“Sometimes out of something awful something wonderful happens”
How the depressive, unsettling, surprisingly buoyant humor of Lisa Hanawalt and Raphael Bob-Waksberg — creators of BoJack Horseman and now Tuca & Bertie — is changing the adult animation series
May 7, 2019
How the depressive, unsettling, surprisingly buoyant humor of Lisa Hanawalt and Raphael Bob-Waksberg — creators of BoJack Horseman and now Tuca & Bertie — is changing the adult animation series
Lisa Hanawalt and Raphael Bob-Waksberg are in the offices of ShadowMachine, an animation studio in Hollywood, reminiscing about the high school they attended. Raphael, dressed in a hoodie and jeans, his hair under a ski cap, is lamenting that he was voted “Class Clown,” not “Funniest.”
“How are those two different categories?” Lisa asks.
“ ‘Class Clown,’ ” Raphael explains, “is like, ‘Ahhhhh, look at me, look at me!’ Whereas ‘Funniest’ is like, ‘Oh, a subtle wit.’ ”
“You were not subtle,” Lisa responds.
The two launch into a back-and-forth about the boy who was voted “Funniest” — “Who the hell was that?” Lisa almost yells — and about the girl who was voted “Most Artistic,” much to Lisa’s continuing chagrin. “It’s because she had friends on the yearbook staff,” she insists. Names are named. They’re talking over each other, laughing, then marveling at how petty they’re being, 20 years on, and how maybe trashing their high school classmates might not reflect so well on them now. “Clearly we’re over it!” Raphael says.
If they aren’t, they should be. Raphael is the creator and showrunner of the animated series BoJack Horseman, one of the most groundbreaking shows on TV. Lisa, its production designer and a producer, created the show’s animal-headed protagonists and watercolor-inspired palette. When BoJack launched on Netflix in 2014, it marked the streaming service’s first attempt at an original adult animated series, leading the way to a roster that now includes shows from Guillermo del Toro, Matt Groening, and Nick Kroll.
In early May, Lisa unveiled Tuca & Bertie, an animated series on Netflix about the friendship between a boisterous toucan, voiced by Tiffany Haddish, and an introverted song thrush, voiced by a cast-against-type Ali Wong. This time, Lisa is the creator and showrunner, while Raphael is a producer. For decades, adult animated series have been created and run by guys, who in turn hired all-guy writers rooms, which produced stories about guys starring other guys. Lisa is the first female showrunner of an adult animated series in nearly a decade, and she’s done the opposite: She’s created a show about two female best friends with two women of color as its stars. It’s hard to imagine a bigger shift in the genre, other than maybe when BoJack first dove into topics like mental illness, opioid addiction, and the allure of celebrity. If Lisa wanted to upend longstanding American TV traditions even more, she could throw a sexually active Asian American (bird) couple into the mix, say, Wong and Steven Yeun, which, of course, she does.
Lisa, who is wearing a bright blue down jacket with “Tuca & Bertie” stitched on the front, pulls out a copy of her 2016 comics anthology, Hot Dog Taste Test, which features the earliest appearances of Tuca and Bertie. If BoJack started from a dark place — its working title was BoJack, the Depressed Talking Horse — Tuca is its tonal opposite, from the samba rhythms of its theme music to its Crayola colors and cartoony sight gags. Anthropomorphic skyscrapers dance, giant turtles cruise canals like ferryboats — and that’s just in the opening credits.
When I ask Lisa questions, Raphael chimes in with questions of his own, about whether she ever had birds as pets (in college), whether they’re still alive (two out of three have died), and just what it is about birds she finds so interesting (they’re “cute yet kind of scary and alien”). It’s hard to tell if he’s just being inquisitive, or if he’s trying to protect her by blocking unwanted inquiries with friendlier (and funnier) ones of his own, or maybe he’s trying to get her to promote herself — “Tell him about this!” but in question form — since her inclination is not to. When Lisa comes to “Planting,” a story in Hot Dog Taste Test about Bertie and her husband buying a new house, he declares, “That one is my favorite of all of Lisa’s comics.” He says he likes its gentle tone — the story is, among other things, a paean to house plants. “I like it because it’s not that funny,” Lisa responds.
The discussion turns to Tuca & Bertie’s sixth episode, in which Tuca’s pet jaguar attacks and disfigures a delivery boy. “That was based on a nightmare I have,” Lisa says. “I have a lot of really violent thoughts.” The scene is both horrific and funny. Lisa loves jokes about farts and bodily fluids more than Raphael, but if one wants to see where their comedic tastes overlap, this is it. “We make a point of showing that he’s OK!” says Raphael. “He becomes a movie star,” Lisa adds. But he’s maimed, I say. Yes, yes, they concede. “But his dreams come true,” says Lisa. “Because life is like that, too. Sometimes out of something awful, something wonderful happens.”
Lisa and Raphael grew up in Palo Alto eight minutes from each other. Her parents were Stanford biologists. His mother and grandmother ran a Jewish book and gift store in town. Lisa loved horses (“I want to be famous for drawing horses someday,” she wrote in a sixth-grade essay). Raphael was given the nickname Raizin when he was 9 and insisted everyone call him that until, at 22, he insisted they stop. He was one year behind Lisa at Henry M. Gunn High, “one of those schools where if you didn’t take five AP classes and get 1600 on your SATs, you were considered subpar,” she says.
The two found refuge in theater. He was the standout who secured, if not always the heftiest roles, the most exuberant ones. “I’d have to tell him to shut up all the time,” says James Shelby, his theater teacher. Lisa was a self-described shy kid, who created posters and flyers for school plays and filled her sketchbooks with classmates reimagined as chickens or pirates. “It was kind of a way to make fun of people and talk shit about them, but creatively,” Lisa says. Raphael would sneak peeks at her sketches and make up stories to accompany them, and the two became close. In her junior year, Lisa was ditching classes and close to dropping out. When she took on a role in Twelfth Night that required her to sing and dance, the experience was both an ordeal and a turning point. “Mr. Shelby pulled me aside and told me, ‘You have to be more outgoing. You have to try more stuff out there,’ ” she says. “Theater saved me.”
Lisa went on to UCLA, where she majored in art. Raphael moved across the country to attend Bard College, where he majored in playwriting and was roommates for three years with Adam Conover, a fellow founding member of the sketch-comedy troupe Olde English. “We just lived and breathed comedy,” Conover says. “We would rehearse for a show or shoot a video, and then we’d go home and be with each other. And it would be like, ‘Hey, what are you doing playing video games? You’re supposed to be editing that video.’ ” After graduation, Lisa and Raphael began collaborating on the webcomic Tip Me Over, Pour Me Out. Written by Raphael and illustrated by Lisa, the series was a largely unflattering, loosely autobiographical depiction of his life in New York: his worries about getting and keeping a job, his indecisiveness, his lousy luck with women, his general disdain for other humans. Much of it seems like a dry run for BoJack.
On one of her trips to visit Raphael in New York, Lisa met Adam. After she returned to L.A., they talked on the phone every night for months, until Lisa decided to move to New York in 2009. “When I was there visiting Adam, I’d met all these cool cartoonists, like Julia Wertz and Sarah Glidden, and I was like, ‘Oh, women my age who are making comics in Brooklyn,’ ” she says. “So I thought, I’ll move to New York and see how things go with this guy, and I’ll have friends.” She joined an all-female comics collective called Pizza Island, which rented a small workspace in Greenpoint. All the members were in their 20s and eager to make their mark, going to comics events together, pushing one another by example. Lisa found the group inspiring, one more sign the male-dominated industry was finally opening up. “Everybody was like, ‘Whoa, all these women cartoonists are sharing a room! What are they doing in there?’ ” she says. “It was kind of a weird time in comics, where the old guard was changing into this new thing, where women were allowed to exist in multiples and make comics.”
Soon after Lisa arrived in New York, Raphael decided he had to move to Los Angeles if he was going to break into TV. While writing pilot presentations and pitches for reality shows, he emailed Lisa with an idea for an animated series. His message described “a horse-dude,” a former ’90s sitcom star, who is now a “washed-up misanthrope who lives in a gorgeous bachelor pad in the Hollywood Hills.” Lisa loved the idea but wondered if there was a way for the hero to “not be too much of a bummer.” The inspiration came, in part, from Raphael’s first months in L.A., when he was renting the tiniest room in a friend of a friend’s palatial home in the Hollywood Hills, feeling lost and alone. Raphael asked Lisa for illustrations that he could take into pitch meetings. Steven Cohen and Noel Bright, producers at the Tornante media company, loved the idea and the illustrations, and when Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO and head of Tornante, gave his approval, work began in earnest. The whole thing seemed like the culmination of everything Lisa and Raphael had dreamed up when they were at Henry M. Gunn High.
But when Lisa was asked to join the show, she declined. Nobody could tell her how long the project might take (as it turned out, seven years and counting), or how much work it would be (a lot), or if the series would even be picked up. “I had just finished this children’s book that I had spent six months on, and I was like, ‘Ugh, I hate working with other people,’ ” she says. “I want to do my own thing.”
“I didn’t want to put any pressure on our friendship, so I let Steve and Noel make the offer,” Raphael says. “Which maybe was stupid. But I also wanted her to do her own stuff, and I didn’t want her to feel like I was roping her into something she didn’t want to do.”
When Raphael got the news, though, he admits feeling blindsided. “I didn’t know how any of this worked, so I was like, ‘What’s that? She said no? We’re going to someone else?’ ” For the next six months, Bright and Cohen tried out other animators, but nobody matched Lisa’s feel for the show. “That’s when they were like, ‘We’re going back to Lisa,’ ” Raphael says. This time, she said yes. The hiatus had given her time to recharge. “I think I was flattered that they came back to me,” she says.
After considering pitching the show to Fox, longtime home of The Simpsons and Family Guy, the producers went to Netflix. The streaming service had been getting a lot of attention following the success of early series like House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black but had no original adult animated series or, as far as anyone knew, any interest in one. A new executive at Netflix, however, agreed to take a look. Soon after, BoJack got the go-ahead, with one stipulation: The network needed the show in six months.
When BoJack Horseman premiered in August 2014, many of the reviews were negative. Critics didn’t know what to make of a show about a talking cartoon horse that betrays his best friend, who’s dying of rectal cancer, to further his own acting career and who goes on booze-fueled benders with the girl who, years earlier, had played his youngest daughter on TV. This wasn’t a funny animal cartoon, but what was it? With its mix of Hollywood types and zoo creatures and a tone that is depressive, even bitter at times, the show was unlike any other animated show on TV.
Critics eventually came around. By the third season, Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker called the show one of the “wisest, most emotionally ambitious and … spectacularly goofy series on television.” Like Breaking Bad, the show grew bleaker with each successive season. And, as in the case with Breaking Bad, viewers find themselves rooting for, horrified by, and, more than anything, mesmerized by the show’s antihero. Throughout last season, BoJack is in emotional and ethical free-fall. In one episode, he goes to the L.A. River on a desperate dope run. In another, much-discussed episode, he spends its entirety delivering a rambling, spite-filled eulogy for his mom (“you were a huge bitch … and now you’re dead”) before discovering that, oops, he’s at the wrong funeral.
A couple of years into BoJack, Lisa and Raphael began talking about her doing her own series. Lisa’s comics, which she continued to produce while making BoJack, range from personal anecdotes to flights of fancy (“Rumors I’ve Heard About Anna Wintour”) to fashion spreads with animals as models. Was there a way to create a show that might capture all those elements? The two tossed around the idea of doing a variety show, but there were stories and themes that Lisa wanted to explore that only a series format could capture. “Female friendships, specifically,” she says. It was a topic she wasn’t seeing in adult animation, “because people aren’t buying shows about that.”
But who would be the friends? Tuca and Bertie immediately came to mind. The two, in many ways, were dual sides of Lisa’s personality: Tuca, her extroverted half, which she reveals through her comics, and Bertie, her introverted self, outwardly shy but with a rich inner life. In the series, Tuca is sporadically employed, an inveterate moocher, and a hoarders-level slob. She also has charm to burn and is unfailingly devoted to Bertie and Bertie to her. Bertie is as neat as Tuca is slovenly but is starting to question the staid orderliness of her life, from her sex-by-the-numbers relationship with her boyfriend to her crummy job, where a bro-ish co-worker steals her ideas. Initially, Lisa and Raphael wondered how such seeming opposites could be friends, but it’s Tuca and Bertie’s differences — and the inevitable fights and breakups and makeups that come from them — that make their relationship such a compelling and heartbreaking one. United against catcallers and creeps and by a shared history that includes trips to the ER and beatdowns of two-timing guys, they’re also discovering how much they’re growing up and apart.
As one of the few women ever to oversee an adult animated series, Lisa knows she’s entering uncharted territory. “I wonder, should I be proud? Am I a trailblazer?” she says. “Then I just feel horrified because it’s taken this long. Meanwhile, men have been getting adult animated shows picked up left and right. It’s really frustrating. It’s not that there aren’t any good pitches. All my friends have been pitching for years.”
“Adult animation started out all male, and they just kept it that way,” says Jessica Gao, an Emmy-winning writer who went to art school with Lisa. “It’s very cliquish, and, at least in my experience, there is zero interest from the boys club to change it. It’s working fine for them, so why change it? Other than to be decent human beings.”
If anyone was going to break through, though, Lisa always seemed a likely pick. Kate Beaton, a Pizza Island veteran who has scored the trifecta of cartooning awards (an Eisner, an Ignatz, and four Harveys), sees Lisa doing anything from rom-coms to horror. “I don’t read anything like her stuff anywhere,” she says. “There’s a mix of absurdity and sincerity in there. Whenever I read something like that, you think, I wish I could rip this off. ”
No animated series has so deftly and directly grappled with the #MeToo movement as BoJack and Tuca, examining the topic from the distinctly different viewpoints of an entitled, mansplaining Hollywood has-been and two female best friends. In BoJack, the show’s protagonist confronts years of bad behavior toward women, most of whom he barely recalls; in Tuca, there are jerks around every corner. For Raphael, a catalyst was Mel Gibson and the offensive comments he made about blacks, Jews, and gays and his begging Hollywood for forgiveness, which it eventually gave. Lisa’s inspiration was closer to home. In one episode, Bertie discovers that her plumber has the keys to her place. Is he a menace or just a harmless weirdo? “That just felt like a real experience, where there’s a man in your apartment and he has to be there, and you don’t know 100 percent whether to trust him or not,” she says. “Those came out of real-life stories that have happened to me and every woman I know.”
In its first two seasons, BoJack did not include a single person of color in its regular cast. Alison Brie was chosen to be the voice of BoJack’s Vietnamese American ghostwriter/friend, a decision Raphael has described as the show’s “original sin.” (“I didn’t want to cast a show with all white people,” he says, “[but] I was surprised by how easily it happened.”) For Tuca, Lisa and Raphael deliberately assembled a diverse cast, though they are quick to point out that these are not African American or Asian American birds (“because they’re birds,” says Lisa). Even so, it’s tough to read Tiffany Haddish’s toucan as anything but black or for Asian American viewers not to take joy in the thought of Ali Wong and Steven Yeun playing a sexually intimate couple.
Raphael says that when he first began working on BoJack, having Lisa around provided enormous comfort. “We didn’t really know how to talk to anyone, but at least we knew how to talk to each other. I don’t know what I would have done without that.” That closeness meant that Lisa could push him in ways that maybe others couldn’t: to ask why this character couldn’t be female instead of male, for instance, or if there were other, better ways to tell a joke. “I feel like the greatest kindness that Lisa has done for me is to challenge my thinking in certain ways,” he says.
Sometimes, she will make her point the same way she did in high school. “We’d be in meetings,” says producer Steven Cohen, “and I don’t know if she would do it on purpose, but she would draw something and then leave it on the table. Of course, you’d have to look at it, and she would have perfectly captured the lunacy of a meeting, where a decision was not made or where it could have been a lot shorter.”
Now, on Tuca, Lisa’s the boss, and Raphael’s the one with the suggestions. He helps with the nuts and bolts: how to tighten up a script, or negotiate the writers room, or pull the emergency brake on a meeting when something desperately needs to change. “That’s been especially hard for me because Raphael, Noel, and Steve were my bosses at BoJack and still are,” she says. “I think the hardest thing for me is just taking up that space and knowing that if I ask for something, suddenly they are like, ‘Oh, OK, we’ll make that happen.’ ”
After collaborating on BoJack for nearly a decade, each has separate projects going. Raphael just finished his first book, Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory, which Knopf is publishing in June. A collection of short stories, it reads like a compendium of all the funny stuff he couldn’t squeeze into a BoJack episode. He is also working with BoJack writer Kate Purdy on another animated series, this time for Amazon, called Undone. Lisa recently completed her first graphic novel, Coyote Doggirl, a neo-Western that has been excerpted in The Paris Review. Out of her house, which she shares with Adam Conover, she co-hosts the podcast Baby Geniuses with comedian Emily Heller. Next year, Drawn & Quarterly will release an anthology of some of her earliest comics. “In her work, everything about humans that is gross and real and beautiful is up for discussion,” says Tracy Hurren, who has edited three of Lisa’s books. “Human failings are right there on paper, and she does it with so much joy.”
It’s been 13 YEARS since Lisa first drew Raphael in those Tip Me Over comics, back when they were both just out of college, so I ask them to draw each other now, as grown-ups. Lisa beams. “This is not fair,” Raphael says. “Should I draw with my left hand to make this even?” Lisa asks.
I’m expecting a quick doodle, but Lisa takes the assignment seriously, surveying Raphael every few seconds as she draws in curlicues of hair and bits of beard stubble. “I’m going to draw shitty because I’m nervous,” she says. “In some ways, I have the advantage because the expectations are much lower for me,” he says.
Four minutes later, Lisa reveals her handiwork. Drawn with a felt-tip pen inside a lined Moleskine notebook, the portrait shows an exuberant Raphael, his grin big and toothy, his head encircled by radiating lines, like a halo. “This is a very confident version of me!” Raphael says, pleased. “You’ve drawn me much more anxious and slug-like before. This feels like me at my best.” “Well, you’ve come into your own since we made that comic,” she says. “You’re a married man! You work on three TV shows.”
Then, Raphael draws Lisa. His portrait takes a minute or so and looks as though it might have been done by a 7-year-old. Lisa is enveloped in a parrot costume, her wings stretched out in mid-flap. “That’s what I wore for Halloween,” Lisa says. From inside the bird’s enormous beak, Lisa’s face peeks out. “I was trying to capture the dichotomy of ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ with ‘I don’t want anyone looking at me,’ ” Raphael says. The costume is Tuca, but the face is unmistakably Bertie.