Bird ladies, besties, and boobs: Tuca & Bertie creator on her new Netflix animated comedy
As the production designer on Netflix’s acerbic adult animated comedy Bojack Horseman, illustrator Lisa Hanawalt found herself in some ways creatively stifled by the Hollywoo[d] tale of humans and anthropomorphic animals navigating fame, fortune, and failures of the entertainment industry.
“I loved working on Bojack, but that was a frustration that I couldn’t draw an anthropomorphic plant person, and I was like, ‘Why not?’” Hanawalt, who is also a producer on the series, tells EW. “Raphael [Bob-Waksberg, creator of Bojack Horseman] really liked to create these really hard boundaries, which is good, but I wanted buildings to be able to have boobs, or for objects to come to life, or plants to talk if it makes sense for them to.”
Luckily for Hanawalt, her cartoonier, more surreal vision has found a home — including a pair of bouncing breasts on a building in the opening credits — in the new Netflix show Tuca & Bertie (on which Bob-Waksberg is an executive producer). The series follows two 30-year-old bird-women, Tuca the Toucan, voiced by Tiffany Haddish, and Bertie the song-thrush, voiced by Ali Wong, as they navigate their years-long friendship through a new chapter in their lives.
Getting Haddish and Wong was like “I won the lottery,” Hanawalt says. Haddish signed on early, but finding the voice of Bertie proved to be a bit more challenging — that is, until Wong came along. “It needed to be someone who could be an anxious songbird but also be cool enough to be friends with Tuca, and it was difficult,” Hanawalt explains. “I didn’t want Bertie’s character to be boring compared to Tuca, so that was a real challenge, and Ali was just perfect. I was like, ‘She’s more of a Tuca, so I don’t know if this will work as she’s so fearless and bold, how is she going to be this anxious little songbird?’ But she nailed the audition.”
All 10 episodes of Tuca & Bertie drop May 3 and explore various themes and situations that occur in each woman’s life. Forced to move into her own place (albeit right next door) after Bertie decides to cohabitate with her exuberant boyfriend, Speckle the robin (Steven Yeun), Tuca has to figure out how to take care of herself while staying true to her carefree and often reckless persona. Meanwhile, Bertie suffers from crippling anxiety as she tries to figure out what she wants in her personal and professional life, and more importantly, how to ask for it.
Grappling with adulthood is a key theme for Hanawalt, who draws a lot from her own experiences. “It’s what a lot of my friends and I are going through, it’s like, ‘Can I continue to be a sloppy baby?’ I certainly feel like one and I’m almost 36,” she says. “At a certain point, if you don’t have your sh— together by a certain age, you start to feel like you’re getting left behind, and that’s a feeling I really wanted to tap into.”
It’s fitting that Tuca & Bertie comes on the heels of Broad City, which concluded its five-season run earlier this year, as Hanawalt praises the Comedy Central show for having a big impact on her. “Broad City opened so many doors,” she says. “Abbi [Jacobson] and Ilana [Glazer] are such geniuses and watching it was maybe the first time I felt fully represented by a TV show. It’s like this very silly, raunchy show, but it’s like, yes, women are f—ing gross and sexual and horny and stupid, and it just felt so good to see that on screen, so that’s absolutely a huge influence.”
But rare is it to see female friendships explored in their 30s, Hanawalt adds. Broad City traced Abbi and Ilana’s messy lives in their 20s — Hanawalt wanted to see what happens to women after. “Tuca & Bertie is about women in their 30s and what that tension is going to look like as they part ways,” she says. “I wanted a bit more conflict and tension between the characters.”
And the two bird-women see their friendship tested by both internal and external forces. There’s a past trauma that weaves through into Bertie’s present and impacts her relationships, while Tuca deals with her estranged family. Both women contend with sexual harassment and prejudices, and Tuca finds herself increasingly at odds with Bertie as their lives start to diverge from each other.
“Tuca has those anxieties about being left behind by Bertie because Bertie seems like she has her sh— together,” Hanawalt says. “From the outside, it really looks like Bertie is on the right path, but then internally, Bertie’s kind of a mess.”
Having the characters be part bird allows them to be more relatable, Hanawalt adds. “When you’re watching a human, it reminds you of somebody in your life, and that comes with all these embedded associations, but when you’re watching anthropomorphic animals, it’s kind of a fresh start.… It makes it a bit more universal so you can put yourself in that situation.”
Ahead of the May 3 premiere of Tuca & Bertie, Hanawalt spoke to EW about being one of the only female showrunners in the adult animation world, the challenges of the industry, and what she has planned for the next season of the show.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What were your thoughts and inspirations behind the characters of Tuca and Bertie?
LISA HANAWALT: When I’m starting with character, for both Tuca and Bertie, I’m basing them on aspects of my personality. Tuca was based on me when I’m most selfish and most messy. She’s changed a little from when I first drew her in comics: She was more of a sociopath, and in this show, she’s a little more of an empathetic, good friend. Bertie is more of what I’m like day-to-day and what I’m like when people first meet me… Everybody has a friend like a Tuca or a Bertie, everyone can identify with one or both of these characters, and that’s what I want the show to feel like. Even if it’s very surreal on the surface, I want it to be relatable.
How did you go about balancing the show’s tone between surreal, absurd, comedic, and at times, tragic?
I like that balance between sad and funny, and a lot of my work has that mix. Even in my books, I have comics that are not that funny and they’re just sad and weird, mixed in with weird humor pieces. But I wanted something a little bit less like a knife in the heart than Bojack, a little bit more something where you can watch at the end of the night and not feel like you need a palate cleanser afterward, so I think it’s a nice companion piece to Bojack. It’s a little bit of a sweeter world. Even the characters that are bad, I still have a lot of affection for Dirk the Rooster, who could have just been a villain but I actually find him very sweet in a way, and I think it’s a more optimistic world, maybe.
What do you feel Tuca & Bertie tackles and also offers the audience that we maybe haven’t seen before in this animated medium?
I feel like maybe of all the animated shows I’ve watched, Bojack has come closest, but even then, Bojack has so many characters to service that when there’s a Diane story or Princess Caroline story, I’m not quite getting as much as I would like. I really wanted something more that was focused on female friendship and what that’s like, what the nuances of that are. And I’ve never seen on an adult animation show what it feels like when a man comes into your home to fix your plumbing and you’re stuck in your apartment with this man and you feel vulnerable, what is that actually like? So things like that — that I think people take for granted that they don’t see represented in cartoons — I think there’s a way to show that stuff and make it funny and entertaining so that it’s not just preachy. I haven’t seen an adult animated show explore the past traumas from becoming a woman, there’s a lot of stories that I felt like needed to be told.
You’re tackling topics such as sexual harassment, slut-shaming, and childhood trauma. What did you want to explore with those issues?
The sexual harassment episode [episode 2] is really funny to me, but the Pastry Pete stuff is interesting because he’s a mentor to her so by then, it’s like she’s gone through this in the workplace before, she’s been harassed so she should recognize this. But because he’s her mentor and she looks up to him, she doesn’t really understand that what’s happening is crossing a boundary until it’s too late, and then the wires get crossed and she thinks it’s sexy. So I wanted to explore that gray area where we’re constantly put in new situations and we have to defend ourselves and be on the alert and it’s difficult, it becomes very confusing, so I wanted to scrape the surface of that. Then the past traumas, I’m curious to see how people will respond to that, whether they think that’s to blame for [Bertie’s] current behavior or if that’s why she’s anxious. I would say no, she’s just an anxious person. In one season there’s only so much you can do, and I have so much more to explore around all of these topics. They’re just so rich and we’ve all gone through so many things like this, I just think there are endless stories there.
With topics such as sexual harassment or trauma, TV shows will often dedicate one episode to the issue but then that’s it. So it’s interesting to see these issues layered into Tuca and Bertie’s arcs over the course of the entire show.
For women, it’s not a very special episode, it’s not #MeToo for one year, it’s our whole lives. It’s interwoven through our whole lives, and it affects our behavior. I feel like Bojack explores a lot of things like that as well, but I wanted to dig in a little deeper and really make it the main characters, it’s part of what makes them who they are and what it feels like to move through the world as a woman.
Bertie’s boyfriend, Speckle, is the unofficial third lead in some ways. How does his presence affect Tuca and Bertie’s relationship, and what did you want to capture with his presence, especially as he’s such a lively, happy character?
On paper, he’s the best boyfriend ever. I worried at times, am I focusing too much on this heterosexual relationship when the show’s about female friends but that’s often the case, that at least one of the friends is in a relationship and that’s part of the friendship, balancing that. He’s not a bad guy, he’s not trying to get in between them, but just because of life decisions, that’s definitely affecting their friendship — like the fact that he wants to get a house. A lot of the Speckle behaviors and stories are based on my own relationship of course, but he’s a sweet guy.
He really blows his top in episode 10 in a way that’s kind of scary but also weirdly funny to me. We had a lot of discussions about “Does Bertie deserve this, does she deserve to be yelled at?” Because it’s a pretty intense reaction and we don’t want anybody to hate Speckle, and we also don’t want anybody to hate Bertie, so it has to feel balanced, and I also think she earned it. She’s pretty sh—y to him throughout and a crush is a crush, that’s fine if she has a crush, but she’s definitely going too far fantasizing about this person and not really communicating well with Speckle.
What did you want to capture with the setting of Birdtown?
I wanted it to feel like a lot of places I’ve lived — Los Angeles, New York — or places I’ve visited, like Mumbai. I like that combination of city and jungle but on the outskirts there’s more of a suburban area, and that’s where Bertie and Speckle go looking for a house in episode 6, and that just felt true to a lot of areas I’ve lived and a lot of areas where friends of mine in their 30s are living now. It’s that push and pull between “Should I continue living in this tiny dinky apartment where I can afford the rent or move out to the suburbs where I can commute?” I think that’s a push and pull with people my age especially. It’s a difference between your 20s, where it’s okay to live in that environment, but in your 30s, you’re like, “Maybe I should grow up a little bit and get more space? Do I need it? I don’t know.”
What have been the biggest challenges to get female-driven animated shows to the forefront, and what are the biggest challenges you came across to bring this show to fruition, and what are you interested to see from the industry going forward?
Luckily I didn’t have much trouble bringing this show to fruition; it seemed like the stars were aligned and it felt like the right circumstances for a woman to finally be at the helm of an adult animation. It’s kind of horrifying to me that it took that long. There’ve been other women — Daria was co-created by woman, and there’ve been pilots everywhere and one or two seasons here or there of shows — but there’s very, very few created by women, especially for adults.
I think there’s just a lot of misogyny in the industry, there’s a lot of gatekeepers who just don’t think women can create [these shows]. The guy at the helm of Adult Swim, he literally was saying he doesn’t think women can create good content; he said women don’t like conflict and then he said women create too much conflict and completely contradicted himself as to why he thinks women can’t create a good show and it was ridiculous. [A 2016 Buzzfeed article named this person as Mike Lazzo, who later appeared to confirm and respond to the allegation on Reddit, calling his comment “a dumb answer to a good question.”] I was like, someone gets to say something like that publicly and keep their job, as a person who decides what gets on TV and what doesn’t, that’s crazy. So it’s been historically very, very difficult and I’m seeing a lot more women creators in TV in general so I’m hoping that extends to adult animation. I think things are changing but it’s taking too long.
You seem to have a lot of ideas for season 2 already for Tuca & Bertie. What would you love to dive into further?
I would love for Bertie to go to therapy and further explore her past trauma and her current anxiety and ways of dealing with that. I think therapy is great but also very funny, very rich with material, and I want Tuca to reconnect to her family and figure that stuff out a little bit. There’s a lot of directions for them to go in.
Would you like to throw them out of their element at all and put them in foreign lands?
Yes, and we’ve hinted that there’s a Horseville and maybe there’s a plant land. It’s interesting that their town is mainly birds and there’s only a couple of humans, so I’m wondering what the backstory is there. It’ll be really fun to expand their universe a little bit.
Which of the supporting characters are you excited to explore further?
I love the plant lady, Draca, she’s just so mysterious, we don’t know what her deal is. She’s voiced by Shamir Bailey, who’s one of my favorite musicians. I love all the extra characters, I love Dirk and the HR lady, the goose that he’s dating. I’ve written a musical number for him that we didn’t get to this season, but I think will be funny. I think it’d be very easy to make Pastry Pete disappear and never deal with him again, but I don’t think that’s very realistic. So I don’t know how to continue that story, but I’m pretty sure that’s not over.
I love that you’re also embracing free breasts in your show, Draca just happily takes her bra off while lounging around at home in the first episode, and you have boobs on a building in the credits.
Part of the casual bodily humor and sexuality [in the show] is just being like, this is an adult show, it’s for adults. I know there are bright colors and characters, but it’s not for children unless you want to really show your children. That’s just a common problem with my work because it looks so cute that children are drawn to it but I’m interested in making material for adults at this time. It’s just funny to me to take something taboo and seen as sexy, like a pair of boobs, and slap them on a building and ask, “Is this still sexy in this context?” I don’t know if it is. If you find that sexy, is there something wrong with you or is that normal? I don’t know, I don’t have the answers, but I just think it’s funny to be very childish about that stuff and re-contextualize things. I like boobs, I think they’re great! It’s fun to draw them!