Raphael Bob-Waksberg crackles over the phone like a palsy acquaintance you run into at a party. The creator of Bojack Horseman has more in common with Herb Kazzaz than his anthropomorphic horse anti-hero: quick to laugh, sincere, aware of himself and the boundaries of his ideas.
To me, Waksberg is a true sitcom post-modernist—a writer with an uncanny awareness of comic form and structure, capable of building a meta-joke out of a set-up while simultaneously landing a splendidly ridiculous punchline. With Bojack Horseman he has created a manic confluence of animated satire, Grouchonian wordplay and pitch-dark introspection, all of which sloshes together to form a show as much about the limitations of TV as it is the depressive swings of a cartoon horse.
So as you can see I was very excited to interview Raphael Bob-Waksberg, and talk to him about sitcoms, sentimentality, and comic responsibility.
VICE: Hey Raphael, something I admire about your work is how it seems to revolve as much around form as much as it does content. How did your examination of the comedic process inform the creation of Bojack?
Raphael Bob-Waksberg: I think I am someone who is very interested in structure and different ways of delivering jokes. Do you know Will Hines? He's an American comedian. He wrote a blog post once that really stuck with me, talking about how the first time you do something you're very interested in the format of that thing. Like how many people's first tweet is "here I am on twitter" or "I'm tweeting a tweet," then it's a bit more comfortable and they get more cavalier with it. He was talking about how he just joined a letter writing club, of people writing letters to each other, and he was really taken aback by how many of the first letters were like "I'm writing a letter, this is an odd experience." So much of it was about the thing that it was. And that's a thing that really struck a chord with me because I was a playwriting major in college, and a lot of my early plays were about the fact they were plays.
Bojack Horseman is my first television show, so a lot of it is about it being a television show and it what it means to be a television show. But as I've grown more comfortable with the form it's become about so much more [laughs]. That was definitely my way in though: I was interested in television, and how these stories work, and what these stories mean. So I wanted to create a show that commented on that.
The show makes a point of critiquing sitcom schmaltz, tropes and narrative beats. Is it hard to satirise them while also relying on them?
No, I want to be careful, because I think the thing most fans of the show would pick up is that we critique that stuff, but we also really do embrace it. Especially if you look at the end of season 3: there's a big conversation between Diane and Bojack about how important those schmaltzy shows were for a lot of people, and still are, and what they need. I think it's very easy to dismiss them, and a lot of our show certainly does critique them, and show the cynicism of them, or emptiness of them—but I want to be very conscious as well, that there is a beauty to them. I think the world of Bojack Horseman has always sat uncomfortably between those two points. Firstly, that this kind of narrative is shallow and empty, but on the other hand it's very helpful and wonderful. I definitely think that is a balance that we try to keep as we make the show.
Much of the show's themes stem from the limitations and pitfalls of cultural nostalgia. Bojack's golden age, the 1980s, is undergoing non-stop reboots and revivals…
Yeah it sucks man [laughs]. Do you consider that kind of nostalgia harmful?
I mean I think like you, I'm very suspicious of it. I loved Full House growing up, and I'm delighted that it's back, but I also loved Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I loved so many things that I now see coming back over and over again, in ways that I'm not sure are necessary.
I'm on the older side of being a millennial, but I grew up under what felt like—to me—a lot of forced Baby Boomer nostalgia. It felt like this older generation was trying to force their nostalgia onto a younger generation and now it's happening again, but my generation is doing it to teenagers and people younger. I'm of two minds: I'm suspicious of it naturally, and I guess I take a cynical view of it, but I get the appeal of wanting to go somewhere safe and warm. A place you felt was better, even though it actually wasn't.
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The show has such a distinct use of language—hyperactive wordplay, puns, and references. Was that something you brought with you, or did the show arrive at it?
Well I think it's something I've always enjoyed, really dense word play. That's going to be a part of anything I write, if I can help it. I do think this show kind of lends itself to that more than others. The fact that its such a goofy cartoon world means you can construct delicate bizarre runs of language that maybe you couldn't in a more serious grounded world. Like "I would love to take down Hippopopalous and finally topple the acropolis of monstrous hypocrisy that ensconces us." That would sound forced if not for the fact that this is a world where everything's a little bit forced and larger than life.
The show is obsessed with the idea of high art vs. low art. There's the constant tension of "selling out": Mr. Peanut Butter, Bojack, and Herb Kazzas all explore this anxiety…you voice Charlie the Treefrog right?
R: [laughs] yes, I do.
My question is, is this an exploration of your own creative self-doubt?
Look, anything any writer writes is going to be on some level autobiographical. Part of the funny/sad thing is that you don't always know how autobiographical you're being. I remember when I was a freshman at college I wrote these plays that I was very proud of. My girlfriend at the time from Yale came to visit. I wanted to show them off to her. I remember her reaction being very cool, and I didn't quite understand why she wasn't as effusive about them as I felt they deserved. We broke up, then years later, I was thinking I want to go back and read some of these old plays—I bet some of them are pretty good. And I was shocked to discover that they were all about her. I had no idea. To her it was very clear. As an outsider they were obviously about my anxieties and people in different relationships who didn't know what they were doing or if they were with the right person—these characterised versions of my girlfriend.
So I often feel like I don't always know what I'm revealing about myself which is kinda scary. So to answer your question I guess… I don't know? [laughs] I'm not sure what I'm working through. Something certainly. But I don't always have the best handle on it.
I guess its just that comedian anxiety of "do I go low to get this laugh, am I an artist or a clown?" I think to a certain extent you have to not worry about that too much. I mean, it's hard, you don't want to be doing things that you feel are beneath you that don't speak to any artistic craving or that you feel like you're phoning it in, because then the work won't be good. You're not going to do a good job and everyone's going to feel it. The best stuff is done by people who love it, whether that's high art or low art, whatever that is.
Bojack unflinchingly examines masculinity, and especially its role in the comedy/entertainment industry. From Princess Caroline tolerating sexism, to your evisceration of the Cosby scandal, do you think it's difficult to depict this problem while remaining funny or succumbing to cynicism?
One thing is, we are not a show that's afraid of being cynical. We can go very dark and depressing. I think you have to be very careful with those kind of jokes. That you are clear on who you're satirising and what you're satirising. I'm sure you've seen this: there's a lot of comedy from male comedians doing sexist "jokes" where the comedy is: "look how sexist I'm being" but they're also just telling a sexist joke, you know what I mean? Like they're having their cake and eating it too.
I think the harder thing is less about "is this going to be funny?" but rather "is this true?" Sometimes we end up on the wrong side and sometimes we end up on the right side of that line, but that's an effort we're always making. But it can be tricky when you're heading into that territory. Not celebrating the sexism, not endorsing it or making it fun or cool or funny, but actually the opposite.
The big debate within the comedy community is the idea of "political correctness," and whether its censorship or valid criticism. Where do you stand on that?
Well censorship is a strong word, right? I think most people who argue for what you might call political correctness, are not actually arguing for censorship. They're arguing for self-control and self-restraint. They're arguing for people to be conscious of the power they have, right? And I believe that I have a lot of power, as someone making popular entertainment. I do think we have to be careful about the art we put out. We want to make the argument that our art has power so we can't then also say that it has no effect over people, these people are adults who can make their own decisions. I think the art we make influences people, and I think with that power comes great responsibility, to quote Spiderman. I don't want the government to be censoring people, I don't think there should be censoring boards, but I think that means that we the artists need to be very careful about what we're putting out and what were saying and how we're saying it. And I don't think we're being as careful as we should be.