But midway through the latest season of the Netflix series, which premiered Friday, we see something very unusual for TV, and especially for an animated series: just a character talking, uninterrupted, for roughly 20 minutes.
The sixth episode of Season 5, “Free Churro,” largely consists of the protagonist, BoJack Horseman, delivering a eulogy at his mother’s funeral. The monologue, with its mix of vulnerability, anger and jokes, has a sophisticated structure; as BoJack talks in what feels like stream-of-consciousness, he’s essentially weaving together multiple story strands with callbacks and asides.
“BoJack” writers think of how to tell stories in a new way “to keep us on our toes” every season, said show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg. “Our show is so cartoony a lot of times and visual-based, and we have such an amazing design department and animation department. We really lean on them a lot.”
So it felt like a fun challenge “to kind of tie an arm behind our back” and “to play the visuals very straight and very simple and just focus on the words of the show,” said Bob-Waksberg. “And then even limit ourselves more, not give BoJack the sparring partner and take away all the dialogue and really be just about BoJack talking about his feelings for a half hour.”
Once the writers figured a format to try, they had to find the story to justify it. The latest season provided the opportunity; by this point, we know BoJack and his fraught relationship with his mother quite well.
Other TV shows had tried episodes consisting of only a monologue, such as “Underground.” There’s also a “Maude” episode in which Bea Arthur’s character spends the entire time talking to a psychiatrist. The way the writers behind that 1975 episode split Arthur’s monologue into A, B and C stories, and kept switching between them, inspired the approach “BoJack” took. (BoJack actually name-checks “Maude” in his eulogy.)
“In our episode, we have the idea that the last thing though BoJack’s mother said to him was ‘I see you,’ and the mystery of what that meant kind of became our A story,” Bob-Waksberg said “Then you could kind of wander down digressions and various cul de sacs, but we always came back to that home base.”
Bob-Waksberg, who majored in playwriting in college, decided to write this particular episode (he usually just does one a season), with other writers pitching jokes and ideas.
They didn’t plan to end so abruptly, and with a laugh. “It felt right to end on a joke, and not just a joke, but a joke that kind of deflates the whole episode, or undoes it,” Bob-Waksberg said.
“Narratively it kind of builds on the themes of the episodes in a beautiful way and it kind of comes as this very emotional climax and then to have that lead into this punchline — I think I’m gonna pat myself a little on the back,” Bob-Waksberg said with some laughs. “It’s very well crafted. I’m proud of it.”
The resulting episode also feels like a companion piece to the show’s much-acclaimed underwater episode, “Fish Out of Water,” from two seasons ago. There’s almost no dialogue in it at all.
For “Free Churro,” one of the most challenging parts of the episode was how to deal with the people in the crowd, who aren’t shown until the very end. During the first watch, the episode was too quiet; executive producer Noel Bright noted it felt more like BoJack was performing a one-man show rather than delivering a eulogy in a funeral home, Bob-Waksberg recalled.
The sound-mixing became essential to making the audience aware that there were people in the funeral home without causing them to think too much about who those people were, like “is Princess Carolyn there, or is Hollyhock there? I wanted the focus to stay on BoJack,” Bob-Waksberg said.
When the writers sent the script to Will Arnett, who voices BoJack, they attached a note to pay particular attention to this episode, since it was so different. And for the most part, what we hear is Arnett’s first take at the recording session, according to Bob-Waksberg.
“I will always remember that first table read we did of this episode, hearing it out loud for the first time in his voice. It was chilling,” Bob-Waksberg said. “He’s phenomenal actor, and I think he’s kind of so good that you forget how good he is. Like, BoJack almost doesn’t feel like a character being played by an actor. It just feels like this person, who is a horse.”