There is no show I love unraveling quite like BoJack Horseman, Netflix’s animated show about a group of humans and anthropomorphic animals living in Los Angeles while wallowing in bourbon and existential despair. Despite its completely absurd premise, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s show has smacked me in the face with capital-F Feelings more times than I can count, brought on by the show’s deft dive into the minds of characters facing their demons or — more likely — trying to ignore them completely, to catastrophic ends. When the show debuted in 2014, waves of critics (including me!) wrote ecstatically about how BoJack Horseman nailed tricky depictions of depression and found poignancy in the bleakest of places.
All of this is true; BoJack Horseman is one of the most reliably bleak shows airing right now. But did you know it’s also a comedy? And a really funny one at that?
The moment I realized I should probably remind people of this fact came halfway through writing my review of season four, when I’d hit a wall and was looking up synonyms for “devastating.” (I’m not proud.) Even as I wrote about a season that centered on dementia, infertility, and a crumbling marriage, I knew these dramatic elements would inevitably overshadow the show’s comedic ones — and that it was a real shame.
The reason BoJack Horseman is so good isn’t just that it can knock the breath out of you with an expertly deployed gut punch; it’s that it can do so seconds after knocking the breath out of you with an expertly deployed punchline. If one scene shows BoJack grappling with the darkest parts of his psyche, the next can include a TV news crawl delivering a killer joke like, “Giraffe CEO breaks glass ceiling.”
So in order to properly appreciate the full range of what BoJack can do, here are seven kinds of jokes the series pulls off so well amid all that emotional destruction.
1) The sight gag
This is the comedic arena in which BoJack simply has no competition. With the design and animation steered by production designer Lisa Hanawalt and supervising director Mike Hollingsworth, the background of any given shot of a BoJack episode inevitably includes a joke in plain sight, one hidden with a wink, or both. Jokes crop up on movie posters and book spines, while other punchlines emerge in the background as characters in the foreground obliviously continue their scenes.
There are probably (literally) a thousand examples I could cite here and later remember a hundred more I forgot. A yarn ball screensaver bounces around the computer monitor of feline talent agent Princess Carolyn. A construction crew includes a hammerhead shark banging a nail in with his face. Someone asks a bartender for a Grasshopper, only to be faced with a literal grasshopper woman spinning on her barstool to bat her eyes in his direction.
But to keep things relatively brief, I’ll point to season three’s stunning underwater episode (“Fish Out of Water”). It’s almost entirely silent, and therefore relies almost entirely on sight gags to make its jokes land. From a famous octopus signing an autograph with its inky tentacle to a parade of nautical-themed ads to a seahorse bus driver wearily stopping his route short to give birth, “Fish Out of Water” shows off BoJack Horseman’s visual joke skills at their best.
2) The pun
This category inevitably has a ton of overlap with the sight gag one, mostly thanks to the fact that BoJack’s cast, packed with creatures of all stripes, gives the writers a million opportunities for animal puns — and they rarely disappoint. Take the books stacked in Princess Carolyn’s office (“Purrsepolis,” “The Color Purrple”), the fashion week show for “Sharc Jacobs,” or the double pun of BoJack’s book agent, who fittingly happens to be a penguin, clutching a “Keep Calm and Carry Prawn” mug. That breaking news crawl about the giraffe CEO — one of my very favorite moments of BoJack in general — snakes by on “MSNBSea.”
But there are plenty of puns to be found in the non-animal realm, too. In season four, there’s an Egyptian restaurant called “I Pita the Fül.” NPR’s Audie Cornish and Robert Siegel cameo as Diane’s ringtone for “All Rings Considered.” A poster in the background advertises a movie about someone finding out he’s getting cheated on called Uncle Cuck. (“This Christmas, somebody’s getting cucked.”)
Aside from these sorts of puns being the kind of quick, clean joke many shows would kill for, the fact that there are so many onscreen at any given time speaks to the level of detail BoJack prizes and has made a signature feature.
3) The wordplay
When it comes to BoJack’s love of wordplay, puns are only the beginning. The show is otherwise packed with cheeky malapropisms and oxymorons, alliteration and onomatopoeia.
It’s ultimately a credit to BoJack’s stacked, talented cast — including Will Arnett, Paul F. Tompkins, Alison Brie, and Amy Sedaris — that the show can pull these off with such panache, especially as they deliver tongue twister after ridiculous tongue twister. (Tompkins’s chipper Labrador Mr. Peanutbutter solidified his vice grip on my heart for not just hosting the game show Hollywoo Stars and Celebrities: What Do They Know? Do They Know Things? Let’s Find Out! but eagerly spitting out the full title at any given opportunity.) Now that the show is four seasons in, it almost feels like it’s is trying to see exactly how far it can push its actors — and they always nail it.
Sedaris in particular gets several mouthfuls in season four. As Princess Carolyn gets into the business of representing finicky star “Courtney Portnoy,” she subsequently starts to speak in a series of increasingly ridiculous internal rhymes. Take, for example, her pitch to get Diane (Brie) to interview Portnoy:
PRINCESS CAROLYN: How would you enjoy joining Portnoy for a scorched soy porterhouse pork four-courser at Koi?
DIANE: Wait, what?
PRINCESS CAROLYN: Glorify your source, but don’t make it feel forced, of course. And try the borscht!
The whole run and all the similar ones that follow make for pure silliness, with no point besides the sheer delight of hearing it.
4) The pop culture references
At this point, a show about Hollywood (or Hollywoo, as it’s called in BoJack world) really has to know its shit to not be immediately dismissed as unoriginal. But BoJack has taken the myopic focus of the entertainment industry and the single-minded people within it — ground well trodden by the likes of 30 Rock and Curb Your Enthusiasm — to a whole new level of insight.
In season four, for instance, there’s a running storyline about the fate of a movie featuring bloody shootouts that keeps having to get reshot — because of real-life mass shootings. “Thoughts and Prayers,” the title of the episode, echoes the phrase uttered again and again by frustrated producers as an obligatory aside to the actually pressing business of making sure the movie gets made.
And even as BoJack skewers the entertainment business, it also makes countless allusions to real-life projects and celebrities — some even voicing themselves, like this season’s Jessica Biel and Zach Braff — in a way all its own. A poster for Hamilton spotlights Alexander Hamilton as played by a literal pig. Daniel Radcliffe finishes his time on a game show fuming that BoJack mistook him for Elijah Wood. Margo Martindale recurs as “Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale,” a hellraising version of herself who rages against anyone who dares disrespect her deep body of work. Early in the fourth season, Princess Carolyn reveals that BoJack’s reality includes the sequel Paul Blart 3: ’Til Death Do Us Blart, a perfectly stupid title that made me laugh so hard I had to pause the show until I could get myself back together.
In one particularly good bit from season three, a lost list of Oscar nominations results in a hastily assembled and rather pointed replacement list, including Jennifer Lawrence somehow landing three separate nominations for Best Actress, “Black People?” crossed out for Best Actor, and five women nominated for Best Director — the joke, of course, being that this has never and may never happen. (Bonus joke: scrambling characters distracting the Academy president by suggesting Bradley Cooper is nearby, to which the president exclaims, “Bradley Cooper?! We love him for some reason!” and duly scampers off.)
5) The screwball mishap
Animated characters have a distinct advantage when it comes to screwball physical comedy, namely that their bodies have zero restrictions and can bounce all over the damn place as need be. This holds especially true in the case of BoJack’s Todd (Aaron Paul), BoJack’s former roommate who’s constantly stuck in his own misadventure sidebars while everyone else is crumbling under the weight of their own self-loathing.
Some of the best Todd moments are pure screwball in the Three Stooges sense, whether it’s him and Mr. Peanutbutter scrambling to catch a ringing phone through a series of rooms like they’re running through a Super Mario level, or him trying to wrangle terrifying dentist clowns. Todd is always stumbling into absurd action, often literally; in season four, he manages to fall out of a drone (long story) and accidentally win a ski race to become governor of California (longer story). Even as BoJack faces its darkest demons, a classic Todd caper or equally ludicrous mishap is probably lurking just around the corner.
6) The structural twist
BoJack has never been afraid to mess with its episodic formula, often switching things up to better reflect where the characters are, mentally or physically. This can mean something like the underwater episode, in which BoJack struggled with both a language barrier and his growing isolation from everyone else as he lived out a bonkers silent movie.
In season four, however, the main way BoJack played with structure was via time jumps. Sometimes, this is used for that aforementioned devastating effect, as with the flashbacks to BoJack’s mother’s bleak upbringing. But at plenty of other points, season four’s time jumps are played up for comedic effect with smash cuts. Some are as mundane as BoJack admitting that he’s lied — over and over and over again — mere minutes later.
Some are more significant and much stranger. Episode nine’s “Ruthie” (seemingly) flashes to a distant future in which “the bean system” rules all. Episode seven’s “Underground” traps the entire regular cast (plus Biel and Braff) a mile beneath the earth and keeps sporadically jerking ahead in time as everyone’s nerve dissolves and panic balloons into frantic rage.
Many of the categories on this list speak to BoJack’s ambition. But more than any of them, the structural jokes speak to the show’s willingness to stretch its own boundaries, one of its greatest strengths.
7) The callback
One of the most telling signs of a comedy’s growing confidence is its ability to pull off callbacks to its own jokes without coming off as self-congratulatory. BoJack is an expert in this arena, layering sly nods to its past throughout episodes as Easter eggs for its most attentive fans. Sometimes these callbacks are built in from the beginning, as with an intern who had to have her face sewn back on popping up on film sets throughout the show, or Mr. Peanutbutter jubilantly exiting conversations when he notices “Erica” — whom we’ve never seen — just offscreen. (“Erica! I don’t have time to be charmed to death right now!” “Erica! Look at you with the right number of ears!”)
But other callbacks become callbacks because the jokes grow and deepen over time. On BoJack, this has happened with something as downright silly as Beloved Character Actress Margo Martindale becoming Fugitive From the Law Margo Martindale, with sporadic updates on her whereabouts popping up on the radio or the MSNBSea crawl. Every season, Mr. Peanutbutter throws some party, and every time, Mr. Peanutbutter’s party banners include his instructions. (“Happy Birthday Diane And Use a Pretty Font,” “Congrats Diane and Mr. Peanut Butter / Peanut Butter is One Word.”) In the most prominent example, BoJack stealing the Hollywood sign’s “D” in season one resulted in the show forever after referring to the town as “Hollywoo.”
All told, BoJack’s callbacks are the perfect encapsulation of what makes its approach to comedy so smart. The jokes aren’t just there for laughs, though they inspire plenty of them. By layering the jokes in and on top of each other, the BoJack Horseman team has built a world that feels as sprawling and chaotic and specific as our own — which is especially crucial when the show swerves into oncoming feelings. Without these details and the incredible attention paid to them, BoJack Horseman wouldn’t be able to pull off its more ruthless turns with as much impact as it does.
Or, more simply: Without these jokes, BoJack Horseman simply wouldn’t be BoJack Horseman at all.
All four seasons of BoJack Horseman are currently available to stream on Netflix.