‘BoJack Horseman’ creator on the real-life story behind the ‘Me Too’ episode
BoJack Horseman is a show that’s so prescient in its satirization of our culture that it often feels like it’s predicting the future.
Think back to the Oscars screw-up of 2017, which basically happened to BoJack a year before in Season 3, when Mr. Peanutbutter mistakenly awarded him Best Actor. Comparisons between the show’s Season 4 Episode “Thoughts and Prayers” always come up after a mass shooting, too. Most recently after the Parkland school shooting, an Alabama lawmaker said that the problem with some Republicans’ proposal to arm teachers is that some teachers are (hold your gasps) women!
And, you know, women can’t be trusted with guns. Which was totally a BoJack thing first.
Much like the classic “Simpsons Already Did It” joke, BoJack Horseman has become like the canary in the cole mine for some of our biggest social issues (in only a fraction of seasons as The Simpsons to boot).
So it should come as no surprise, then, that the Season 5 episode “BoJack the Feminist” feels like a prophetic depiction of how easily we’re starting to forgive the abusive men called out by the #MeToo movement. It’s also no surprise that the original idea for the episode came long before the movement became popular, and much earlier than the inevitable comebacks now being attempted by Louis C.K. and others.
According to show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the inspiration for the episode — or specifically the character of Vance Waggoner — was from one of his real-life Hollywood experiences.
“The spark of the idea came from when my own agency CAA signed Mel Gibson on as a client. And I was really upset about that,” said Waksberg. “I feel uneasy with the idea that part of my paycheck or my show’s budget goes to a company that’s working to help the career of this guy that has screamed racial epithets at people and abused women.”
Waksberg even complained about it to the talent agency. He recounted how he was then, “very politely but firmly told that, ‘While we value you and your input and love that you care so deeply about this, we’re going to keep this man as our client. Because we believe this is the right thing to do for us.'”
(Mashable reached out to both Gibson and Waksberg’s CAA representatives for comment, but did not receive a reply. Gibson’s publicist gave the following statement: “We have no knowledge of this matter.”)
So that was that. He considered leaving CAA, but realized there really aren’t other talent agencies that would be better, or that wouldn’t sign Gibson, or someone else he objects to.
And this widespread, systemic complacency with letting bad men back into the industry became a focal point of the entire season.
“It’s emblematic of us as a larger society, and the industry as a whole.”
Both Waksberg and series art director Lisa Hanawalt were clear that, despite the inspiration, Vance Waggoner is not a one-to-one representation of Gibson. And the episode is not just about Waksberg airing his personal grievance against Gibson.
“But I do think it’s emblematic of us as a larger society, and the industry as a whole,” he said.
Instead, Waggoner is more like this monstrous mutation of all the bad behavior we’ve let famous men get away with.
The opening scene surely recalls Gibson’s infamous arrest video. But Waggoner’s also later accused of physically abusing a sex worker, choking his wife, sexting underage girls, and drunkenly calling his daughter a slut.
Just off the top of our head, the long list of men accused of that kind of behavior includes David Hasselhoff, Johnny Depp, Alec Baldwin, James Franco, Gary Oldman, and countless others.
When Hanawalt set about designing Waggoner’s look, she worked hard to create a composite of multiple men. She thought to herself, “Ok, he’s gotta be kind of handsome, but kind of a bad boy, but also kind of look like all these dudes mashed up together,” she said. “And I think I nailed it.”
Did she ever. Waggoner’s appearance and dialogue is triggeringly recognizable to all who’ve paid attention to the commonalities in the stories about abusive men in Hollywood over the years.
But like the episode and overall season’s approach to these issues, Waksberg’s thinking is not black and white when it comes to forgiving people in the industry who’ve acted badly in the past.
“I don’t want to be saying that, as a society, we shouldn’t forgive people. I think forgiveness is very important,” he said. Aside from being very personally significant to him, he also noted how forgiveness and redemption is a major theme in the show itself.
“But I also think some people are largely being forgiven too easily.”
“Some people are largely being forgiven too easily.”
To Waksberg, what’s needed is nuance in the difference between forgiving a public figure like Gibson on a personal vs. professional level.
“I want to believe he can do the work on himself and can be forgiven, but at least publicly, I have not seen evidence of that. And I don’t think I personally forgive him.”
Exploring the most difficult conversations around #MeToo and Time’s Up in Season 5 feels like a natural evolution for the show.
The issues surrounding sexism and racism in Hollywood have been a huge concern of the show and its creators, almost since the very beginning. Waksberg said that’s because harassment, assault, and inequity unavoidably come up in a writers’ room full of industry people talking about how to satirize the industry.
“We didn’t necessarily anticipate what would happen this year when we set about to write this story,” he said. “But a lot of what’s come to light [during #MeToo] we knew about before.” The specifics or extent of the abuse might’ve been news to even the biggest insiders of entertainment, “but the general behavior is not news.”
For art director Hanawalt, the show’s prescience on those topics comes back to who they hire to work on BoJack, and ensuring they welcome people to speak up. While both she and Waksberg own up to the fact that they can and need to do better as far as diversity on their staff, there are still a lot more women in creative roles than most shows.
And the rawness of how the season tackles #MeToo and Time’s Up makes it clear that those people — particularly the women — are indeed being heard. It’s probably what gives it that extra edge.
“I just feel like when a show is written and created by all white, straight men, it doesn’t tend to have the sharpest insight anymore,” Hanawalt said. “The status quo isn’t always going to be the most exciting thing. That’s why you hire people who have the most interesting things to say, not the people who make you the most comfortable with what you’re already saying.”
“When a show is written and created by all white, straight men, it doesn’t tend to have the sharpest insight anymore.”
That’s also perhaps one of the reasons why BoJack Horseman‘s tackling of #MeToo doesn’t feel new and fresh, but devastatingly true. Like, for example, when Dianne is hired to be the woman writer on BoJack’s new show Phillbert — then is told to be quiet, sit in the corner, and not chew gum loudly.
“This episode is the most exaggerated version of it, but it’s surprisingly realistic to many people’s experiences on the staff: Being hired, then expected to just be a beard for diversity as a woman or person of color or whatever else,” she said.
What Season 5 has shown is that — as we near the comeback portion of the #MeToo movement — a series like BoJack Horseman has something uniquely important to contribute to this conversation.
“Bojack has done bad things, and it’s interesting to — in this season — see those chickens come home to roost, as it were,” said Hanawalt.
In the writers’ room, Waksberg said they kept asking themselves this question of, why do we keep giving these kinds of guys more and more chances? “And then that turned into, well, do we think BoJack deserves other chances?”
The character of BoJack creates an interesting, important challenge for both its creators and fans. As an audience, we’ve come to know and invest in him personally. And now that we as a culture have finally started to question whether awful men like him deserve to be forgiven, the show gives us a glimpse into the turmoil of how one deals with realizing their friend is one of those men.
“Quite accidentally, we’ve come at a time where there’s one more story to tell about that kind of person — which is a story a lot of people have not told about these privileged, heterosexual, damaged men that really grapples with investigating the toxicity,” said Waksberg. “We’re in the twilight of stories. So I’d like to think we are finding the last interesting ground.”
“Real life is too absurd. it’s crazier than a cartoon out there.”
BoJack Season 5 doesn’t present easy answers for the hard question of what to do with the people in the entertainment industry who abused their power to do horrible things. More than anything, it asks us to wrestle with those uncomfortable questions.
“What is the difference between forgiveness and encouraging someone to be better, versus letting someone off the hook?” Waksberg asked.
Ultimately, as a successful straight white guy himself, he says his role in the larger conversation about equality is to listen, then “learning how to navigate and use my privilege as a stepping stone or microphone for others,” he said. “It’s been a process. I’m still in the process.”
For Hanawalt, like so many other people from marginalized groups in the entertainment industry, the injustices explored on the show this season always border on being almost too real.
Because, she said, “Real life is too absurd. it’s crazier than a cartoon out there.”