Alex Freedman: Welcome to Paper Team, a podcast about television writing and becoming a television writer. I’m Alex Freedman, @TVCalling
Nick Watson: I’m Nick Watson, @_njwatson
Alex: And today we’re going to be talking about writing for adult animation with Alison Tafel who is a staff writer on Bojack Horseman!
Alison Tafel: Hi!
Interview with Alison Tafel
Nick: Let’s start off by telling us how did you get your start in the industry and then transition into becoming a writer?
Alison: Well I first got started, I guess I got started in college, I started doing comedy and improve and sketch and before living in Los Angeles I lived in Chicago, and did Second City Conservatory and joined the improve community out there. And yeah then I moved out here with some writing samples and with my dreams and started working kind of at the bottom of the barrel. I started out as a CBS page was my very first job out here, which is like the people, if you don’t know what a page is, it’s Kenneth on 30 Rock with the blazer and the tie and you know I was a glorified traffic cone essentially. And in the meantime kind of worked my way up from there so started out as a page, then became a PA, which is a production assistant, on a television show on Fox and along the way kept writing and giving people my writing sample and hoping they all liked me enough to keep bringing me back so. That’s kind of my start.
Alex: What were kind of the jobs you got before being a staff writer on Bojack?
Alison: Well so I started, I was a CBS Page, you can follow it, then I was a production assistant on the show Raising Hope on Fox, which was great, it was the best job. I mean it’s when you are the bottom of the barrel basically you’re being paid very little and working very, very long hours, so you’re working like twelve to fifteen hours a day doing very easy work but time consuming such as making coffees or running and getting food for everybody or I once had to like get a giant alien head from like an artist and put it in the back of my car and drive it to work – you know, so –
Alex: Did you get pulled over on the way?
Alison: Ah! I wish. That would have been really weird being like ‘there’s this thing, don’t pay no mind to the alien’. That wasn’t even on Raising Hope, after Raising Hope I went to a show, I did Disney Channel, so I did a show called Mighty Med where I was a PA and I got promoted mid-season to being the showrunner’s assistant which is the creator of the show, the head of the show, it’s their person, so it’s again more ridiculous jobs but just now for one person. So it’s like dropping off FedEx, doing dry cleaning, walking the person’s dog, very great things that make you feel good about yourself and your decision making. But I was that assistant and then went over to another Disney Channel show called Bunk’d! You can’t say it like ‘Bunk’d’ you gotta say it like ‘BUNK’D!’. And I was showrunner’s assistant on that show and then the following season got promoted to writers’ assistant, which is the job where you are literally the one writing the show, you are sitting, you’re not writing it in terms of your brain, but you’re sitting in a room where you’re the one typing while all the other writers are telling you what to type. So I did that. There’s not a direct connection between me being a writers’ assistant and me getting on Bojack Horseman but it’s also in the mean time I was writing and I had managed to get a manager through, oh man, I gave my sample to somebody who gave it to somebody who was looking for a new client and my sample was awesome and so signed with a manager while I was still at Bunk’d and he helped me get my agents, which then in turn helped me get an interview with Bojack Horseman, because I had told them…I mean I had told them I was obsessed with the sh – I was like ‘I would like to work on a show like Bojack Horseman’. I don’t even think I said like I want to be on Bo because I thought that was impossible and they were like ‘Okay, first interview, Bojack Horseman’ and I kind of went in and very much fangirled, I very much was like ‘You know when you did this, it was so cool!’. Umm and then I think they liked me enough to then like a couple of weeks later they brought me on as a staff writer, so I was able to leave Bunk’d and go and be a staff writer on Bojack. So that’s kind of the path, so yeah!’
Nick: Wow. That’s amazing. So somewhere along the way there you also did like a late night writers’ program, yeah?
Alison: Yes! Yeah. I also was able to get into. Every year I apply to all the fellowships and that’s what I always tell people, is just apply to everything and anything that you can, there’s many fellowships out here. So I did the Late Night Writers’ Workshop in late 2016, I applied for it and I was one of 6 selected of like 2000 people, which is insane –
Nick: Whoa. Yeah.
Alison: Which was a great, I got to go to New York and spend I think it was like a seven day program where they taught us how to write on late night and that was more of just like a dream come true, more of like a fun emotional experience, but I think because I also had my name now on a website saying NBC selected me, that certainly helped me with being able to get representation. Yeah and also in the meantime besides doing all the working and assisting I was also performing every night and I do improve and I do sketch and I’m writing all the time, so I think there’s, that’s also a very important part of it to, to stay creative, not just focus on being really good at getting coffee.
Alison: Like be really good at getting coffee too, but like also be writing all the time.
Alex: And putting yourself out there.
Alex: What was kind of your portfolio at that point. Did you have, you said you had like specs, was it like pilots, how much writing had you done before that?
Alison: I had some specs and most of the specs that I had written were for doing fellowships. As far as I know, and I’m not an expert, fellowships are the only place that really care about specs. I think specs are really important and I think they’re good for learning how to write television and they’re really a great way to understand television if you’re first starting out, but I also had this huge folder of my own personal pilots, and you know it’s one of those examples of like my first pilot when I first moved to Los Angeles I thought was amazing, I’m going to sell it and it’s going to star me and it’s going to be great! But it really took like, I mean this was maybe 4 or 5 pilots later, which is just kind of just me like learning when to put something away and move onto another thing and take what I’ve learned from working in the industry and getting feedback from people. So I really was like had two pilots, original pilots, that I sent to the person who now reps me, his name is Brendan Rabb at Haven, he’s great. So I had those two ready to go, I also had specs if people were interested in, but really my agents weren’t very interested, and I also had what’s called like a packet for Late Night, so I have a packet that’s like pages of just like monologue jokes, plus sketches, plus desk bit ideas, so I had a packet as well, which I still am constantly like revising as well, because I still love Late Night. So yeah I kind of had all the things, which I hate to say because I feel like that’s not helpful, like for a writer being like ‘Wait I have to have all the things?’ but I think like I eventually, having original pilots and being good at writing original pilots I think was like a big key, but I had to write all the other stuff to get there.
Alex: I was wondering, regarding the hiring process, what was the interview like because you came, as you said, a fangirl.
Alison: Oh yeah, okay.
Alex: And you know, those kind of meetings are usually I think Jane Espenson calls them the pants meeting, and basically the showrunner just wants to see –
Alison: Pants meeting? I want to know what that means. Does that mean like do you show up in pants?
Alex: Exactly, exactly, yeah.
Alison: Oh that’s great! I actually, I fully, I get it.
Nick: Fully dressed for that?
Alison: Yeah, you guys, I did. I came like wearing good clothes too, so like they really thought I had my things together. Um –
Alex: A t-shirt tuxedo.
Alison: Oh I should have! That would have been too fangirly. I love Mr Peanutbutter! I think, the first, what got me the interview – well, my agent, I mean that’s why agents are helpful, my agent got me the interview – but I had a great sample that actually was very much in the wheelhouse of Bojack Horseman. Probably not on purpose, but because I am such a fan of the show. I’m not saying I wrote a Bojack spec. Do not write a Bojack spec and send it to Raphael Bob-Waksberg, like he actually just went on a Twitter thing saying ‘That’s why I won’t read that spec’ because you don’t want to give a showrunner something that they know more about than you will ever know. But my spec was a very silly, had to do with alien cows shooting humans with milk guns, so it’s a very silly kind of pilot so he really enjoyed it, so that’s what got me an interview. But yeah the point of an interview is like you know writers can be great on paper and then you come in and you’re like ‘Oh you’re an insane person’, like you’re in a room for a really long time with these people so it’s about meeting people that you can be in a room with for a really long time, being a nice, personable person, but also just it’s about whether or not your vibe works with the other vibes and it’s about kind of fine-tuning the different people you’re going to have in the room. So remember if you ever get that interview to not stress too much about being the right person, oh I’m on, I’m doing airquotes right now – doing the ‘right person’ and just being yourself, because that’s going to help you more than trying to fit whatever mould, because you don’t know what they want. But yeah, my interview was I think really just a talking about why I wrote the script I did, what I know about Bojack, did I have any ideas about Bojack, which was real fun because then later some of the, I don’t know if some of my ideas they were mine, or if like that was the direction they were going anyway so that was really exciting anyway to be like ‘I said that in my interview!’, but any ideas for Bojack and also like kinda just shooting the breeze, kind of just talking about TV that we like. Like I told them about my love for Ben Affleck which is like a very known thing with all my friends and he got in an argument with me about like not Ben Affleck but about the reality show on HBO and whether or not I watched it, Project Greenlight – so then we started getting into like being like ‘Do we like it, do we not, nanana?’ and we left being like ‘Well we both agreed on Project Greenlight’ and then we left, but really the whole point was really ‘Can I just hang with this person?’, which sounds so silly and unfair but I think like that’s kind of half of it, is being talented, but also being someone that you can collaborate with other people with and be open to, like how do you, what’s your rapport with people?
Nick: Yeah that’s kind of like an adage that the less time you actually spend talking about the job in an interview or a meeting, then often the better the meeting has gone, if you’re kind of just shooting the breeze.
Alison: Yeah, like in hindsight, I’m glad that’s the case, in my brain I was like ‘He didn’t ask me anything more about the show? They only talked to me, they weren’t…’ I mean I went home like ‘I’m not going to…’, I really didn’t think I was going to get it. I was very like ‘That was cool’, I think I even left like ‘If I never see you again then just know your show is very important to me.’
Alison: I was like a very, like I was just so excited to be there, so yeah when I got the call that I got it, umm, I mean I don’t know why I got it, I just know be prepared – have a great spec, be a nice person, show up in pants! I guess that’s the thing and umm yeah, don’t stress too much about your personality because your personality is who you are and that’s more important as a writer than trying to change who you are in an interview.
Nick: What did you do when you got that call? Did you just like completely flip out, or like did you celebrate?
Alison: Nachos and beer![laughter]
Alison: That’s how I celebrated! I was at work, I was at Bunk’d and I was in the room and I had a couple of missed calls, I wasn’t supposed to be on my phone as a writers’ assistant, but when I had like, my phone was kind of blowing up, I was actually worried something had happened like is this my family calling me? So I excused myself from the room, I get on the phone, I’m on speaker phone with my, I have three agents – that sounds so hoity toity, I’m sorry! I have three –
Alex: At CAA.
Alison: Yeah. I don’t say that very much. I have three agents – their names are Tara, Praveen and Jacqui and Brendan who’s my manager and they were like ‘Sit down’ and in my brain I was like ‘Oo, I got something!’ and I actually had interviewed for a few other jobs so I assumed I was getting another one, that I would have been an amazing story to tell you if I got that job, because I was a big fan of that show as well. I did not think Bojack. So when I sat, they were like ‘Sit down’ and I was like ‘Okay! I got a job!’ and they were just like ‘You got Bojack Horseman’ and it was just like faucets, like tears, like oh my god like people are passing me thinking something’s wrong, like I was at the Hollywood Centre Studios Lot so all these people are passing me, looking at me like ‘Are you okay?’ and I was like just sobbing and going ‘OK, OK, OK, great! Now. So when do I start?’ and they were like ‘You start tomorrow.’ So I had to get off the phone and the first thing I did was call my boyfriend who also could not believe, like he was also so excited he had to leave his office too and I think he cried a little too like oh my god. And I think I called my parents, I called my brothers, I called my best friend, and then had to then go into my boss and go into my boss and pull her out, the showrunner of Bunk’d, who’s lovely, who’s a great person, her name is Pamela Eells, she’s amazing – and I had to just be like ‘So I got a job’ and she was like ‘Oh my god, honey I’m so excited for you!’ and I had to be like ‘And I start tomorrow…’ and you know, they were really great about it because I think they understand that like, I don’t, I’m not trying to promote if you get a job quitting and leaving that day, if you have the ability you should give two weeks notice, or a week’s notice and help out because again it’s all about who you know and networking and things like that. Because of how Bojack, where they were in the schedule, I did need to come in the next day and she was really great and she was very supportive about it and I think they figured it out – they got somebody immediately, because guess what? A lot of people want writers’ assistant jobs, so yeah it was kind of a whirlwind, because I kind of got home, my boyfriend made me nachos, which is like my favourite meal ever, and also would be like my wedding cake would not be wedding cake, it would be a nacho cake –[laughter]
Alison: And then beer, or champagne and then beer, because beer is more important to me than champagne, but champagne is about the like ‘Yay!’
Alex: The lifestyle!
Alison: But it was a little fast, it was like I got home at 8pm that night and I started work at like, I start my first day at Bojack the next day, at 10am the next day! So. It was great. It was amazing, but it was a surreal experience for sure.
Nick: So tell us about, walking into that writers’ room, what’s it like? How many people are in there? What levels are they at? And what’s the kind of like environment and dynamic like?
Alison: Every writers’ room is different, so I’ll tell you about Bojack, but I can say with also other experience with Disney and Raising Hope, they’re all very different. So Bojack, there is eight of us including the showrunner Raphael, that’s nine. So it’s four women, four men, which is crazy –
Nick: It’s awesome.
Alison: It’s amazing! But I’ve never been in a writers’ room that had equal women and men, which was really nice and refreshing and I was the only staff writer. You know, I could go through and say everyone’s titles but to be honest, Bojack, over other shows, really didn’t make a big deal about that. You know, lots of times when I’ve been on other shows you know you get your own office or you get your own desk and you get your name above your desk, a little thing that they print out, and they’ll say underneath it ‘Staff Writer’ or – kind of the levels are staff writer, what is it, story editor. Producer. Co-Executive Producer. Executive Producer. That’s kind of the levels of writers. But at Bojack it’s Alison and it’s Kelly, Joanna, Kate, you know –
Alex: Wow. First name basis.
Alison: Yeah yeah, it was just like ‘This is where you sit!’. So even, I think I had to like wait until like I watched old episodes of Bojack with some of the writers for me to be like ‘OK so oh he’s a co-executive producer, or he’s an executive producer’ you know. Why that was nice, even though there’s only, because there is only eight of us in the room, it didn’t really feel like there is hierarchy. I mean there is, because there’s people who are more experienced and more funny –[laughter]
Alison: – but there wasn’t, I never felt, you know, some rooms ran it like where it’s staff writers, you know when you should speak. There’s someone who should speak more than you. But Bojack wasn’t like that, Bojack was very, it’s a collaborative, it’s a small room, so it’s more, you have to speak up more because it’s a much more collaborative, talking out kind of effort. But like other rooms have twenty, on Raising Hope there’s like I think twenty writers when I was on.
Nick: Wow. All in the one room or did they split them up?
Alison: They split them up. I think it was twenty, but it was a lot –
Alison: And that was my first show so I was like ‘Oh, all staffs have twenty.’
Alex: Was it like twenty writing entities?
Alison: No it was a lot, there’s a lot of teams yeah, so there’s a lot of which a team, two people have split a salary. But yeah, like I know on Bunk’d for instance there’s sixteen writers. I think all of them are teams though so technically it’s eight writers, but sixteen people in a room.
Alison: So eight is a very –
Nick: Trying to get maximum value there.
Alison: Exactly! Well yeah.
Alex: All the paper teams.
Alison: Disney knows how to do that! But yeah, Bojack was, is a very small. We had one writing team which is Jordan Young and Elijah Aron who actually, they’re amazing. They wrote the underwater episode of season three, I mean they’re –
Nick: Oh my god.
Alison: Yeah so to me I’m like ‘I can’t believe they’re a team’ – I mean I’m glad they’re a team, because they’re a great team, but I’m also like ‘Individually you’re amazing people!’[laughter]
Alison: So it really doesn’t, being a team or being not doesn’t like make you less of a writer in any way. But yeah. So there’s eight of us.
Alex: Can you walk us through the process of making an animated show, especially how it differs from live action?
Alison: Oh. Yes and no? Yes I can, but I guess Bojack really was very similar to a live action, except for you know we weren’t shooting at the same time. Technically. We, because Raphael came from I think live action and we were a WGA show, which sometimes animation isn’t WGA, we ran very similar to what a live action would be – we had table reads and we had a similar structure, but I think the difference between maybe us and another show is we had time. So there is always time to change and to revise and work on individual episodes to make them better and we were able to also, I mean Netflix loves arcs, I mean that’s the whole Netflix model is all about kind of bingeable stuff, so they’re not really, even though yes they are standalone episodes, the idea is every episode is feeding into the next episode, which is feeding into the next episode. So you’re always kind of working toward the like overall thing.
Alison: And we had time to do that, whereas like a live action maybe has like, because of production costs, you have to like have your script done and locked and ready to go by this point and by this point, so I think that would be the main point.
Alex: Well how far in advance are you guys planning for that whole season, especially because you have I guess theoretically a full year between seasons. What is that process like of making an entire season before an episode even airs?
Alison: It’s really, really fun.[laughter]
Alison: When I came on I was, they were already a couple of weeks into writing, but before we wrote any scripts down you know we had a big whiteboard and we had these big note cards with big things we wanted to happen to each character, like here’s a story idea for Bojack this season, this is what we want to kind of deal with him this season. This is his thing. Here’s Princess Carolyn’s, here’s all these. So we kind of had places for them in this like big, white board of like ‘By episode six this needs to have happened so by the time you get to episode twelve…’ So you know you have twelve episodes, you know you have arcs for everybody. What’s really funny is like, you can talk and plan it all you want and then when you get to actually writing episodes like oh my gosh, by episode six we’d be like ‘Weren’t we going to do that thing with Todd’ and then it became like ‘Well now we’re not’, so it became like even when you’re in it, there’s still a chance, it’s not like everything was set in stone. There’s still a chance that by the end, like by the time you get to episode twelve, I remember like I still didn’t quite know how things were going to end because it’s really kind of indicative of what happens in each episode that comes with the creative process. Which is nice, because it’s, as opposed to like ‘No we have to, because by episode seven, Princess Carolyn better have had this happen to her’ and it’s like sometimes it’s like ‘But, Episode five that was really funny so we’re not going to do that anymore because we had a funnier idea or you know. I say that like we, I mean like everyone who worked on –
Alex: On Bojack.
Alison: I feel like I was sitting there twiddling my thumbs half the time like ‘Oh this is great!’.
Alex: By episode ten everyone will be crying.
Alison: Yeah, yeah. Well. That’s a Bojack trait for sure.[laughter]
Alison: Usually episode eleven is like ‘Uuuuuh’.
Alex: Really sad.
Nick: Crush everyone’s souls.
Alison: But yeah, it was so you kind of have a loose arc and then you get into writing and everything changes no matter how much you try not to make it change. So. I don’t even know if I answered your question, sorry.[laughter]
Nick: It worked out.
Alison: But it’s a big process. It’s a big, fun process that I think we had time to do.
Nick: So as a writer who’s in a writing room, how do you interact with the animators and can you talk sort of about how it works with like doing a voice record and getting animatics back and how kind of you can keep changing it as it goes?
Alison: Usually, we do the record first. And I believe how it’s helpful for the animators is basically we get kind of like a radio version of the show, so it’s like we get all the actors in, they record the parts, we edit that, the sound part together and then we can give it to the animators to kind of use to create the looks off of the people based on the performances that are given. So it’s not like the performers are adjusting for the characters, the characters are adjusting for the performers, which is cool. As for our interaction with the animators, like really we kind of write before and then we wrap after twelve episodes and there’s still so much work to be done. So we, the most that I got to see as a staff writer, which of course, other writers maybe got to see more, is like the character designs. So like my favourite was like, I wrote an episode where I had two tiny characters, like one line characters, and I named them John and Michelle after like my best friend and his girlfriend –[laughter]
Alison: That’s like yeah! And she, I got to see the drawing of John and he’s an animal.[laughter]
Alison: And like I didn’t imagine him, but it was like so exciting to see like ‘Oh this is the character that she created for him. So I got to see that and I also –
Nick: Did it resembled your friend John?
Alison: I mean they didn’t know! Like I’m a staff writer, so I didn’t be like ‘Just so you guys know – ‘
Alex: Here’s a photo.
Alison: Yeah. Like it was like a person who had a line that was like ‘Yeah cool.’ But his name was John and that’s what was important.
Alison: But yeah the animation kind of happens, the design happens while we’re writing, but the actual animation and the layout happens later and when you get a – Raphael was great about like my episode I got to go in a few times and listen to the records of the people doing the lines and like give my notes –
Alex: That’s amazing.
Alison: Which like I don’t have many because like our actors are so good that I’m just so floored like ‘You made that funnier than how I wrote it!’
Nick: Do you throw alt lines out for them to try and –
Alison: Yeah! You know, Raphael does, sometimes it’s alt lines but sometimes it’s just like, sometimes people don’t realise that when you do voice work for animation like you have to do a lot of noises. So it’s like ‘Okay so it’s like you’re lifting up a heavy box. So if you can make a heavy box noises now, like argh, urgh, aah. Like in so it’s like these very successful, famous people, being like ‘Rrr, arrgh, ooorg.’ Like you know. It’s hilarious.
Nick: That’s amazing.
Alison: But yeah, and then after the records, then I did get to see animatics for the first four episodes of next season. I got to see the animatics a little bit for my episode.
Nick: Can you explain what an animatic is? For people who don’t know?
Alison: Yeah sure. I didn’t know either so, this will make me sound cool. An animatic is kind of a, the best way I can describe it is a very basic, cut of animation that looks very blocky. So kind of what South Park is just in general. Like if South Park is like that very chunky kind of, it’s not smooth movement and it’s very, it’s black and white, it’s not coloured yet –
Nick: It’s like a moving storyboard or something.
Alison: Kinda yeah.
Alex: Like the flipbook kind of?
Alison: Yeah, well I would even say like it’s like if you taped some drawings on some popsicle sticks, and like moved them around, like jumped them around and were like ‘Now they jump here and now they do this’, it’s a very kind of choppy storyboard version that lines up with the voice that we got, sorry the voice recordings that I got, so I got to see the very choppy chunky version of my episode for a little bit and then I also got to see a more smoother version of the first four episodes. My episode is six of season four that’s coming out, but the fact it was like they were so beautiful, you know they weren’t even – I’m thinking like, ‘Oh my god they’re not even done yet, this is amazing!’, but yeah that is what animatics are and it’s a time for Raphael and the directors to, the director of animation to say, ‘You know when he crosses to the fridge, actually can we make him cross to the couch?’ or there’s a, it’s similar to live action where it’s like ‘this is a close up shot of his face and actually can we get a cowboy shot, which is like a view of chest to your head, or can we get a full body shot here or can we get another person in the picture?’, like it’s similar with animatics, it’s a way to look at it with live action. It’s a similar kind of cut, edit process.’
Alex: I’m curious about the collaboration on the creative level with animators, especially because Bojack is such a visual show. You have animals representing different things and then that’s one of my favourite things about Bojack it’s figuring out the animal representing a specific profession, all these things –
Alison: Yeah me too!
Alex: – is it in the script, is it the animators coming up with that? What’s the breakdown?
Alison: Well, the animators are hilarious, our animators are so funny. Lisa is a really, really very funny person and then Mike Hollingsworth, he’s our, he’s the supervising director, which I had to learn what that was, but he’s another one who is in the animation side and he’s absolutely hilarious and they, so sometimes it’s in the script, so sometimes we’re very funny and we want like a specific animal or joke or something in the background. But majority of the time if you really love the puns on the t-shirts, the puns on the books, the animals that like I mean, I think in season three he goes to a bat mitzvah and it’s like an actual bat –
Alex: Yeah. Bat mitzvah!
Alison: I wasn’t on in season three, but I’m pretty sure that was like a Lisa thing. Like, the animators have a lot of creative freedom and so like it’s almost like funny to hear people go ‘Oh I love that show, it’s so funny, all the background things…’ and it’s like ‘Those were not writers, those were all the animators, because they’re absolutely hilarious. But yeah, it’s a lot more – it’s not like the writers are sticklers with things and the animators are this way, it’s a very collaborative in like that regard. Where everybody gets to be funny.
Nick: That’s awesome. Are there ever any like budgetary considerations for what you can write in animation? Stuff that’s more difficult for people to do, to animate, things like that?
Alison: Yeah! I was surprised because you know, working in live action sometimes you’re like ‘Oh you can’t blow up a car, that’s very expensive’, so then you think ‘Oh animation you can blow up cars’ and in animation you can get away with a little bit more but there are funny things like – I remember there was a discussion about Bojack’s car and whether or not, you know, because I think in season three he runs his car into a pool. So then there’s this question of like, well did that car get saved, or does he have a new car? But then it’s like you have to keep in mind that if he has a new car, the designers, that costs money to even just like buy, like draw a new car and have a new car template. So then I remember there’s things like, well what kind of like ‘Does he have a similar car that’s just a different colour?’. So I think there are budgetary things in terms of like, instead of making them eat at a new restaurant every time, they constantly go to that same restaurant because we already have that background, you know. Or instead of making this in a park, why don’t we make it Bojack’s living room because we already have that kind of background. Or creating new characters, let’s hope that if we do create new characters that they’re in multiple episodes, because then it’s like, you know that drawing is expensive and animating that takes a lot of time and money so…
Alex: That works as the background jokes, like that random improv guy from I think the second season, that was throughout the third season – personally I sort of recognised the random improv guy from that boat, that cruise in the third season –
Alison: Oh yeah, yeah. They repeat all, the background people are some of my favourite, like they have, again – I’m a Ben Affleck fan – and I saw in one of the edit bays I was like ‘You have a Ben Affleck template?’ and they were like ‘Yeah, they just, during the Oscar season they just needed like famous looking people in the background. So they have a Ben Affleck famous man, he’s like in the underwater episode and I remember being like ‘If you have a template of Ben Affleck I want to write a Ben Affleck part.’
Nick: Did you put him in? Maybe you can’t say –
Alison: Unfortunately I didn’t have the courage, but so I don’t think he will be making an appearance in season four, but –
Alex: He’s going to be the lead of the thing, of season five.
Alison: Just know that that template is made. I just love that they have these like movie star templates, that now I need him there’s movie star stuff, you’ll probably see Jurj in the background –
Nick: Jurj Clooners.
Alison: Yeah, you probably will at some point I imagine. But it’s more of that kind of budgetary stuff that like I had to learn about as well.
Nick: Can I just say for a minute how amazing it was that Bojack predicted the Oscar mess up?
Alex: That was pretty good.
Nick: It’s amazing![laughter]
Alison: I didn’t even think about that. That’s true.
Nick: It had never happened before –
Alex: It tells the future.
Nick: It comes on Bojack and then it happens in real life, so you guys have got to be careful about what you write.
Alison: Oh my gosh. Well. Get ready for season four, because. Oh boy!
Alex: It’s getting real![laughter]
Alex: I’m kind of curious about the feedback loop, especially because you guys are on Netflix and you are not getting feedback outside of the production company, the studio and all these elements, until the show gets out. So how does that work on the story level? How does that impact the writing? If at all…
Alison: It does, I think, I mean any show kind of is impacted by the network, because it’s the network, ultimately it’s their decision to air your episode, so with every episode you have to, Raphael would have to pitch it to the network and get it approved by the network, and then we’d have table reads and they’d usually stay after and talk to Raphael about you know, there’s thoughts on the show and same with drafts, I think we always send them their way. Because being a staff writer I’m not like, not like elbow to elbow with all the Netflix people, like I don’t know them on a first name basis, but I know who they are when they walk in the room. I think every network is part of the process and so you can either look at it as like ‘They give you notes and that and that’s frustrating and hurts your creativity’. I can honestly say Netflix is not like that and in fact, Netflix and most good networks, and I think Netflix is a good network, they help either they let you do your thing, or whatever notes they have are to help improve the product. Because sometimes I think when you’re in it, when you’re so inside of it and you’re writing it, you don’t see some flaws that maybe a network exec who comes to a table read would notice. That’s my vague answer I guess. They’re very helpful and they’re very good and they help pay me money so way to go network execs!
Nick: Please keep employing us.
Alison: But no, yeah, they, they’re always there along the way, the whole time, they’re very involved in the whole process.
Alex: I’m curious, when you guys are breaking the season and the episodes, is there a conscious effort to make kind of a special episode – like obviously the drug trip episode from the first season, the cylon episode from the third season, or the flashbacks within flashback, alternate narrative elements. Is that like a conscious decision within the season of ‘OK, this, we’re going to be making the third episode this way?’
Alison: Not in that specific way, not like ‘Episode’ you know people used to say like episode ten, what was it, episode eleven? Episode eleven was the sad episode of Bojack, at least the first three season. No. There is a direct effort that every episode, what’s a cool way to tell this story? What is an interesting thing and an interesting thing we haven’t talk about or done or a format that animation can do that maybe live action can’t do. How, what’s a cool unique way to tell a story? That’s the really cool thing about being on staff is like hearing just everyone’s wonderful ideas, but it kind of, you know, I remember we had like, I can’t get into specifics but we had a structure that we thought would be a really cool idea and it started out being like episode three was going to be that structure and then as we realised what story we wanted to tell we realised well that structure doesn’t work. So let’s push it to four, let’s push it to five. And it became, I don’t know, we did end up doing that structure but it wasn’t until a later episode and so, yes, there always is the deliberate ‘Let’s always push ourselves to be better storytellers and interesting storytellers because what else are we doing but to try and be creative?’ but there isn’t ever like a intent of like ‘Well episode four needs to be our political episode and episode two needs to be our like musical episode’ or anything like that, but I do think it does create, I think Bojack’s a really great place that creates like that kind of cool ‘Oh did you see’ – I’m excited for next season because it will be ‘Did you see this episode and what this one was about’, I’ve never seen anything like it.
Nick: There’s always that one episode that like every news outlet has put up a thing like ‘Oh my god, this is so unique and interesting and amazing’ so it’s cool it gets that kind of hype and that attention.
Alison: Absolutely! I think the goal is to have every episode to be like that though, I mean you want every episode to be that very special episode and that was really fun being on staff with people who really care about that.
Alex: That’s awesome.
Nick: I often call Bojack Horseman kind of like the Breaking Bad of animated sitcoms –
Alison: Oh cool! Because of Aaron Paul?
Nick: Well that too.
Alex: Have you seen my Jesse little doll over there?
Alison: Oh my god, that’s an amazing doll!
Nick: But you know when I say that I’m more referring to the fact that Bojack as a character genuinely kind of arcs and changes over the season and over multiple seasons, as opposed to like a hard reset, like the Simpsons, where the character’s always the same every episode and they don’t like learn anything. So I’m curious like what are the challenges involved keeping a character like Bojack familiar and recognisable and essentially Bojack himself, well allowing him to kind of grow and change as he goes?
Alison: Oh. That’s a great, great question. I always feel like I’m not qualified to answer that question.
Nick: I’m curious like if maybe he has like a central flaw or conflict or paradox that he kind of, he can never get past and that’s what guides you through it or you know?
Alison: You know, I think with Bojack, I think why people really like him as a character, is I think he’s a really, really relatable. So one thing I kind of learned in the writers’ room is that all of them, this is going to sound a bit hokey, but like all of us are Bojack. And all of us have a perspective of Bojack. But no I don’t think we have a thing of being like you know we have a big mantra being like ‘Bojack is always depressed’ circle three times, remember this! I think we all take our personal experiences and try to feed that into that character. I think a driving force with Bojack and why people really, I think because he’s one of the few cartoons yeah that does really change over time. I think how we write him is like nothing’s really off the table with him, like really, you know there’s a lot of discussion, at least when I was in the room, about like ‘Maybe this is the thing that changed him, maybe not! Oh, nope, it turns out it didn’t!’ but I think he is, because he’s constantly evolving, I don’t know how to answer that. I guess I’m saying because he’s kind of part of who we are, so I don’t think we really looked at him in that sense of like ‘He will never get a mohawk’ you know or like we have little rules like that, but I think we’d, because we all have a part of us that is Bojack, I know that sounds hokey, I think that’s what makes him a very malleable, but then relatable kind of character. We’ve all been the person who like can’t seem, no matter, who self-sabotages, like we’re constantly self-sabotaging ourselves and I think that’s something Bojack always does.
Nick: That’s very Bojack.
Nick: Maybe also this kind of like need for like validation from people, or like he lacks this self-worth or something.
Alison: Yeah, which again I think is –
Nick: Which is everybody yeah.
Alison: And I think from my, I say this as like staff writer, not creator, I think what was cool about me coming in is you had some writers who were new, like me, or you had some writers who had been around for a while, but it was nice to come in and go ‘Oh, that’s what you meant? I didn’t know that as an outsider who came in, this is my thought’ and I think that was really fun for all of us to collaborate together and go ‘Oh that’s what you took away from that? I didn’t take away that, I took away this thing or that thing’ and it just helped kind of. I mean ultimately Bojack is Raphael’s creation, so I think filtering it through him is why he has the consistency.
Alison: But yeah, I don’t think there’s ever like ‘Don’t worry, he always has the sweater on’ or anything like that.
Alex: It’s kind of like Secretariat Mirror billboard, like you are Bojack Horseman.
Alison: I mean, I know it’s hokey but I think that was, I never thought I related to…I just loved the show, but after getting to be on, I was like ‘I kind of am like all these characters’ I think that’s what makes them good is that you can kind of relate to all of them.
Alex: I’m kind of curious about process regarding getting all these big name guest actors, even for cameos or bigger roles, especially when they’re written in script, like I’m assuming Greg Kinear and King Lear in the third season there’s all these like little in jokes. Obviously esteemed character actress Margo Martindale. Is it a question of first writing the joke and seeing if they’re game for it or is it flipped the other way around?
Alison: You know I’m not involved in any of the casting part of the show. What I will say is if we hear that a person is wanting to do this part that we offer them, then yeah we definitely get really giddy with puns.[laughter]
Alison: But it’s almost like a little, like we’ll write all these puns and we’ll be like ‘Hahaha’ and I know Raphael is probably going back to his office and being like ‘I need to take it out, like I cannot humiliate this person in this way’.[laughter]
Alison: I think the reason a lot of people like to do our show though is like they’re fans of it, so I think it hasn’t been a – again I’m not in the cast – I don’t want to speak for the casting director who’s obviously amazing at her job – but I don’t know how difficult, but to me I’ve always felt like people are really enthused to be on the show and that’s made it a little easier, but no I don’t think we ever really write anything specifically for someone. I know a good example, and this isn’t from when I was on, but like Jessica Biel came on and she plays Jessica Biel, she was Mr Peanutbutter’s second wife. And she’s on, I think in season three, and apparently she was just so excited to like make fun of herself and she’s like just apparently this like really, really good sport about herself and was like willing to and because of that then like even in the recording sessions I believe Raphael came out to the writers and was like ‘She wants more and she’s like willing to do it’ so like I think like it’s that kind of process of like sometimes it’s in the script and we seek certain people, sometimes it’s we get the person and then we know how to write the script for them, but yeah I think that’s the process.
Nick: So you mentioned Raphael kind of putting his stamp on it and his voice on the show, how does that kind of work practically in terms of making sure that it’s consistent to his vision?
Alison: Well my first sentiment is like Raphael is like the greatest human being ever. I’m a huge, huge fan of his.
Nick: Alex and I met him briefly at WonderCon and he was a very lovely guy.
Alex: He was amazing.
Alison: I’m such a suck up! No I really like him. He’s just, he’s really great. Why he’s great at his job is he doesn’t, it is a collaborative process, he really lets other people pitch him ideas. When I got a script I got to go home and write it, which sometimes if you see people’s names on scripts, like if you see ‘Written By’ sometimes it’s a group effort, even though maybe your name gets to be on it. But like he really does let you make it your own. First. And then you bring it back, you get notes, go back home, wonder if you’re a failure or not –[laughter]
Alison: – wonder if you’re really cut out to being a comedy writer and then you revise and then you come back and then the script goes to him. So he’s always the final, like he kind of does the third revision of it. And why that’s great is because it allows all these other ideas and all these other things from you know the personal writer whose writing their episode, the notes from everybody, but then he, because he really is the overseer of everything, he does a great revision usually that can blend it to the previous episodes. So like, when I was writing my episode, I didn’t know the changes that were happening in the previous episodes, some of my stuff like it just doesn’t work anymore because ‘Oh you weren’t here but we revised it’, so he is someone greater than, he’s the end all, the buck ends with him – but I don’t mean it in a really slamming his fists down kind of way, I mean it more in like I think he has a vision and he also, it’s also helpful that he’s funnier than all of us and I don’t just mean like the writers, but like you too. He’s funnier than you guys too.
Alison: He’s just that, he has a brain that is so cartoony and hilarious and he sees, I mean ultimately this is his baby, so like he sees it so giving him that final draft for him to work through, you just know it’s going to be this great product and then you get to see it for the table read. So that’s kind of the, he does a great balance of letting everyone collaborate and you don’t feel stifled by your ideas but then at the end of the day, he’s filtering it through his scope and his scope is great!
Alison: Yeah! He’s brilliant! He’s really great at also that – I just love watching him figure out how to be funny but also like so poignant and so like beautiful and dark and sentimental. I just think that’s like, I don’t know how you do that, I think you’re born with that. I think he’s a genius is the short of my story. I think he’s great.
Nick: Once you do go off to write it individually, does it ever go back to the room for punch ups or anything like that? Like after the table read? Or when does that happen?
Alison: Yes! All of it. So, you kind of break it in the room, at least for Bojack, we broke it in the room meaning we had an outline or had like bullet points and you go home and write an outline, which is usually ten pages. It’s a thick thing, you get notes on that, but they read it every step of the way, the writers, I mean –
Nick: The whole room reads it every step of the way?
Alison: The whole room reads it and the whole room gave me notes. We would say do overall notes but then go page by page which is pitches of jokes and pitches of things and I mean it’s so fun because people are hilarious and like it’s so fun to like, I was like banging my head over a joke and then Jordan Young said something and I was like ‘Oh my god that’s it. God! Why didn’t I think of that? It’s so funny and now my name’s on the script, so you will never know! Mwahaha’. But yeah, go home, rewrite, come back, get notes again, give it to Raphael. He works on it, brings it to the table read. Table read is really helpful, it’s when all the actors are around and actually usually most production comes. So it’s great, it’s the first time you hear your script out loud without you just reading it, you hear it and then you also hear the laughs and you where things, where people are definitely not laughing or you hear the gasps or like the ‘Urgh’ or like whatever sound effects and then after the table read then everyone again sits around and we go through with the script on our screen and we just pitch punch ups and usually by that point there’s not big overhauls there’s just like ‘Here’s a funnier way of wording this, here’s some jokes’. So that’s kind of the vague process. It’s always changeable because sometimes things don’t, sometimes table reads don’t happen, sometimes you don’t get time to have that second draft, sometimes you only have a day turn around to create an outline. So that’s the general but it’s always different.
Alex: So let’s say someone wants to, not only be staffed on Bojack Horseman, but before that even, to become a writer for adult animation. What would be your advice for that person?
Alison: This is more of a general thing, but I think write every single day, and I know that seems so silly but I think you got to write and understand that you’re just getting better every day. Have completed stuff, I feel like I meet a lot of writers, aspiring writers, who like I meet with for coffee and they’ll say things like ‘Oh I’m working on this pilot’ and I’ll say ‘Great, send it my way so I can read it’ and they’ll go ‘Well I’m not, I’m like, I’m like’, it’s like ‘Finish it. Finish your pilot. Finish it’ and the thing is it’s never going to be perfect, it’s never going to be the most ideal, there’s always revisions to be had, even on Bojack there’s episodes that I’m sure it was ‘Oh you know, I wish this said something’. The art is never complete, but complete it anyway. If you’re specifically interested I think in adult animation, awesome, cool, because it’s great. I also, like watch and actually take notes of episodes. How I learned how to write television is I watched, like I love Parks and Rec, so I’d like pause it and write like ‘This is what happened in each scene, oh this is an A story, this is a B story, this is an act break, this is this’ and I handwrote that, then I started watching television through a different lens. I watched it through structure and for comedy purposes, as opposed to just enjoyment. So if you like animation, look at what they’re, why do you like? Watch your Bob’s Burgers episode, pause it and go ‘Why was this scene amazing?’, take notes on it and then try to write your own. And when you write your own, complete it and finish it and have it ready to show people!
Nick: So tell us a little about some of the creative stuff that you’re doing outside of the writers’ room, like your improv and sketch and that sort of thing and how does that help you as a writer?
Alison: So many things, like I’m so talented.[laughter]
Alison: Well, let’s see, so I have a sketch comedy team we’re called Charming Cheater and we’re on YouTube. [laughing] We’re that sketch comedy team that does YouTube stuff, and I know there’s –
Nick: [laughing] Oh that one? That’s really innovative.
Alison: Yeah! So Charming Cheaters with me, John Meyers and David Hill and John Meyers works for Stupid Buddy and David Hill works for NBC Superstore, so we know things. And we do sketches, I also do a lot of stand-up, I perform improv, I’m currently doing stuff at the Groundlings right now and yeah, on the Twitter, making them jokes on the Twitter. Making jokes on the Instagram and Facebook and all that and all that stuff I think just helps with, again it goes back to writing every day and constantly writing. And figuring out what makes, what things make me laugh and what things I enjoy writing and you know I kind of stumbled into writing fantastical heightened realities. Like my first pilot was like about siblings, because I have siblings, it’s about us being siblings. Yay. And I had another pilot about a teacher, about teaching, being a teacher. And eventually became like Cows with Milk Guns! You know and I think it took me performing improv and doing stand up and filming on the weekend with friends and always kind of keeping that muscle working. And then helping me grow as a writer, I think doing all the side stuff helps me grow as a writer.
Nick: Tell us a little bit about like your future goals and hopes for your career and stuff. What do you think you want to end up doing eventually, what’s the next for you? Late night? What are you going to do?
Alison: I really want a Scrooge McDuck pool of money in my backyard. That’s what I really want.[laughter]
Alison: Goodness. I think in the future because I’m an actor, I think I would love to figure out a way to merge those things, which, that’s not a new idea, like you know, I know so many writers who are also performing and acting in their own capacity.
Nick: Do like a Rachel Bloom thing?
Alison: Oh my god, if only, I love Rachel Bloom. I love her so! I love Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
Alex: Did you see the lyrics and the musical she’s just got released this week?
Alex: All the songs!
Alison: That makes me so happy. Oh yeah because I also do, I’m also on a music improv team, a musical – I forgot to plug them earlier, we’re really good – Musical the Musical.
Nick: Yeah, my writing partner Kelly is on that team.
Alison: It’s how I know Nick! So that’s another muscle. No, I – I love Rachel Bloom – but I love that combo, I mean just anything Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Rachel Bloom. All those people. I would love to do something like that in my life because I love acting and I love being funny and making people laugh. I think other big goals are just, I really, I think we’re in a weird time in America right now? And I want to use comedy as a force for good so that’s a more vague idea, but I would love to write something similar on my own that’s poignant and important and I think that’s what every person who’s writing should want to do now is figure out why your writing is important and I want to figure out a way to make comedy important in this time of eeeeeergh.
Resources and Next Week On
Alex: Before we head out, do you have any resources you would like to share with our listeners?
Alison: Yeah. Yes. Okay. So I read, when I started doing improv the first improv book I read was called Truth In Comedy by Del Close. I don’t know if that’s been name dropped on this show before but it’s a very name droppy book but it’s kind of like the fundamentals of improv and I think improv really helps me in terms of writing. I also really loved, because I like late night, and I like, I’m a firm believer that if you can write a joke you can write a scene, if you can write a scene you can write a script. So if you’re good at writing jokes, especially in comedy writing that’s really important, then there’s a book by Joe Toplyn – Comedy Writing For Late Night TV, which I know sounds quite specific and I know for a lot of people that’s what they want to do, but Comedy Writing For Late Night TV by Joe Toplyn taught me how to write jokes and I think if you can do that, you can do many other things in terms of comedy and I found that like a really helpful step by step book. And then I’m also just a really big fan of reading classics. Like read old stuff, because that’s fun when you can like parody it later like read some Steinbach man, read some Anna Karenina, even though it’s a boring book like read it you know. So those would be all my resources I guess.
Alex: well on that note we would like to thank our listeners for tuning in on this very special episode. You can get all the show notes for this episode at http://paperteam.co/39.
Nick: And if you want to leave us a review you can do that at http://paperteam.co/itunes and all of your reviews and ratings will help us get some new listeners and help us keep bringing you good stuff. And once again we’d like to thank our sponsor the Tracking Board’s Launchpad Writing Competitions. Paper Team listeners can save $15 off their next purchase there. Just use the code ‘PAPERTEAM’ at the checkout to receive your discount and you can learn more about all the Launchpad’s current and upcoming writing competitions by visiting http://tvlaunchpad.com.
Alex: And as always I’m on Twitter @TVCalling
Nick: I’m @_njwatson. You on Twitter Alison?
Alison: Yeah! @alisontafel. One L. One F.
Nick: Nice and easy![laughter]
Nick: If you have any feedback, thoughts, opinions, hate mail = you can send that to [email protected]
Alex: And next week we will be talking about one of my favourite subjects, one hour TV procedurals! So strap yourselves in.
Alison: Dun dun.
Nick: Pretty much the same as this episode. See you guys then.