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“Did you see the boobs on the building?”
It’s one of the first questions Lisa Hanawalt asks when discussing the style of her new Netflix comedy, Tuca & Bertie. She asks, because while the series is about anthropomorphic cartoon animals navigating everyday milestones, it is not set in the same universe as her other Netflix show, BoJack Horseman.
And the boobs on the building prove it.
Hanawalt’s fun-loving tale of two 30-something female birds trying to hold on to their friendship amid life changes is whimsical, childlike and comforting in a way critical favorite BoJack has never been. It’s also raunchier, weirder and less attached to the laws that govern shows set in the real world. This means Hanawalt can play with tones and themes, letting her heroines break out into anxiety-ridden Broadway numbers at the grocery store one minute and the next, turn into Claymation molds.
There are no rules for Hanawalt’s brand of comedy, and even if there were, she wouldn’t follow them.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the showrunner ahead of Tuca & Bertie‘s May 3 Netflix debut about making comedy for men to hate-watch and how her show — featuring voice stars Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong — helps redefine the boundaries placed on women.
Tuca & Bertie is about two 30-something female birds navigating life together. What were you trying to say with Tuca and Bertie’s stories?
I wanted to make a weird, surreal, warm, silly show about female friendship, about women in their 30s, because I hadn’t seen a lot of that before. A friendship where one friend is worried about getting left behind, and they’re kind of going in different directions, which often happens in this decade. Some friends are going off and getting married; they own a house and they have two kids. And then other ones are still trying to figure out how to pay their taxes and not be a weird, sloppy baby. But on the inside, we all still feel like a mess and we’re desperately trying to work and make money and get our shit together. It’s very different from being in your 20s.
I wanted it to be this very silly, cartoony world, but I also wanted to explore deep, rough topics, like early childhood trauma and harassment, men crossing boundaries and unreliable mentors and our relationship to other women who we feel like we should support. All that stuff is interesting to me.
It feels markedly different from another animated Netflix series you’ve worked on: BoJack Horseman. How did you establish your own universe separate from that show?
That was very important to me from the beginning, because BoJack is really [creator/showrunner] Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s show, and I’m there to execute the look of it. I’m very proud of it and heavily involved, but this is my time to shine! This is my place to go crazy and just do what I do in my personal work, which is more surreal and has very loose rules to the universe. It’s a bit more fun for me. I like having plant people. I love that Bertie’s cell phone can come alive and talk to her. I really wanted to tie it to the children’s animation that I grew up watching and that I still really enjoy, but I wanted to combine that with adult themes. It’s for adults and it’s weird.
Looking at the animated comedies out there right now, not many of them directly speak to women in the way this show does. Were there specific storylines you felt compelled to include so that women watching could relate to this show more than something like Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty?
I wasn’t consciously thinking, “How do I make this more relatable to women?” I was just writing stories from my own life, stories from my friends’ lives and things that I specifically haven’t seen in adult animation before. Like, that feeling when a plumber is in your apartment and you don’t know if he’s going to attack you or not. That’s really common for women.
I’m horrified that it’s taken so long and so much work for more women to start being able to create animation, especially for adults. It just feels like the stars aligned and I was given the chance to do it, by sheer luck. But I’m hoping that more will get to do it, because there’s just so many experiences that we aren’t seeing reflected, and representation really matters.
Was it hard breaking into such a male-dominated industry?
It’s such a boys’ club, from the bottom up. When I first started working in animation, the constant microaggressions were outrageous. Then, you know, having to come back to work the next day and continue to work with those same people and try to figure that out, how to talk back to them or just kind of swallow it and keep going. Luckily people — like my executive producers — really believed in me and supported me from the beginning. So, props to men who help boost women up.
Would you label a show like Tuca & Bertie “feminist”?
Obviously, I’m a feminist. I’d have to be an idiot not to be. But I want people who are uncomfortable with that word to still watch it. I don’t just want women who already agree with me to watch it. I don’t want to just preach to the choir. I want men to get comfortable with the idea of women being funny and gross. I think that’s important, because we’ve been locked into these roles for so long, and it’s really boring. I mean, some people are really going to hate it, and that’s fine. I’m sure a lot of men on 4chan will be pissed off.
Assuming the show doesn’t piss everyone off, have you thought about how many seasons you’d like to squeeze out of Tuca and Bertie’s story?
I’m always very pessimistic with projects. I always assume after one season they’ll realize that I’m a fraud and they’ll cancel it. So I kind of crammed everything I wanted to get out there into this season. But that said, I have so much more I want to do. There’s so much more I want to explore with Bertie and Tuca. I feel like I only just barely scratched the surface of what’s really going on with these characters.
Does it worry you that Netflix seems to have a three-season limit when it comes to original shows like this?
We’re working on season six of BoJack right now, but I don’t want to count on anything. I’m lucky just to get one. I hope people watch it. That’s another reason to get it going on 4chan, get all those incels to watch it. The algorithm doesn’t care if you like it or not; they just care if you’re streaming it. So that’s what I want. I’d love a hate watch. Go for it.
This show, like BoJack, can take some truly painful topics and mine the humor from them. Why is that important in your work?
I think that’s the point of a lot of my work, is catharsis and finding humor in those moments. I think that’s what I bring to the table as myself, as a woman, is that having gone through a lot of these things, I’m able to come at joking about them in a deep way where I fully understand the situation and what is actually funny about it. I’m using humor as a defense and as a healing mechanism. Sometimes when men joke about that kind of stuff, if they haven’t gone through it, if they aren’t a victim themselves, if they haven’t really been in the dark part of it, I don’t think that they really can joke about it as well as someone who has gone through it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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