A few episodes into Lisa Hanawalt's new, terrifically funny animated series Tuca & Bertie, there's a moment when a puffin in a pink suit calls a crowded auditorium to attention. In the process, she tidily summarizes the show's twisted and (yet undeniably human) perspective.
"Ladies and gentle-birds," the emcee begins, "and plants, humans and sometimes inanimate objects that talk -- what a weird world!"
Even for Netflix viewers who may be coming to Tuca & Bertie from Hanawalt's other TV job -- character designer and producer of the biting yet melancholy Hollywood satire BoJack Horseman, created by longtime friend Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who also executive produces the new show -- the statement can't be denied.
Featuring stand-up stars Ali Wong and Tiffany Haddish as a pair of bird best friends at the cusp of their 30s, their home of Birdtown is a freewheeling dreamscape where the subway is a snake and freeways loop like roller coasters around cat-infested yarn hillsides and lakes of grape jelly. A few scenes incorporate snippets of live action and claymation and, at one point, Bertie drives her car off the road and her profanity, spilling from the window in puffy balloons of text, builds a bridge to safety.
"Having worked on BoJack for -- now I'm working on the sixth season -- it felt fun to me to have an opportunity to break the rules a bit and create a different universe where things are a little more loosey-goosey and surreal," says Hanawalt, 35. "And closer to my personal work .... That really is more like my comics and my own little world."
For all the visual goofiness, playful puns and anything-goes sense of comic adventure, Tuca & Bertie is grounded in human realities. Though rendered in candy-colored hues and framed by a sunny, dance-funk soundtrack, the series fearlessly but beautifully makes room for concerns including childhood trauma, social anxiety and sexual harassment in a way not dissimilar from BoJack's candid depictions of depression.
"I want to get into that dark stuff because that's part of growing up as well, and that's what I like about working with Raphael," Hanawalt says. "We're both really drawn to things that are both extremely funny, silly and surreal, and then extremely dark and relatable."
While TV has grown more adept with nuanced story lines that years ago would have struggled for airtime or even an appropriate level of honesty if forced to run between ads, there's something about Hanawalt's line-drawn, anthropomorphized aesthetic that creates a powerful Trojan horse for much heavier material.
Whether it's Tuca reflecting on the loss of her mother or Bertie describing a nightmarish incident from her childhood, the mix of image and storytelling makes an emotional impact that live action struggles to approach.
"Something about making them cute little birds kind of makes it more universal," Hanawalt says. "If you're seeing a human on-screen you have a very specific association with whatever human you're seeing; they remind you of someone. But if it's a cartoon animal, then it's not as specific, it's more universal, so maybe it's easier to project yourself onto that.
"We love looking at animals and thinking about their interior lives, and that's a big part of it too. Maybe it makes it even more shocking at times."
Before BoJack Horseman, Hanawalt was an indie cartoonist and illustrator who produced three books. Born in Palo Alto, Calif., and a graduate from UCLA in 2006, the independent-minded Hanawalt needed some persuading before agreeing to work on BoJack, which she feared would dominate too much of her time. The series debuted in 2014, and that same year she won a James Beard Award for humor with a comic about chef Wylie Dufresne that ran in the late, lamented food magazine Lucky Peach.
"I don't like to make a lot of plans because I'm just worried I'll be disappointed," she says. "It was a surprise to me when BoJack got picked up by Netflix; it was a surprise to me when it actually aired and when it got picked up for another season. It was a surprise to me that Tuca & Bertie actually came to fruition."
"Tuca was inspired by my id, the most selfish parts of myself. She's just a character who likes herself; I just know what she'll do in every situation," Hanawalt says. "Bertie felt more like what I'm like in real life. I'm actually a little more introverted and anxious. And then when we were talking about show ideas, it just kind of made sense to pair these two characters together and make a show about female friendship."
But in another instance of grounding a decidedly unreal show in reality, Hanawalt also wanted to depict how young women -- or bird-women -- at the cusp of growing up sound and behave. "I just love shows that show how funny and gross women actually are, because that's how I am with my friends, and I don't see that represented as often as men being men.
"A lot of adult animation gets pretty raunchy, but it's all from a male perspective," she says. "I definitely wanted [Tuca & Bertie] to be an adult show with adult themes."
Style on 05/12/2019
Print Headline: Tuca & Bertie creator hatches surreal Netflix series