”Bob’s Burgers,” an animated series created by Adult Swim veteran Loren Bouchard, debuted in January of 2011. Since then, the show ― based on the lives of the Belchers (Bob, Linda, Tina, Gene and Louise) ― has amassed a devoted following, one especially prone to spreading intricate fan theories across Reddit, YouTube and other fandom forums.
“Bob’s Burgers” isn’t a sci-fi or fantasy show. It’s not a serialized crime drama or murder mystery saga, either. It’s just a cartoon about a working-class family of five that gets into the kinds of shenanigans the Hills or the Griffins do, that just happen to involve sufficiently fictional plot points like sentient toilets, coveted whale excrement and “animal anus extravaganzas.” (Bouchard’s words, not ours.)
Yet, type the phrase “Bob’s Burgers fan theories” into Google and you’ll stumble upon some wild suppositions. The juiciest one claims “Bob’s Burgers is about Bob coping with the death of his family.” That’s right, many theorists propose the Belchers ― save for Bob ― are dead, and the episodes we watch are just detailed hallucinations taking place in our protagonist’s grieving mind. Morbid? Definitely. Plausible? Sure! At least, Bouchard thinks so.
We spoke to the “Home Movies” creator ahead of this month’s PaleyFest LA, where the cast and crew of “Bob’s Burgers” will be onsite for a table read of next season’s premiere. During our conversation, Bouchard addressed a few of the best fan theories out there ― and while he doesn’t think Bob’s family is dead, he has a good reason for why the theory makes sense.
Check it out:
“The Simpsons” is in its 28th season, “South Park” is in its 20th, “Family Guy” is in its 15th, “Bob’s Burgers” is in its seventh. Will you keep making this show until they ― the network, humanity ― stop you?
Yes. I mean, it’s amazing and interesting that it turns out that animated shows can have that kind of longevity. It’s humbling and it’s daunting, because not only do you run out of stories you’ve told, if “The Simpsons” and “South Park” have already been on the air for all those years, then we run out of stories that they’ve told, too, you know what I mean? There’s no question that I think it’s hard, but I do think it’s really doable. You just have to pace yourself and you’ve got to also really, really like the people that you work with. And that’s what I think we have going for us, which is that we have a really good crew. It’s kind of like getting married. You can imagine getting old with these people.
Has there ever been a moment when you felt like, OK, this might be the end of the show?
Well, I mean, that’s the way we started. We were still quite… I don’t want to say “pessimistic.” Shall we say, we were very, very humble and just scared shitless when we started this thing. We were quite sure we were going to get canceled, not because we weren’t proud of the show. We were. We felt like it was really good, or, at least, it was the best show that we could make. But at the beginning, we felt like we were getting away with something, having it on broadcast TV. It’s a little like a cable show that snuck onto broadcast.
Well, it’s attracted an incredible audience. I spent a lot of time on the various fan theory sites and forums this week. In one of the more startling fan theories I’ve read on the internet, a whole school of “Bob’s Burgers” thought seems to believe that Bob’s family is actually dead, and your show is an elaborate series of hallucinations. Is there any truth in this?
No, but I totally understand that. I completely get it. They’re not supposed to be dead. But we do have this problem, where, if a show is really grounded, our fans understandably start to kind of expect a little bit of serialization. Or, at least, continuity. And that would be fine. I would give them that. But the problem then becomes, well, it’s not really an episodic sitcom. In a way, what we have to do is tell a “Groundhog’s Day” kind of story, where these people are going to live the same year over and over again. You know what I mean? We have a couple of birthdays in there, but basically, they’re going to stay the same age, they’re going to live in this ever-present now, and yet they’re going to have more than one Christmas, more than one Thanksgiving, and so on. So, I get it. I get that it feels a little bit like limbo. They’re not supposed to be dead, but obviously there’s something going on here. It’s not quite the way we experience time. The Belchers, if we’re lucky, are going to have at least 20 Christmases and yet never get old.
How about the theory that Louise wears bunny ears as an homage to “The Simpsons” theory that Marge has mutant bunny ears under her hair?
[Laughs] No, I didn’t even know that theory! That’s really funny. No, we’re sort of guarding the bunny ears thing. But I like that people are speculating about it. I would rather just fan those flames than explain it at this point.
Have you ever been inspired by ― or tempted to respond to ― fan theories in your writing of the show?
No, not yet. I like sort of lurking online and seeing what people are responding to. But I also try not to let it influence us too much, because that could get really circular and you could lose your way a little bit. I do look online, but I do squint ― a little bit ― so that we can stay true to the thing we set out to do in the first place and not start eating our own tail.
Perusing the fan theories, they don’t really read as crazier than your initial plan ― to write a show about a family of cannibals. I was reminded of this in the Season 7 episode, “There’s No Business Like Mr. Business Business,” when the whole family falls for cat food and can be seen sort of rapturously eating it at the end. Were you at all living your cannibal fantasy in this episode?
You know, the cannibal thing is, like, both completely gone and, yeah, maybe hanging around in some weird, subliminal way. And I supposed, yeah, maybe it made it in there. We kind of used it, to what it was worth to us, in the pilot, where they are straight up accused of putting human flesh in their hamburgers. And then more recently, we had that horse meat episode. So, in some ways, we’re food ethicists in a really weird, accidental and cartoony way. So maybe that’s how it will stay in.
This has been talked about a lot ― that in the original proof of concept, the eldest Belcher child was originally meant to be male and named Daniel. Which is, wow, I can’t imagine the show without Tina at this point. And brings me to the question: What inspires Tina’s dating life?
That’s a good question. You know what inspires her dating life? Basically, this same issue that we were talking about, as it pertains to the ever-present now or the multiverse or whatever you want to call this problem of writing an episodic show, where ― if you’re telling this story about a teenage girl, who has a crush on Jimmy Jr. and sometimes wants to have a relationship with him, they have to be on-again, off-again. In order to really explore this girl’s romantic urges and pain and pleasure, she has to be, by definition in a way, occasionally off-again, so she can dally with other boys. And then she has to be pursuing him again, and he’s pursuing her. So, it’s sort of inspired by everyone’s early dating life when nothing is quite nailed down. Does that make sense? When you’re 13 and you’re not quite sure if you’re in a relationship or not. You think you might be, but it feels very fragile when you’re at that age. It’s like if you guys exchanged meaningful eye contact that day, then you’re in a relationship.
In the show, teenage sexuality is never “dirty.” Bob and Linda are typically very curious and supportive rather than judgmental. Was this a deliberate decision?
Yes. We were acutely aware of the pleasure of having Bob help Tina get her first kiss for her 13th birthday, which was early in Season 1. We were acutely aware of the pleasure of parents who are kind of OK with whatever their kids are into. And if that’s the beginning of Tina’s hormones and sexuality, then so be it. Honestly, it wasn’t funny to have that parents be especially prudish. It seemed, in a way, more funny, or at least more fun, to have them basically be on the same page. And, you know, occasionally slightly disapproving or concerned, but only in the lightest, loving way. Overall, we wanted this vibe of understanding and tolerance, because to us, it actually seemed more funny. To us, the very prudish parents who don’t want to know seemed really played out to us.
I’ve read that the network does draw the line, in terms of explicit content that makes it onto the show, at human feces. What, in your opinion, has been the riskiest plot of the show that came as close to the network’s “line” as possible?
Well, first I want to say that we have a really good relationship with standards and practices. They are really sweet about the show. They’re not trying to pull us off something that we want to do. Generally speaking, they have their basic guidelines and then borderline gray areas. And whenever we hit one of those spots, we sort of just have a conversation about it. So, you know, for example, we didn’t think we’d be able to do this animal anuses extravaganza, but they helped us. They were like, “Please reduce the size of the mouse anus.” That kind of thing. And we were like, “Nooo problem. Here we go. Reducing mouse anus.”
Early on, there was an episode ― and this didn’t hit standards and practices, this was executives, and they’re actually no longer there. But early on, they were kind of grossed out by a storyline that we were fooling around with but we never did, where Bob imagines that he’s inside of his own colon. So maybe we crossed the line there? But maybe not. If we got really excited about it, they’d probably let us do it. There’s a lot of trust there and, generally speaking, if there’s something we want to do, they’re there to help us figure out how to do it and just not make a mess.
There’s an ominous “plus additional guests to be announced” note in the PaleyFest info I received? Can you elaborate on that at all?
Yes, I can. So we’re going to table an episode called “Brunch Squad,” which is going to be our premiere this fall. In that episode, we introduce a character who we describe as a blogger who writes about brunch. And his name is Dalton, but he writes under the name Dame Judy Brunch. And he is played by an actor named John Early. Have you watched “Search Party”? Yeah, we’re enamored of him. We’re big fans. He came in and we also gave him, what we call, I guess, just his entourage. So we’re going to have him and a few other folks join us for the table read.
Is there a guest you’ve really wanted to get on the show that you haven’t yet?
Well, I mean, we’re like everyone else in the world ― when we found out Bill Murray had an 800 number, we called it and left a message. And you know, he didn’t call us back. And that’s fine. There are plenty of people we’ve reached out to who haven’t done the show. And you know what, in a way, every one of them made the right decision, because we only want people on the show who really, really want to do it. It’s so much more fun to do this with people who are really excited to be there and it’s so not fun to do this kind of work with people who are busy, who said yes for some reason ― their agent told them to. We don’t want that. They don’t want that.
The “Bob’s Burgers” album comes out in May ― is there a musician or collaborator you were especially excited to get on board?
Oh, I mean, the music is a labor of love, a passion project. We’ve been so happy that the music has been so well-received by the fans. The fact that then we’ve been able to hear our songs covered by other musicians has been really fun. In general, it’s a love letter to the fans. Writing music for the characters to sing, whether or not they get covered by someone ― that’s gravy. The main thing for us is just being able to put music into the show in a way that feels good and having the fans respond. And the record ― it sounds cheesy to say it was a collaboration with the fans, but it really is. We’ve been eavesdropping for six years, listening to what they liked. Also, they’ve been asking for this thing. So we’re delivering. And it’s something that turned out to be really hard. We wouldn’t have done it had the fans not kept bringing it up. That was really gratifying and we wanted to reward that. So this is for them, first and foremost. It wouldn’t exist if they hadn’t just kept asking for it.
Last question: I’m a usually an arts editor, so I have to ask ― are you the infamous thief behind the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist?
[Laughs] How did you know about that? Who did I even tell that to? Oh, that’s funny. Yeah, go ahead and say that I am. I’m the thief. Or pretend I said that and then asked you to strike it from the record. Why would I admit that now? So close to getting away with it.
[Editor’s Note: For the record, Bouchard is not the infamous thief behind the heist, which took place in 1990 and resulted in the theft of 13 works of art valued at $500 million. He just happened to work as a nightwatchman at the museum before the heist actually happened. We had to ask, though.]
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
PaleyFest LA, produced by The Paley Center for Media, will take place at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles from March 17 to 26, bringing together the fans, stars and creators behind popular TV shows for a series of special screenings, exclusive conversations and behind-the-scenes scoops. On March 24, the voice cast and creative team of “Bob’s Burgers” will take part in a Q&A and live table read of an upcoming episode. PaleyFest is open to the public and tickets are currently on sale at PaleyFest.org.