endeavor. These award shows, at their best, highlight things that are under-seen or could use more attention and give them a boost. So that, I think, is worth it. But I don’t know that it actually helps, especially something as esoteric as best animated show. I couldn’t tell you who won this category last year, and I’m somebody who works in this category and you would think would keep track. [Editor’s note: It was Over the Garden Wall, a show this writer had never heard of until just now.] So I can’t imagine the average layperson pays attention to who gets nominated and who wins each year and lets that affect their viewing habits. But what do I know? I’m happy for anyone who likes the show and wants to vote for it or tell their friends or write a tweet. So I don’t want to come off as bitter or shit on the people who got nominated, because they do great work and they have great shows. I don’t want it to seem like I’m saying they don’t deserve it or they shouldn’t be excited about this nomination. Because it is always nice when someone likes your show.
So you’re in the writers room working on Season Four now. Anything you want to share about that process?
Oh, I’m terrified. Every time a new season comes out and people like it even a little bit, all I can think about is, I can’t help but let these people down now. Any good press or comments I’m going to get on this show just makes more more worried about the future. What’s coming next for BoJack? God, I don’t know. Hopefully something that doesn’t embarrass me. That’s my goal. But I kind of already know that it will. How’s that for a tease?