Despite the occasional talking toilet, eight-year-old auteur, and Satanic family member, the works of Loren Bouchard are surprisingly grounded for cartoon shows. Creator of Adult Swim favorites Home Movies and Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil, Bouchard has an ear for naturalistic dialogue that verges on the improvised, and a knack for making the most outlandish characters and plots seem mundanely relatable. The organic vibe is one he’s honed since his start as a producer and writer for Comedy Central’s Dr. Katz, one of the first shows to commit free-wheeling conversations between comedians to animation.
His latest creation, the wonderful Bob’s Burgers, has quietly established itself as one of the standout staples of Fox’s Animation Domination block. The weekly trials of the Belcher family mix King of the Hill-style values and heart with Bouchard’s trademark wit and the universal appeal of voice actor Jon Benjamin yelling at things. As Bob’s Burgers continues its fourth season, with a renewal for a fifth recently announced, I had the opportunity to talk to Bouchard about some of the common themes of his past and current series, convincing The National to perform a song about Thanksgiving, and playing leadoff hitter for Adult Swim.
First, congratulations on Bob’s Burgers getting renewed for a fifth season! Does having the security of another season impact the writing and development of the show at all?
That’s a good question. I know it affects quality of life, in terms of stress. I have done a fair amount of work in the last few years with the sense that any mistake could kill us. And that is okay to feel that way. It’s a little like being on a bomb squad, but it’s also fine. It makes you sharp and hopefully you enjoy that kind of pressure if you find yourself in that situation. But it is also very enjoyable to be out of that situation where you don’t feel like a small mistake is fatal and just gonna cause your cancelation. So I will say that. I like not having that sense of doom hanging over your head. Whether or not it actually helps loosen us up and allows us to take chances, I don’t know. Maybe. I’ll kind of have to let you know in six months. I’m so used to working with this sense that every episode could be our last and that cancelation is always possible, I don’t even know what it’s gonna feel like to work without that pressure.
Is this the first time in any of your projects that you’re working with that sense of relief?
We’ve had moments on Bob’s and on other shows I’ve worked on where we got an order a little bit ahead and that took a little bit of the pressure off. But, you know, it’s funny. You’re also looking ahead so often that in a way, a year is just a blink of an eye. It doesn’t feel like job security. It just feels like a year, and a short one at that. It’s funny — in a way it’s nice — but it’s not like old fashioned job security. It’s not like somebody that’s got their pension plan and knows what they’re gonna be doing for the next twenty years. This is pretty short timelines we’re talking about. I’ll tell you this, I’ve never worked on a hit show and I don’t know what that might be like. When you’re a ratings smash and you’re the tent pole for a network, I imagine life must be pretty good. But since I’ve never experienced it, I don’t mind this. This is pretty good too.
Maybe Bob’s Burgers isn’t a ratings smash, but it is a hit in terms of fan response. Have you felt that at all, seeing how people respond to the show?
Yes, we have. It’s been really, really nice. I would like our ratings to be a little higher, but they’re fine. They’re not bad, and to know that the people who are watching are watching so closely and hold the show so dear is huge. It’s what makes this work. If it was just something that people kind of like, and you got a high rating and you’re making entertainment in the broadest term, that’s fine. I don’t want to begrudge anybody who ends up doing that. But, if something you’re making really connects with fans, that’s incredibly satisfying and you feel like you could die. That you put something out in the world that means something to somebody, that’s pretty great. I would not trade it.
Bob’s Burgers is a very musical show. Is that something you wanted to have ingrained in the DNA of the series when you were developing it?
Yes. Very much so. I have two reasons. One is sort of just philosophical, which is that I think music and animation complement each other so incredibly well. And obviously, I’m not the first person to notice this. There’s a rich history which sort of proves my point and strengthens the relationship. For every great Disney musical that you and I grew up watching, it deepens the connection between animation and music to the point where, for me, the one can’t exist without the other. And, I have a selfish reason for doing it, which is I love composing and recording music. I have always loved it, since I was pretty young. I’m not accomplished in any sense, but I’m lucky in that the work in animation has kind of brought me back towards my teenage self, in my garage with a 4-track. But now I get to put those things to good use.
What’s the song writing process for a musical number on the show? Because “Electric Love” is a song that I feel like I could listen to on my iPod all the time.
Thank you. I’m glad to hear that. It’s been different for different moments. “Electric Love” was something we started writing as soon as we started writing the episode and was integral and was really important. We worked on it over a good amount of time. But other songs, we will work on at the very last minute. Literally, sometimes the day before we have to mix the episode, we’ll still be short one musical number. Maybe it’s a little 10-second thing over a montage or a 30-second piece over the end credits, and we’ll race to put something together and those things can end up being really satisfying too. Sometimes that’s what you need – just the pressure of having to deliver something in a few hours, that kind of loosens you up and it forces you to be a little silly and excuse your own mistakes, of which there are many. If I’m involved in the music, there’s often a lot of flubbed notes and kind of just general silliness. And you give yourself permission a little bit more when you’re flying those in at the last second. And some songs come from the writers, either during the script writing process or in post. Some songs comes directly from the actors. You know, John Roberts as a person and Linda as a character both burst into song in very delightful ways that we’ve really enjoyed. So sometimes she’ll sing a little something, and we’ll end up crafting music that fits underneath it. The “Thanksgiving Song” is an example of that. And much of the music comes from the very talented musicians we work with - John Keith here in LA, and the Elegant Too in New York.
You’ve had some big musical names perform for the show. The National covered “Thanksgiving Song” and you had St. Vincent do “Bad Girls.” How did those collaborations come about?
We have some pretty strong connections to some of those guys through one of our writers, Scott Jacobson, who is also a music video director. And so he’s got a lot of people who he knows and have emailed him because they like the show and he’s been able to make some of those connections. That’s been our main source, and then from there I think there’s a funny phenomenon where touring bands, I’m starting to get the impression, watch a lot of cartoons on the bus. [Laughs] You know what I mean? I think touring musicians, it seems they have a very important relationship with their road manager or bus driver or whoever and I think they end up consuming a lot of television. Some of these bands feel a very intimate connection to Bob’s because they have watched many episodes many times.
Despite being scripted, the dialogue of Bob’s Burgers retains the organic, improvisational qualities of Home Movies and Dr. Katz. What interests you about doing that kind of grounded, conversational comedy in cartoon shows?
For me it’s become a bit of an obsession, and I suffer from it almost like somebody with OCD in a way. I expect the dialogue to sound conversational and naturalistic and sometimes that’s very easy – the actors are very good at that. Other times it’s a little bit more work. You find yourself really massaging a take and doing a lot of very fine editing of the audio to make it sound natural, and there’s no real evidence that it’s even what the audience wants. In a way, there are plenty of really stylized and very sort of broad voiceover styles that work for animation too and on other shows. And those are much easier, in a way, to record. If you have a gifted voiceover actor, they can be very funny when they’re being broad and doing a silly voice or whatever. It’s too late now though. I’ve committed. It’s what I want to hear and it bugs me if the take is a little stiff or a little read. So I just have given in and I’ve been lucky enough to work on shows where that’s what we were doing. We were doing a style that lent itself to that, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with actors like [Jon] Benjamin who are just really, really talented. Truly gifted voiceover actors can give you that performance and now I just can’t get enough.
That conversational quality comes through because you have all the actors recording together, which is very rare in animation. Do you put up with the challenges of that recording style just to maintain the improvisational quality? Or is that method something you just fell in love with when you first started on Dr. Katz?
Recording actors together was something we were always doing on Dr. Katz and on Home Movies, and it seems very, very obvious to me and startling when I find out that other shows don’t record their actors together. I get it, it’s a scheduling pain in the ass. You’ve got to make sure you can get everyone together in the same place at the same time, so I understand not doing it that way. But, again, if your goal is to have that little spark of naturalism and interactivity and the sense that they were in the same room at the same time or at least recording at the same time — because I should say as a sidebar, we record all together but on two coasts. We have New York and LA people and we record simultaneously through ISDN. I recommend to anyone doing animation, if you can, if it is at all possible, to get your actors together at the same time. You will have so much more fun, and, hopefully, you’ll be able to put that on the screen at the end.
With characters constantly talking over one another on Bob’s Burgers, how hectic do the recording sessions get?
It’s a little like herding wild animals, but in a good way. I’m lucky that I know these people pretty well. Some of them, like Benjamin, I’ve known for over 15 years and we’ve been doing this exact same work for coming up on 20 years. So it’s a very comfortable herding. You know, it’s herding wild animals with whom you are comfortable. [Laughs] And so I enjoy it, it’s a pleasure. I’m not gonna say it’s not tiring at the end of the day. You’ve gotta manage it so that it doesn’t get too long. You’ve gotta keep people’s energy where it should be, but it’s a real pleasure and I do enjoy it very much. It’s not hectic, necessarily, but it’s, shall we say, busy.
Stemming from that conversational style, another source of comedy on your shows are arguments between the characters. Are you an argumentative person?
[Laughs] My wife would say yes. I don’t think of myself that way, but I enjoy a little Socratic dialogue, shall we say. I like verbal people. I like people who want to talk things out. I guess I’m one of those. And Benjamin is a big influence on me in that way. As a person he can be delightfully argumentative. And I mean that truly in the best way. He just wants to kind of get at the truth. So he’s probably influenced me personally as well as creatively.
The kid characters are usually the standout stars on your shows. What’s your method for writing characters that are able to be funny in an adult context while retaining the qualities of being an eight-year-old?
Well, the real key ingredient is actually coming before the writing. It’s the casting. You cast people who can embody that character – that childishness mixed with preciousness, and that’s more than half the battle. Everybody who I’ve had the pleasure of using in that way – you know, Jon Benjamin, back when he was a 25-year-old manchild on Dr. Katz and then everybody on Home Movies and now on Bob’s – those people are really playing themselves; they just barely have to shift in order to kind of pretend to be aged 11 or aged nine. They’ve got that inside of them already. It’s weird, when we write those parts, we have to be mindful, but in a lot of ways the DNA for the character is already in the voice and in the spirit of the actor that we’ve hired to play that part.
Another prominent theme in your work is movies. Home Movies obviously featured a lot of film parodies, Bob’s Burgers has done episodes modeled after things like E.T. and Dog Day Afternoon. Does that stem from a personal passion you have for films or is that just part of the pop culture that you consume?
I do have a personal passion for film, but I guess I imagine everyone does. I sort of project that onto the culture at large. It doesn’t feel like I am any more of a film buff than any of the other people who I find myself working with. You know, this is going back Home Movies and now. I would say the pleasure for me is doing it in a way that gives you this kind of extra flavor without feeling too self-conscious. I like doing film references that can be satisfying but don’t distract. And so, for me it’s about finding the tone that you want but kind of avoiding some of the winky-ness that can creep in if you’re not careful. I like weaving them in, but also making sure it’s still a character-driven, grounded show at the end of the day.
I think the E.T. episode is so successful at that. How did the idea for a talking toilet voiced by Jon Hamm initially formulate? Because that seems like the perfect way to do E.T. in the Bob’s Burgers universe.
Yeah, it was perfect and the idea and so much of the execution came entirely from the two writers who are credited on that episode, Wendy and Lizzie Molyneux. They really had the vision for that from the get-go.
As an animator and creator, how do you decide on a visual look for your shows? Home Movies, Lucy: The Daughter of the Devil, and Bob’s Burgers each have very distinct styles.
Because I come from being focused on that audio and the actors and the writing first and foremost, it’s been a bit of a journey for me. I hate using that word, but I’m going to. When we started doing Dr. Katz, we really let the art director, Annette Cate, do anything she wanted to do. We gave her occasional feedback, but it was a kingdom unto itself. The visual side existed as almost a completely autonomous entity, and we just crafted the audio and kind of gave it to her. And that was fun; it worked because she was incredibly talented.
But as I’ve gone forward and worked on other projects, including Home Movies, which was with some of the same people, I became more and more excited about what it meant to really integrate the audio and the visual within one shared vision. So I’ve had to educate myself about what I expect to see on the screen, what I want to see, what kind of acting works with the kind of dialogue we’re doing. So I’m still learning. And the sort of medium-length answer is I’m still trying to figure it out, but I’m enjoying fooling around with that stuff. Lucy was a big departure for me because we were working in a mixed CG and 2D medium. We used CG to animate the characters and then put them in front of these kind of manipulated photographed backgrounds and that was interesting, but it was a bit of a detour. Otherwise, I’ve been working in more or less what you would call traditional 2D animation.
In the end I’m glad to be back working in 2D just because it’s still fun to bring drawings to life, I guess. The basic little tricks of animation, the quote-unquote magic of animation still rather amazes me. I’m still impressed that you can flip a few drawings in front of the human eye and it looks like it’s moving. So I’ve been enjoying just trying to build up my skills there and learn from the artists that I’m working with, as much as trying to influence the thing with my vision.
Home Movies was the first show that Adult Swim ever aired. Do you have any sense of having helped set the tone for the kind of cartoons that followed on Adult Swim?
Yes and no. I mean, we’re really very, very, very fond of Adult Swim. I worked for them for a long time and now Bob’s is back on Adult Swim, which just pleases me so much, and I’m still really close to all those people. And what’s nice is that they’ve always known what they wanted to do. Mike Lazzo has a very strong vision for that network, and I don’t feel that Home Movies influenced him necessarily. I think he knew what he wanted and Home Movies was just sort of lucky to be on the team, and we got up to bat first and we were the leadoff hitter in what ended up being a really unusual and eclectic lineup, And a lot of the stuff that followed was gonna happen anyway, whether Home Movies was there or not. But it is nice to be part of the mix, and I am glad that it was. We were a little bit of a diversity hire over there, in a way. It ended up being that Home Movies had a little bit of a different tone than some of their shows. Not better or worse, but I think a little different in that we were a little more conversational and a little more, in some ways, traditional. You know, a little bit more of a sitcom. I think it rounded out their palate in a nice way.
Your other Adult Swim show was Lucy, The Daughter of the Devil and shortly after that you had originally pitched Bob’s Burgers as a show about cannibals. Was that a very dark period of your life?
[Laughs] No, you know it wasn’t dark. I’m glad to say I haven’t had any dark periods in my adult life. But I came to appreciate horror and horror-comedy while I was developing and working on Lucy. And when I started developing Bob’s, I was in that vein. Where you could sort of mine some of the horror tropes and genre stuff for comedy, or for contrast anyway. So you could potentially amp up a scene, for example, where a husband and wife are talking about whether or not he forgot their anniversary because they were chopping up a human body to consume because they were cannibals. I was interested in that, not necessarily because I was feeling anymore dark at that point, but just because I was trying to find ways to do naturalistic dialogue but keep finding ways to have comedy really still pop out. I was worried that the style of dialogue that I like sort of doomed the show to a – and I was wrong, thank God – but I was worried that it doomed the show to kind of be quiet and hard to find and hard to kind of distinguish itself in the landscape. And so I thought the cannibals aspect might be what it needed to cut through. But I was wrong, and like I said, I’m really glad that cooler heads prevailed.
Not only did you change the cannibal aspect of Bob’s Burgers, but you also changed Tina from a boy to a girl during the development process. In hindsight, are you grateful for getting those kinds of notes from the network while you were developing the show?
Yes, very grateful. The development process was a pleasure from beginning to end. And I have to say, there was a lot of other notes in between. The cannibals thing was so easy. It wasn’t even a note; it was just a conversation. They said, “This is wonderful. You have a fantastic cast, you have the beginning of a fantastic work. We don’t think you need the cannibalism.” And I had already started to sense that. You know what I mean? The development process was already pointing in that direction. It wasn’t an ultimatum.
And then the Tina thing wasn’t a note at all, or I should say it wasn’t a prescriptive note. They were thinking out loud about that oldest child. They said, “You know, you’ve got this boy, we get what you’re going for, you know, he’s socially awkward but he’s romantic, shall we say. But we’re worried he’s not quite distinguishing himself as a totally memorable character.” And they didn’t think of changing him to a girl, they just were highlighting something that they were worried about. They thought that all the other characters were really unique and really specific and distinct, and they thought they were basically done. Those characters were good. And this was one that was trailing behind, and so, it was for me, not that hard to think of this little trick of switching the sex because I’ve done it before. With Lucy, I had men playing women, and here we had John Roberts already cast as Linda playing a woman, and so it has become standard operating procedure for me to imagine characters playing genders other than the one they were possessing. And so, we flipped it and it was such a great trick to have, and of course, we knew right away that it worked. We did a little test, we redesigned the character in all of a day, sent the test and the network blessed it immediately, and we just went back.
You co-developed Bob’s Burgers with former King of the Hill writer and executive producer Jim Dauterive. How did your partnership with him begin?
We were in development — I can’t remember exactly how far along we were, but — we were starting to get serious. What that means is things were going well and they were starting to see us as a real viable project that could go to pilot, could even go to series. And at that point, they were very interested in making sure that if we got a series, that we were able to hit the ground running. And that is a big deal. You can be a talented writer or creator or thinker but not know how to run the show at this level. It’s a huge operation. Once you are greenlit to do an animated show on Fox, you are about to command massive resources and are expected to deliver a huge number of episodes in a very quick fashion. Even if you only, like us, got 13 episodes, it was still going to be a bigger operation than I had ever undertaken. Cable was very comfortable to me. I knew how to do that, and I didn’t feel nervous about going into a possible series order on Bob’s, but they correctly said, “Trust us. You’re gonna want a rabbi, you’re gonna want a mentor, you’re gonna want a daddy to work on this show with you, and you guys can kind of co-parent this thing because it’s bigger than you think.”
And so they, very wisely, started looking around for the right rabbi, and of course he was perfect. The King of the Hill history and tone was a perfect marriage. Personally, Jim and I immediately clicked. It was love at first sight, and they were absolutely right, I desperately needed somebody who could help us see what it would be like if we were to get a series. And then when we got to the other side of the pilot and we got the green light, he probably is singlehandedly the reason we were able to deliver that first season. I didn’t have any freak-outs or anxiety attacks or whatever, but I would have, I think, if I had been by myself. And I pity the guys who, like me, who have gone into this situation without somebody like him.
Can you imagine yourself ever doing a show without Jon Benjamin?
God, no. God, no. I don’t know what – I hope I never have to know what that’s like.
Do you have any dream projects or shows you’d like to develop in the future? Or is your focus purely on Bob’s Burgers right now?
Focus is purely on Bob’s Burgers right now. Some day, I’d love to know what it’s like to make an animated feature. That seems really fun. And I would gladly accept that challenge in the future, but I am 100% focused on Bob’s now, and I love that. I don’t want to split my time and do other things. At this time, this fills my days and nights and there would be no room for anything else, except my family, which is fine with me. And if I add things, it would be maybe exercise, or I would someday like to read again. But I’ll add those first and then later on I’ll add a dream project. But regardless of whether it’s a feature or not, I know it would just be to keep doing music and animation.
Jeremy Popkin is a freelance writer in Philadelphia. His work has been featured on Ology, Nerve, and Destructoid.