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‘BoJack Horseman’ Insiders Break Down the Vietnam Episode and How No One Can Pronounce ‘Nguyen’ Correctly

Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and consultant VyVy Nguyen spoke to IndieWire about representation, Easter eggs, and what got cut.

Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), "BoJack Horseman"

Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), “BoJack Horseman”


Nguyen Some, Lose Some: What Got Cut

Name-Dropping: Nguyen also gave some insight into what viewers didn’t get to see. The episode was going to culminate with Diane finally making a language breakthrough that would’ve been symbolic for how she connected to her cultural heritage.

“Originally we were thinking, ‘Let’s have a moment where Diane says Nguyễn properly because maybe that’s the one thing she brings back from Vietnam,” said Nguyen. “There’s been the running joke on the show when she called BoJack and on the phone she has to clarify ‘Diane Nguyen,’ so she has to say Nguyễn. There was the consideration of maybe she’ll, instead of saying ‘Nwin,’ she’ll say Nguyễn with the proper pronunciation.

“I got [Alison Brie] to say it, but it turns out the moment didn’t read because we realized there had been no establishing of how she had learned to say it or what she might necessarily be saying,” she said. “If you just heard it out of the blue, out of context, you might be a little confused. So, it ended up, unfortunately, not working, but it was something we definitely played with, the idea of her bringing back from Vietnam the ability to say her last name properly.”

Dropping Trou: Also earlier, in the scene where Diane tries on the traditional Vietnamese áo dài, a long fitted tunic over loose trousers, the animators ended up cropping out her bottom half on purpose.

“Originally, the pants underneath the áo dài, the artist originally thought it was more of like a secondary dress underneath or like a skirt,” said Nguyen. “I corrected that [perception], but they ended up being like, ‘Oh, okay we’ll just animate it so that you don’t see that it’s the bottom anymore.’ She doesn’t really even wear it for that long.”

It’s also fitting that Diane laments that she feels like she’s wearing a costume because the fanciness of the print and design is not for everyday wear, and the utilitarian hat would not be paired with it.

“That [áo dài she wears] is very, very formal, something you’d probably wear to a wedding or a special occasion,” said Nguyen. “But I think that also shows just how removed she is from her own culture that she doesn’t quite know that’s not the correct attire that you would just wear on the street. She also wears it with the hat, the nón lá. You really wouldn’t put those together. “

Mock Turtle: “In Hoan Kiem Lake, there are these turtles that have lived there for hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s considered very lucky if you get a glimpse of them,” said Nguyen. “They actually have a stuffed [embalmed] turtle in the Ngoc Son temple that people can take a photo with. Joanna had written in the script, as part of the tourist montage, ‘Hey, I’m taking a photo with the stuffed turtle.’

“But there was this issue of, we’re in this anthropomorphic world, and she’s taking a photo with this stuffed turtle, she’s actually taking a photo with a dead body essentially in this universe,” she said. “Then also, the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh is also in Hanoi, and we didn’t want anyone to confuse those for the same thing, as if she’s just casually taking a photo with the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, so we just figured it was too complicated, and it got scrapped.

“I love the concept of those turtles so much because they are really integral to that part of Vietnam, but unfortunately we had to scrap them. You do see these turtles in the background of the episode, monk turtles and stuff like that. We still kept them in that way.”

Beasts of Pho Nation

BoJack Horseman pangolin Chicken 4 Dayz

One of the most entertaining aspects of “BoJack Horseman” is how a range of animals — not just the familiar domesticated ones or those in captivity — appear on the show. Animal representation is not a problem, and any new environment offers the possibility of new character critters that are native to that habitat. Nguyen was able to suggest various animals found in Vietnam to be included in the episode.

“The one that really resonated a lot with me was the pangolin,” said Nguyen. “The pangolin is kind of like this armadillo looking creature, but it’s one of the most trafficked animal in the world because people believe that its scales and various other parts have special healing properties.”

Pangolins are a type of scaly anteater that is prized for its keratin scales, and because of trafficking, they’re endangered.

“I brought it up to them, and then funnily enough, the fast food worker character that I play, which wasn’t originally written as a pangolin, later became a pangolin as they changed the story,” Nguyen said. “So, I was really excited that I got to be a pangolin and represent that creature. I hope it also brings more awareness of what it is and what we can do for it.”

"BoJack Horseman"

The cat ba langur — a type of Old World monkey that is one of the most endangered primates in the world — is the concierge at the hotel Diane is staying in. While the show depicted him accurately with the signature golden pointy tuft of hair, there was one aspect that Nguyen fixated on to be sure it was correct.

“I got really nitpicky at one point because there’s a monkey, he works at the hotel, and he’s got a name tag. And his name is monkey (con khỉ in Vietnamese), but they didn’t have accent marks on it. I was like, ‘You don’t have an accent mark.’ They’re like, ‘Oh, it’s okay, it’s really small. Don’t worry about it.’ I was like, ‘Oh, you need the accent marks!’ In Vietnamese it can drastically change how a word ends up being read, so I just tried to be really, really careful, make sure everything was clear.”

Puns Pho Dayz

Another signature aspect of “BoJack Horseman” is its propensity for puns. Whether it’s in the dialogue, related to the animals onscreen, or in the background signage, “BoJack” can’t stop, won’t stop its horseplay with wordplay. Setting in the action in Vietnam only provided a bilingual opportunity at punnage.

BoJack Horseman Puns

Nguyen gives credit to Bob-Waksberg and Calo for writing in two of their own puns without her input. The first can be seen when Diane encounters the street where her last name is emblazoned on all the shops and billboards. One particular sign for a mini hotel reads, “Nguyễn New Inn,” referring to one Westernized pronunciation of the ubiquitous last name.

Later, Diane is narrating her Girl Croosh travel guide to Vietnam and says, “You want to fully immerse yourself and get the full, non-L.A. experience.” At this point, she comes upon a vendor selling the nón lá Vietnamese conical hats.

“That was all them,” said Nguyen. “That was already scripted. It was amazing.”

One pun may have been inadvertently produced. When Diane tries to order the No. 2 meal at Chicken 4 Dayz, the pangolin teaches her that “number two” in Vietnamese is số hai.

“I know some people were trying to analyze it when she says, ‘hai’ like number two,” said Nguyen. “Some people thought maybe it was a pun with saying, ‘Hi.’ I don’t think that was ever the intent, at least not in the version I worked on. I think some people are definitely interpreting it that way.”

Then again, some could hear it as Diane being “so high,” which may explain her craving for fried chicken.

"BoJack Horseman" seahorse milk

One Easter egg that Nguyen contributed to that viewers will likely miss is an in-show reference written in Vietnamese. “One of the past story points was the seahorse milk in ‘BoJack Horseman,’ so there’s a sign for seahorse milk. I got to translate that. It’s just a little tiny sign in one of the backgrounds. If anyone stops and pauses, they will see this little sign, but you have to know Vietnamese.”

This is where having a Vietnamese speaker is essential as a consultant. Anyone just looking up the words “sea,” “horse,” and “milk” in an English-Vietnamese dictionary would’ve botched the translation because it’s not literal, nor does it follow the English grammatical structure. Instead, sữa cá ngựa translates to “milk fish horse” or “milk from the horse-fish.”

To Nguyen Viewers Over

The episode was a labor of love, and one that worked on its own merits as Diane’s story, not a story about representation. “We didn’t want the meta-narrative to overwhelm the episode itself,” Bob-Waksberg said. The positive feedback that Nguyen has heard seems to indicate that the themes resonated with a number of viewers from different backgrounds.

“Overall, it’s been really, really positive whether it’s from the perspective of relating to Diane going through this breakup, or just being someone who feels removed from their culture, feels like they’re not very accepted in the country where their families come from,” she said. “People are really moved. You can come at it from very different angles and still really feel affected by the episode.”

”BoJack Horseman” Season 5 is currently streaming on Netflix. Nguyen will next guest star on “Young Sheldon” playing a human mother.

Additional reporting by Liz Shannon Miller.

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