“Someone who works with Will [Arnett] met Harvey Weinstein a year ago at a party, and he said, ‘You know, I loved that underwater episode of ‘BoJack’ you guys did,’” Bob-Waksberg, the creator of “BoJack Horseman,” told me. “When I heard that story, the idea that Harvey Weinstein watched my show really gave me chills, and I thought, what is he getting out of it? Does he watch it and go, ‘Yeah, that’s right. That’s the way to be. Us Hollywood guys, we’re trouble. What are you going to do with us?’”
The question of whether the show has helped justify bad behavior is something Bob-Waksberg and the rest of the “BoJack Horseman” writers tackle in Season Five, which was released on Netflix Friday. BoJack, the animated horse-man who serves as the show’s substance-abusing, relationship-destroying protagonist, long ago established himself as a complex enough character to simultaneously earn his fans’ sympathy and disgust. This time around, the people behind “BoJack” look in the mirror and ask themselves what they’ve created through the exceptionally meta “Philbert,” a show within the show that stars BoJack as its “gritty male anti-hero,” as Bob-Waksberg puts it.
At the premiere party for “Philbert,” BoJack celebrates what he sees as the show’s central takeaway, which could also might double as a dubious takeaway from “BoJack Horseman” as well: “We’re all terrible, so therefore we’re all OK, and I think that’s a really powerful message.”
BoJack’s comments horrify his good friend Diane, who serves as the closest thing the show has to a moral center. “That’s not the point of ‘Philbert,’ for guys to watch it and feel OK,” Diane later tells BoJack. “I don’t want you or anyone else justifying their shitty behavior because of the show.”
If that seems like a self-reflective moment, that’s because it is. Over the phone, Bob-Waksberg talked about how he’s grappled with the character he has created, BoJack’s unintended effect on his fans, what he himself has learned in the year since Weinstein fell ― and much more.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
HuffPost: Tell me if I’m wrong, but it seems like this is one of the more self-reflective seasons for the people behind “BoJack.” The “Philbert” storyline feels like a meta way for the writers to look in the mirror and ask if BoJack might have actually normalized bad behavior for fans of the show. Am I interpreting that correctly?
Raphael Bob-Waksberg: That’s a fair assessment. Especially as the show has gotten more popular, one of the things that we think about a lot is what the effect of this show is on the people who watch it. I don’t know if there is a clean, easy answer, but it’s something that I personally think about a lot, so it felt like the most natural thing in the world to have come up on the show itself.
I can’t help but wonder if the decision to address it now was inspired by some of the things that have unfolded in the real world recently.
Well, there are a handful of things that are happening. Storywise, it felt narratively appropriate because we’re doing a season about [BoJack] making a TV show about a gritty male anti-hero [named Philbert]. If you’re talking about TV shows with difficult, problematic men, you kind of can’t help but be bit self-reflective because that’s what we are making [with “BoJack Horseman”], after all.
There is also a larger conversation that has been building for a while about what people get from the TV shows that they watch, and are they getting the correct messages? Obviously, I think about Anna Gunn’s op-ed she wrote for The New York Times a while back about how much people hated Skylar [White, her character in “Breaking Bad”]. Dan Harmon has talked about how fans react to Rick from “Rick and Morty” and the weirdness of that feeling: “Oh, I am making a thing and people are taking it in the wrong way.”
I’m really interested in, well, what is my responsibility for people taking [“BoJack Horseman”] the quote-unquote wrong way? Look, this is art. It belongs to the audience. It’s open to interpretation. I want the show to be a prism through which people can view themselves, and I don’t want to blame the audience for misunderstanding it.
There are a few things we’ve done on the show from a story standpoint where I thought, “Oh, we’re telling this kind of story,” and then it was widely interpreted a different way, and I thought, “OK, well, I guess it was that kind of story.” Who am I to say, “No, you are wrong, and I am right”? But [the question is], does that extend to people ― I don’t want to say sympathizing with the main character, because I want people to sympathize with BoJack; I want people to feel for him ― but does that extend to people using BoJack as permission to wallow and not change their ways, much like BoJack does?
Do you find that some people have felt that BoJack might have justified their own bad behavior in the past?
I do, yeah. This season more than ever, I think the show is very clear that this is not a status quo that you should tolerate in yourself. But I heard a story recently. Someone who works with Will [Arnett] met Harvey Weinstein a year ago at a party, and he said, “You know, I loved that underwater episode of ‘BoJack’ you guys did.” When I heard that story, the idea that Harvey Weinstein watched my show really gave me chills, and I thought, what is he getting out of it? Does he watch it and go, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s the way to be. Us Hollywood guys, we’re trouble. What are you going to do with us?”
I do think we are affecting a lot of people in good ways. One of my favorite interactions with a fan was [with a woman who] told me, “I actually use your show to explain how I’m feeling to my therapist. There are things that you articulate in the show that I’ve not been able to articulate myself and it’s been incredibly helpful.” What an honor to hear that. I am so proud of that.
I was at an event the other night with some of the cast, and a woman came up to me and Aaron Paul and said, “I want to thank you because I’m asexual and I didn’t know that was a thing until I saw Todd on ‘BoJack’ describe the way he was feeling, and I realized he was describing the way I felt.” I love that. That makes me so proud.
But if I’m going to feel good about those stories, it’s disingenuous to say, “I have the power to affect people in a good way, but how dare you accuse me of affecting people in a bad way.” I do think it is my responsibility to confront that a little bit or think about the stories we’re telling, who’s watching them and how are they affecting them. One of the things we talked about in the [writers’] room a lot, and I don’t think there necessarily is a right or wrong answer here, but I’ve long kind of beaten the drum ― is that the correct conjugation of that word?
Seems right enough.
Beat the drum of “pop culture influences,” and I don’t want to be a Tipper Gore about it, but I do feel like we have a responsibility in this industry and as creators of pop culture to really think about the messages and stories we’re putting out there, and I don’t believe most people take that responsibility seriously enough. I’m not for censorship, but I am for being accountable and really being considerate of what the stories are doing and the effects that they have. We actually got in an argument in the [writers’] room because I said, “I think showing something on screen inherently glamorizes it, and if you’re not actively fighting against it, consciously or not, you are glamorizing that.”
What would the other side of that fight be?
Nick Adams, who wrote episode 4, where we talked about this issue, didn’t agree with that. He said, “I don’t think that’s right, and I think people are smart enough to distance themselves from entertainment and I think it’s overstated how much pop culture affects people.”
What we landed on is that maybe “glamorizes” isn’t the right word, but “normalizes” [is] ― that by portraying something [on TV], it inherently normalizes it. I don’t know if everyone is thinking about that when they are writing shows with violence, shows with suicide, shows with sexual assault, or shows just with bad dudes. Cops that break the rules but get results. I don’t think that is a thing that should be normalized in our society. I think that’s dangerous. So it’s something I wrestle with a lot, and obviously that came out in a big way in this season of the show.
You guys also take a larger look at how Hollywood reacted to these “Bad Men” stories, “Me Too” stories, whatever you want to call them, and rightfully depict the industry as a sort of cynical and insincere place controlled by PR machines. From inside the industry, what has it been like to watch the last year unfold?
I cannot speak for other people in the industry, but for me the last year has been frustrating and painful, but also a little hopeful and positive. Even as some of these slimy, dirtbag men are inching toward their comebacks, I’m not such a cynic that I think the events of the last year were all for nothing. Things feel different than they did a year ago. It is good that Harvey Weinstein doesn’t have the power he once had. It is good that Les Moonves doesn’t have that power that he had just a couple of weeks ago.
As far as what I will tolerate or what I’ve been conditioned to tolerate, I’ve thought a lot about that [too]. Hearing some of these stories that have come out over the last year ― not the stories of assault, but some of these stories of general sexual harassment or unsafe environments ― I see things that I recognize that I had not thought about in those terms [before]. Behavior that I see on paper and go, “Oh, that’s horrible,” if something like that had happened [before], if I had witnessed something like that, I would have looked the other way. Or I would have thought, “Oh, we’re all joking around.” I don’t know why I allowed myself to tolerate things like that, and I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way, so I think there are a lot of people who have been confronted with not just their own behavior but their own complicity in the system, the allowances they’ve made for other people’s behavior.
Did you decide that “Me Too” was something that you guys wanted to tackle from the outset of the season?
We didn’t know this was going to happen last year. The original impetus for this story was my agency, CAA, signing Mel Gibson as a client. I was very upset about that. I complained and felt like it was a really cynical move. For me personally, I felt like I have not seen the work that made me feel like I was ready to forgive him, and I didn’t want 10 percent of the money I make to go to a company that was going to help him make his comeback. I was very angry about that, and that was the beginning of the story.
Then as we were breaking [down] the story about [a badly behaved Mel Gibson-type named] Vance Waggoner, we started to think, “Well, how is BoJack different from this? Are we hypocrites if we constantly want our audience to feel bad for BoJack while also saying what a terrible thing it is that our industry forgives guys like Vance Waggoner?”
That dichotomy of how we want to forgive the people we care about (and how I think we should forgive the people we care about), but how we don’t want to forgive public figures (and how I think we should be harder on public figures) ― the push and pull of that was the [starting point for the] beginning of the season. And then all this stuff happened in the news as we were making the season that kind of fed into it. But we didn’t make this season thinking, “We’re going to respond to this stuff that’s happening.”
You dedicate most of episode four to the exploitation of feminism in Hollywood for financial and personal gain. Both BoJack and Vance Waggoner do that. They don’t really understand any of the underlying feminist issues, just that “toxic masculinity” is a sexy term that can help them. Have you been frustrated by Hollywood’s misuse of feminism for brand-building?
I think frustrated is a strong term. I’ll say that it’s challenging, and I don’t know if there’s a right way to be.
I think part of the job of privileged individuals is talking about this stuff and taking the burden off of the marginalized to have to explain these issues and be the mouthpiece for these issues over and over again. But I also think there’s a danger in showing off how woke you are, and I think finding that balance is a very difficult thing to do. As a white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied person myself, it’s something that I grapple with.
So I think [episode four’s] story came less from a place of trying to throw bombs and criticize other people and more from exploring my own fears. When does it become a prop so I can pat myself on the back and feel good about myself? And when does that matter? If some people think I’m kind of douche-y, is that OK, [as long as] I’ve been a megaphone and talked about these issues and introduced other people to them who maybe wouldn’t be thinking about them? The hipness of social justice is also interesting and funny certainly, and the corporatization of it is also something we’re exploring in the episode. But for me, the beginnings of it came more from the place of investigating the awkwardness.
Of course, BoJack is not interested in investigating that awkwardness. He is very happy to jump in the void and take all the credit.
The season feels like it’s left purposefully vague on whether we should forgive BoJack for everything he does to the people around him. I wonder what you hope readers take from that storyline?
You say “vague.” I’ll say “open to interpretation.” What forgiveness means depends on your relationship with him. If BoJack is your friend, you can maybe forgive him. But that’s different than forgiving him as a public figure. It is different to forgive him if you are the victim of his actions. He is a fictional character who has not actually done anything in the real world, so it’s a little less sticky than some of these real people. But our relationship with him is also very intimate, and a big part of this season is that struggle. Can you care about a person and also acknowledge that he’s done terrible things? Do the terrible things cancel out you caring about them? Or does you caring about them cancel out those terrible things?
I think they don’t. Both those things have to exist, and the challenge of keeping both things in your brain is definitely a big part of Diane’s story this season. But she also acts as an audience surrogate, and it’s up to every individual how they feel about BoJack at the end of the season, and what they want for him or from him.