Good artists create, great artists steal. But maybe the greatest artists just take what they've learned from a lifetime of watching family sitcoms and turn it into material for a sitcom that existed only in the world of their Netflix cartoon comedy.
Like many of us, Bojack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg had a misspent youth watching sitcoms like Step By Step, Full House, Charles in Charge, and Growing Pains. When it came to writing his own animated series, he established the lead character as a former sitcom star who is today dealing with depression (he's also a horse).
Bojack Horseman's sitcom Horsin' Around, starred Horseman as 'The Horse', a bachelor horse charged with looking after some precocious kids.
When it came to creating the look and feel of the sitcom Bojack Horseman once starred in, Raphael looked to the sitcoms he grew up with. We spoke with Raphael Bob-Waksberg ahead of the fourth season return of Bojack Horseman about the inspiration for creating Horsin' Around to keep the show within a show feeling authentic.
DB: Horsin’ Around feels like every generic family sitcom from 1984-89. What were the inspirations? What were you looking at?
RBW: I’d actually push a little later than that. I’d say as early as the eighties you have Diff'rent Strokes through to Charles in Charge, Who’s The Boss. Certainly there’s some Family Ties in there, although Family Ties might be too good for Horsin’ Around. The major inspiration that I really grew up with that a lot of people pinpoint is Full House. That’s certainly a big part of it. Growing Pains was a show I really loved as a kid. A lot of the shows I grew up with. Step By Step, Punky Brewster. The more saccharine the better.
I really love those shows half ironically and half unironically. I really do. A lot of people say “Oh, he’s taking the piss out of those shows. He’s really sticking it to them”.
I think the relationship that Bojack the show has with those shows, and Bojack the character has, is a little bit more complicated. I think those shows do a lot for a lot of people. There’s a warmth and a genuineness in them that you maybe lose with some of the snarkier comedies or the cooler comedies that have come since. There’s something wonderful about this idea of a show that, as cheesy as it is, tells the audience “You’re safe here. This is a warm place. This is a loving place”. Diane has a monologue about it at the end of season three about how growing up she watched Horsin’ Around and it meant a lot to her coming from a broken home. I remember as a kid I saw an interview with one of the actors from Touched By An Angel and they were talking about how they visited a prison where a prisoner went to them with tears in their eyes and said “In every episode one of the angels says ‘I love you and god loves you.’” That was so powerful to hear because no one told that prisoner that they love them in their life. To have a show say “I love you. You have worth. You have values” is an incredibly powerful thing. That’s a show that most people think is cheesy and not cool.
The sitcoms I mentioned are similar in that way. Yesterday in the hotel there was a rerun of Diff’rent Strokes and it was amazing how different the rhythms feel to TV today and off off it feels…
There’s lots of empty space...
Yeah. And then things get wrapped up very cleanly and clearly. It’s nothing like real life. But there’s a beauty and simplicity to it. That’s something I really respect about those shows and we try to show it in Horsin’ Around.
When I think about Horsin’ Around, it is Mr Belvedere meets Charles in Charles. In thinking about sitcoms today like Man With a Plan and Kevin Can Wait, they don’t have the heart to them that shows in the 80s did.
I don’t keep up with family sitcoms, but I think when those shows work it’s because they’re not afraid to go sentimental. A lot of shows now are afraid to go sentimental or they do it in a way that feels unearned. Maybe those shows were also unearned, but when you’re a kid you don’t notice [laughs]. I’m sure there are kids growing up now with family sitcoms or the shows on Disney Channel or Nickelodeon that are abrasive, which we might make fun of as adults, but ten years from now that’s their foundation.
Today as we chat, US streamer Hulu announced they’re getting all the Miller Boyett sitcoms, so there will be a whole generation of kids forced by their parents nostalgia to watch episodes of Step By Step and Perfect Strangers.
That’s really interesting to me – I’m trying to think from my childhood what pop culture my Dad, and Mum, passed down to me. Certainly we both liked Spider-Man comics. I remember he gave me a whole bunch of the comics he read as a kid and I really loved them. But in general, they didn’t quite have the same access to do that now. I wonder if that’s good or bad. I think it’s better to watch the old ones than to regurgitate things in new ways with reboots of things, recapturing the magic.
Netflix seem to have done it well with Fuller House…
I won’t speak ill of that [laughs]. If it works for that audience, it works, I guess. As a creative, I’m more interested in being inspired by the stuff we grew up with and making new stuff. The Muppets make me really sad. I think I’m in the minority there.
The more recent films and shows haven’t captured the magic…
No! And I don’t know if they should. To me, I think The Muppets was Jim Henson. And I’m happy for all of his colleagues who have continued to work after his death and I don’t necessarily believe we need to bury art with its creators, but a lot of it feels like trying to recapture a magic rather than make a new magic. I’m more interested in finding what’s new about it. There are reboots that do that, that find new twists and angles and make something new out of it.
The fourth season of Arrested Development was interesting, that it wasn’t just trying to do the same thing the first three seasons did. It was trying to do something completely different and new.
Hopefully they go back to the old version for the next season…
[Laughs] The people who have criticisms about the fourth season, I don’t know if it’s necessarily tied to how they did things or whether you can’t really go home again. I’m curious to see what the new season looks like. I think it will be exciting and interesting.
Bojack Horseman, the actual character. Was there a specific inspiration for him. Were you looking at a Scott Baio sort of character?
Not necessarily one guy. He’s definitely a conglomerate of a lot of different people that you see. People try and point to Scott Baio, Bob Saget, etc, but he doesn’t cleanly fit into any specific person, nor do I want him to. I want him to be his own character. The more we learn about him, the more we discover he’s his own character. It gets dangerous when it gets too specific. “This guy is an analog for this. And that character is an analog for that”. I want it to exist in its own universe and be its own thing.
Have you heard from the Scott Baio or Bob Sagets of the world. Has anyone queried it…?
[Laughs] As far as I know, I can’t think of a single sitcom dad who has commented on the show, good or bad.
Would Bojack Horseman at any stage appear at a Republican convention, a la Scott Baio?
I think it’s unlikely. I think Bojack’s politics are a little different than Scott Baio’s.
He strikes me as very libertarian.
Libertarian is a very loaded term in American politics, but I think he doesn’t want to think about it. He’s very much stay out of his backyard and he’ll stay out of your backyard until he gets something in his craw that he wants to shout about and then he’ll be very liberal or conservative depending on the specific issue.
The world that Bojack Horseman inhabits today, depicted in the show, very much has a sitcom structure. You have the best friend who is crashing on his couch and then there’s his work life with his agent. How intentional was it to create a mirror image of the sitcom he’s trying to escape from.
I think in some ways it is intentional and commentary. In other ways it is intentional and a feature of the design of writing a comedy show – you want your ensemble of characters and excuses for them all to be in a room together. And I think in some ways it is accidental. I allow the critical community to draw their own conclusions on what is intentional subversion and what is unintentional hackwork.
I like that within the framework of him living within a sitcom sort of environment, he’s rebelling against every element of his life. He doesn’t care for his professional life, he doesn’t care for his roommate, in the way that in an 80s or 90s sitcom character would have been very happy to embrace that.
I think a lot of that too is my rambunctiousness as a creator and with my first show I wanted to break a lot of the rules that have been passed down. So, one thing is that you want your main character to be good at his job because that makes the audience root for him. But what if he’s not good at his job. You want your main character to want for himself what our audience wants for him. But, what if he doesn’t? You want your protagonist to be active, to be making things happen. But what if he just sits at home all day and complains? Stuff happens to him, dragged into stories and he doesn’t want it. You can’t have a 2-minute monologue in the middle of your episode for a character you’ve never seen before. But what if we do? I think that rebelliousness comes across in the show a little bit.
With Bojack as one of the earliest titles on Netflix, the show was instrumental in creating some of the structural tricks that writers employ on the platform when writing serialised binge shows. Jokes that would pay off four episodes later...
I’ll again give credit to Arrested Development season four, which did that before we did. But I do think that’s something we really found more and more that we could do that. A lot of the first season was discovering that we could delay the payoffs a lot of the time because we know the audience will watch the show in order, they’ll probably watch them in a limited amount of time. We know that by the time they see episode ten, they will have seen episode three. We don’t need to worry about people just tuning into episode ten with no experience with the show.
There’s no casual watchers.
In the first season we threw a lot of things into the background, a lot of foreshadowing, and callbacks. We assumed some of it would fall through the cracks, but were delighted when the first season came out that literally everything we put in, somebody found. I don’t think anybody watches the show and picks up everything, but everything we put in is picked up along the way. That really gave us carte blanche in later seasons to push that farther.
The visual look of Bojack when he was in Horsin’ Around as The Horse. He is wearing a Cosby sweater. They’re in a loungeroom that is very Cosby Show like. The staircase in the right position. Obviously real-world changes have happened with the star of that program. Is that a consideration for you when you think about the visual aesthetic, doing flashback sequences.
It’s funny, because the sweater is obviously very Cosby. But the set-up for the set. Almost every family comedy from the 80s and 90s has the same set with a big living room and kitchen set connected by a door, one of them has the front entrance, one has an exit to the backyard. And both have staircases going upstairs, which boggles my mind because only the richest people have two sets of staircases in their homes. They are all set up in the same way – Horsin’ Around is definitely in that proud tradition.
Do you ever go back to re-watch any of these old sitcoms for research on ideas of what you might do with Horsin’ Around?
Specifically, we did our Christmas special between seasons one and two. That was our longest look in the world of Horsin’ Around. For that we watched a lot of Christmas episodes of old shows. And it was painful.
Christmas episodes are the ones where they pull out all the stops and go as mawkish and sentimental as they possibly can with no consideration for continuity. Sometimes you see magical things happen in Christmas episodes. We watched a Full House, Growing Pains, and an ALF.
And we watched a Family Ties also. You see the same patterns come up over and over again. I genuinely enjoy those shows. When a Full House re-run comes on TV, I will watch the whole thing and love it. I loved Fuller House. I really enjoyed it. No tongue in cheek. It was just delightful – these are the people I grew up with. Now they’re adults and I’m an adult. It’s so interesting, weird, and cool.
Usually within a couple of seasons a sitcom will do a reboot and jettison a character or the cool character comes in. Have you considered doing that with Bojack? Usually these shows do it because they need to be rejuvenated…
Every show needs to be rejuvenated a little bit. It’s very easy to fall into a rut in the middle age of a show, which Bojack is now in or approaching, depending on how long we are going. It is important to keep things fresh and find new dynamics. From the beginning I think we’ve done that. We’ve had characters come in and out. Characters die. There’s a big death in season three. Season four operates a little differently to what we’ve done before. It’s the natural evolution of any show. You don’t want to feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over again. A Netflix show, everyone is watching in order in chunks. If you are a syndicated show with an audience who tunes in whenever, you can afford to have a basic structure that is warm and comforting and the same thing over and over again. People watch Bojack expecting arcs and change. Sometimes that change happens frustratingly slowly, sometimes it happens all at once.
When you launched the show, there weren’t many original series on Netflix at that stage. Now there is a new Netflix series every week or two. Are you jealous of them coming through?
I don’t think so. As someone who works in the industry, it is very exciting there are more and more opportunities for people who work in the industry. I think the shows Netflix have put out have been a wide array of tones and protagonists. I loved Dear White People, which is the kind of show you wouldn’t necessarily see ten years ago. I love Orange Is The New Black. I don’t feel like we’re competing with them. We have our fans and are getting new fans every day.
But these shows are so much younger and sexier…
That’s alright. I’m happy to become an upper-statesman.
Young male fans of My Little Pony have been referred to as Bronies. What would Bojack think of the Brony culture?
I think he’d be nervous about anyone who self-identifies as a bro in any way and nervous of people who fetishise horses. But I think he’d be all for it. Why not? [Laughs] Here’s what I have a beef with about the Bronies: a need to qualify yourself as a male fan of My Little Pony. Why must you separate yourself from the little girls who like the show? Why do you have to make a new thing that says it’s okay to like My Little Pony. No, just watch My Little Pony. That’s okay. You don’t need to enjoy it in a different way.