“BoJack Horseman” has long been known for its trenchant satire of media and entertainment, from its note-perfect guest spots (Keith Olbermann as an aggro cable news host) and delicious gags (a popular game show titled “Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things?? Let’s Find Out!”) to scalpel-sharp sendups of industry cravenness (the masterfully bitter gun violence entry “Thoughts and Prayers”).
But this may be the first time Netflix’s animated series, set in “Hollywoo” — an alternate-universe Hollywood populated by humans and anthropomorphized animals — has actually predicted real life: In its bifurcated sixth and final season, the first half of which is now streaming, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s darkly comic vision sees Hollywoo’s assistants walk out to protest pervasive abuses, and pandemonium ensues. It’s a prescient echo of Hollywood assistants’ current efforts to organize for fair pay and better treatment, exemplified by the Twitter hashtag #PayUpHollywood.
“Part of what we do every season is look at our own industry and talk about ‘What’s going on here? What do we want to highlight? And is there a funny way to go about that?’” Bob-Waksberg said recently. But, he suggests, the “BoJack Horseman” team needed no insider knowledge of assistants’ plans to call for change to highlight the issue this season: “Maybe not quite as publicly or forward-facing, but I feel like it’s a common understanding that assistants are treated poorly across the industry.”
Fresh off the publication of a collection of short stories, Bob-Waksberg is readying the final batch of “BoJack” episodes, slated to premiere on Netflix in January; shopping “BoJack” colleague Lisa Hanawalt’s one-and-done Netflix series “Tuca & Bertie,” on which he’s an executive producer, to other outlets; and hoping for a Season 2 pickup for his rotoscoped Amazon series, “Undone.”
The Times spoke with Bob-Waksberg about his thoughts on the assistants’ dispute, the upheaval at Deadspin and whether he thinks Netflix gave “Tuca & Bertie” a fair shake.
Can you talk about the genesis of the assistants’ strike storyline this season?
In the last month or so, this has really broken out in a big way for anyone following Hollywood trends, thanks to people like Liz Alper and #PayUpHollywood and of course John August and Craig Mazin’s podcast. But I feel like conversations about this have been happening for as long as I’ve been in the business. And I think this is probably bigger than just the Hollywood story: Low-level employees are treated poorly in most industries throughout this great nation of ours [laughs], and in fact the world over. I’m really glad that more attention is being paid to this, and I hope it leads to some changes in how assistants are treated.
[There’s a] sad irony [in] this full class of people, the assistants, who work in this town getting treated so poorly, while at the same time having access to all of this information, and having so much power, in a way. It’s very clear to me that if all of the assistants stopped working for a week, the town would be in utter chaos [laughs]. In some sense, they hold all the cards, and yet they’re often treated like garbage. “Funny” is maybe the wrong way to describe that, but there’s an interesting irony there that felt like exploring — how that would affect our world, in an exaggerated way, on our show.
In the writers room, did you collect real-life stories of times you witnessed assistants being treated badly or had been treated badly yourselves?
We didn’t have to look too far afield to gather anecdotes [laughs]. We actually had a lot more in the season, and we ended up pulling out a bunch, because it started to feel like overkill. All of us have heard stories, thirdhand, secondhand or firsthand, of bosses being mean and mistreating their assistants. What I think was more interesting for me in crafting the show were these anecdotes and these stories of abusive bosses, but I think the problem that’s being highlighted now is actually a little more sophisticated and a little more important, which is the issue of payment. And that’s something we didn’t really touch on in the show, because it’s a little drier and not quite as visceral as people throwing lamps at people’s heads. Both things are problems, but that was something that I wasn’t even thinking about, was how little assistants are paid. And that’s a stickier problem. It’s easier to say, ‘Hey, don’t throw a lamp at anybody’s head.’ It’s harder to set a standard about what constitutes fair pay in this town and this industry.
Do you have a personal position on what you think the assistants should do in terms of organizing and demands, and how the powers that be should respond?
When it comes to someone like me, I have people working on my behalf. I have my manager, who advocates for me, and I have my guild, which sets minimums, and I also have my own personal security in knowing that on some level I am irreplaceable. That I have that leverage. That you can find another writer, but you’re not going to find another Raphael Bob-Waksberg. So If you want Raphael Bob-Waksberg, you need to pay me what I feel I am worth. And that’s true of all above-the-line individuals.
When you’re talking about assistants, they don’t have any of those things. They don’t have the leverage of management. They don’t have any large union protecting them. And I think many of them feel like they are replaceable, that if they try to push back on anything, the company is going to say no and fire them and bring in somebody else who wants it just as much. The system has failed there. When you don’t have a strong arm for negotiating, it doesn’t work, because then you’re going to get exploited — even if no one is trying to exploit you. Even if these people in charge of the money are nice, lovely people in their personal lives, if they’re pushing to squeeze you and there’s no way to push back — look, this is just the problem with capitalism in general [laughs].
I think what has to happen is we need more people on the money side speaking up and saying, “Look, we don’t want to exploit people. That is an unfortunate byproduct, and we want to do this right.” What I would love to see — because I’ve seen all the horror stories — I would love to see more good examples. Like, I would love to know, what is correct? What is a fair wage for an assistant to get in this day and age? I would love for some maybe informal standards to be set. I would love to put pressure on companies to maybe sign a pledge of some sort. I think a formal union like we present it on the show is unrealistic, because unlike writers or actors or other people who work on shows, most assistants don’t want to be assistants for the long haul. They’re all aspiring to be something else, so they’re not going to stick around. But I do think, in the short haul, it would be helpful to have some organization lead to some solutions, and something to point to and say, “This is what we want.” I am obviously not the person to author that, because I don’t know what it costs to be a young person living in Hollywood today, but I would love to know. And then I can go to the version [of the business affairs manager] on my show and say, “Hey, here’s the suggested amount, I want to make sure we’re hitting this minimum.”
I think that is the next step, some sort of code or suggestion, and I think it’ll probably be informal, because I’m not sure if they are going to organize in a more formal way and stage walkouts, although that would be great if they did. If that’s what it takes. But I think before they do that, we need to know what the demands are, and I think a lot of people would be eager to meet those demands, or at least entertain them, or negotiate with them.
You’ve been treating the crisis in media through the character of Diane for several seasons now, but it feels like this season is an amped-up look at that aspect of our culture. Was there any particular thing that set you off on digging more into that?
I wouldn’t necessarily say there was one thing. Just [last week], there’s this big Deadspin situation, where everybody quit because the venture capitalists who took over were sending them down edicts that seemed to fly in the face of what made that website special, and what made those writers interesting and the content good. And that seems very much of a trend of what has been happening over the last several years, and part of it is the evolution of the internet. As somebody who has been on the internet for a very long time, as most people have, you see the trend.
You see, “Oh, look at this cool little website that I love!”
“Oh, they got bought by a company!”
“Oh, now that company is selling them to another company.”
“Oh, now that company got eaten up by another company.”
“Hey, wait a second! This website got bad!”
“What happened? Where did all my favorite writers go?” …
It’s a very sad thing, but I think it also speaks to the larger era we’re in of huge conglomerates. Not just media conglomerates, but, like, Frito-Lay. On the show, Guy [voiced by Lakeith Stanfield] says, “So, there are like four companies now?” and that’s what it feels like. It feels like all of America is being run by a half dozen companies max, and all their subsidiaries.
Why did a bifurcated final season make sense for ‘BoJack Horseman’ specifically?
From a creative standpoint, or a programming standpoint?
Creatively, I think it allows us to structure the season in a different kind of way. And I think that allows us to stay surprising. And I think people were starting to feel like they understood the rhythms of our normal 12-episode season, and I like the idea of this last dash of eight with people not knowing what to expect or how it’s going to play out. Is it going to feel like its own season? Is it going to feel like the second half of the season they just watched? Is it going to have the same punch that comes at the same times? I like the kind of air of mystery that lays across the final eight episodes.
And from a programming standpoint?
The episodes aren’t going to be finished until they’re ready to go up at the end of January. So the question was, “Well, do we make our audience wait a year and half between season to get all 16, or do we split it in half so they get eight in October and eight in January?” And it made sense to not make our audience wait that long.
The traditional assumption, because of ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Mad Men,’ is that it is a way of keeping your viewers on the hook for a little bit longer.
I don’t think that’s what this is. I was very clear when we were discussing this: I wanted the time between the two halves to still feel like it was of one season. I didn’t want eight episodes to come out and then a year later another eight episodes to come out. Because it is one season, and they do speak to each other in certain ways. And also, we all got paid like it was one season. I think it’s a really shady thing that some networks do where they pick a show up for two short seasons and they spread them out over two years, but they don’t give anybody a pay bump. I was very clear, if it’s going to be a year between seasons, then you need to pay everybody more. And I think nobody wanted to do that, which is why we ended the show in the first place. It was never intended to be that “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad” thing where it’s stretched out over two years, two awards seasons, two bites at the apple.
In terms of the critical response and also, I think, in terms of the audience, it took a season or two for people to understand exactly what “BoJack” was up to. Because you’ve been such a supporter of hers, I’m wondering if you think Netflix gave Lisa Hanawalt’s “Tuca & Bertie” a fair shake by not giving it that time to have people figure out what it was up to.
When we started on “BoJack,” it was understood that the Netflix model was to give shows time to find an audience, and to build that audience, and I remember being told, “We expect the biggest day ‘BoJack’ Season 1 is going to have is when we launch ‘BoJack’ Season 2.” We didn’t get a full two-season pickup, but that was the understanding, that these things take time to build. It was my understanding that that was, at the time, the Netflix model: to give shows time to build. I think it’s a shame that they seem to have moved away from that model.
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)