For 'BoJack Horseman,' It Matters If A Cartoon Dog Is A Man Or A Woman

Mar 24, 2015
Originally published on April 6, 2015 3:05 pm

For me, this story began with this Tumblr post.

"Boring Old Raphael" is where Raphael Bob-Waksberg answers questions from his fans — people addicted to his animated show on Netflix. BoJack Horseman is about an alcoholic talking horse who used to be a famous actor. (Bob-Waksberg's world is made up of both people and animals. It's his world. He gets to make up the rules.) The main character is voiced by Will Arnett. The show both savors and critiques a ridiculous Hollywood milieu of washed-up celebrities, their hangers-on and factotums.

In this particular Tumblr post, Bob-Waksberg turns a question from a fan into a digressive exploration of gender and comedy. He admits he was in the wrong in a conflict with production designer Lisa Hanawalt, over a tiny little sight gag in Episode 9, involving a dog and a businessperson. "A car whooshes by, and it causes the dog's tongue to whoosh, and cover the person in slobber," is how Hanawalt succinctly explains it.

The storyboard artists drew the dog and the businessperson as men. Hanawalt changed them to women. Women never seemed to take part in the show's gross, silly little sight gags, and she wanted to see them represented. Bob-Waksberg's first reaction was that she'd slowed down the joke, and he tried to get her to change it back.

"The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible," Bob-Waksberg writes in his Tumblr post. "For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that's an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, 'Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?' The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I'm not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I'm proud to say I mostly don't think this way anymore."

Bob-Waksberg and Hanawalt were gracious enough to allow my microphone behind the scenes at their office in Hollywood, where they broke down a conversation about a one-second sight gag that turned out to be about so much more. The second season of BoJack Horseman will premiere later this year.

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An obscure animated show about a drunk talking horse - it's an unlikely place to challenge assumptions about the nature of comedy, but this Netflix series is a story about a one-second gag that ended up being about much more. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: It's about who gets to be funny.



ULABY: Let's be clear. The show, "BoJack Horseman," is not intended for kids. It stars Will Arnett as the alcoholic horse. In this cartoon, some characters are people, some are animals. And there's a lot of joking or punning about that.


AARON PAUL: (As Todd Chavez) Wait, wait, wait - you stole muffins from a Navy seal?

WILL ARNETT: (As BoJack Horseman) I didn't know he was a Navy seal. I just thought he was a regular kind of seal.

ULABY: When the show's team of writers make up these characters, they turn to production designer Lisa Hanawalt. She's hanging out now in the Hollywood office of the show's creator, Raphael Bob-Waksberg. He says they'll go to her, for example, when they're making up an animal who's also a famous movie director.

RAPHAEL BOB-WAKSBERG: Our options are Quentin Tarantuna, Quentin Taran...

LISA HANAWALT: (Laughter) Tarantulino?

BOB-WAKSBERG: Quentin Tarantulino, or Quentin Tarantucan.

ULABY: In this case, Hanawalt picked Tarantulino.

HANAWALT: 'Cause we hadn't had any spiders yet.

ULABY: These two obviously get along really well, but while they were putting together the show's first season, they were surprised to find themselves creatively clashing over something seemingly minor, a tiny little visual joke.

HANAWALT: Yeah. Often in the background we'll add gags when it's between larger scenes just to, you know, have fun.

BOB-WAKSBERG: For funziez.

ULABY: So here's what happened. Raphael Bob-Waksberg and the writers came up with a super quick sight gag. There's a dog and a business person standing on a corner.

HANAWALT: A car wooshes past, and it causes the dog's tongue to woosh and cover the business person in slobber.

ULABY: Both the dog and the business person were written as male, but when Lisa Hanawalt got the script, she decided to draw them as female.

BOB-WAKSBERG: You know, so my first reaction when I saw these characters was it felt weird to me.

ULABY: Bob-Waksberg said change them back. Lisa Hanawalt said no. She said this kind of thing is usually not a big deal, and she usually doesn't argue.

HANAWALT: But with this, it really stuck in my mind. Like, wait - but why is it weird if they're women?

ULABY: This triggered a huge controversy among "BoJack Horseman" staff and executives. It felt to Hanawalt like everyone got involved.

HANAWALT: The first reaction I heard was, like, well, it's gross if a woman slobbers. It's not funny anymore.

ULABY: Hanawalt stood her ground even though it seemed ridiculous even to her to fight for days about a background joke about slobber.

HANAWALT: Even though a lot of our story-boarders are women, a lot of the designers are women, a lot of the writers are women, all the, like, stupid throwaway gags were men because it's just funnier if, like, a man is goofy or gross or ugly or weird. And your first thought isn't to make that a woman. But I'm gross and funny and weird, and I slobber. Like...

BOB-WAKSBERG: (Laughter) It's true. She does.

HANAWALT: (Laughter) ...That should be OK - to show that in a cartoon, and it should be funny.

ULABY: Hanawalt won. They did the bit with a female dog and a businesswoman. It literally lasts a second, and it worked. Of course it worked, says show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg.

BOB-WAKSBERG: And it feels so dumb now. It's what's weird...


BOB-WAKSBERG: ...Talking about it. It's like I'm trying to - like, I am also a feminist, and, like, I - you know, this is something that is important to me, but it's so deeply ingrained, it's like I wasn't thinking about it.

ULABY: What was ingrained was the idea that men are the default - that women characters slow down the joke just because they're women. Some people said to Lisa Hanawalt, the only reason why you want to make these characters female is because you're a woman, too.

HANAWALT: But that's not true. My first instinct is always to make characters male, and I have to challenge that and think, like, well, really, does this need to be a man and why and what is the problem if I change it? And then I have to do it. It's like always an extra step.

ULABY: Hanawalt and Raphael Bob-Waksberg were struck by a recent study about the dismal state of women's representation in the media that came out from an industry think tank.

BOB-WAKSBERG: How that like as audiences, you know, we see a crowd that's like 15 percent women, and we see it like, oh, that's like half men, half women.

ULABY: So they're mindful of that in their crowd scenes. Now, Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt do not for a minute think the story of their little spat is even vaguely as important as stories about the Middle East or health care.

BOB-WAKSBERG: But I do think if we can do a little to normalize the idea of women existing...

HANAWALT: Yeah. (Laughter).

BOB-WAKSBERG: ...Then, like, that's like the least we can do.

ULABY: Raphael Bob-Waksberg says ever since he started telling the story, lots of people have congratulated him for learning a lesson. That's not the point of the story. The point, he says, is that Lisa Hanawalt was right. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.