Tuca & Bertie is the kind of show where its stars, Ali Wong and Tiffany Haddish, will get up during a Tribeca Film Festival panel to twerk for Season 2 and request Cîroc Watermelon sponsorships while its creator, Lisa Hanawalt, takes notes on bird breast size. An adult animated comedy that mediates on the complexity of female friendships via two boisterous birds, Tuca & Bertie is high art expressed through psychedelic nipple graffiti.
The show is grabbing the attention of stoners, overly ambitious women in their thirties who who buy new underwear instead of doing laundry, BoJack Horseman stans, and really...everyone who enjoys the hilarity that often springs from the hardships of life. And it's all thanks to the fact that a tucan and a songbird who take caterpillar subways to work feel more true to life than most women characters on TV.
TV Guide caught up with Hanawalt to find out how she birthed the one of weirdest, wildest show of 2019; why animation is the perfect vehicle to explore a fraught but loving female friendship; and how the writers and animators navigated heavier storylines, like the gray areas of processing sexual assault.
Spoilers for Season 1 below.
How did you come about the concept of Tuca & Bertie?
Lisa Hanawalt: Tuca was originally a web comic that I made for Hazlitt magazine, but I came up with the character when I was watching a nature documentary, and I saw this toucan stealing eggs out of other bird's nests and gobbling them down. And it reminded me of myself because I'm kind of greedy with food. So, I was like, "Oh, this is what I'm like on the inside when I'm not pretending to be a nice person."
Then when me and Raphael [Bob-Waksberg, creator of BoJack Horseman, on which Hanawalt was the production designer] were talking about TV show ideas that would focus more on my own characters, I really wanted to do something with Tuca. But Tuca kind of needed a friend, I thought it would be fun to do a show focusing more on female friendship. So, Bertie came out of this other comic I'd done about a woman and her boyfriend shopping for a house, and she fills the house with plants. She's using them in an unhealthy way; she gets obsessed with them. That turned into Bertie and Speckle.
How much would you say that Tuca and Bertie evolved and changed between your original works and the actual show?
LH: It was really just a matter of fleshing them out more. Why is Tuca the way she is? We had to make her slightly less of a sociopath than she was in my comics because we want people to relate to her. And then Bertie, she couldn't be entirely shy and anxious; she needed moments of bravery and to have a little bit of edge.
And then we had to figure out, OK, now why are these two best friends? And why have they continued to be best friends even though they're very different, and their lives are moving in different directions? What is holding them together, and what is tearing them apart? I wanted to have some more tension in there. Obviously Broad City is a huge influence on me, and I love those women so much. But I wanted to make the show about women who are a little bit older in life, and they've already started to split off on different paths, to create just a little bit more conflict between them.
How much did the collaboration with Raphael Bob-Waskberg help the process of creating the show?
LH: Raphael really helped me talk through what I wanted to do and helped me kind of vocalize why I wanted to focus on these characters. We would just go on these long walks around the block outside of the animation studio where we work on BoJack and talk through everything. He helped me learn how to write a script: Here's the act breaks, here's how you want to structure your story.
In the first two weeks of Tuca & Bertie, he would help sit in the writers' room and just subtly let me know, OK, this is a good time to take a break. Here's how you send someone off on an outline, here's how you give notes on a script. Just all that, you know, showrunner-y stuff that I had no experience with, he really guided me through that process. But then the training wheels came off. It was very sink-or-swim, but luckily the experience of working on BoJack prepared me for it.
What was the casting process like?
LH: I loved Tiffany Haddish in Girls Trip so much; I was like, "Oh my god, she's such a Tuca!" Then when we were casting, and I was reading an article about her, and I recognized her manager at the time. I realized I knew him, so we were able to send her a script, and she signed on very early. And then we were just auditioning different Berties, just trying to figure out who would sound good with Tiffany.
Ali was someone who very early on was on my list, but then I was like, "Oh, you know, maybe she's too much of a Tuca, because she's so bold, fearless, and funny in her real life." But she's a really good actress, so she totally nailed this shy sensitive songbird voice but also gave Bertie enough edge that she actually sounded like she would be friends with someone like Tuca. It helped that the two of them knew each other already from the stand-up comedy world. The chemistry was just perfect for both of them.
And did the characters change at all once you cast Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong? Did you find yourself writing toward their normal onstage personas?
LH: Once we cast them, we knew what their voices would be like, which was very helpful when writing scripts. But it was more like...if Tiffany was like, "You know, actually I wouldn't say it that way, I would say it more like this," then we'd change it, because I want it to feel natural to her, and I want to use her slang and her vernacular.
Once you got the green light, how did you go about balancing the tone of the show? Because there is an emotional season arc, and there are heavier stories that build that arc. But the individual episodes themselves have this fun, chaotic energy, and I was very surprised to see both of those things in an adult animated show, where it doesn't lean heavily one way or another.
LH: I definitely wanted it to be a show for adults, so I wanted it to get into that kind of weird, dark area. We get into childhood trauma and the trouble with trying to be assertive as a woman and what happens when the wires get crossed and you find something sexy when you probably shouldn't, the psychosexual stuff. I want to raise all of those issues and then not necessarily provide easy answers for them.
Me and Raphael both like shows that balance very silly comedy stuff with very dark themes. That's kind of where we cross over in our interests. But in general, I wanted this world to be more optimistic overall and more surreal and even sillier than BoJack.
I was surprised by how-- maybe this is the wrong term, but how loose the show is? It felt much closer to the animation of my childhood, like SpongeBob SquarePants or Ren & Stimpy, where there are all these surreal scenes and visual gags that are just there for the fun of it.
LH: I really wanted it to feel kind of like those '90s cartoons that I grew up watching, because that's such a big point of inspiration for me. Ren and Stimpy, Rocko's Modern Life, The Simpsons, too. Those were such a big influence, and I just really love moments where it's silly for the sake of being silly. Or it's just weird, because it's pretty and interesting to look at. I don't think every single moment of a show needs to service the story or the script.
I actually told the directors to feel free to delete or add lines in the script, be looser with their adaptation of my scripts, add jokes to the storyboards, things like that. So, like a lot of the weirder parts, like the puppets and like the claymation and some of the really strange jokes, those came out of the storyboards and directly from the directors.
That feels like a lot more room for collaboration than what happens on most animated shows.
LH: Writing is just the first step in the process. And for me, I feel very evenly split between being a writer and being an artist, so I want both to have equal weight on Tuca & Bertie. It should all be very collaborative.
Why it is valuable to you to make room for that stuff when most writers' rooms, particularly if they are writing for adults, would have cut those? Especially considering I'm sure some of those scenes, like the claymation sequence, were expensive to make.
LH: It's fun! I want to get that same sense of fun and play in the show that I have in my own personal work. If you read my comic books, suddenly you'll turn the page, and there's a photograph of some weird sculptures of fingers that I made. Or you'll turn the page, and there's a photograph of a weird dessert I had at a restaurant that looked like poop, just because I thought it was so funny. [Readers] are hit with a moment of surprise and delight that makes them laugh, but they're not quite sure why they're laughing. I want the same thing with this show.
A lot of my sensibility is taking something kind of awful and turning it into something positive, like the delivery guy whose face gets ripped off by a jaguar, like it's a very dark and violent scene that came directly from a nightmare I had. But then he gets a starring role in a movie. So, I don't know, I kind of like turning tragedy into something nice in the end. It's like a defense mechanism.
One of my favorite mixed-medium pieces is the scene that almost looks like paper cutouts — the scene where Bertie remembers the childhood trauma that happened to her at Jelly Lake. What kind of conversations did the writers' room have about how to visually represent sexual assault?
LH: I didn't want that scene to be that specific. I didn't want to show the guy, I didn't want to show his face. We just basically see a silhouette and actually that whole episode doesn't have any male characters in it. We don't see any of their faces, and we don't hear their voices. And I also didn't want to show the specifics of what happened to her, because I didn't want anyone to judge whether or not she overreacted to it. We just wanted to say, "You know what? Something happened, and it traumatized her. And it really doesn't matter what those specifics are."
Because it's just who she is, and she can't help her reaction to it. And this kind of thing happens to so many people, often early in their lives, and they're like, "Well, you know, something happened, but it wasn't this, I wasn't raped." We compare our stories, and I don't think that's fair. Because whatever happened, it's your story, and it's going to influence you however it does. You can't control it.
It felt like part of the reason Bertie can't process the incident at the bakery with her boss and also Jelly Lake is because she can't talk to Tuca about it. That emotional hurdle sprang naturally from the bigger crux of the show — which is Tuca and Bertie struggle to be there for each other because their wants or needs are drastically different. Why was it important to let Bertie try and deal with this on her own first?
LH: It just felt the most realistic to me. She's ashamed, I think shame is such a big driving force with people. And on some level, she knows the [physical advances from Pastry Pete] are wrong, but then she also likes it, she likes the attention. I think it's very complicated, I'm sure it will make some people mad, because she's not behaving the way that she should or whatever in that situation.
And then she doesn't fully understand that Pete's crossing a real boundary, until she sees it happen to another woman, who doesn't want that to happen to her at all and who stands up for herself. I think then Bertie really goes through kind of a crisis being like, "Oh, my god, why did I let this happen to me? What's wrong with me? Why didn't I protect this other woman? I'm a bad feminist." You know, like so many emotions hit at once.
And then that experience resurfaced Bertie's older trauma from Jelly Lake.
LH: Yeah, you think you've processed those experiences, and then they burble back up five years later. They catch you off guard, and suddenly you're stopping for no reason. And it's very embarrassing, and you think, "Well, I thought I had my shit together," or "I've been to a therapist," like, "Why is this coming back up again?" I think that's a very common experience for a lot of people.
Tuca is, of course, there for Bertie when she eventually confronts her trauma, and despite not speaking for a while, they return to a semblance of their friendship. But it's still not easy for them because there's still so much left unsaid. How did the writers room settle on how much bitter to mix into a fairly sweet ending?
LH: Whatever tension you have with someone is going to be an ongoing thing. They do make up again, after being apart for an episode, and it's nice. You can see why they're friends and how they're there for each other. But their lives are clearly going in different directions. It's going to be tough. I'm curious, if we get a Season 2, where that tension is going to take us.
[I'm not saying that Tuca and Bertie will break up, but] friend breakups are so painful. They can be so much more painful than romantic breakups, even. They're really intense. I totally have friends where I'm like, oh, something happened five years ago, and if I had said something in the moment, it would have fizzled out? But now, because I've been holding it in, it will just never go away. It's always going to be something I think of every time we fight, this little thing is going to come back up. It's terrible.
It's not easy having all that history, because it means that this person can really hurt you. But it seems the show really tries to come back to these deep-rooted friendships that allow women to express themselves in a way that makes them really worth having, despite the effort.
LH: Very nourishing in a way that a romantic relationship with a man is never going to be.
Why do you think animation makes such a good medium to talk about female friendships and these weird tensions and the extremely bizarre and loving shit we do within them?
LH: It makes it easier to relate to, more cathartic even. There's something very childlike about it. As children, we grew up watching these cartoons express emotions and teach us about emotions, so why not adults?
What was the hardest part about making the show for you, as a first-time showrunner?
LH: Really just having strong opinions and questioning myself on whether or not it was worth it to dig in my heels about certain things. There was one sound mix meeting where I had a really strong opinion on why the handshake noises were wrong? And it really held us up, probably added an extra hour to the meeting. It was a real pain in the ass, and I'm sure everyone was annoyed with me that day. But I had to settle into that mode of I don't care if people hate me today or not, even though most of my life I'm so worried about whether or not people like me. But these handshake sounds, I just hate them, and I can't get over it. I can't give up this fight, so we have to change them. We did, and I liked it much better. It's just little things like that, that come up over and over again, where I'm like, "Oh, I have to be the bad guy today."
I hope you get a Season 2, so I can see that struggle in the show. You really set Bertie up for that now that she's running her own bakery.
LH: Yes! It's harder as a woman, because you think everyone's going to think you're a bitch. It just comes across as harsher when I say it, with my woman mouth. But, yeah, it was an ongoing struggle.
What are you most excited for people to see?
LH: Oh, my gosh. I don't know. I just hope they think it's funny. ... I just feel so good anytime anyone picks out a moment and says that they related to it, and that they hadn't really seen that in a cartoon before, especially an adult cartoon. That really makes me feel good. When people are like, "Yeah, sometimes I eat spicy chips for lunch."
Just little moments.
Tuca & Bertie is now available on Netflix.