‘Bojack Horseman’ Producer Lisa Hanawalt Trades A Horse-Man For Quirky Bird Women With ‘Tuca & Bertie’

Diane Haithman

Are BoJack Horseman veteran Lisa Hanawalt’s 30-year-old BBFs (Best Bird Friends) in her new Netflix animated series, Tuca & Bertie, a sort of surreal Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern for millennials?  Or are insecure songbird Bertie, voiced by Ali Wong, and her crazy Toucan gal pal Tuca, portrayed by Tiffany Haddish, inspiring young women to compare themselves to the characters like they did with the female friends in Sex and the City? (“I’m definitely a Miranda. No, you’re sooo a Carrie…”)

Whether viewers are a Tuca, a Bertie, or even a man, audiences seem to be responding to Hanawalt’s first outing as a series creator. In a recent conversation with Awardsline, she talked about combining visual fantasy (anthropomorphic houseplants, office buildings with breasts), with a grounded reality to create a wacky bird world strangely similar to our own.

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There are certainly visual similarities between Tuca & Bertie and BoJack Horseman. But in in terms of story and character, your show’s very different.

Yeah. On BoJack, I don’t do any of the writing, I’m more responsible for the look of the show. But I am a writer and I have stories I wanted to tell, so it was great to have my own space to tell stories that are entirely from the perspective of the female characters, to get more into the nuances of what it means to be a woman.

When people describe your work, the word weird tends to pop up. How do you describe it?

Weird, surreal, humane, warm, funny. I definitely draw funny. Sexual. Animal. Natural. I also feel like my world is a little bit more optimistic or warm than BoJack’s word. And while we explore dark stories and sad themes on my show, it feels a little bit more uplifting, I think.

The animation seems pretty breast-focused. What is your relationship with breasts?

I think there’s a lot of ass, too, if you’re looking for it. I just kind of want to normalize the human body in ways that I don’t always see, especially in adult animation. Women’s bodies are presented in a very particular way in most adult animation, which is like very sexual and appealing to men. I just think bodies are weird and floppy and funny. And boobs are particularly strange.

These characters are 30. You’re in your 30s. Is being in your 30s different for this generation, for millennials?

Millennials in particular are facing a lot of economic problems because we’re not getting paid more with inflation, and we’re struggling to try to buy houses and support families and healthcare is a real issue. The vitriol against millennials is really unfounded. They’re like, oh, lazy millennials. Always living with their parents and not getting jobs. It’s a difficult decade because you feel like you should have everything figured out by now and you should leave behind all the craziness of your 20s, but at the same time, you still feel like a child.

Why birds?

Birds are very funny and cute and weird and fun to draw. Not as straightforwardly cute as dogs and cats. They’re just a little bit strange or alien in a way.

And how did you get two of the hottest comedians in America to play Tuca and Bertie?

We reached out to Tiffany originally and she said yes right away. I had wanted to work with Ali Wong from the beginning  [but] I worried she would be too much of a Tuca because she’s so out there and fearless in her comedy. But then we brought her in to audition and she was fantastic…Her acting is so good, she was able to play this anxious little song thrush.

In animation, people, or birds, don’t necessarily have a race. But did you want women of color to voice Tuca and Bertie?

I definitely didn’t want an all-white cast, especially with the leads. I know they’re just birds. You’re not seeing human races on screen, but that representation is still really important to me. We didn’t want Tuca to just be the sassy side-character, which I think a lot of black women get relegated to.

The first season of Tuca & Bertie takes on some #MeToo problems, including an episode in which Bertie relives being molested as a young bird. How challenging was that?

There’s a lot of shows being run and written and created by women right now and it’s wonderful. A lot of women want to tell these really sad stories because these are things we’ve experienced. It’s a little bit of a chicken or egg thing where these stories are being framed as a response to the #MeToo movement. We’re not responding to a hashtag. We are finally able to tell these stories and then the hashtag came out of that. [But] it’s very stigmatized for men to come out and talk about this stuff as well.

You mentioned animation, particularly adult animation, has been a mostly male world.  How were you able to navigate it?

I’ve been pretty lucky. There are times when I worked alongside men who I’m pretty sure didn’t see me as fully human just because I’m a woman. So, my only way to move forward is to try to keep working with people who actually connect with me. I mean, that’s always a bummer when people don’t see you for who you really are. They just see, like, you are a woman, or you are this color, or you are this gender or sexuality. But if they’re not actively standing in my way, I just try to move past it. I can’t be everybody’s favorite person, I guess.

There seems to be pretty instant positive reaction to this show from viewers and critics. How have you felt about what people are saying so far?

I’m really delighted that people connect with it so much, because it’s a pretty strange show.

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