The Ringer interviews Lisa Hanawalt

“Lisa Hanawalt’s Long, Talking Animal–Filled Road to ‘BoJack Horseman’” / The Ringer / Alison Herman / July 21, 2016

Lisa Hanawalt is wearing a T-shirt with a twerking plant on it.

In the past, she says, journalists have felt the need to embellish descriptions of her outfits for maximum quirk factor. “I didn’t mean that to be like, I’m dragging every reporter,” she laughs. “But it is funny when they make things up.” Today, though, there’s no embellishment necessary. Hanawalt — a Los Angeles–based artist and production designer on BoJack Horseman — is sporting a shirt that features a dancing shrub.

Over lunch in the city’s Echo Park neighborhood, just a few miles from the Hollywood BoJack parodies so acutely, Hanawalt has both the quiet, introspective nature of an artist and the enthusiasm of someone whose work involves building an alternate universe from the ground up. Typically, “production designer” refers to the physical work of world-building, like Jack Fisk improvising a pile of skulls for The Revenant. In Hanawalt’s case, the job is more conceptual. BoJack is an animated show, and animation means drawing a world into being, not just shaping one that already exists.

The shirt design is, of course, Hanawalt’s own, instantly recognizable from the comics and illustrations that have earned her a dedicated fan base outside of her television work. The world of BoJack, where a depressed talking horse navigates life as a washed-up sitcom star, is directly descended from the world of Hanawalt’s drawings, where toucans have anxiety attacks and breakfast foods get into fistfights: both the show and her art are gloriously nonsensical, but with their own, offbeat internal logic.

BoJack’s third season, a typically potent mix of visual joy and emotional cynicism, comes immediately on the heels of Hot Dog Taste Test, Hanawalt’s second stand-alone collection of drawings. The book is loosely centered on food, anchored by a handful of illustrated essays Hanawalt made for the foodie quarterly Lucky Peach on topics ranging from New York street food to Las Vegas hotel buffets. The culinary theme isn’t universal, Hanawalt says, but it’s a useful organizing principle. “It kind of helps people understand my work if they haven’t seen it before,” she says. “They’re like, ‘What is this? Dogs? Cats?’ It’s almost like a Trojan horse. It’s about food, but there’s also birds trying on swimsuits and stuff that kind of relates to life.”

The rest is a riot of loopy brainstorms — “Food with good intentions: bubble tea, pickles” — and raucous spreads of things both zoological and scatological. Half-serious lists (a compilation of baking tips includes Jenny Holzer–style mandates like PROTECT BUTTER’S REPUTATION) transition into water-color landscapes, which transition into self-contained comics. On BoJack, Hanawalt’s clever, borderline whimsical design functions as an essential counterpoint to the characters’ self-inflicted unhappiness. But on its own, her work has a free-wheeling diversity. Death makes an appearance. So does a guide to wine, sorted from “makes your tits itchy” (shiraz) to “don’t” (champagne).

I thought it sounded too depressing.”

This was Hanawalt’s reaction when her high school friend Raphael Bob-Waksberg emailed her the idea for BoJack, the Depressed Talking Horse (title tentative, though true to the final product) in 2011. Hanawalt had no animation experience prior to BoJack, which starts its new season on Netflix this Friday. She took Bob-Waksberg up on his offer when he started to develop the series — which would be based in part on her anthropomorphic animal drawings — in earnest about a year later.

The two had initially met as teenagers in Palo Alto, California, through their high school’s theater scene. Bob-Waksberg was a longtime performer; Hanawalt worked on the sets, and her transition to the stage was more gradual. (Her first role was a dead body.) Bob-Waksberg directed Hanawalt in a handful of plays, with the collaboration snowballing from there. Even as kids, Hanawalt says, the two would swap ideas for shows based on their friend group.

They stayed in touch after going to college on separate coasts, Bob-Waksberg at Bard in upstate New York and Hanawalt at UCLA, in part by collaborating on a webcomic “about Raphael and his problems with girls.” (Sadly, it didn’t survive into the post-Geocities era of the internet.) In the meantime, Hanawalt worked a series of odd jobs, including a severely under-regulated Craigslist moving business she called “Tom Boy with a Truck” and a stint as a secretary in Glendale, before decamping for Brooklyn and becoming a full-time freelance illustrator. (On a celebratory visit after quitting the secretary job, she met her partner, comedian Adam Conover, who also happened to be Bob-Waksberg’s roommate at the time.)

Hanawalt got her start as a professional artist by doing pet portraits in exchange for 20 bucks and/or beer. (Thanks to BoJack, she still gets requests, though they’re usually from strangers: “It’s always like, ‘I can’t pay you and it’s my birthday and I need it today.’”) Eventually, she’d do work for the likes of The Believer and The New York Times, in which a Hanawalt painting of an elephant in heels, pearls, and heavy mascara paired nicely with an op-ed from Samantha Bee, then of The Daily Show.

Hanawalt’s time in New York also included a stint at Pizza Island, a six-person, all-female studio based in Greenpoint. Other members included Kate Beaton, best known as creator of the irreverent-yet-erudite webcomic Hark! A Vagrant, and Sarah Glidden, an illustrator-cum-journalist who’d lived with Hanawalt for a year prior to the Island’s founding in 2010. (Glidden on Hanawalt, from a brief New York magazine piece on the collective: “I don’t know what’s going on in that sweet, twisted brain of hers, but I want to go there on vacation.”) Hanawalt describes the group as “very casual” — “We didn’t set out to be like, ‘We’re going to have an all-female collective.’ We just wanted to hang out with each other” — though a quick scroll through the Island’s group blog has a palpable sense of fun. The studio itself functioned as more of a coworking space, with a single zine representing the sum of its collective output, but its members share a certain off-center intelligence. Note the suited-up cat lady standing in for Hanawalt in this collective portrait. It’s not far off of BoJack’s Princess Carolyn, a workaholic, cotton candy–colored Persian cat and talent agent — though at the time, it was part of a trajectory that pointed toward more success in the arts, not Hollywood.

Before signing on to BoJack, Hanawalt had never taken serious steps toward translating her work from the page to the screen; she says she’d thought about animation only in the abstract, and never for scripted television. “I hadn’t planned on it,” she says. “I wasn’t like, ‘I’m going to put a pitch together.’ I wouldn’t know how to do that.” This made the learning curve for helping Bob-Waksberg craft the BoJack universe relatively steep, but instantly immersive.

First, they set about building the main cast from scratch. Hanawalt didn’t even have a computer drawing tool at the time, so she had to sketch characters by hand, then workshop with Bob-Waksberg from across the country. By this point, the two were on opposite coasts again; Hanawalt was still based in Brooklyn, while Bob-Waksberg was developing the BoJack pitch into something slightly more sellable than “… the Depressed Talking Horse” with Michael Eisner’s Tornante Co. Like so many comedians before him, he’d moved to L.A. to try to make it in entertainment, an experience that still feeds BoJack’s alienation.

Animal characters like BoJack himself came relatively easily. Humans were trickier. Diane, a clever, critical writer who shares some of BoJack’s depressive tendencies, took some time; Hanawalt describes long phone calls with Bob-Waksberg with feedback along the lines of, “She should be sexy, but not like sexy. Bookish, but …” Todd, BoJack’s happy-go-lucky perennial houseguest, was initially a dead ringer for Mark Zuckerberg, then Seth Rogen, then Bob-Waksberg — which makes sense, given that he’s partially inspired by Bob-Waksberg’s own experience crashing in a Hollywood Hills dream house. Animation can liberate shows somewhat from the vagaries of the casting process, but — to quote another famous animated character — with great freedom comes great responsibility.

Today, BoJack has a full staff of character, background, and prop designers overseen by Hanawalt, Bob-Waksberg, and supervising director Mike Hollingsworth, but the development process still starts with Hanawalt. Generally, the writers’ room comes to her with a concept — a manatee version of Anna Wintour, for example, or in the new season, a squad of plus-size killer whale strippers. Hanawalt then draws and colors a complete figure. Once Bob-Waksberg gives final approval, the designers set about giving a character a full set of animation options, including poses, angles, and “mouth packs” for speaking. The more prominent a character, the greater their range of motion; BoJack can tilt his head, while a bird-person we see flying out of a window in the background cannot.

Hanawalt tends to start with the characters she finds most interesting, like the Wintour stand-in — the Vogue editor was already a favorite subject  — or the strippers. “The whole idea is that they would be large women, and I really like that,” she says. “I like that they’re still sexy, it’s just not what you’d normally expect when you see strippers designed in a show.”

Lots of BoJack isn’t what you’d normally expect from a show — not its fatalistic musings on what it means to be a good person, and not a collection of cinematic cop clichés named Officer Meow Meow Fuzzyface, who Hanawalt based on a friend’s cat. As a series about a privileged yet disaffected middle-aged man, it may be built on a familiar base. But what it adds to that base, thematically and especially visually, is without precedent in contemporary television, possibly because it seems more concerned with experimentation and insight than with prestige.

Characters and backgrounds get as much variety and detail as BoJack’s seven-month production schedule allows, a much tighter time frame than comparable animated shows. (Rick and Morty, BoJack’s most frequently cited peer in the “cartoons fully capable of curb-stomping your emotional state” space, took 19 months between the premieres of its first and second seasons.) Television’s production schedule is often a grueling adjustment for transplants from other mediums, though that medium is more often film than illustration.

“I wish we had more time, because we want to make, like, Fantasia with every episode,” Hanawalt says. “But that’s not the nature of the business at all.” Still, she admits, “Maybe it’s good we have limited time. I feel like we would just keep filling it up with more and more detail if we were able to, and that’s probably not the best thing.” As it stands, BoJack is almost overwhelmingly packed with sneaky puns and visual Easter eggs: A minor character has a guitar on his wall signed by “Eddie van Whalen”; a movie is filmed at Parrotmount Studios. The detail’s already there.

At its core, though, BoJack still feels like the product of two deeply individual mindsets that pair perfectly. Hanawalt is the kind of artist who feels equally comfortable shadowing Wylie Dufresne and drawing a collection of “banana embellishments”; Bob-Waksberg is the kind of writer who posts melancholic Marge Simpson fan poetry on his Twitter account. Together, they make what might be TV’s most original show.

Three seasons in, Hanawalt describes BoJack Horseman as her day job, albeit one she enjoys and clearly cares about. Alongside her accidental television career, her more intentional artistic one continues apace. In the case of an upcoming music video for Canadian pop duo Tegan and Sara, Hanawalt’s first, she’s even fusing the two. “It’s making me realize why, on a TV show, you have production coordinators and line producers,” she laughs, “because I’m doing that stuff myself and it’s really tricky.”

She’d like to do more comics, she says — such as Coyote Doggirl, her ongoing series about a horse-riding canine wandering the West. Horses were a passion of Hanawalt’s long before BoJack; she currently takes lessons, and her last Instagram TBT shows her in a bedroom plastered with equestrian posters. Hanawalt has a few dozen pages on hand she’d like to expand on and publish, if only she had the time.

A multipronged career like Hanawalt’s is hardly typical of a television producer, and it feels like a unique product of the industry’s current state of expansion and anarchy. As is true of so many other shows, BoJack Horseman would never have been made anywhere but Netflix and at any time other than the present, and neither would a Brooklyn-based artist with a lifelong yen for animal-human hybrids be hired to help shape it. But it was, and Hanawalt was, and TV is a far weirder, more interesting place for it.

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