Netflix’s animated series BoJack Horseman was one of the big surprises of the year: The first few episodes, about a washed-up ‘90s sitcom star, were sharply funny and incredibly quick, but then the series gave way to a more serious through-line about depression and loneliness and fear. (Still funny, though.) In keeping with the theme of surprises, last week the show premiered an unannounced Christmas special, which is mostly an episode of BoJack’s lousy family sitcom Horsin’ Around. Vulture caught up with BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg to talk about the nature of holiday episodes, what’s ahead in season two, and how we’re all just doing impressions of adulthood.
So, why a Christmas special? We don’t see a lot of stand-alone Christmas episodes.
One of the ways we break stories on the show is we think, What’s a different kind of way to tell this story? Like, what if we did an episode from Princess Caroline’s perspective, or what are different frameworks we could use. And early on, we came up with the idea of: What if we just did an episode of Horsin’ Around? We couldn’t find a place for it in the normal season, so then I thought of a Christmas special. Netflix had the idea of releasing the Christmas special without telling anyone, which really excited me, because that’s what Beyoncé did. And if there’s any way I can be more like Beyoncé, I am all for it.
Is it hard to write … bad? Horsin’ Around is pretty bad.
No. It’s very easy to write bad. It’s hard to write good. But we couldn’t just write “bad” — because that gets old, quick. It was kind of a challenge: How do we sustain this? The challenge for me was to make it work for an episode of television, and even though we’re subverting it or pointing out how dumb it all is, if it can have some weight in spite of that, that would really be the goal. The challenge of trying to get these characters [in Horsin’ Around] to talk about something real and interesting, in the midst of wacky high jinks.
Isn’t that something you sort of balance in every episode?
I always describe our show as having two different feet: one foot in the really cartoon-y world, and one in the grounded, emotional world, and the farther you go in one direction, the farther it allows you to go in the other. It’s a terrible metaphor because it’s not actually how feet work, but in our world, we can have crazy, wacky things, like someone stealing the D from the Hollywood sign, but then at the end, it’s just about people who are trying to make connections.
Season one of BoJack started out just seeming sad, and then it actually turned into being sad. Is there a similar transition in season two, or is it not about sadness in the same way?
Oh, it’s definitely about sadness. It’s gonna be hard to make this show when it stops being about sadness. It’s about a very sad character trying to figure out how not to be sad. And if he learns how not to be sad … the show is over? Maybe not! I don’t want to rule anything out; maybe we’ll do a whole season of happy, well-adjusted BoJack. Let’s do that! Season five! BoJack’s completely okay with everything. And then what happens?
Part of the fun of season one was the surprise for people — the oh shit, this is that kind of show. That was part of the pitch: We’d start light and cartoony and get darker and more heavy as the show progresses. But that’s a trick you can’t really do twice, because people know what the show is now. We pick up where we left off, but we still do have a lot of the silliness and fun. Season one is a guy realizing he has to change, and season two is a guy trying to figure out if he can change. Are we who we are, or are we who we try to be? All of us have a person we see ourselves as, like a perfect person — if I were just a little better or if I were slightly kinder, I could be that person. And can we be? I don’t know. It’s something I struggle with. This is too real! I might be admitting too much now about how I see myself and the world. The Christmas special is great. There’s Santa Claus and presents and a family and togetherness and a great time for all. If your family’s in town, put the Christmas special on and enjoy a time of togetherness! Does that sell it? Is that what people want?
[At this point, he riffs for a while, including material about not being very good at being interviewed, how Annie Leibovitz manages to capture celebrities in authentic moments, what joke structure is, laziness, and how to edit printed words to capture tone.] You’ll edit this, right?
Yeah. Although I’m tempted not to, this is gold.
Oh boy, “Creator of BoJack Horseman rambles about nonsense and nothing.” But the Christmas episode — here’s the thing: I never thought I’d write a Christmas episode. Because I am Jewish! And growing up, there were so many Christmas episodes, and I thought they were all dumb, and I couldn’t relate to any of them, and they’re always the same thing over and over again. And yet here I am, contributing to the glut of Christmas specials. Does the world need more Christmas? I’d say we have plenty. That said, this is the best Christmas special ever.
[Another several minutes of riffs, including on one’s innate ability to tell something bad has happened. “You can feel those things sometimes, you know, when you’re walking down the street and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, my ex just fell in love.’ You know when it happens.”]
What are your favorite Christmas specials of holiday past? What do you like in a Christmas special?
I’m trying to think if there are good Christmas episodes of TV shows.
There aren’t! I watched a lot for research! I watched a lot Full House Christmas episodes, Family Ties Christmas episodes, and Growing Pains, and across the board, they are the worst episodes of those shows. I’m not shitting on those shows, I do love those shows, but Christmas is the time when those shows indulge in their worst, saccharine instincts. It feels so phony, and it’s never good.
Maybe old Christmas episodes of ER? I always hate on Christmas episodes when there’s “magic” in it, on an otherwise very normal show — set in the real world, with real things, they drive a car, they live in a regular house — they’d be like, “Maybe Santa came!” And even as a kid, I was like, “Oh, fuck this shit.” I always felt like it was unfair. If you don’t buy into the integrity of the world, no one will.
Yeah, it’s like The West Wing September 11 episode: Who will be there?
Oh, those are good Christmas episodes.
That’s true, I guess dramas do it better than comedies can. A lot of Christmas episodes of comedies are comedies trying to be dramas. A lot of Christmas episodes feel like stories in quotation marks. Uh, a homeless guy comes to live with them and they all learn a lesson. That didn’t come from an organic place. Uh, it’s a thing where Alex Keaton doesn’t like Christmas and we’ll do our Christmas Carol riff. It’s just a bunch of riffs.
That’s all life is, I guess. Just a bunch of riffs. Look at me: I’m wearing a tie. Why am I wearing a tie? It’s because I saw an adult wear a tie and I thought, Oh, that’s what people do. We’re all just trying to be what an adult is. I don’t know, I don’t know how to do anything. I’m just like, doing impressions of what I’ve seen other people do, and hoping no one knows that I’m actually just a little monster in a human suit making my arms go up and down. That’s why so many people respond to Vincent Adultman, because I think we all sometimes feel like three kids stacked on top of each other under a trench coat. Like, I’m not a real person, and I’m terrified that people are gonna find out. And so far … nobody has? [Pause.] Some people have.