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How Netflix’s ‘BoJack Horseman’ Keeps Things Silly and Serious

by  in TV News Comment
How Netflix’s ‘BoJack Horseman’ Keeps Things Silly and Serious

Debuting in August, 2014, Netflix launched its first foray into adult-oriented animated programming with the original series “BoJack Horseman,” and the show subsequently built a devoted cult following. With just two seasons and a Christmas special under its belt, the series has distinguished itself with rich characters and smart comedy. From episode to episode, “BoJack” — which stars the voice of Will Arnett as a washed-up anthropomorphic horse who starred in an ’80s/’90s sitcom called “Horsin’ Around” — often keeps viewers on their toes as it shifts its tone from light and silly to dark and sad.

At an event in Los Angeles last week hosted by the International Animated Film Association, “BoJack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, production designer Lisa Hanawalt and actor Cedric Yarbrough (who voices Officer Meow Meow Fuzzyface) were on hand to answer “BoJack” questions and detail exactly how the show is made. Bob-Waksberg initially developed the idea for the series after moving from New York to LA without knowing anyone else in the city. Much like the character of Todd — BoJack’s freeloading roommate, voiced by Aaron Paul — he was living in a friend of a friend’s house high up in the hills, sequestered within a tiny spare room.

“I remember being up on this house, looking out over Los Angeles, and feeling like I was on top of everything, but I also never felt more alone or isolated,” Bob-Waksberg recounted. “And that was really the beginning of the idea for the character for me. This guy who has it all and has every opportunity to succeed, and still can’t find a way to be happy.”

Once he had the idea, Bob-Waksberg turned to his old high school friend, Hanawalt (known to comics fans for Drawn & Quarterly book “My Dirty Dumb Eyes”) to design the characters. At the time, Hanawalt was making a living as a pet portrait artist and had a knack for drawing realistic animal-people. So, he gave her the elevator pitch in an email, saying, “I came up with this idea for a show I’d like to pitch. Tell me what you think: BoJack the Depressed Talking Horse.” Not so enthused by the show’s concept, Hanawalt replied, “That sounds too cynical and depressing. Do you have anything lighter and funnier?” To which he responded, “Nope!”

Eventually, Hanawalt came around on the idea and the development process began. It was a lengthy process, but once the series was fully realized, Netflix was high on the list of distributors they wanted to meet with. The streaming service wasn’t even releasing original content when Bob-Waksberg and Hanawalt began piecing together “BoJack.” But when it came time to make their presentation, the creators made sure to cater the pitch as much as possible to Netflix before ever setting foot in their offices.

“I talked a lot about how the show would evolve over the course of the season, which would make it a really interesting binging experience. It would start out as kind of feeling like your typical animated show, but then, as it kept going and going, it would get darker and darker and more dramatic,” Bob-Waksberg said. “And the idea is that we’re going to turn the heat up so slowly that by the end of the season people are going to go, ‘Oh my god, I have feelings. How did that happen? How did they make me care about this horse?'”

Netflix liked the concept enough to purchase the series and has taken a very hands-off approach with the show. “They really have encouraged us from the beginning to make it be the most ‘BoJack’ that it can be. And they’re not looking to be like, ‘Well, we want it to be like this other stuff,'” Bob-Waksberg said. “They’re looking for creators with strong voices, and they’re looking for shows that don’t feel like they’re being made in other places. They’re very encouraging and they give us the freedom to go to some of those places. In fact, sometimes they encourage us to go farther.”

That sort of creative freedom might sound surprising in an industry frequently lampooned for executives who meddle and tamper until the end product is unrecognizable from the creator’s vision. Netflix seems to break that mold, instilling much more trust in their show creators to give them the best product possible.

“When it’s time to give them an episode, usually I’ll call them about a week before the script comes in and I’ll say, ‘Hey, here’s what the episode is going to be about,'” Bob-Waksberg explained. “And they will occasionally say, ‘Watch out for this area,’ but usually they say, ‘That sounds good.'”

According to the creators, the few notes they get from Netflix in response to a script are often helpful and insightful.

“They give a round of notes on [a] script, which is usually pretty light — usually helpful. Sometimes annoying, but often not,” Bob-Waksberg said, with a laugh. Hanawalt added, “I get like two design notes a season. One was like, ‘Make sure Secretariat doesn’t look too much like BoJack,’ which is such a smart note.”

Despite having only been around for two seasons, “BoJack” has already amassed an impressive amount of high-profile talent, including the voices of Stephen Colbert, Naomi Watts and Paul McCartney. When asked by an audience member why actors are so keen on lending their voice to a show like this, Yarbrough responded, “We want to do all this stuff. It’s really cool… with animation, you can do anything as far as acting is concerned.”

“And with this show, you can do so many different kinds of characters and you can breathe life into so many different things,” he continued.

It’s that constantly fluctuating tone and evolution of character that not only makes “BoJack” a project voice actors want to work on, but also what distinguishes it from so many other shows. “One of the premises that the show is built on is that it can be very funny, but also very emotional, and also be very sad, and also be very beautiful,” Bob-Waksberg said. “You don’t have to be just one thing. I think that’s especially true in animation.”

As far as the future is concerned, no details on the third season have been released yet, but the creators, animators and cast plan to continue to push the limits of animation.

“If you watch season three, you’ll see that we go even further in the silly direction and even further in the serious direction,” Bob-Waksberg said. “And rather than it feeling schizophrenic, I think it actually feels like they complement each other.”

Starring the voices of Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Aaron Paul, Paul F. Tompkins and Cedric Yarbrough, seasons one and two of “BoJack Horseman” are available on Netflix. Season three is slated to debut in summer 2016.

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