BoJack Horseman’s Raphael Bob-Waksberg on Why Puns Are Like ‘Math, Sex, and Comedy’ All in One

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Photo: Netflix

The pun can be a contentious topic. Some people love puns, others hate them, but both sides of the great pun debate acknowledge that they're stupid. The difference is, there are those who delight in the pun's signature response — the groan. It's like horror movies: Everyone can agree they're scary, but whereas some like to be terrified, others don't. Either way, puns are not for everyone.

And for the most part, you don't see the play on words very often on television. Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers are fans. You'll see puns on Bob's Burgers and The Last Man on Earth. But no show has more of them than BoJack Horseman, which premiered its third season last Friday on Netflix. The show's inherent structure — which often has animal characters starring as famous people — puts the pun potential off the charts, from having Lance Bass be a fish to spider-director Quentin Tarantulino. The show is also packed to the brim with animal-pun movie and TV posters, like Pig Bang Theory, Koalafornication, and His Squirrel Friday. Puns surround the show, giving it a lightness even in its darkest moments. Because while BoJack Horseman might be one of the smartest comedies on television, at times, it is also one of the dumbest.

Vulture talked to BoJack Horseman creator and self proclaimed "pun-robot" Raphael Bob-Waksberg about his relationship to puns, whom puns are for, and why they are essential to his show's success.

What was your relationship to puns before BoJack?
Big fan. Always loved them. Unapologetic. People said to me before, "You love bad puns," and I'd say "No. I love good puns. How dare you say the puns I love are bad?" It's fair to say I love all puns — good and bad. I don't know where this love started for me, but one of my favorite books is The Phantom Tollbooth, which is filled to the brim with puns and wordplay and all manner of people misunderstanding each other.

When I was in college, I was in a comedy group and my friend used to call me 'Pun Robot.' He said he could enter any two pieces of data, and if you gave me five to ten minutes, I could spit out a pun involving those two disparate themes. I don't know if that was actually accurate, but the couple of times that I could do it, I impressed everybody. I also did not appreciate being called a robot, so it was bit of a mixed blessing.

It's interesting that you say "robot," because I feel like part of the reason some people hate puns is because it's the closest comedy comes to straight up math problems.
That's exactly right. It's also maybe why I like it, because it's the most I've ever felt good at math. It's the closest I’ve felt to "I could be a scientist." Also, a lot of scientists and mathematicians do love puns. Most of the puns I heard in my early life were in math and science classes by the teachers trying to make learning accessible and fun in a way they thought would work, which did for me and did not for most other disillusioned seventh graders.

Before, you made a distinction between good and bad puns. It is a very complicated difference. I think of good puns as ones where there is a clear input and output. Whereas bad puns are when you jam things together. But there are good bad puns, where you jam things together, but it's still funny.
There's definitely a dial of puns. I feel like the so-bad-its-good dial was built for punnery. If you can cram things together really awkwardly and nakedly but if you do it quickly with a shit-eating grin, you can still get a laugh out of it.

Though, the idea that there's nothing new under the sun definitely feels true about puns. You are not going to come up with an original pun that's never been thought of before. That's like when there's a new piece of news out there or a new celebrity with a funny name, it's like we have new inputs for the machine, and who's going to be the first person to find the best pun involving this weird conglomeration of Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston. That's always how my brain goes.

Like the race to tweet "Mike Pence None the Richer."
"I know a million people are doing this but I gotta do it. I have to."

The bonus of having '90s nostalgia is too good.
That's half of it. "Mike Pence None the Richer" by itself is like nonsense. The real challenge is, “Is there an in on that that'll make it funny?” Is there a context of, "Oh, he was last relevant in the '90s?" Or "You can take the glasses off this guy but he's still going to be a nerd — is there a She's All That reference?" Or "Kiss Me?"

Wait! It's that picture —
Of Donald Trump trying to kiss Mike Pence, right!?

Exactly!
"
Kiss Me hashtag Mike Pence None the Richer." That's the joke.

That's so funny.
That's the excitement of coming up with a pun in the moment. We just crafted it together, you and I. There's an electricity there.

But, that's what people think they don't like about puns. When it's a bad pun, it only works on the one level of two things that kind of sound together. It's actually something we goof on in the first season. Mr. Peanutbutter has this reality show called Peanut Butter and Jelly and he says, "It's a play on words because I'm Mr. Peanutbutter." BoJack says, "Who's Jelly?" Mr. Peanutbutter goes, "No, it's wordplay. It's a pun." It's not a pun if it only works one way. A similar thing we did this season, that we let go unsaid, is the cab company called Cabra Kadabra. The unspoken joke there is why Cabra Kadabra? What element of this is magical? We had an exchange there to point to that, but we thought, the audience is smart enough. They can hear it play out without actually having to do it.

The real magic is when the pieces do fit together and you're making a pun but it has a second layer to it, and it's two things that don't quite go together, and you find a way to make them fit. That feels like really satisfying math. It's math and it's sex and it's comedy all in one. It's more fun for you and me coming up with it than anyone who reads it. That moment was so rewarding and exciting and hot, but anyone who sees it is like, "Oh, that's cute. Moving on." I do think the pun is more for the teller than the receiver.

Now we're going to be super nerdy, but I do think a lot of the comedy of the pun is in the postmodernist reference to the fact that these are jokes written by adults. And the enjoyment is that a grown man or woman, who likely went to a good college and dedicated their life to becoming a comedy writer, essentially came up with a terrible joke that a kid would want to make.
Exactly. A fifth grader could have done this, but we did it.

Two professional writers.
There is a meta-anti joke — "Why did the chicken cross the road?" — feeling to a lot of puns. The underlying message is, "Can you believe we're getting away with this and calling this a joke?" Especially if you have a good wind-up.

You know what I think is the most offensive phrase in the world? "No pun intended." How dare you? First of all, puns should always be intended. Second of all, I don't believe you. I've seen the most tortured backwards-constructed puns where the writer clearly just went out of their way to make this pun and they're throwing out "no pun intended." I just want to punch that writer in the face. It's usually the printed word, and we're not writing on typewriters. If you didn't intend the pun, you can change it. And it's never, "Oops, a pun." It's, "Look at that pun." It's, "Maybe you didn't get it, but that was a pun." I assure you, we got it. It's so much worse.

It could be a silly fun thing, but they are making it serious again. Just so you know, I'm still serious.
Exactly. I want you to know this thing that I'm so clearly not above, I'm above. "Have some respect for the craft, you hack," is what I say to those fools.

When creating BoJack, especially with animals, were you very aware that the pun potential of this show is tremendous?
At this point, it's so ingrained in my psyche that I don't necessarily think about it. The pun potential of everyday life is endless. It's a moot point what the show is about because there will be puns. I could write a stark serious period drama and I would still find a way to wedge in a character who loves puns or the universe itself would conspire to make puns happen.

The Bob's Burgers writers have a big list of burger-special puns. Do you have names of people or movie poster names lying around?
It is an expected thing at this point that if there's a celebrity, we might do our animal version of it. One of the challenges on our show both with puns and outside of puns, is, how do we not fall into predictability and how do we not fall into a routine? We've shied away from a master list of all of the celebrities we want to do. Bob's Burgers obviously has this device where they have the different burger every week — same with exterminator company or the next-door neighbor. They have a clear delivery system for them, where ours is a little more buried in the story. But again, I am a robot. I'm never worried we're going to run out of ridiculous-sounding phrases to cram together in different ways that make you smile or groan, depending on your reaction.

Is the writing staff writing the puns that are in the background of scenes?
The general rule of thumb is there are three kinds of background jokes. If it involves animation or movement, like a funny little animal thing happening and then we move into our scene, usually that is not written into the script. Usually those things are added in animation through our supervising director, Mike Hollingsworth, and his team. If there are jokes that are baked into the background, like the signs in the New York diner, or the name of a store, that’ll come from Lisa Hanawalt, who’s our production designer, and her team. If there is a large chunk of text, like for example a website or a newspaper article, that is often written by me or the writers. But they are not part of the script; it’s during the animation we go, "Okay, we need a newspaper here; I’ll go to my office for an hour and bang something out." The big exception is Lisa usually writes menus because she has a way with writing ridiculous foodstuff. So if you go to, like, a Starbucks in our world and you see all the coffees on the wall, that’s usually all from Lisa.

In the first episode of the season, there is one real long walk of a pun: Greg Kinglear. It's beautiful. Did you remember how it came up?
We knew we wanted to give Jill Pill a really ridiculous, self-serious New York theater piece but the way that's translated through our world is that it would be silly and have a pun in it somewhere. I don't know the first person to say Kinnear, King Lear, but I remember we were playing around with "Kinnear, come here," which we didn't end up making because it feels like a different joke area. With Kinglear, the high and the low culture feels very BoJack, and to wrap that around a really stupid, backward piece of wordplay is even better. You know that nobody is organically deciding, "Oh, I’m gonna model Greg Kinnear's life story over the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear." Definitely the title came first. Which is really funny to me and could only be done in the context of the show. No one’s gonna actually write The Tragedy of Greg Kinglear.

The really surprising thing about that is that our casting director called and said, “I think Greg wants to do it.” And I was flabbergasted, because the character isn’t even actually Greg Kinnear. I wasn’t thinking, We’re gonna actually offer it to Greg Kinnear, I was thinking, Oh, it’s a puppet, we’ll get some actor, maybe someone Shakespearean. But she was, like, "He really likes making fun of himself," so we offered it to him, and he was a great sport. He's fantastic in it. We got to cast an Oscar-nominated actor just because we were playing around with his name and making dumb puns out of it.

In the scene that follows that, when BoJack and Jill Pill are at the diner, in the background you see a Hamilton poster, but with a pig. These sorts of puns and wordplay are part of the fabric of the universe. How do you feel they affect the overall tone of the show?
If I can put on my really pretentious Bard College theater-department playwriting-major hat on: Especially the way we use it, there’s a little bit of a Brechtian alienation effect. It reminds you, you are watching a show.

For example, there are three posters on the wall, and you don’t really get a good look at them for this to ever be, like, a haha moment. There’s Hamilton, which is, you know, Hamilton but with a pig’s head. It's the first level of Oh, we get it, it’s like a ham. And then the second one is Fun Ham, which is Fun Home but a ham, which is a little more forced and tortured and doesn’t quite work as well. Then the third one is The Lion Ham, which is like the Lion King but it’s a pig. Which kind of goes out of its way to be bad. There’s already an animal in the title, yet the gods of this universe, meaning the writers and Lisa and her designers, have decided to go the stupid way on The Lion Ham. We have lots of jokes like that, that are commenting and underlining how silly this universe is. The whole idea of animals walking around in the first place you can’t take too seriously because it’ll always be like, "Well, that’s not real."

That kind of distancing allows us to go, in a weird way, to darker, more real places. It makes the whole thing feel a little more fun. If it were a live-action show, some of those places might feel indulgent. They might feel self-serious. When you have these wacky things going on and this reminder that it is a skewed universe, a sometimes-tortured pun-based universe, it makes the whole thing easier to swallow. I like the way those different tones bounce off and play off each other.

That contrast can be so obvious and jarring in a good way, where it is texture to allow you to be, like, "Oh, part of the fundamental joke of the show is still there." The show is mostly played straight, and signs like those keep the audience on the track that it is a comedy truly first.
And that’s something that is hard to remember when we’re writing the show, and we’re not looking at it. Sometimes we worry, "Are we going too dark with this scene?" "Is this gonna be too much of a bummer?" And then we remember, "Okay, it’s a horse talking to a spider. Just remember that part of it." It’s easy to forget that when you zoom out and talk about the themes or talk about the content of the scenes. We have to remember that behind them, there’s a sign that says, “Clam Smith will teach you guitar."