Raphael Bob-Waksberg has just arrived back home in the Bay Area. The 31-year-old creator of the Netflix animated series Bojack Horseman is in town for SF Sketchfest, the annual sketch comedy festival now in its 15th year. Back in the day, Bob-Waksberg performed at the festival as a member of the New York-based Olde English comedy group, but this time he’s here as a big-time TV showrunner. Settling into the bar at his Japantown hotel, he orders a root beer, because he’s on “vacation.”
Bojack Horseman, which will stream its third season this summer, is not an easy show to describe. On the one hand, it’s a silly and sometimes crude cartoon about a washed-up former sitcom star who just happens to be a horse. He lives in an alternate-universe version of Hollywood where personified animals coexist with humans.
On the other hand, it is a dark examination of heavy issues like depression, addiction and loneliness, in a business where all that matters is youth and bankability. As the voice of the title character, Will Arnett perfectly blends the two sides of this coin, delivering hilarious one-liners one minute and devastatingly honest moments the next. Somehow, amidst all of this, there is still room for gags about the failing Penguin publishing company being run by actual penguins.
In the show’s third season, which will premiere sometime this summer, Bob-Waksberg says there will be an increased focus on Bojack’s “legacy.” The character is “grappling” with “what he is going to be remembered for and what he’s going to be known for,” he says.
At the end of Season Two, Bojack is in as good a place as we’ve ever seen him, valiantly attempting to jog up the hill in front of his house instead of passively lying on his couch with a beer in his hand. But does that positive upswing continue into Season Three?
“Nobody changes overnight,” Bob-Waksberg says. “And so I think you’ll see in Season Three that there are ways in which he is trying to improve himself and there are ways in which he’s still the same old Bojack.”
Instead of being his own worst enemy, Bojack will encounter new forces that try to keep him down. While Bojack was “lucky” that many characters tried to “pull him up” in the first season, Bob-Waksberg hints at characters in the new season who “don’t want to help,” something he said may “frustrate” viewers.
“How’s that for a sell?” he asks. “You’re going to be very frustrated this season.”
Before Bojack, Bob-Waksberg admits he was a “nobody” with no real TV credits to his name, crashing in a closet-sized room in a friend of a friend’s fancy house overlooking the Hollywood Hills—much like Aaron Paul’s character Todd in the show. At the time, he says, he felt both on top of the world and completely isolated. All he had was a hard sell for a show about a depressed horse.
“I really thought about, ‘What makes a good Netflix show?’” Bob-Waksberg says, recalling the pitch he made years ago to Michael Eisner’s Tornante production company. At that point, House of Cards, Orange Is the New Black and the fourth season of Arrested Development were the three biggest shows on the streaming service. “So I thought about what I liked about those shows and what I thought they did really well and I tried to make the pitch mirror that experience.”
With that in mind, Bojack has a serial structure in which characters learn and change, as opposed to the characters on shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, which reset after each episode.
Due to Netflix’s infamous refusal to share viewer numbers even with the people who create their shows, Bob-Waksberg has no idea how many people actually watch Bojack Horseman. The only real way he can track the audience’s experience is by following their often impassioned reactions on social media. “I’m not privy to the numbers, but I would guess that our biggest audience we ever got for Season One was after Season Two was released,” he says, adding that he likes that people can find the show “on their own time.”
“That is the idea of Netflix,” he says. “They have a lot of patience in their shows and aren’t interested in first-day numbers, first-week numbers. They are really trying to build a library for the long haul.”
Bob-Waksberg credits Arnett and Paul, his starring actors, for reaching out to Netflix directly and convincing head Ted Sarandos to pick up.
Asked if he considers Bojack Horseman the defining role of Will Arnett’s career, Bob-Waksberg laughs and says, “I’m happy to hear that,” adding, “I don’t know how he would feel about that.”
“He’s a really good actor and I think a lot of people don’t know that about him, because he’s done mostly comedy,” Bob-Waksberg says of Arnett, who is perhaps best known for playing GOB Bluth on Arrested Development. “I think he’s felt really emboldened by the stuff we’ve given him to do on Bojack and he’s looking to do more stuff like that.”
The showrunner says he always tries to “push the boundaries” of what the vocal actors can handle, giving emotionally challenging material to comedy veterans like Arnett and Amy Sedaris, who plays Bojack’s cat agent Princess Carolyn. “And they really deliver every time.”
Among the upcoming guest stars in Season Three is “Weird Al” Yankovic, who Bob-Waksberg said made him more star-struck than anyone else who has been on the show. And that is a list that includes Angelica Huston, Paul McCartney, Angela Bassett, Stephen Colbert, Alan Arkin, Amy Schumer, Ricky Gervais and dozens of other big names. There have, however, been actors who said “no.”
Early in the show’s run, there was a part written with Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Jeff Garlin in mind. Coincidentally, the same day that the show put an offer out to his agent, Bob-Waksberg ran into the comedian at the Arclight movie theater in Los Angeles. He went up and introduced himself and Garlin assured him that no matter what kind of hardball his agent tried to play, he wanted to do the show.
But the next week, Bob-Waksberg got word through his casting director that Garlin had decided to pass. “I still to this day don’t know if the agent was protecting him,” he says, “or if Jeff Garlin was just being polite to me and saying he would do it.” Maybe he’s so “conflict averse” that he just says yes to everybody? “I was flabbergasted,” he adds, revealing that a version of the inside-Hollywood casting story did make its way into one of the upcoming episodes.
If there was one episode in Season Two that caused the most buzz, it was the so-called “Cosby episode,” which featured an older, beloved TV star named Hank Hippopopalous, who allegedly took advantage of his young female assistants over the years.
Bob-Waksberg insists that he has no desire to make Bojack “topical” or “zeitgeisty.” Rather, he says, the Cosby allusions were just an attempt at Hollywood satire. “If we’re not poking at those things, then we’re not doing a good job,” he says.
“[The show] can’t be one of those things that says it’s satire but is actually lifestyle porn, and I think we know those types of shows,” he continues, without uttering the word Entourage. “I think we have a responsibility to bite the hand that feeds us a little bit.”
Another topical storyline from Season Two turned an improv school that looked a whole lot like the Upright Citizens Brigade into a substitute for Scientology, complete with an indentured servitude cruiseliner called the “Giggle Ship.”
“Here’s what I feel about religion: I have no problem with faith, I’m suspicious of institutions,” Bob-Waksberg explains carefully. “I have no problem with improv. I’m suspicious of improv institutions.”
“Improv institutions that have this mentality of, ‘We’re all in this together’ and ‘C’mon comrades’ but we’re not going to pay you for performing and we’re going to charge for classes and we’re going to give you stage time and then keep the profits,” he continues, citing some of the criticism UCB and other cult-like comedy theaters have faced in recent years.
“How can we talk about improv without pissing everybody off?” he wonders. “What if we said we’re really talking about Scientology, but we can’t talk about Scientology because we’d get sued.” Bob-Waksberg just might just live in a world where it’s safer to anger Scientologists than it is to alienate the improv community.
With some prodding, Bob-Waksberg teases one potential ripped-from-the-headlines story we can expect in Season Three. “There’s one thing where people are going to be like, ‘I think they’re talking about George Clooney,” he says. “And we are.”
“My main goal is to keep the audience engaged for 30 minutes,” Bob-Waksberg says, downplaying any larger mission. “And sometimes you do that through humor and sometimes you do that through seriousness.” People think the show “started out as this light and silly thing” and only later became darker, but he points out that in the pilot Bojack and Alison Brie’s Diane have a two-minute conversation about “the fleeting nature of happiness.”
“I remember reading reviews that said, ‘For a show that’s just trying to be wall-to-wall jokes the whole time, there sure are a lot of scenes that don’t have a lot of jokes in them.’ It’s like, ‘Well, yeah!’” He attributed that mentality to the expectations that most people have about animation—assumptions that may not apply to this show. “Real life is really crazy and cartoonish and surreal at some points and then really dark and sad at other points.”
“That’s our show in a nutshell: ‘Punny and punishing,’” he says, pitching a possible tagline for Netflix. Before moving on, he can’t help but punch up his own joke: “We put the pun in punishing?”