BY PEYTON MITZEL I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why the animated Netflix series Bojack Horseman, now in its sixth season, resonates so strongly with me. It’s an animated metafictional critique of stardom about a washed-up sitcom star named BoJack, who also happens to be an alcoholic horse, struggling to find functional happiness in the crushing shitstorm that is the world these days — so it’s not exactly telling me my life. And yet, despite the fact that I was 17 when I started watching the show, I found myself relating to the roughly middle-aged characters and their hardships, even though half of them are some species of talking animal — with voices provided by the likes of Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, and Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul.
In short, the show is about BoJack attempting to reconcile his boozy, demon-riddled existence with the pursuit of happiness and all that it promises. The possibility of positively impacting those around him and receiving genuine love in return, not to mention learning essential adulthood skills like self-control and self-care, becomes a carrot on a stick for the titular horse who spends most of his time falling off the wagon and dealing with the repercussions.
In addition to chronicling BoJack’s eternal search for peace and meaning, the show features an abundance of diverse characters in terms of sexuality, gender, race, economic status, political affiliation, and personal history, further complicating an already densely-layered commentary on contemporary life. Bojack Horseman has always been an outlier among the fluff and sameness that pervades our entertainment-obsessed world, all of which the show satirizes in the course of documenting the trials and tribulations of complicated characters. But above all things, it’s just damn funny.
In advance of the October 25th premiere of the sixth and final season, I was lucky enough to secure an interview with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show’s creator, who just published a collection of short stories over the summer called Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory. We talked about the state of television, how the writing process for a Netflix series compares to years of short fiction work, drilled down on particular stories from the collection and specific episodes from BoJack. No matter how the closure, or lack thereof, arrives with the conclusion of BoJack Horseman, it’s good to know that Raphael Bob-Waksberg is not ready to close off his creative valve: this collection of short stories will always be there for us, as well as his new series Undone, about the surreal aftermath of a woman’s near-miss with death, and whatever bittersweet existential micro-crises await on the horizon.
PHAWKER: Just before we start off I just wanted to say this is my first interview ever.
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Oh!
PHAWKER: I’m a big fan of BoJack, I have been since it started, and the editor of PHAWKER just asked me one day if I would wanna do this interview if he could set it up, and you know, here we are.
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Okay, well, you’re doing good so far.
PHAWKER: Yeah, thanks. I really enjoyed reading the book. I’m wondering what your writing process or routine for the book was like and if it resembles the process for BoJack at all?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah, um, in some ways it does, in other ways not at all. I mean, even I would say it doesn’t necessarily resemble itself, because I wrote this book over a very long period of time, and over different periods of my life, so it was like it was written kinda between the breaks on BoJack, some of it was written before I even sold BoJack, some of it was written back when I lived in New York, a lot of it was written here in L.A. So really it varies from piece to piece, you know, some of the pieces I didn’t even know what I was writing necessarily—if I was writing a short story or what shape it was going to be. But my writing process in general, you know, when I’m not working on a show, when I’m working on something, either a show to be sold, or these stories, or anything else, you know, I try to work away from home, I’ll go to like a coffee shop or a library or something, where I don’t have access to the internet, I try to leave my phone in my car. [laughs] If I have my phone on me , I will get distracted. And then I just try to, you know, work, I guess. And it’s helpful sometimes to have a collection of short stories you’re working on, because then if you get stuck or bored with one, you can just move on to a different one and let that one breathe for a little bit.
PHAWKER: Right. I mean that makes sense, there are a lot of different aspects and ideas that get hit—I found myself relating to a lot of different—a lot of those different topics, and it makes me wonder what the audience is for that book? And if it relates at all to BoJack?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: I don’t know who it would be! I guess that’s a question for the PR department or the marketing department rather than me. I think the audience is—I was mostly writing for myself, and stuff I thought was interesting, or funny, or sad. And I guess the audience would be people who respond to my writing. I guess—yeah, fans of BoJack would probably like it and I think fans of short stories in general, or people who have experienced love might enjoy it.
PHAWKER: Right, there’s some pretty experimental stuff in there. The story “Lies We Told Each Other” is made up of a couple’s false statements that they’ve made throughout their relationship, and there were two in there that struck me particularly: the first was “I’ve never felt like this before.” and secondly it was “This moment, right here, is the happiest moment of my life.” They made me think of the way that pop music pushes this notion that love is relentlessly euphoric, and, in writing the book, did you want to kinda shoot that idea down about love or is the way you write about love getting at something bigger?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah! You know, I think love can be euphoric, certainly, and I think in those moments, perhaps, those characters were truly experiencing that euphoria, you know? I think there’s something—what’s fun for me about that story in particular is kind of “What is a lie?” And, you know, the idea that some of these lies are deliberate untruths, and some of them are ways in which they’re revealing more about themselves than even they intend. But I think love is hard work, and I think that a lot of what this book is about is kind of the treachery of love, or the dangers of love, or the work of love, and I think, you know, the question that maybe posited by this book is “Is it worth it?” You know, given all that it does to us. And I think some of the stories seem to argue that, “Yes! It is worth it!”, and some of the stories…[laughs]…well, maybe it’s not. Ultimately the reader should decide for themselves what argument resonates more with them.
PHAWKER: That’s a good point, I remember reading somewhere that you said you think that a lot of the stories were optimistic. I see where you’re coming from, that’s what I thought when I was reading them. They’re not necessarily, like, optimistic for the characters, but for the reader. “We Men of Science”— when I finished reading that, I was thinking, like, ‘Wow, you know, I’m in not-such-a-bad spot, actually.’
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Ah! I’m glad I’m not that guy.
PHAWKER: Yeah! At the end, at the Acknowledgements section, I noticed that you thanked your team for guiding you away from certain ideas, you know, they asked you “Are we sure about this one?” and what came to mind for me was the scene in the story “More of the You That You Already Are” where one of the employees shows his penis to a group of deaf children and he claims that he mixed their condition up with blindness—that was hilarious.
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, thank you.
PHAWKER: Do you mean to suggest that there were more shocking examples—things that were gonna happen in the book originally?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah, I’d say some shocking, some, uh, just poorly written. [laughs]. Some just were not good ideas, or maybe stories that felt good but didn’t quite fit with what the book as a whole was doing, certainly some of their recommendations were on matters of taste and others were just on quality, or appropriateness for this specific collection.
PHAWKER: Right, right. What do you mean by that, was there originally something in there that didn’t have to do with love? I noticed that there was a theme of—sometimes it was romance, but sometimes it was centered on family stuff.
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah, and so I think there were, you know, occasionally stories, or even moments within the stories, that felt less relevant, it was just hard to put your finger on exactly what made the story fit in the collection or not. Some didn’t quite fit, and my editor’s really helpful about articulating that to me.
PHAWKER: Right, okay, alright. Was that story, “More of the You That You Already Are,” did that come about because of the Trump presidency at all, was it inspired by that at all?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Um, I mean, that’s the world that we’re all living in now, so it’s hard to say that that did not influence me. And I sort of think that’s an idea that has been, um, discussed a lot, the idea of being, that, you know, what does the presidency do to a person? Do people rise to the occasion, or does it just bring out more of the you that you already are, it just kind of—you are who you are and the office doesn’t change you.
So I think the, you know, the contemporary philosophy that would seem to be the case is that it does not change you. Although one of the—what’s interesting about this story, or one of the things that’s interesting about the story, is that, you know, the main character in it is Chester A. Arthur, who I actually believe is a counterexample of that, I think Chester A. Arthur is someone who was pretty corrupt when he, you know, wandered into the presidency. Because Garfield got assassinated. And then I think he was awed by the majesty and the responsibility of the office, and then he actually did make some changes to himself and to the country because of that. So that was really the counterexample.
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: No, I mean, you know, when we first introduced that idea at the end of season three, I guess Trump had already announced his candidacy by then, but it was not—we didn’t think he was gonna win! It was more based on Arnold Schwarzenegger running for governor in California and the idea of celebrities running for office in general. So I think if we’d known what a spectacle and a circus the whole Trump campaign and administration was going to be, we probably would have stayed out of that area completely. But I’m interested in what you said about the main character of that story, really it’s something… I’m… That, I think is a common trope in a lot of my work, passive characters, or characters who just wanna kind of get through the day, and go along to get along. Or they aren’t really interested in making big changes one way or the other, and kinda get swept up by stuff. They certainly—you know, the character in “The Up-and-Comers” has a similar sensibility of like, “Hey, I guess I’m a superhero now, here I go.” And certainly that was a big part of BoJack in the early days, was the guy who just wants to like stay in his house and like not be bothered by anybody.
So something about that sensibility I think is, maybe, harder to write and make interesting, because I think we’re used to active characters—you know, when I’m reading fiction or watching stuff, I wanna see active characters who want things, or try to get them, but I’m attracted by the idea of passive characters, that feels more true to life to me, I feel like so many of us are kind of just going through each day, you know, and not necessarily looking for anything, for big changes, and we’re, you know, we’re trying to hold on to what we have and just kinda keep pushing forward. That’s an archetype that is interesting to me, I think.
PHAWKER: So what you’re saying is that “Up-and-Comers” and “More of the You That You Already Are” were less focused, perhaps, on their setting, they were less commentary on maybe the superhero genre, or the state of politics, and more about putting a character who wants to be passive into an active role, like forcing them through that struggle?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Well, I wouldn’t say they’re less about that or about that. I just think they’re things they have in common. You know, I don’t know if you could say the story is 25% this and 38% that.
PHAWKER: “We Men of Science” and “These Are Facts” were some of my favorite stories in the book — and some of the longest in the collection. Which makes me wonder if you might have a novel in the works?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: I don’t know, I don’t think so. Maybe, some day. I’d kind of like to try my hand at other things, but a novel is such a large endeavor. I really enjoy the art of the short story, as both the writer and reader, I mean I don’t really love reading novels, so… [laughs]. You know, I have a short attention span, I like to keep things short, quick and to the point. Even my longer short stories are still short stories. But maybe!? You know, I mean I’m working on a TV show now that’s been going for six years. In some sense, a very long formed story. If I could boil down all the incidents that happened to BoJack Horseman over the years I could probably get a pretty good novel out of that.
PHAWKER: Has writing BoJack and figuring out that character helped you at all to work out some of the stuff that went into the short story collection, or vice-versa?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: I would say yes. First of all, I think writing for TV has made me more incident-focused as a writer, you know, I think prior to this, if I had written my short story collection first, it probably would be more stories that just kinda felt like, oh, it’s, you know, a picture close card with people and a place. And TV’s all about, you know, changes occurring, and characters, you know, moving in some direction while also staying the same. But, you know, you want stuff to happen when you watch TV. And that’s, so I think, a lot of my stories have things happening in them, they’re real stories. And, you know, there’s activity that occurs. I think the, writing the form of the short story, and writing these prolonged narratives in one person’s voice gave me the confidence to write the “Free Churro” episode of BoJack, which is just one long monologue from BoJack, I don’t know if I would have done that or had the confidence to do that had I not been working on these short stories at the same time.
PHAWKER: That episode’s crazy. Speaking of which, how did you manage to get BoJack green-lighted by Netflix? It’s not an easy sell. You know, it’s a cartoon about an alcoholic horse in Hollywood, like how’d you make that happen?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: I don’t know, I mean I just went into Netflix and pitched it to them and I kinda talked them through the arc of the first season. I think what I said at the time was what I really liked about Netflix shows, which there were only three or four at that time, I said I like how serialized they are, like you don’t see a lot of serialization in adult animation. So that you kind of take the audience’s expectation of it’s just gonna be a silly cartoon show, then kinda surprise them by having it be serialized, having it grow over the course of the season, change, and you know, start at something very light and goofy but ultimately become something much more melancholy, meditative, but by the end of the season people are going ‘Oh my god, this horse actually made me feel something, how is that?’ I think Netflix liked that pitch. They said ‘Alright, make your show.’
PHAWKER: I remember when that show came out, and I was probably fifteen or sixteen at the time, and I was looking at the art, you know, on the app for BoJack Horseman and it looked like something that would have been on Adult Swim. And that’s what I expected it to be, and I started watching it and I was like “Whoa! This just got really deep, this just got way more deep than I expected it to go.” One of the things that it does is it satirizes Hollywood and the film industry pretty heavily. I’m wondering what your take is on the notion that we’re currently in a golden age of television, peak TV as it were?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Well I think those are two very different ideas, right? I mean golden age of television suggests quality and peak TV suggests quantity. I don’t know if both those things are true, you know? I also think peak TV was coined by the president of FX, John Landgraf, like five years ago. And TV has only grown since then, so clearly that was not peak TV. It would be naïve to say we’re at peak TV now, when the graph seems to continue to trend upwards.
But I think it’s fair, it’s a wonderful thing to have so much more TV because I think it allows more kinds of stories to be told and more voices to be heard, you know? Like whenever I hear people complain about, you know, oh there’s too much TV now, I think like, oh really? Is there too much TV about native American gay people? Or transgender Palestinians? You know, like, there’s so many stories to be told. Maybe they’ve reached saturation point for stories about white men, I think that just challenges us to find those other stories and tell those other kinds of things.
I think it’s wonderful that there’s so much, and I think that, I guess, maybe, the last ten years you need to adjust your expectations for what it means to be a fan of TV and keep up with TV, because I feel like TV is now like books, or music, you know? We have to lose the expectation that you’re gonna get to all of it in a given year, or all of the good stuff, right? Like I would never expect that I’m going to read every single good book that comes out in a year. And I think for a while it was possible to watch every single good TV show, and that’s just not true anymore. And I think that’s okay.
PHAWKER: BoJack represents a pretty broad diversity of characters, you know? Todd is asexual, which is not frequently represented. Do you think that BoJack’s diversity helped to expand that trend onto other television shows? Maybe Netflix originals?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Um, I don’t know, I wouldn’t give BoJack credit for that, I think it’s part of a growing trend in general, is I think, like I said, I think people are looking to hear new voices on television tell different kinds of stories. I’m happy to be a part of it in the small way that I have been, but I think it’s something to continue to look at and push for, and figure out okay, what stories have not been told in this, you know, too-much-TV era.
PHAWKER: What about season 6 of BoJack, is that—any information on the table yet?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Uh, nope. It’s coming soon, we’re working on it. Nothing to announce quite yet. Probably see some news about that soon. [EDITOR’s NOTE: It has since been announced that the season six will be the final season of BoJack Horseman]
PHAWKER: Is there anything else you’re working on right now?
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah, actually, I have a new show Undone coming to Amazon, I don’t know when this interview’s gonna be posted, but the show comes out September 13th. I co-created it with Kate Purdy, who’s a writer on BoJack, who wrote episodes such as “Time’s Arrow,” “The Old Sugarman Place,” “Downer Ending,” so if you’re a fan of those episodes, you’ll really dig this show.
PHAWKER: Those are some hard-hitting episodes.
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Yeah. Well, this is a new hard-hitting show. It’s called Undone, it’s on Amazon Prime. Check it out!
PHAWKER: Alright, I think that’s all the questions that I have for you.
RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Great! I think you did a great first interview, well done.