It may seem strange that “BoJack Horseman,” a cartoon featuring an alcoholic talking horse and occasional bestiality, made it so big.
Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, a young comedian who had zero experience in Hollywood, got former Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s Tornante Company to pick it up, signed on “Arrested Development” favourite Will Arnett and Aaron Paul while he was filming “Breaking Bad” to highlight an all-star cast, and sold the show to Netflix as its first-ever animated project — and strangest of all got his creative vision through the production almost entirely intact.
How this happened came down to a good idea for a show, the creator’s exceptional ability to communicate his vision, and smart production companies in Tornante, animators ShadowMachine, and Netflix.
“BoJack” tells the story of the washed-up star of a 1990s sitcom who has a horse head on a human body and lives in a world of talking animals where this is normal. It’s smart and funny, with compelling characters, fun animation and sound, and tons of subtly hilarious animal gags.
Bob-Waksberg, around 26 years old in late 2010, was a member of the loose comedy collective Olde English, and he was looking to break into TV.Hegot the idea for “BoJacK” based on drawings by his friend Lisa Hanawalt along with his own sense of despair in LA, as he told Business Insider:
I had just moved out to L.A. from New York, and I didn’t really know anybody and I was living up in this house in the Hollywood Hills — it was a friend of a friend of a friend — I was staying in this tiny bedroom that was really more of a closet in this gigantic, gorgeous house, and I remember sitting on the deck and looking over all of Hollywood and feeling like I was on top of the world but also that I’d never been more lonely and isolated. That gave me the idea of exploring this character who had every success he could have wanted and still couldn’t find a way to be happy. I combined that melancholy with Lisa’s cartoony animal characters, and that was really the genesis of the idea.
Bob-Waksberg had a good idea but it was very unusual, so he was sceptical when his manager set up a meeting between him and head of development Steve Cohen and head of production Noel Bright at Tornante, and he didn’t even bring up “BoJack” until their third meeting.
But Cohen and Bright were impressed from the start.
“We had read Raphael and were blown away by his writing,” Cohen said. “What is amazing about Raphael as a writer is he writes in a million different voices with different themes that really resonated, so when we read, we were just absolutely blown away.”
As for his weird horse show, Bob-Waksberg made a compelling case when he finally got up the nerve.
“Raphael said I have this idea called ‘BoJack Horseman,’ and he was probably ready to be met with …” Cohen said, trailing off. “But then he started talking and it really resonated with Noel and I, just the way he spoke about it, with such clarity, and frankly it is something that touches all of us. What do you do when you have a little bit of success. What do you do with the rest of your life.”
Bob-Waksberg doesn’t just write in a million voices, he also talks in a million voices, telling stories in long bursts filled with recreated dialogue and humour. His description of selling “BoJack” reads something like an episode of the show:
The very first step was just a general meeting. You go on a lot of those as a writer. You go in, you shake some hands, you shmooze for a little bit. You have a couple stories you tell at every general meeting, kind of like your first date stories. Kind of like, “Oh, this is the deal with this, this is where I come from, this is what I think about New York versus LA.” You kind of do your bit and that’s it. That’s always the first step, and you go on a lot of general meetings, and usually they don’t lead to anything, so I went on this like, “Who are these guys?” My manager was like, “Oh, no, Steve has read your sample, he really loved it, he wanted some more of your writing, he really loved that, he wanted to know everything about you.” So basically these guys had already read like everything I’d ever written. My script, short stories, web comics, they’d seen my earlier college sketch comedy, so they were experts before I even came in. We had a nice time and then I left, and then I got a call from my manager and he was like, “Those guys at Tornante really loved you, they want to maybe work on something with you.” I was like, “Sure, I’ve heard that before.” He was like, “They want to set up another meeting with you.” So I came in for another meeting and they pitched something to me. They had some property they were working on. They were like, “Oh, I think you might be interested in this.” I was like, “Oh, no, maybe,” and then my manager called me and was like, “Do you want to do that thing?” and I was like, “Ehh, not really,” and then he was like, “Well, they really like you so they want to know what you want to do,” and I was like, “Oh great, now I’ve got to go to another meeting with these guys.” So we had another meeting, which was a pitch meeting, and I pitched like five ideas and one of them was BoJack Horseman and at the end of the meeting, Steve was like, “Which of them are you most passionate about?” and I said, “Well, I really like this horse idea,” and he said, “That sounds great, I’d love to see if you have any writing on that or anything else on it.” I was like, “Uhn, but I don’t … but OK.” I went home and my manager called and was like, “Those guys really loved that BoJack Horseman idea, you should write up a treatment.” I was like, “I’ve got to write a treatment now?” Again thinking none of this is ever going to lead to anything, it’s all work I’m going to do for nothing. But again I spent a couple weeks writing this treatment, which was a five-page document with character descriptions, a couple episode descriptions, I attached a bunch of pictures from Lisa’s website … and I sent it to them and then I got a call from my manager saying, ‘Oh, they love the document,’ and they want you to meet Michael Eisner, and I was like, “Now this is probably happening for real.”
Next up, Bob-Waksberg convinced Eisner, one of the most powerful people in Hollywood, not only to buy the show but also to allow it to go forward unchanged:
I was very intimidated, because for me I had used to watch him growing up introducing the wonderful world of Disney and I remember him from that, so for me it was a real starstruck moment to meet him, but I did my song and dance, we talked about the idea a little bit, and as I recall he was a little nervous about the idea of a show business satire because the general feeling is that’s kind of done, but I talked about why it’s interesting to me and said I’m open to other angles on it but that’s how I want to do it and at the end of the conversation he said, “Yeah, you seem like a smart guy, let’s do it your way.” That’s an amazing thing to hear from Michael Eisner, so I was like, “OK, we’re in business together, let’s make something.”
TV shows typically get revised significantly during development, but not “BoJack.”
“That document that Raphael initially wrote, those initial characters — I don’t think we’ve changed a thing,” Cohen said. “Most of those original story ideas and episode ideas came right from the first page.
With Tornante on board, the next step was developing a presentation to pitch the show to a network, a process that took about a year. The team brought on Hanawalt to work supervising director Mike Hollingsworth and the animators at ShadowMachine. While they were fleshing out the world of “BoJack,” casting director Linda Lamontagne recruited an amazing cast.
“We talked about who we saw as all our characters, and I can tell you who we saw as our characters is who we have as our cast today,” Bright said. “
OK, will Will Arnett really say yes to this? Yes, he said yes. Is Aaron Paul really going to do this? He was still shooting ‘Breaking Bad.’ Yes.”
All along the team hoped to sell the show to Netflix, which had a reputation for buying projects whole,giving lots of freedom to show creators, and also offering useful insights, and which offered a platform that allowed for bing-watching without commercial interruption — perfect for the complex storyline Bob-Waksberg had in mind.
“For us just the prospect of a serialized narrative was something new and different and I think the audience would agree it’s really satisfying when you see that thread evolve over a season it’s terribly exciting,” ShadowMachine co-founder Alex Bulkey said.
Even if “BoJack” was perfect for Netflix, however, it was rumoured that the company wasn’t buying animations. Again, Bob-Waksberg had to convince people of his vision, and again he pulled it off.
“It was an hour-long pitch and Raphael sat there with no notes and went through 12 episodes in such great detail and for Noel and I to sit there and participate and just watch this performance of the creator of the show, it was really inspiring,” Cohen said. “There was such clarity to each moment and I think Netflix, obviously they bought it, but I think executives there responded to the material in a way — they were such champions of the material — that we couldn’t be at a better home.”
Working with Netflix was everything they hoped it would be.
“I would say Netflix was hands-on in the best possible way,” Bob-Waksberg said. “It’s not like Netflix said, ‘OK, go do your thing, we’ll see you in 12 months with a show.’ They were very much on-board with it and supported the whole way through. They didn’t hamper us with notes or overload us with notes. They really got what the show was and was trying to be and they trusted us to make it. On every trip they had notes and thoughts and on every radio play and storyboard, they’re very much involved and have a lot of input, but they’re not trying to dictate the show into being something it isn’t. You get the sense on some shows that the network buys one show and they’re really trying to make it into another show and in this case it really felt like Netflix bought the show they wanted and they supported us and empowered us to make it.”
“We think of them as a welcome partner,” Bright said. “[F]rom the moment we went in there, they have been enthusiastic about the show and it has just built from every level up, from the people I mentioned to everyone in the marketing, the PR department, the social media department up to [Netflix Chief Content Officer] Ted [Sarandos] himself. It’s just been a phenomenal experience for us, so having that’s really important, knowing that we’re setting out to make something really unique.”
With Netflix’s support, the “BoJack” team were free to develop a complex story that wouldn’t have worked anywhere else.
“The thing that’s so great and so exciting about having a show on Netflix be a binge thing is that ‘BoJack’, unlike other cartoons that I can think of, is a linear story,” Hollingsworth told Cartoon Brew. “It doesn’t reset at the beginning of every episode like ‘The Simpsons’ or ‘Family Guy’; his house and all of his relationships are slowly destroyed throughout the season, and that was a unique and fun thing. It seems like something they might do in anime, but I can’t think of an American cartoon where the world keeps evolving.”
Bob-Waksberg elaborated on in a Reddit AMA:
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