Ahead of the animated series' 100th episode on May 22, the executive producers and execs behind Loren Bouchard's dark Fox comedy recount its original 'Hannibal'-esque pitch and the "word-of-mouth" buzz that turned a funny show from fringe to one gunning for 'Family Guy' longevity.
Since the January 2011 launch of Bob's Burgers, the animated series — about a burger-joint proprietor and his eccentric family — has gone from bubble show to bona fide hit, generating critical acclaim and averaging a 1.4 rating among adults 18-to-49 in live-plus-7 numbers. The 2014 Emmy winner — the brainchild of Loren Bouchard, 46 — also has made recognizable stars of voice castmembers like Kristen Schaal and Jon Benjamin. Ahead of its 100th episode (May 22), THR spoke with the executive producers and executives behind the series about the original Hannibal-esque pitch, how then-network chief Kevin Reilly helped pave the way for fan favorite Tina and the show's staying power.
Linda and Bob Belcher are voiced by John Roberts and Benjamin, respectively.
SUZANNA MAKKOS, FOX EXECUTIVE VP COMEDY I had another project and was looking for an animation house. One sent over a reel of work that they had done, and one of the shows was Loren [Bouchard's] first [Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil]. I said to someone on my team, "OK, I don't know about this animation house, but who wrote that show? Because it's really funny." We tracked down Loren, who was living in San Francisco, and he flew down that day.
LOREN BOUCHARD, CREATOR I originally thought the show should be about a family that runs a restaurant who are cannibals. Very early on, [Fox] said, "Well, do you need the cannibalism?" I had really put it in there because I thought they would want it. I'm coming off of working for Adult Swim, and the darker, more shocking aspect seemed like what you needed in order for an animated idea to cut through the noise.
MAKKOS I said, "Loren, do you want to do 100 episodes' worth of cannibal jokes?"
BOUCHARD Fox took a long view.
JIM DAUTERIVE, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER We had a meeting with [then-Fox entertainment chairman] Kevin Reilly. It was in the early stages of production, and Reilly said, "We love it, but we want to differentiate between the kids a little more." In the original presentation, there were two boys and Louise. The older sibling was a boy called Daniel and he was 13; they thought Gene and Daniel weren't distinct enough.
BOUCHARD I didn't disagree, but I really liked Dan Mintz's [Daniel] voice.
MAKKOS Loren came back and said, "We want to change it to a girl. Her name is Tina, and she will be stuck in puberty forever." We were like, "That's a really funny idea." And he said, "But I'm still going to have Dan Mintz do the voice." I was scared to tell my bosses.
JONNIE DAVIS, 20TH CENTURY FOX TV PRESIDENT OF CREATIVE AFFAIRS It may sound crazy on paper, but when Loren is explaining it — because he's worked with all these amazing voice actors before — he has this symphony in his head of how all these characters are going to interconnect. You just trust him.
The cast and guest stars during a staged live reading of the 100th episode on May 1 at the Fox lot in Los Angeles.
THE EARLY YEARS
MAKKOS In animation, you have to order the next season before any of the episodes have aired in order to stay in continuous production. We didn't end up doing that, and I was worried we wouldn't start up again.
BOUCHARD We always felt we could be killed at any moment. I lived in fear every second of the day until only a couple of years ago. It's partly because I use it — it helps me focus. You come to work feeling like any joke, any bad drawing, anything might be the nail in your coffin. The ratings were fine, but they were never so great that we felt like we had job security.
MAKKOS There were definitely times when we had hard conversations about whether it was financially the right idea to bring it back.
DAUTERIVE The network and the studio always really supported us. Then gradually, over time, social media kicks in and the fans start talking about the show and you start getting fan art sent to the office.
BOUCHARD It was a sense of momentum and a healthy audience that was growing, but you couldn't quite measure it. You had to really lick your finger and stick it in the wind. I think [the Fox execs] also weren't necessarily seeing it in the numbers, but they were hearing about it from their friends and from their kids and from social media.
DAVIS It was a lot of word of mouth.
The Belcher kids in a scene from the “Full Bars” episode of 'Bob’s Burgers' that aired Oct. 7, 2012.
MAKKOS When we got Kevin Kline to do Mr. Fischoeder [Bob's landlord] …
BOUCHARD My understanding is that Kevin Kline's kids were fans of Eugene [Mirman, who voices Gene] and they would go see him live in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and even Kevin Kline was dragged out to more than one of those shows. Our casting director was chummy with his management, so we were able to work it from two sides.
MAKKOS [Kline] read the script and was like, "I think that's really funny, I'll do it." I was shocked. That was, to me, a watershed moment.
BOUCHARD Even with those ins, I don't think any of us were prepared for him to say yes.
MAKKOS For our first Comic-Con [in 2011], we were in the smallest room. I went [to San Diego] on the train and thought, "I hope people come." Someone texted me: "There's a line out the door." I got goosebumps. I thought, "OK, we're onto something."
DAVIS The  Emmy nominations woke a lot of people up who didn't really know a lot about the show. The fact that it won the Emmy [in 2014] — that drove a whole bunch of new people to the show.
DAUTERIVE I gave the world's worst [acceptance speech]. I felt like I was going to pass out. I was so concerned about thanking everybody from the network and the studio, I forgot to thank my wife. I'm not sure she'll ever forgive me.
BOUCHARD The Montreal Comedy Festival invited us to do a live table read [in 2012], and we were skeptical. But after the festival, Jon Benjamin [who voices Bob] called and said, "We should do that more often." When Mr. Grumpy Pants Jon Benjamin — who's the first to let me know when something goes badly — said we should do live table reads, that put a lot of wind in our sails.
DAVIS The voice cast is all stand-up [comics] and have followings of their own, so when this thing comes together, we're making a lot of noise and fan bases are intersecting.
Schaal cut a cake at the May 1 event surrounded by co-stars, producers and Bouchard (in blue shirt, to the right of Schaal).
100 AND BEYOND
MAKKOS I hope the show goes on forever. I feel like we're just scratching the surface of the stories we can tell.
DAVIS There's no reason, in my mind, that this show doesn't have a shot to have the longevity of a Simpsons or Family Guy.
DAUTERIVE Loren is the key. As long as he wants to keep doing it, and as long as we can keep this show good, hopefully as long as Fox has animation on Sunday, Bob's will be there.
BOUCHARD We are just starting to feel like we know what we're doing. As long as people are saying that this show still means something to them, then I think that's as long as we want to do it.
GET YOUR PIECE OF BOB'S
Merchandise like Louise’s bunny ears and the recently released Bob’s Burgers Burger Book has made the show a top-selling brand for Fox and has kept Bento Box Entertainment, which produces the series, busy.
FUNKO DOLLS: As with 'Bob’s Burgers'-themed apparel, the Tina character is a big hit in doll form.
COOKBOOK: Featuring original art, the joke cookbook, released in March, is an Amazon best-seller.
T-SHIRTS: These started as holiday gifts for cast and crew before going public in 2013.
BUNNY EARS: Louise’s beloved ears can be found on Etsy and at Hot Topic stores.
This story first appeared in the May 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.