‘Tuca and Bertie’: The Amazing Origins of an Adult Netflix Cartoon — and Its Inspiring Artist

Or how Lisa Hanawalt's talking, dancing bird-women illustrate the key to balancing life's hardships and bliss.
Tuca and Bertie Opening Credits Title Sequence
"Tuca & Bertie"

Lisa Hanawalt likes butts, and lying about it would never even cross her mind. The production designer on “BoJack Horseman” and creator of the new Netflix original series “Tuca & Bertie” displays the derrière every chance she gets. There are paintings, animated gifs, other author’s book covers, drawings within her own books, and she even asks listeners of her podcast, “Baby Geniuses” (co-hosted by screenwriter Emily Heller), to send in pictures of their butts — you know, so long as they’re comfortable with it.

“I’m literally drawing a butt right now as we talk on the phone,” Hanawalt said during an interview with IndieWire.

So it should come as no surprise that her first television series opens with a toucan in green short-shorts flipping down into frame butt-first, before reshaping a floating purple bubble into a big ol’ booty — which she promptly and joyfully slaps.

This is Tuca, one of two best bird friends leading Hanawalt’s new show, “Tuca & Bertie.” Given the introduction, one might think the series is nothing but goofy fun. And it can be — very much so — but the title has two names for a reason. Bertie comes with her own distinct, well-rounded personality, and Lisa Hanawalt combines her eponymous characters for a clever hybrid of a comedy; harnessing the ebullience of Saturday morning cartoons and the anxiety facing a generation of 30-something adults.

Both the outgoing toucan known as Tuca and the daydreaming songbird named Bertie tell us all we need to know about the woman who brought each to life — and how her enlightening insights can help viewers manage a dark, confusing world. “Tuca was inspired by me watching a nature documentary about toucans stealing eggs out of other birds’ nests,” Hanawalt said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that reminds me of me!’ I’m so greedy with food. When I was originally drawing comics about Tuca, she was kind of like my id.”

The character, like the bright, bubbly bird-woman herself, came from a place of rapturous exuberance. While serving as production designer on “BoJack Horseman,” Hanawalt would go home and draw toucans for fun. That release developed into a series of comics for Hazlitt Magazine, and her interest in Tuca, the character, kept growing.

Tuca and Bertie Netflix Season 1
“Tuca & Bertie”Netflix

“Straight away, she was always talking about it — not as a show, just like, ‘I started drawing these toucan cartoons, and I’m having so much fun,'” supervising director Mike Hollingsworth said. “Then when they were kind of pressing her for a show, she went to what she was finding so much joy in doing — creating these toucan cartoons.”

“I just always really liked drawing birds,” Hanawalt said. “I think what I like about them is they can be very, very cute, but they can also be a little bit scary and creepy.”

That split reactions to our feathered friends meant Tuca needed a complimentary counterpart, and Bertie hatched from a separate corner of Hanawalt’s mind. Raphael Bob-Waksberg has known Hanawalt since the two went to high school together in the San Francisco Bay Area. She was the one he called for designs behind the “BoJack Horseman” pitch, and her drawings, insight, and personality helped shape the show into the award-winning comedy it is today.

When the two started talking about making a new series — her series — they remembered a comic Hanawalt had done for Lucky Peach magazine called “Planting.” The short story tracks a bird-couple buying their first house and the wife’s growing obsession with plants. She fills their home with a variety of greenery to the point where her husband can’t find her when he comes home from work.

“The main thing I wanted to get out [into the world] was Lisa,” Bob-Waksberg said about those early talks about making the show. “What does a Lisa show look like? How do we capture her Lisaness in television?”

Hanawalt discussed “Planting” during a talk at XOXO Festival in 2015. She said the Bertie character was using her hobby to push people away. “This is definitely something I do in my own life,” Hanawalt said during the speech, after discussing how she copes with anxiety in her day-to-day life. That constantly simmering social anxiety made its way from “Planting” to “Tuca & Bertie” through their shared character, and it’s a big part of Hanawalt’s life.

“When I’m uncomfortable it means I’m challenging myself, and if I don’t challenge myself, I feel like I’ll die,” she said to IndieWire. “I got invited to a wedding in India last year, and I was really, really nervous to travel there. I’m not the best traveler. I get uncomfortable. I’m anxious. I’m like an agoraphobic. But I went because if I get the opportunity to go see a different country and I say no, then who am I? What’s even the point of being alive?”

She said she felt the same way about creating “Tuca & Bertie,” a process started by her agent, friends, and colleagues urging her to take that next step in her career: creator.

“This was never my plan,” Hanawalt said. “I never really even dared to make plans because I’m just so afraid of being disappointed in myself that I kind of never think anything will work out. When we started developing ‘Tuca & Bertie,’ I just kind of went along with it because Raphael [Bob-Waksberg] and [producers] Noel [Bright] and Steve [Cohen] were supporting me in that journey,” she said. “I thought we might as well take a stab at it because if I don’t at least try, I’ll never forgive myself.”

Tuca And Bertie Season 1
Creator Lisa Hanawalt working on “Tuca & Bertie”Eddy Chen/Netflix

Hanawalt credits a “fantastic and supportive” team around her for getting her through, noting that early in production she gave them her therapist’s phone number for whenever “I lose my mind.”

“But it turned out they didn’t [need it],” she said. “I kept it together. I definitely had days where I had to go shed a quick tear in the bathroom — and that’s just frustration and exhaustion — but it turned out to not be as difficult as I thought it would be.”

“It’s like if you have to step into that role, you have to do it because you have no choice,” she said. “I slowly, over the course of this season, figured out how to run the writers’ room — and I’m still not comfortable with it. It’s still very difficult for me to sit in a room of 20 people and tell them, ‘Well, this is how I want it, and this is why.’ I’m always worried that will sound stupid, and they’ll think I’m stupid, and that I don’t know what I’m doing, but I just had to do it. I had no choice.”

A lot of what Hanawalt talks about can be seen in Bertie’s character. In the fourth episode, the only way she can summon enough courage to leave the house is by wearing security sneakers — cloyingly cute shoes with cupcakes over the toes. At the supermarket, she’s overwhelmed by the bickering people and their clashing carts. Her fears can’t always be traced back to one thing; they’re not rational, but they are real.

“It’s very straightforward to kind of tell an episodic story where something happens to Bertie and then she’s upset about that, but how do you show that she just kind of lives in this state and it just comes and goes?” Bob-Waksberg said. “It’s not necessarily because of what’s happening in the world.”

But Bertie isn’t the only one who’s anxious or troubled. Tuca’s boisterous and party-loving personality can be purely positive, but they can also hide her own insecurities. For one, she’s an alcoholic, and the root of her problem hasn’t been fully explored — yet. “Maybe she was an alcoholic because of social anxiety, we’re not really sure,” Hanawalt said. “But I wanted to show she has some vulnerability as well. She’s not always the most confident person, and that can be a defense mechanism in a way.”

Little bits of each character make their way into the other. Tuca gets nervous and down from time to time, just as Bertie can indulge in giddy, off-the-wall fun. (Just give her a few ingredients and she’ll bake your ass off.) This kind of blending and balancing helps establish why the two would be friends in the first place, just as it helps to expand what “Tuca & Bertie” is capable of covering in each season.

“They both kind of started as different aspects of my own personality,” Hanawalt said. “Of course, in my day-to-day life I’m more of a Bertie, but I definitely have Tuca qualities — that I try to hide.”

“If you’ve watched five hours of ‘Tuca and Bertie,’ then you’ve begun to understand who Lisa is,” Bob-Waksberg said. “All the nooks and crannies of her are explored and put on display in this show she’s created.”

So far, Hanawalt is speaking to people in a way other shows aren’t. Critics and fans are responding in kind, and it relates back to how much of the creator made her way into the series.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the reaction to this much female hilarity onscreen,” Hollingsworth said. “I think it’s just a great show for this generation. With Ali Wong, Tiffany Haddish, and Lisa Hanawalt, that’s my ‘Charlie’s Angels.’ It’s really just the right show at the right time.”

A little bit of Tuca, a little bit of Bertie — or a lot of both. Finding a balance between a can-do, carefree spirit and a practical approach to big dreams is one of life’s greater challenges, and yet Hanawalt has found a way to not only push herself toward a healthy, successful dynamic, but illustrate the journey onscreen for everyone. Sharing that kind of perspective over seasons and seasons of television is a gift, really, but Hanawalt can boil it down, too.

“It’s hard. Life is hard,” Hanawalt said, laughing. “But it’s also fun.”

So don’t forget to stop and admire the butts.

“Tuca & Bertie” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.

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