Last year, Will Arnett delivered an award-winning performance as the title character of BoJack Horseman. Arnett normally takes on the lion’s share of the dialogue in each episode of the animated Netflix series about an anthropomorphic horse-man struggling to stay relevant in Hollywoo, but the episode “Free Churro” was something unique. The half-hour was split between a pair of monologues from Arnett: a relatively short opening flashback speech from BoJack’s late father Butterscotch (also voiced by Arnett) and a much longer monologue delivered by BoJack as a eulogy for his mother, Beatrice. That performance was enough to land Arnett an Annie Award, but the episode itself is now nominated for an Emmy, a first for the creative team.
I was recently able to chat with BoJack Horseman creator and showrunner–and writer of the Emmy-nominated episode–Raphael Bob-Waksberg, the show’s supervising director Michael Hollingsworth, and this episode’s director Amy Winfrey about all things BoJack. Much of our conversation revolved around the Emmy-nominated episode “Free Churro”, Arnett’s performance in it, and the particular problems that arise in trying to animate what’s essentially a 25-minute one-shot. It’s obvious from the team’s casual, back-and-forth sort of improv that there’s a lot of creative talent behind the scenes of BoJack, and as the show is about to enter its sixth season, it’s high time they were recognized for their incredible work.
Highlights from the interview follow below, but you can listen to our full audio to better appreciate the banter of the BoJack team here:
When did the idea of having what’s essentially an episode-long monologue first come up and who was the first person who suggested it?
Raphael Bob-Waksberg: Well I’m the only writer in this interview, so I’ll take full credit. But it probably came out of the writers’ room. Every season we work on the show, one thing we talk about early on when were we’re breaking the season, figuring out the season, is what kind of episodes do we want to do this year. Are there any different kinds of things that we haven’t done before? And I really enjoy a challenge or something that pushes the form of what we do or makes us think about the story in a new way.
And so the idea of doing an episode that was one long monologue was really interesting to me. And so that kind of came first, the form of it, the idea that we were going to do an episode that was just BoJack talking for 20-odd minutes. And then from there, we talked about… “Okay, well what are stories that would justify that format, why would he be talking for a long time, and what could we do to make the episode feel special that it feels like, okay, you’re not just watching BoJack, you know, on the phone ranting at a customer service representative.” Although we’ve also done an episode about that. What would make it feel like, “Oh yeah. This merits the time we’re giving it.” And his relationship with his mother is something that was very fraught, particularly the previous season, Season Four. And so it felt like that would justify doing an episode like that.
Mike Hollingsworth: Yeah, I remember Raphael had been talking about that for a few seasons. When he was initially talking about it, you kept saying you wanted to do a whole episode as a monologue in one solid shot cut and what would that be like. And I just kept thinking of the storyboards and the overseas studios… I’m sure you have a lot of listeners who are actual animators. And to have a 25-minute file, like one one long scene file …
Amy Winfrey: I’ve definitely encountered problems with a three-minute file and all the animators shooting dagger looks at me when I walked by when they’re fixing that up on the backend. So yeah.
Bob-Waksberg: That would have been maybe too, too much.
Hollingsworth: I remember when I was talking to Raphael when he was initially wanting to do one in just one long cut. All I can keep thinking of is like you’d have to keep returning to a home base, a home pose so … Like I said, I love the challenge. I mean, one thing that we’ve really been praised for on the show is some of our very lush animation sequences and our background gags and side characters as well as the the rat-a-tat dialogue. So to limit ourselves and take away all of those tools felt like a fun challenge for both of us on the writing side and on the animation side. And we’re one of the few shows that has rat-a-tat dialogue with actual rats.
Bob-Waksberg: Actual rats. And they’re tatting each other.
Since we’re talking about the animation side of things, because of the complications, the difficulties that this extended monologue kind of poses, did you ever think about doing more flashback sequences with a narration over it?
Winfrey: Yeah. When we first started looking at the script, we were a little concerned, “Can we pull this off?” But then we went to the table read and heard Will Arnett actually do the script and it seems so compelling that at that moment I thought like, “Let’s just go for this. Let’s not even see the organist,” because that was a discussion as well. “Do we want to see the one other character that’s in the room?” But it seemed like a fun challenge to avoid that.
Bob-Waksberg: Yeah, I remember at our meeting, at the beginning, I offered, “If you think it’s going to get boring, you can maybe show some of these flashbacks that he’s describing,” and you really said, “I’d like to try to not. I think we can not do it.” And I think the challenge then was making his face interesting the whole way through. And I was really excited when I found out Amy was directing this episode because she’d done episodes before that have been very character focused. You did the BoJack and Princess Carolyn at the restaurant episode, right?
Bob-Waksberg: And I remember there were moments in that that it’s just the two of them talking in the restaurant where really, you want to just look at their faces and these subtle micro expressions, these subtle changes. And so this felt like a good opportunity to have an episode full of that and really just be about how much can we convey visually with this animated character making different faces.
How much of Arnett’s performance was directly from your script and how much of it was him playing around in the recording booth a little bit, or back and forth collaboration?
Bob-Waksberg: Very little. We do a little bit of improv on the show, but not much. The episodes, structurally, it’s scripted pretty tightly and he has a lot of leeway in his performance of when to pause and how to emphasize certain things. But it was mostly as scripted. And we really didn’t do that many takes. I mean this is such a behemoth of an episode to record in one sitting. Usually we’ll have an actor and there’ll be, you know, half of like three scenes and we’ll get it done in like 20 minutes. I mean, Will usually has more than our average actor because he’s a big part of every episode. But this was just… We knew if we got like five to seven takes, every paragraph would go all day.
So I really just kind of let him go and he just did it. I don’t want to say cold. I think he worked on it a little on his own. But, similar to the table read, he kind of read through it and he would go for like a couple pages. And then I’d say, “Okay, you want to go back and maybe try a different version of some of that?” And he’d go, “Oh yeah, this part I didn’t really nail. I’ll do that again,” but he took very little direction. It really is his interpretation of the script, and I think he really felt it and connected with it. You know, having played the character for this long and this many years and understanding that relationship that he has with his mother and also with himself and the things he talked about. And so I really just kind of let him be and, and I don’t think I gave much direction at all.
Hollingsworth: It’s a real tour de force performance. He won an Annie Award for it, for his performance. And this is a guy who’s done a ton of voice-over. He’s Batman and all these other memorable characters and this is his performance that he won his first Annie Award for, for voice-over.