When Indiewire sat down with “BoJack Horseman” creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg at the TCA summer press tour this week, he was pretty excited. Netflix had just announced that the animated showbiz satire about a former sitcom star/talking horse would be coming back for a third season.
While of course Bob-Waksberg declined to offer specifics as to what he’s got planned for “BoJack’s” return next year, he was able to talk about the big picture, in regard to how much further they might take the strangely existential comedy and its complicated characters, while also explaining why, exactly, he doesn’t want to tell anyone how to feel about it.
So how are you feeling today?
I’m feeling great. It’s a great day.
Yeah, did you know Season 3 was coming?
There had been conversations. There have been inklings of it. It’s funny because I tried to explain to my parents that you never get good news all at once. It always trickles out. Even when we got our first season, I remember I pitched the show and everyone was like, “It sounds good.” Then I didn’t hear anything for a little bit. I heard they were doing some tests to see if this is the kind of show that they want. Then I heard, “I think we should start thinking about putting a room together.” I was like, “Wait. Hold on. Are we doing the show?” [laughs] “Oh yeah, yeah. Okay!” Part of that also was that I am very suspicious, so I assume things aren’t going to work out. I’ll believe I have a show when it is on the air. I’ll believe we got picked up for a Season 3 when we are in here a year from now, talking about a Season 3. Until then I’m not quite sure it’s actually happening.
Do you get superstitious about it? Are you like, “No, we are not talking about Season 3. Season 3 isn’t official yet. I can’t start brainstorming story beats.”
No, I can think about it. Even at the end of Season 2 we were thinking about Season 3. At the end of Season 2, we have some hints of places we might go in Season 3. It’s kind of nice to come in with those ideas, being like all right who is “Jill Pill”? What is this other show? What is Princess Carolyn doing at her new agency? You know? My instinct as a writer is to do the opposite of that, to close every story and feel like this season told this story and next season will tell a different story. But I have been informed by people smarter than me that it is better to think about the next thing while you’re doing this thing, so you can set things up a little bit better.
It’s always so fascinating when I’m watching a new season of a show — especially a Season 2, I feel — when you get that sense that we can go deeper with this. I think Season 2 really hit that for me. And not just with plot, but with the fact that the emotional complexities are deep enough to sustain a whole new season.
I think so. I think these are characters that we care a lot about. What is fun about the show, too, is that we don’t always know what we want for the characters, which is a challenge but it is also kind of fun. If you told me going into Season 1, that by the end of Season 2 people were going to care about the state of Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter’s marriage, I’d be like, I don’t think that is a thing that we can get people to care about. And a lot of people do, which is really fun. Some people still don’t, which is also fun.
A big part of the fun for the show for us is not telling people what to think about things. You can watch the show and really believe that Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter are perfect for each other. You can also watch the show and think this marriage is a train wreck. We’re not going to tell you what is right, necessarily, and that gives a lot of opportunities, too. In Season 3, what do we think? We know what we thought in Season 2, but what do we think now? What does Diane think? What does Mr. Peanutbutter think? Or what does BoJack think about his life and his relationship with people? It is not set in stone, and it is constantly shifting. That is very interesting to me.
What I think is striking about that, about the Diane and Mr. Peanutbutter relationship is, in Season 1 it is set up as part of a pretty classical love triangle, and then in Season 2 I think you moved beyond that. Was there a specific strategy there?
Yeah, I think we did Season 1 and we’re like, “Okay, Season 1 is done. What are we going to do for Season 2? We don’t want to revisit that.” I thought we did a good job of explaining in Season 1 why Diane was not a viable romantic option for BoJack, or vice versa that Diane would not want to date BoJack and that wasn’t a relationship that we would see happening at this point. Then we looked at Season 2, and Diane rushed into this marriage with Mr. Peanutbutter. What is the reality of that? What is the first year of marriage like for this couple? How do they interact with each other? A big part of the show for me is what is the silliest thing I can think of, and then how do we take that really seriously? How do we find the beating heart underneath that?
I think that is kind of a trick that we go to over and over again. That is the BoJack story of Season 1. It’s this wacky fun cartoon about a horse. Then, if we are doing our jobs right, by the end of Season 1 you are like, “I actually care about this character.” How did that happen? We’ve been thinking about that throughout. When we did our Christmas special, can we make people care about this fictional horse character and her adopted daughter in the context of this really stupid bad sitcom? At the end of this Princess Carolyn and Vincent Adultman relationship, can we get people to kind of care about Princess Carolyn and Vincent Adultman? Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, based on the individual person, but it is always the goal. Let’s start wacky, then, what is real about this? What is relatable about this? What is the real story here?
I want to go back to something you just said. You said a little earlier that you don’t want to tell people what to think about the show. And I read somewhere that you read a lot of what gets written about it…
I shouldn’t, but I do.
Do you feel like people have a good sense of what you personally feel about the show?
I’m hesitant to do interviews like this, honestly, because I’m very proud of the show, and I think it is strong enough to merit multiple interpretations. That is something we try to do. I have my idea for what this scene is about and what this scene means and why BoJack did this or why BoJack said this and sort of why this happens, but I like that other people can have different interpretations.
It was fun to see the reaction of Season 1. BoJack is standing at the Griffith Observatory and some people say this is a very hopeful, uplifting, end of a season and other people say this is a very dark, sad, ending to a season. I know what I think about it, but I don’t want to tell people because nobody is wrong. As soon as I start saying this is what we were trying to do, then all of the sudden that means that is right and other peoples’ interpretations is wrong. As I said, I think the show is good enough. I feel proud enough of it that it justifies different interpretations.
Absolutely, would you say then that the ultimate goal is just to make people feel something?
Yeah, and I think that if you are enjoying the show then you are watching it correctly. If you don’t like the show, then maybe I can say a few words to try and convince you, but if you are getting something out of it, if you think it’s funny, or if it moves you, then that’s great. If it is causing you to think about your relationships in a way or you are relating the characters’ situations to yours then that is fantastic.
Before I pitched the show to Netflix, I had a weekend where I went to a wedding, and I was talking to one of my oldest friends, Carolyn. I don’t know why I said that like you should know Carolyn. You know my good friend Carolyn?
Oh, yeah. Carolyn and I were just talking about this.
[laughs] I pitched at that time what I thought the first season was going to be, and her major reaction was, “It feels like you’re telling me how to feel.” I bristled with that because yes, that is what TV writers do. Ideally, we are good enough about it that you are not feeling manipulated, but yes, we are manipulating your feelings. But my big question for making the show is what if we did that less? There are certain things where I’m trying to push this or trying to make you feel this way, but I also like presenting the evidence and letting the audiences draw their own conclusions. Do you think Diane is being selfish in this episode or do you think she is campaigning for justice? I know what I think, but we have enough evidence on either side that you can draw your own conclusions.
What is perfect about it, too, is that you can take that approach, but you have, in direct contrast to it, representations of broadcast network television [within the show] telling you how to feel, telling you how to experience something.
I don’t think anyone would accuse “BoJack” of being a subtle show, [laughs] necessarily. But I think it works on levels. We have enough background jokes that people think about it as a show you can watch a couple of times. Some of our biggest fans, at least. There is stuff you didn’t get the first time, but that is true of dialogue too. We hit you over the head with some things. This is a metaphor for this. Also, there is other stuff that I think we actually lay in very lightly. There are motifs and we are assuming not everyone is going to get everything. You will catch up the second time or if you put it away for a year and come back you will view it from a different perspective. You will see things that are there that maybe you didn’t notice.
How tricky is the jokes-to-pathos balance?
We trust ourselves. We feel it out. It’s about making sure every scene is interesting in some way. It doesn’t always have to be funny, but it has to be doing something. I don’t worry too much if we haven’t had a laugh in a while. Some people are watching the show as a comedy and they get bored of the sadder sections. Some people are watching purely as a drama and are like, “This show isn’t funny at all.” I want the show to work for both of those audiences. I don’t begrudge either of them.
We do want the show to always be funny. Even our saddest, darkest episodes are full of jokes. Even our saddest, darkest, scenes can surprise you with a joke. I like that feeling, too, of you know never know what you’re going to get. A scene that feels really goofy can all of the sudden take a dramatic turn or a scene that is very dry can all of the sudden become very funny. To me, I have a very strange sense of humor and one of the funniest moments of Season 1 is in the cold open of the finale, where Secretariat jumps off a bridge. [laughs] What is funny about that to me is that we play it very straight and that there is no joke and that we cut to credits. You are waiting for that release. You are waiting for that “When do I get to laugh?” and then it doesn’t happen. To me, that is very funny. Sometimes the most powerful anti-joke is drama, and this is a world that we can do that with.
Now that you have really established the world and what you created, what do you feel like you are going to be able to do in Season 3 that you couldn’t have done in Season 1?
It’s nice to see, even in Season 2, that people trust the show in a way that they didn’t. A lot of the reaction, especially for the first part of Season 1, was a lot of people like, “What is this?” — arms crossed — “I don’t know if I am in this or not.” In Season 2, you have from the beginning the people that watched Season 1, and they are in it, so they trust us. You get a lot more leeway with that. I think we have earned that trust. I think we can say we are going somewhere with this. You might think you know where this is going but then we are going to surprise you, or we are not going to surprise you and that is the surprise [laughs].
I think Season 3 is about taking more advantage of that trust, and going to weirder places and darker places. I don’t want to rest on our laurels. I don’t want to feel like we figured out how to do, we are going to do that. I like feeling like Season 2 was a great season and we did that. People can always go back and watch Season 2 again. How can we be weirder in Season 3? How can we be more surprising, more challenging, darker, more outrageous, funnier, sadder — but also with more warmth? A big part of Season 2, one of the challenges going in, was that we showed in Season 1 that we could be really dark and depressing, but can we also have moments of real warmth and connection? I think we did a bunch of that in Season 2.
I like to think we succeed at everything. [laughs] After Season 3, the conversations are just starting now, well what do we want to do now that we haven’t done yet? While still being “BoJack” and still feeling similar. I think Season 3 is going to be a conversation with Season 2 and Season 1. You will see stuff that you remember — “Oh, BoJack is up to his old tricks again!” — but also things are going to be different. And the way we tell stories is going to be different.
In what way?
We will see. We are still figuring that out. I don’t want to say anything because it is so up in the air and a lot can change, but we do have ideas: “We have never done an episode like this before. Can we do that?”
Like concept episodes or bottle episodes?
Exactly. In Season 1, we had this episode that was just from Princess Carolyn’s perspective, and that was a different way of telling a story. We have a few ideas like that for Season 3. In Season 2, what if it is a whole episode all in New Mexico, or what if it an episode where each act is like a different one act play of different conversations about similar things? A few ideas like that for Season 3 really excite me: some that I’ve seen in other shows and no one has ever done this in the animated world. Some that just feel this is so different and weird, let’s try it. We might chicken out and not do those things. That is why I don’t want to talk about them yet. But we will see.