This Dark Prince of Comedy Isn't Horsing Around
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because laughing and crying aren’t all that different sometimes.
By Libby Coleman
Raphael Bob-Waksberg should be on top of the world. His animated comedy BoJack Horseman just got picked up for a third season on Netflix and has drawn critical raves for its depiction of an anthropomorphic horse-man who’s also a faded sitcom star plagued by depression (which, yes, is actually funny). But check out his own autobiographical webcomic for a sense of Bob-Waksberg’s reaction to success: “I’m loving my new job and my personal life has never been better, which can only mean one thing: SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS ABOUT TO HAPPEN.”
It’s a worldview that’s helped the 31-year-old emerge as one of Hollywood’s most original talents, one who’s leading TV comedies into a weird, dark era of surprising emotional depth. Have you noticed this lately? Comedies like BoJack, The Last Man on Earth, Archer and Transparent are thriving as the television universe fragments into narrower and narrower niches, each ripe with new artistic possibility. Indeed, the shows are reaching fewer viewers by traditional standards — but they’re also helping networks like FX, HBO and Comedy Central attract new audiences.
His receding hairline and comic features give the impression he can’t not mug for the camera, eyes wide and mouth agape.
Even amid comedies populated with incompetent yet deadly spies (Archer) and wacky survivalists (Last Man on Earth), the surreal world of BoJack stands out. Though the main character is a horse, he can be a real ass — every bit as drunk and self-loathing as Mad Men’s Don Draper. His agent/ex-girlfriend, Princess Carolyn, is a cat; his ghostwriter is human, but dates a golden retriever named Mr. Peanutbutter. From its melancholy opening credits to its acidic potshots at pop culture icons such as BuzzFeed and Ryan Seacrest, the show is tinged with loneliness and desperation; New York Magazine’s Vulture blog dubbed it a “sadcom.”
The show “is so fundamentally different from anything that’s come before it that its brilliance took a while to become fully clear,” writes Alan Sepinwall, author of The Revolution Was Televised, a book about television’s current golden age. As Bob-Waksberg tells OZY: “Things that are both funny and sad, that’s my goal. Not quite one or the other.” The showrunner himself couldn’t be less like the misogynist, meat-eating BoJack. (More on that last bit below.) Raised in the liberal San Francisco Bay Area, Bob-Waksberg grew up feminist and vegetarian. Despite his often bleak perspective, he takes pains to note that his parents provided a “really loving, encouraging environment” and “encouraged my weirdness.” Although in high school he wanted to be a talk show host, he also presaged BoJack when he wrote a play about a boy with udders who just wanted to fit in. After several years of doing sketch comedy, he tried his hand at longer, more serious stories — then got back notes saying the political drama he’d written was still a comedy.
Indeed, Bob-Waksberg’s inner sketch performer is rarely far from the surface. He runs several fake, satirical Twitter accounts, though he won’t say which ones, as well as an active Tumblr account under his own name; he’s also responsible for one of the best Craigslist send-ups of all time. He’s loquacious on the phone, constructing his sentences with a classic one-two punch — setup, surprise. In his videos, his receding hairline and rubbery, comic features give the impression he can’t not mug for the camera, eyes wide open and mouth agape. But he’s also self-effacing and surprisingly willing to reveal his own frayed edges — the times he cut corners, the ways he was afraid of disappointing teachers — as if he’s one step away from “impostor syndrome.”
Among other things, Bob-Waksberg has been a champion for women in comedy. His childhood friend Lisa Hanawalt drew his autobiographical comic and creates BoJack’s animal characters as the show’s production designer; women also make up a substantial fraction of the show’s writing staff. Bob-Waksberg self-consciously pushes back against his own perceived biases, recalling a time when a female writer pitched a joke that made the other women laugh, though none of the men. “It made me think of all the times the men laughed and the women didn’t and I didn’t even notice,” he says. The joke went in.
Oh, and that bit about BoJack eating meat? It’s only been hinted at in the show so far, but Bob-Waksberg says it’s most likely true. It’s his way of planting a subversive message in the show that’s in line with his own vegan beliefs. You may not like the idea that even herbivorous animal characters eat other animals, he says, but “to me, it’s just as horrifying that we live in a world where we eat meat.”
Of course, success in Hollywood’s brutal horse-eat-horse world can be fleeting. (Someone should make an animated television show about that.) Certainly, there’s no telling how fans will feel about Season 3, especially about niche comedy. For her part, Hanawalt is convinced the show will change animated TV and comedy, saying that others “are going to see his style of comedy as something to emulate.” But Bob-Waksberg seems happy enough— assuming you can call it that — to ride the horse. Until he falls off.