“Let me ask you this about art,” he said to IndieWire. “This is something I really go back and forth on a lot, and in the show we kind of go back and forth with this a lot: Do you think art is good? You know what I mean? Are we in ‘Cabaret’ right now and we’re like, distracting ourselves?”
The question came during an open and honest conversation about Season 3 of the show, Bob-Waksberg’s personal reaction to America’s changing political climate and even a little bit about the in-progress Season 4.
However, we first began by discussing the second anniversary of the “BoJack Horseman” Christmas special, released in December 2014, which takes a little work to track down due to the way Netflix organizes its library.
“I feel like there’s a lot of people who have discovered ‘BoJack Horseman’ in the last year who do not realize there’s a ‘BoJack Horseman’ Christmas Special,” he explained. “You have to go on Netflix and search for the Christmas Special. It’s a gift for you, if you’ve never seen it before. A brand new half hour of ‘BoJack’ that you didn’t even know existed.”
Just in time for the holiday season, Bob-Waksberg spoke with IndieWire in mid-December, just after he and the “BoJack” staff had finished writing Season 4, and a few weeks before they were set to finish recording all the actors. “Then, we just have to make it,” he said, before the show’s eventual debut in 2017.
The timing of the production schedule brought with it a certain sort of outside influence: “We were starting Season 4 right around the time when Season 3 came out, and we were seeing all these wonderful beautifully written analyses of Season 3 every day. Well, now, the pressure’s really on for Season 4.”
“Then,” he added, “as we were writing the season, I was able to kind of get away from that a little bit. People stopped talking about ‘BoJack’ Season 3 and they started talking about other concerns, of which there are a great deal many in the country.”
That once again changed (to some degree) at the end of 2016, thanks to year-end coverage like IndieWire’s (which named “BoJack Horseman” Season 3 as the best show of 2016). “It’s very nice to be included on these lists and included in these awards situations, but, again, as I was trying to write the finale I’m all of a sudden reminded of like, ‘Oh, people really loved Season 3. Oh, don’t let them down now,'” he said. “The writing of the season was bookended by this tremendous self-imposed pressure and doubt.”
His relationship with Top 10 lists and other sorts of accolades in general is pretty complex. “It’s exciting to be on them,” he said. “It’s also terrifying and awful and fills me with impostor syndrome. Also, at the same time as well, it doesn’t matter at all. It’s simultaneously all three of those things, wonderful and terrible and absolutely meaningless.
“It has been a nice distraction at the end of this year from some other horrible things that are happening in the world,” he added. “But maybe it’s bad to be distracted. I don’t know. That’s what I’m still trying to figure out. Maybe I shouldn’t be allowing myself any joy at all in this moments, any sense of like, ‘Oh, well, things are going to be okay because we got a Critics’ Choice Award.’ I think that’s dangerous. It worries me. I feel tremendous guilt over that, but also I think my guilt is worthless unless it is funneled into action.”
Even when Bob-Waksberg opens up in an interview, he’s always very conscious of the fact that he’s being interviewed, as well as past conversations. For example, IndieWire interviewed him for the first time in the summer of 2015, regarding the nascent Season 3 (which wouldn’t premiere for another year). During that first interview, he promised that the new season would be “darker and weirder,” a pullquote that, six months later, he told us he regretted.
So, while a year later he did admit that “Now that you’ve seen Season 3, wouldn’t you agree that we’re darker and weirder?” he was reluctant to set up exactly what we might expect from Season 4. We did learn a lot about some themes that underlie the writing, as well as the difficulty of handling an ensemble of characters who, at the end of Season 3, are in very different places. Spoilers for Season 3 follow.
How are you feeling about having this opportunity, to make this show?
I definitely feel like I have a different responsibility now than I had two months ago. I mean, obviously this is going to change a lot of the pop culture we see in the next four years.
I was talking about to my friend recently about “American Beauty.” Remember that movie? I think a common complaint about that movie that I see now, and I feel like some smart journalist coined this idea and I feel bad for ripping him or her off, so apologies to that person who I’m too lazy to Google right now — but the idea that “American Beauty” is a pre-September 11th movie.
[Editor’s note: The earliest reference to this idea we found was Gabe Delahaye in 2010 for Videogum.]
You watch that movie now and it’s all about, oh, everything is great, and I’m miserable. You know? The country is at peace and the economy is good and there are no real concerns other than my annoyance that my wife doesn’t want me to spill beer on the nice couch. That’s kind of what that movie is about.
Then two years later it’s like none of that matters anymore. Two years later, like, oh my god. Who gives a shit about that poor, sad, rich guy in the suburbs? We are at war. We are under attack. We have this crazy man as our president. Everything is terrible.
I do feel gradually over the last eight years we’ve kind of allowed ourselves in the art we make to kind of slip back into that kind of comfort. I think “BoJack” is definitely very much about kind of the burdens of being comfortable. I don’t know if those are the kinds of stories we’re going to be as interested in moving forward. I know I’m certainly less interested in exploring the small hypocrisies of rich liberals. You know what I mean? I’m not in the mood to poke fun at those kinds of people when there are real, real problems that we need to talk about.
I mean, the season that we were writing was already far enough along that it didn’t really change anything we were doing. Should we be so lucky to get a Season 5, moving forward the show would almost have to change a little to meet the times. I do think that other shows you’re going to see, moving forward, you are going to start to see a little sharpening of that perspective. What kind of stories do we want to be telling right now? Is this the best use of any of our time?
That also might just be me kind of in the haze of this election saying this, and that even now things feel less panicky than they did a month ago. Maybe in two months everything will snap back to normal and it’ll be this depressing thing where we all said, “Oh, no. We’re going to use our art for good. We’re going to change the way people think about things. We’re going to tell the right kind of stories.” Then, “Oh, actually. You know what? Never mind. We don’t have to.”
If Season 4 isn’t very affected by the way things have changed in the last six months, what were the themes that really ended up affecting the show?
Since I literally just finished the script for the finale less than a week ago, this is the first time I am publicly talking about Season 4 in any way. I’ve not yet sharpened what I want to say about it or how I want to sell it. I don’t know if I have enough distance to really look at the season and say, like, “Oh, this is what this is about. This is the story we were telling.” I don’t want to do a disservice to myself to pin something on it now.
I will say that a big thing I was thinking about a lot over the course of the season, which I’m still thinking about obviously, is about stories and the purpose of stories and the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell other people. What value do they have?
Obviously that’s been a big part of the show forever. It was a big part of the Season 3 finale when Diane tells BoJack how important “Horsin’ Around” was to her. To have her tell him that is a very powerful thing and a great argument for even what seems like the superficial of stories, the most superficial art.
But it is something that we were thinking a lot this season, too. How we’ve been affected by narrative, and when does that get us in trouble? We assume things are going to come together in a certain way because our culture has been so saturated by the good guy always wins and true love is forever and things work out. How has that affected us or inspired us for good or for ill? You know what I mean?
When you had that scene in the finale, with Diane telling BoJack what the show really meant to her, did you always have that idea in her backstory?
I think somewhere in Season 2 we decided that it was a part of her backstory that we were going to reveal at some point. It was just about finding the right place for it. I think it helped us, a little bit, answer the question — which I think is a good question for all of our characters — why is this character continuing to hang out with BoJack?
For Diane, I think specifically it was why would someone like Diane continue to spend time with someone like BoJack, considering who she is and who he is? And to refer back to that very formative experience, I think, informed that a little bit, or kind of helps us nudge to explain that in some way. As well as all the other bonds they share and the other things that have happened since they’ve met and their other connections. We thought that was a nice little piece of backstory, to help that friendship a little bit.
It seems like the trickiest part with any sort of ensemble like this is what you just said, the idea of “Why are all these people still able to spend time together?”
We do try to reflect on the show. I think especially Season 3 does end with a lot of relationships being blown up — we didn’t want to just jump back in like everything is normal in Season 4 and everyone’s like, going to the Roast of Gloria Steinem together again. Let’s not rush to get all of our characters in the same room together again. Let’s be a little more meticulous about it and mark, okay, where is BoJack at with this character right now? Where is BoJack at with this character right now? How do we want to play that when they come into contact again? I think we were very careful about that.
Obviously this is a show with five main characters. Unless we write off one of the characters, which I guess could happen, that they presumably they will have to interact with each other at some point. We wanted to again be careful with that.
For all of the readers who are craving more “BoJack” and can’t wait until the summer what I would suggest to them is go check out the “BoJack Horseman” Christmas Special. That’s available now on Netflix. It’s always good. It’s always a good time. I think the more you watch it the more you like it. I think, as Todd says, “Things don’t become traditions because they’re good, BoJack. They become good because they’re traditions.” I implore you to make a tradition of the “BoJack Horseman” Christmas Special. I think you’d be glad that you did.
What’s the legacy of the “BoJack Horseman” Christmas Special been for you?
I think it’s a fun little half hour of television. I found it interesting to revisit in the wake of what has occurred in Season 3. I think to watch now little Sabrina, played by Sarah Lynn, has a different feel to it than it did watching it when it first came out, or to watch BoJack spend the day in bed with his best friend Todd, has a different feel to it than it did in the context that it was created.
That, I think, is interesting, that art lives and breathes and changes based on context certainly within the show. There are a couple of jokes about anti-semitism that are maybe less funny to me now than they were a couple years ago, when I thought that anti-semitism was a retro concern that we needn’t worry about in today’s civilized, mature society. But here we are, and life is an adventure.
Regarding Sarah Lynn: When you were writing the Christmas special, did her arc as it ended up playing out over the last two seasons already feel like it was happening?
Yes, that was intentional. I think we knew what was going to happen to Sarah Lynn to some extent — not all the detours and cul-de-sacs on the way there, but we knew the story we were going to tell with Sarah Lynn.
It was definitely intentional that the “Horsin’ Around” episode is about the horse’s relationship with Sabrina. It’s not an episode primarily about Ethan and Olivia, although they are also present and have their times to shine as well. I did want to really underline the sweetness at the heart of this Horse and Sabrina relationship, which I hoped would translate somewhat to the BoJack and Sarah Lynn relationship. That when you see BoJack and Sarah Lynn you’re keeping some of that real warmth and tenderness in mind.
To wrap up, what has surprised you the most about the reaction to Season 3?
I have an answer but I don’t know if I want to say it. One of the things I really enjoy about reading the reviews and reading the comments and the feedback is seeing how people interact with the show and draw their own conclusions and kind of decide what it means for themselves.
It was written and produced in a way to be intentionally open to interpretation. I know what it means for me and what was meant for it to mean, but I also did want other people to interpret it however it meant to them. I’ve been delighted by all the interpretations, some of which I have considered and some of which really caught me off guard.
I think it’s wonderful, especially if they like it. If you have an interpretation that makes you not like it, I would suggest that you have a different interpretation. Maybe the thing you thought was dumb you misunderstood and it was actually smart. Try that and see what that does for you. Just to help you out. Just to help you get more pleasure out of the show. If you thought a thing was bad, maybe it was good.
Maybe you just need to rewatch the “BoJack Horseman” Christmas Special, now available on Netflix.
It’ll explain everything.
The “BoJack Horseman” Christmas Special, as well as Seasons 1-3 of the show, is now available on Netflix.