tuca & bertie

Tuca & Bertie Creator Lisa Hanawalt on Blurring the Line Between Real and Surreal

Photo: Netflix

Whatever you do, don’t call Tuca & Bertie a BoJack Horseman spinoff. Sure, the two Netflix series have a similar visual style, but that’s just because they’re both brainchildren of writer-artist Lisa Hanawalt. However, whereas BoJack is narratively helmed by Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Hanawalt is the creator and showrunner of Tuca & Bertie in addition to being its visual progenitor. She’s built a reputation as an ace illustrator and comics creator, and her latest effort has already generated critical and fan acclaim for its somewhat surreal portrayal of the friendship between an anthropomorphized toucan (Tiffany Haddish) and a similarly human-esque songbird (Ali Wong), as well as the latter’s robin boyfriend (Steven Yeun). We caught up with Hanawalt to talk about nudity, the show’s approach to sobriety, and the great Richard E. Grant.

There’s this apocryphal story about how Philip K. Dick wrote The Man in the High Castle. One day, a name appeared in his head for no particular reason: “Mr. Tagomi.” He decided this should be a character he’d write about, and it all stemmed from there. I’m always curious about those Mr. Tagomi ideas for creators. Did you have one for Tuca & Bertie?
Hazlitt magazine had asked me if I wanted to do a webcomic for them, a regular thing. I was like, “Let me think of ideas.” And then I was watching a nature documentary to relax, and I saw this footage of a toucan reaching into other birds’ nests and stealing their eggs and eating them. I was like, Oh my God, that’s me. I love eating all the eggs. I’m so greedy with food. This character is my id. I’m going to create Tuca. I like creating these characters who just say whatever’s on their mind and do whatever they want. They have no bodily shame, no hindrance to whatever they want to say. They just put it all out there, for better or worse. It’s very fun to write for a character like that. I get to live vicariously through them.

So I made these comics about Tuca, and then maybe a year later, I needed to make a comic for Lucky Peach magazine. I wrote this story about a couple who buys a house, and she starts filling the whole house with plants. She becomes really obsessed and she’s using the plants to push away everyone emotionally. It was a very quiet, sweet story, not as funny as most of my other work. Raphael [Bob-Waksberg] really liked it, and he kept saying, “We should do something with these characters. I’d like to see you do some of these.” When we were talking show ideas, it jelled to pair Tuca with Bertie and have Speckle be her boyfriend. And through these characters, we could explore their differences and similarities and explore these themes of female friendship.

How did you want to approach talking about sobriety and Tuca’s journey with it?
For me, honestly, it’s never been a thing. Liquor is not my vice. I had a time earlier in my 20s when I was more out there — I wasn’t drunk all the time, but it was a defense mechanism, in a way, to just push people away and be brash. That was more of my Tuca time. But as I’ve gotten older, I have a lot of friends who are sober now, and I drink a lot less than I used to. A lot of the Tucas I know are currently sober.

In popular fiction, alcohol abuse and sobriety are usually dealt with in terms of either seeing someone be an alcoholic and then they magically get sober, or you see someone who’s been sober for a long time —
And then they relapse.

Right. And here we get this middle ground, where a character recently gave it up and tries to navigate life without it being a defining aspect.
I think that’s just very realistic. From what I’ve noticed with sobriety, sometimes it’s very dramatic and you literally hit rock bottom and crash your car into a building. But a lot of times, it’s just a quiet decision. What’s difficult is the social aspect, the anxiety that comes with being in a situation where you’re used to being hammered, and now you’re not and you can’t even have one drink to help lubricate the situation. When Tuca goes on a date [with the deli guy] in episode three, she’s suddenly like, I don’t really know how to do this. It’s like I’m brand-new at this. I think a lot of people go through that.

That was my favorite episode.
Oh, I’m glad you liked it. It was a difficult episode to write. I mean, they’re all difficult in their own way.

What was difficult about it?
We had trouble deciding what the deli guy’s deal was, and then we actually went back and rewrote him, and rerecorded [actor] Whitmer [Thomas] to solidify what the conflict was there. I don’t know, sometimes it’s hard to write those things.

The bánh mì joke was getting a lot of traction on Twitter.
Oh God, that’s the worst pun.

Sure, but that’s in keeping with the show’s wordplay. How do you approach the fact that you can insert a ton of visual jokes because the audience can pause it at any time? Is that something you think about?
Yeah, I feel like people are getting more bang for their buck if they can watch the show on the surface level the first time through, and then, if they want, they can pause or rewatch it and catch stuff they didn’t see before. The bingeable model of watching makes that possible. It’s rewarding to make a little moment for you to find, but it’s not essential to the plot. It’s something that made the background designer laugh when they were drawing it, or made the storyboarders laugh. We’re letting you in on a crew joke.

Do you have a favorite visual joke that people might miss?
Oh God, there are so many. There’s the contract that Bertie needs to sign when she’s potentially buying a house with Speckle. The credits in episode three, when Bertie’s watching A Sensible Migration, there are a bunch of really stupid British names that I came up with. When Tuca’s reading the book about European farming, there’s a sheep-farmer character that pops up throughout the season over and over again. There’s so much in the background of this show; it’s ridiculous.

Speaking of the British, I almost fell out of my chair the first moment that I heard Richard E. Grant speaking. I love that guy.
Me too. I’ve been obsessed with him since I was a teenager because my brother and I watched How to Get Ahead in Advertising. We were just like, “This is the best movie with the best actor in the whole world.” We watched it over and over again. We would joke about how we wanted to make a movie starring Richard E. Grant, and it would be about the richest man in the world, and the tagline would be, “Rich … Richer … Richard E. Grant.” So, to get to cast him on this, I would not shut up about it. Everyone was like, “Who the hell is this? Why are you so obsessed with this person?” We recorded him over the phone, so I didn’t get to meet him in person yet, but maybe someday. I would not be able to play it cool at all.

Not to get too political, but do you see more opportunities opening up for women in adult animation?
Adult animation is a club created by men for men, and it always has been that way. They’ve been very hesitant to let other kinds of people in because … I don’t know, why change? Why be humane? So that’s been really frustrating. When I first started working in animation, I was shocked by what a boys’ club it was. But I think that is changing. It’s frustrating because I know it’s not for lack of trying. All my coolest friends have been pitching for years, and the people with the deciding power have just been saying no. They don’t think that the audience is there. They don’t think the interest is there. But I feel like Netflix has been picking up a lot, so hopefully other networks will follow suit. It’s not an animated show, but Adult Swim just green-lit the Three Busy Debras show.

I just saw that, yeah.
Adult Swim has been the one who’s been most outwardly against having women-created shows. That one exec being outwardly misogynist was really shocking. They just let him continue working there. It’s amazing. I’m sure he’s a great exec, but he’s a misogynist. Hopefully, they’re going to change and have a cartoon created by a woman, too. That would be great. And not just one. It’s hard at networks, where they’ll be like, “We already have a show about women, so we can’t have this other one.” It’s like, “But you have 16 shows about men, so come on.” Why is this considered niche? It shouldn’t be.

The show dips its toe into surrealism, but never goes all the way in. Did you have a guiding philosophy of how to balance the bizarre with the more straightforward?
It just comes down to my gut feeling of, Is this funny? Is this interesting? Does it help the plot? And what’s the balance of those three things? I just want to create the kind of show I would want to watch, so I’m like, Here’s something I want to see. But for the most part, those things serve the plot. I think it makes sense that Bertie’s phone can talk. There are boobs on buildings, but that just helps flesh out the tone of the show. Like, “Yes, this is for adults. This is a perverted world, but we’re going to take something sexy like a boob and recontextualize it in a way that’s very silly.”

Did you have to sell Netflix on using nudity so liberally?
No, there was no sell. There was just, “Here’s how it’s going to be.” And they were like, “Cool.”

Wow, simple as that.
I pitched that episode where it ends with Bertie masturbating, and everyone was just like, “Ooh, boy.” But they weren’t objecting to it. They thought it was interesting and hilarious, so there was no pushback.

The only thing was, originally, the first episode was maybe going to have the sex bugs in it. They were like, “We don’t want to scare viewers away with the extremely sexually explicit stuff right off the bat. Let’s ease into it.” So that was the only feedback I got about that kind of thing.

Tell me about putting the music together.
I really wanted a lot of music from the start. Actually, the song Bertie sings in episode four, “I’m Losing My Shit for No Reason,” I sang that song when I was pitching the show. It was very scary to sing a song in a meeting room full of people, but the fact that the song’s about a panic attack really helped. And then we worked with Jesse Novak, who’s this genius composer.

He’s so good.
He’s so able to just do any style of music. And he’s so funny. A lot of the larger songs that the main characters sing, I would write the lyrics with the writers, and then I would record myself singing the song the way I envisioned on my phone. I would send in the voice recording, and then Jesse would make them sound like an actual song that was good. It felt very collaborative, but he really takes anything and makes it sound actually like a good song. It’s incredible, his ability.

I have a weird Jesse Novak story: When BoJack was first released, there was this one episode where he wrote fake versions of songs by Skrillex and Sleigh Bells in these scenes that were homaging Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring, respectively. I tweeted that I would kill to hear the full versions, not knowing who even wrote them, and I guess Jesse was reading tweets about the music on the show because he reached out to me and was like, “Hey, thanks, here are the full mp3s of the songs.”
Oh, that’s so nice.

He seems like a nice guy!
He’s a very nice guy. It was very, very fun working with him. A lot of those actors had not really done any singing before — Ali hadn’t, I know Kate Berlant hadn’t done a lot of singing. They were nervous, but something about working with Jesse and being coached by him, I think they had a good time.

Speaking of Ali and the core cast, did you intentionally set out to have the leads all be people of color, or was that just how it turned out?
It’s both. I didn’t want to have an all-white cast — that was my main goal. I wasn’t opposed to having a white person be in the main cast, and we did audition a lot of different people of all different colors. Tiffany signed on very early, so then it was just a matter of finding a Bertie and Speckle to round out the cast. Ali, frankly, just nailed the audition. She was at the top of my list of people I wanted to work with, but I thought she was more of a Tuca, so I didn’t know if she would be a good fit. And she was great. She’s just such a good actress. She’s able to sound like this anxious little bird, even though in real life I find her quite fearless. And then Steven Yeun just had an incredible audition.

What animals are you currently obsessed with, just in your life?
The usual — horses, puppies. I follow a lot of weird bird Twitters that will tweet about fabulous birds that I’ve never thought about before. I really like looking at reptiles. I would not want to own one, but I like snakes and lizards. I don’t know, there’s something funny about them. Why would you want that in your house? But I like to humanize them a little bit. Mostly horses though, honestly. On a day-to-day level, it’s like, yeah, horses are my base.

Do you follow horse Instagrams?
Oh yeah, I follow horse Instagrams like crazy. So many. And then I have my own horse now. I got her five months ago.

Congratulations, that’s amazing.
Thank you. I’m like, “Oh my God, am I going to get sick of my favorite thing?” But I haven’t yet. I go to the barn about four or five times a week.

Tell me about the non-animation sequences that occasionally pop up in the show. What were the origins of those?
We had this meeting with the directors when we were first translating the scripts into storyboards, and we said, “We want you to make this a little wilder and looser than BoJack, so feel free to flip through my comic books, look how I break things apart, look how I make weird lists, and let’s do that. Feel free to get crazy with the format.” So the directors were the ones who really suggested things like that. They added in that puppet scene. They added in the Claymation part, which was really fun — we got together at night and played with clay to figure out what that would look like. I just really like having that sense of play and breaking up the medium in my show. It’s so fun and unexpected. The puppets were literally made by our art director, and then we got together on a weekend and I was the puppeteer. I had to walk across all these apple boxes backward to try to get her up over the toilet. It was really difficult. Those things are just so fun to me. I love them.

You have so many hours of space you can fill, so why not do some weird stuff the viewer isn’t expecting?
I don’t like episodes that stand out as far as the approach goes, but I like breaking up the way that we tell those stories. It’s just like, why not, you know? I don’t know if I’ll ever get another season, but while I have one season of TV out there, I’m going to go nuts.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Lisa Hanawalt on Making Tuca & Bertie’s Surreal Reality