Move over, Mr. Ed: 'BoJack Horseman' gallops onto Netflix

Gunn High School graduates' animated series debuts on Aug. 22

What if a washed-up Trigger was still kicking around Hollywood long after his hay-day? What if Mr. Ed had a drinking problem?

Just such a surreal scenario plays out in "BoJack Horseman," Netflix's first original animated series, one intended for adults. This latest Hollywood horse is a Palo Alto-bred Palomino of sorts. If two Gunn High School friends -- Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt -- hadn't once sat around the Studio Theatre green room dreaming up kooky ideas together, "BoJack Horseman" would never have trotted into view.

All 12 of the debut season's episodes will be available for streaming on Netflix starting on Aug. 22. That's when the world will meet the listless ex-sitcom-star of "Horsin' Around," a '90s family-friendly monstrosity in the vein of "Full House."

From his manse perched in the Hollywood Hills, BoJack's self-destructive "efforts" involve avoiding work and complaining he doesn't have more of it. BoJack (voiced by Will Arnett of "Arrested Development") has a figurative hole in his heart, making him secretly happy to have scruffy slacker Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul of "Breaking Bad") as a dependent perma-houseguest.

The only ones likely to save BoJack from a couch-potato life of endlessly re-watching himself in "Horsin' Around" reruns are the women in his life: Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), BoJack's feline agent and ex-girlfriend; and Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie of "Community"), the long-suffering ghost writer of his planned autobiography.

Much to BoJack's chagrin, Diane is dating Mr. Peanutbutter (comedian Paul F. Tompkins), an infuriatingly happy dog who once starred in a "Horsin' Around" rip-off. There's plenty of wacky comedy, but also an undercurrent of melancholy that runs through a serialized storyline tracking BoJack's career and romantic letdowns.

In an exclusive chat with the Weekly, creator Bob-Waksberg explained how this world of people and and anthropomorphic animal-people came together.

"The idea really started with my friendship with Lisa Hanawalt, which is actually a Palo Alto story because we both grew up in Palo Alto, went to Gunn together, and stayed in touch all these years, and she's an artist and I'm a writer. And we were looking for something to do together. And she draws these amazing animal characters. So I was going to a pitch meeting, and I didn't have any ideas, and so I just grabbed a couple of her drawings, and I came up with an idea in the car about this sad horse character who used to be on a sitcom," he said.

But Hanawalt's animal people and Bob-Waksberg's ironic affection for cheesy '90s family sitcoms are only part of the story. After Palo Alto, Bob-Waksberg moved to New York (where he performed at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre as a member of the Olde English comedy troupe), then Los Angeles, where he got a taste of BoJack's privileged isolation.

"I was staying with some friends in this big house in the Hollywood hills. I had this tiny room in this giant house. And there was a rumor that it used to belong to Johnny Depp and that it was the third highest elevated house in all of Hollywood. I just moved out here -- I didn't really know anybody, didn't have any friends -- I just remember looking out over the deck of this house and seeing the city below and feeling like, 'Oh, I'm on top of the world. And I've never been more lonely or isolated.' That was the impetus of the character of BoJack, to me: this guy who has had every success ... and everybody loves him, but he still can't find a way to be happy," he said.

Both creator Bob-Waksberg and production designer Hanawalt (who also collaborated on the web comic "Tip Me Over, Pour Me Out") have fond memories of their time together at Gunn and acknowledge its influence on their sensibilities. Hanawalt found Palo Alto "a great place to grow up because intelligence, subversive thought and creativity were all encouraged, to a degree. I was a weird art kid for sure, but I also felt well-liked and valued for my talent. I knew who Raphael was starting in middle school, because he was loud and funny, and he was really good in children's theater productions," she said.

"As soon as we were in the same theater class in high school, me and Raphael and all the other funny kids become close friends. Raphael would make up voices to go with the weird drawings in my sketchbook, and we would invent fake TV-show ideas to entertain ourselves. Our drama teacher, Jim Shelby, was the most influential teacher I've ever had. He challenged me, helped me overcome my shyness and wasn't afraid to tell me when I was being an idiot."

Bob-Waksberg echoes his friend and colleague in naming Shelby as an important, early influence. And he feels lucky that he grew up in Palo Alto and went to Gunn, he said.

"I was a weird kid, but I always felt that there was a place for me. Kind of the standard line on growing up in Palo Alto (is) it's very competitive ... and people are stressed out all the time. But I don't know -- I never got good grades, and it didn't really bother me very much. And now I get to make my own TV show. Don't worry about that, kids!" he said.

But he had to admit, "It's kind of a trip. Every once in a while, I'll pass by (Lisa's) office, and I'll say, 'Can you believe we're doing this?' It's pretty crazy."

The craziness extends to a supporting cast that includes Oscar, Tony and Emmy winners playing along with sublime nonsense. To illustrate the trippiness of his work, Bob-Waksberg recalled a particular recording session.

"Keith Olbermann plays kind of like a whale version of himself. Or like -- not himself -- that's mean. So, a whale version of a bombastic news anchor. And he's really cool," Bob-Waksberg said.

Olbermann called in from New York. "Oh my God, that's Keith Olbermann, doing my stupid lines," Bob-Waksberg recalled thinking.

"Then at the end of the record, we were like, 'All right, now we need you to make some whale noises.' And so here was Keith Olbermann on the phone going like, 'Weeeoooo! Weouuu!'"

"I was just like, 'All right -- this is an amazing job.' To bring in these amazing, important people and make them do dumb animal noises," he said.

Add in optimism for a second season of "BoJack Horseman," and there's no chance anyone will be asking Bob-Waksberg, "Why the long face?"

Freelance writer Peter Canavese is a Palo Alto Weekly movie critic. He can be emailed at pcanavese@bcp.org.

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