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Lisa Hanawalt On 'Tuca & Bertie,' 'BoJack Horseman' And Channeling Anxiety Into Art


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Netflix animated series "Tuca & Bertie" has a look that's similar to another Netflix animated series, "BoJack Horseman." That's because Lisa Hanawalt, the creator of "Tuca & Bertie," is also the creative designer of "BoJack."

But "Tuca & Bertie" is very much its own show and reflects Hanawalt's more absurd style. There are strange plant-headed people. Subways are either snakes or caterpillars depending on whether they're express or local trains. Buildings have breasts. The main characters are two 30-year-old birds who are best friends living in Birdtown. The show follows them as they negotiate jobs and love interests, the onset of adulthood and some surprisingly serious issues like sexual harassment and abuse.

Comedian Ali Wang voices the character of Bertie, an anxious song thrush with an office job who's just moved in with her boyfriend Speckle, played by Stephen Yeun. Tiffany Haddish is the voice of Tuca, an irrepressible toucan who's not interested in holding down a job, settling down or really doing anything that even has a whiff of adulthood about it.

Lisa Hanawalt first started drawing Tuca and Bertie in her comics. She has two collections of her work called "My Dirty Dumb Eyes" and "Hot Dog Taste Test," as well as a standalone comic called "Coyote Doggirl."

Hanawalt spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with a clip from "Tuca & Bertie." Tuca has just gone on her first date since becoming sober, and it did not go well.


TIFFANY HADDISH: (As Tuca) I wasn't ready for tonight. I've never not been drunk on a date before.

ALI WONG: (As Bertie) Was this your first date since you've been sober?

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Yeah, and it was so much easier when I drank. Glug, glug, glug, smooch, smooch, smooch, blur, blur, blur, bang, bang, barf, barf, you know?

WONG: (As Bertie) Oh.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) But now, now I feel so exposed. I don't know how to be. I mean, I was cool with some, like, deli flirting. But then...

WONG: (As Bertie) But then I pressured you. Oh, I thought you were in love with him.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) In love with him? I don't even know his name. I've been calling him deli guy all night. I kept trying to text you how I felt.

WONG: (As Bertie) I completely misinterpreted all of your texts. I'm sorry I pushed you so hard. I've been so caught up in my own issues. Forgive me?

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Duh.

WONG: (As Bertie, laughing).

HADDISH: (As Tuca) So the sex book didn't help?

WONG: (As Bertie) Nope. But it's not just the sex or Speckle. It's just - I can't quite put my finger on it. I mean, I love Speckle. I have a good job. I don't know what I'm missing.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Hey, at least this is nice, though.

WONG: (As Bertie) Yeah, it is.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Woo, hey.

WONG: (As Bertie, laughing).

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: And that's a scene from the Netflix animated show "Tuca & Bertie" starring Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong. And my guest is Lisa Hanawalt, who's the creator and showrunner for the show. Lisa Hanawalt, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LISA HANAWALT: Thank you for having me.

BRIGER: So there's a little visual gag at the end of that, where Tuca flashes the street and Bertie looks like she's about to flash the street, but because of her personality, she keeps her shirt...

HANAWALT: Yeah, she's like, nah (laughter).

BRIGER: ...Down and doesn't. Yeah, she decides not to do it. So I'd like you to describe the world that Tuca and Bertie live in. Before the show, you were the production designer for the Netflix show "BoJack Horseman." And so, like, there are some similarities in how the shows look. But the worlds are completely different. You're - the world of Birdtown, which is the world of "Tuca & Bertie," is more absurd and surreal.

HANAWALT: Yeah, Birdtown is like a cross between New York, LA, Mumbai and my own dreams and nightmares (laughter). So it's a lot more surreal than "BoJack." Like, there's buildings with boobs on them. There's trains that look like snakes and slugs depending on how fast they are, which makes sense to me.

BRIGER: Right.

HANAWALT: Objects can come to life and talk if it makes sense for them to do so. There's a lot more surrealism in this world.

BRIGER: Yeah, and people's words can become concrete. You know, it's interesting because a lot of animated shows, like, they seem to have a logic to them about, like, how they're willing to bend the rules of the physical world, you know? Like, there'll be shows that, like, only animals can talk, but plants can't talk. But your world seems much looser than that.

HANAWALT: Yeah, there's walking, talking plant people in my world because why not - that's just, like, fun to me - whereas "BoJack" has much stricter rules about how the universe works. So you won't see, like, a dog man walking a pet dog. But in my world, you will.

BRIGER: That's right. And so you - are you just willing to - well, I guess there's no rules to break. But you're just willing to do whatever it takes to tell the story. Is that how it works?

HANAWALT: Kind of. It really comes down to a gut feel about whether in that moment it makes sense for the story. Also sometimes, it's just whether it made me laugh really hard. So, like, there is a character called Ultra Sam, the ultrasound machine. And that character, it really is an ultrasound machine, but it comes to life in a way that just made me laugh so hard that I had to keep it in there.

BRIGER: Well, actually, I have that clip ready to go. This is a scene where Tuca has this cramp in her side, and she's afraid of going to the doctors for various reasons. But she's finally in so much pain, and she has this sort of thing hanging out of her side that she goes to the doctor. And she's there in the emergency room, and a doctor comes in. So let's hear that clip.


TIG NOTARO: (As Dr. Sherman) Hello, I'm Dr. Sherman. I'm here to exam...

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Are you going to cut me up and sew my booty hole to someone else's booty hole? Tell me. Tell me, woman. Caw, caw.

NOTARO: (As Dr. Sherman) Oh, you're nervous.

SUNGWON CHO: (As Ultra-Sam S380) Hi, I'm Ultra Sam, the ultrasound machine. I've been programmed to comfort you. We tried to teach doctors empathy, but it didn't take. Don't worry. Everything's going to be OK.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) That's what Bertie would've said. She's programmed to comfort me, or at least she was. Now all she talks about is Irish butter. The cultured cream enhances the flavor notes, Tuca.

CHO: (As Ultra-Sam S380) Good news, the doctor is almost done looking inside you. Nothing to worry about. She's just going to confer with some colleagues and check - OK, let's cut the (expletive). I need you to plug in my wife. She's right over there.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) She's a lamp?

CHO: (As Ultra-Sam S380) She's so much more. You're not seeing her in the best light. Oh, she would have laughed at that.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Aww.

CHO: (As Ultra-Sam S380) Cherish those you love, Tuca. You never know when they may become disconnected from your life. So please plug her in - they're back. Be cool. Be cool. So if that weird bulge turns out to be cancer - hey, sometimes life gives you cancer, and you make can-sirloin steak.

NOTARO: (As Dr. Sherman) OK, we need to get some X-rays. Are you going to be a big girl, or do you need the robot?

BRIGER: (Laughter) So talk about writing that scene. Where'd that come from?

HANAWALT: Originally it came from a photo I took at a hospital when I went for a doctor's exam. And it was a two X-ray machines side-by-side, and they just looked like brothers to me. And one of the exec producers, Steven Cohen, kept bringing it up to me, like, it's so weird that you took this photo. Like, it almost seems like that should be a part of the show.

So I brought it up in the room, and we just started joking about what, you know, a talking machine would sound like. And I also really like joking about doctors who lack empathy because I think that's a real problem. And it kind of explains partly why Tuca's character is so afraid of doctors and didn't want to go to the hospital in the first place. Like, a lot of women have trouble being taken seriously by doctors when they have pain.

So it kind of - it's a joke that ties back to a serious issue I care about.

BRIGER: Do you see faces in inanimate objects a lot? Like, do you go around and personify the objects in your life?

HANAWALT: Only when I'm really bored or anxious (laughter). It's like - maybe it's a defense mechanism. Like, especially when I'm at the dentist, I see faces everywhere.

BRIGER: Yeah, maybe sadistic ones.

HANAWALT: (Laughter).

BRIGER: So you say that oftentimes women feel like they're not taken seriously by their doctors. Do you have that experience?

HANAWALT: Yeah, I have. Like, I went to a doctor for, like, stomach pain, and he just wanted to put me on antidepressants. I'm like, I'm sure that would help in some ways, but that isn't actually, like, tackling the source of the problem (laughter).

BRIGER: Right.

HANAWALT: So yeah, then I just...

BRIGER: That's just the manifestation of the pain in some ways. It doesn't help.

HANAWALT: Yeah, and I'm like, I'm sure that that's connected, like, the gut and mind are very intricately connected. But I'm like, I don't want to just take a pill. Like, I want to, like, actually figure out what I should be eating and stuff. And he just kind of, like, dismissed it. Like, oh, you know, you have IBS or whatever. Like, just kind of one of those, like, diagnosis that just kind of covers, like, well, we don't really quite know what's going on with you, but here.

BRIGER: Well, let's talk about a scene that actually you're in. This is Episode 2, I believe. And Bertie's felt that a male coworker, who's - was actually a rooster coworker named Dirk, has said some inappropriate things to her, and Bertie hasn't been able to get any help from the human resources goose who you play, who seems to equate sexual harassment with flirtation. She and Tuca take it on themselves to organize a sexual harassment seminar at the office.

So I just wanted to play this scene, and you're the first voice we hear. And your character doesn't seem to have much of a grasp on sexual harassment.


HANAWALT: (As character) Wow. I wasn't super prepared for this, but I'll start with the basics. OK, who here can tell me which parts of this doll it's OK to whistle at?


HADDISH: (As Tuca) What's the plan now?

WONG: (As Bertie) I don't know. I thought Dirk would feel so guilty during this meeting he'd confess to sexually harassing me.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Oh, you pure-hearted dummy.

HANAWALT: (As character) Now, if we get kissed without consent, maybe with a little bit of tongue, do we really need to use the word assault? Seems harsh.


WONG: (As Bertie) That's it. OK. Hi. I feel like we have a problem with sexual harassment in this office, and I want to talk about it.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Yeah, yeah.

HANAWALT: (As character) Bertie, the storytelling part comes after I do my condom demo.

WONG: (As Bertie) Hey, Dirk. What you said to me yesterday made me uncomfortable.

JOHN EARLY: (As Dirk) Whoa. Hey, I was just kidding around.

WONG: (As Bertie) It was inappropriate. My boob ran away.

EARLY: (As Dirk) I'm sorry if my joke hurt your feelings.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) He's been weird to me, too.

NICOLE BYER: (As character) He goosed my butt.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He honked my goose. I mean, I am a goose

HANAWALT: (As character, laughter) what a playful guy.

WONG: (As Bertie) You made me think about my own body at work. That's disgusting.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah.

BYER: (As character) That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Bodies are terrible.

EARLY: (As Dirk) Whoa, let's not get into a mob mentality here.

RICHARD E GRANT: (As Holland) Dirk, I think you should pack your things and leave the office for the day.




BRIGER: ...Can you talk about creating that scene? I mean, one of the things I really love about the show is that you get to some serious issues. You're dealing with it on multiple levels. This one in particular is mostly comedic. But you can hear - you're using, like, old-school animated sound effects. So just talk about how you decided to write that scene that way, please.

HANAWALT: You know, this was an issue that I wanted to explore, but I didn't want to do it in, like, a preachy, like men are bad, sexual harassment is bad way. Like, I think it's funny to have the character of the HR lady, who's just a bad feminist. I think it's fun to make fun of women who get it wrong or even good feminists who have, like - you know, like, I make fun of them in that kind of WTUS (ph) meeting, women taking up space meetings. Like, it's sort of a form of feminism that seems good on the surface but maybe isn't actually helping in the real world.

I just think it's fun to take these really serious topics and kind of poke fun at them a little bit.

BRIGER: Yeah. And I think the show acknowledges the messiness of life. Like, there's not a lot of body positivity in that group of women. You know, they're saying, like, bodies are disgusting or...

HANAWALT: (Laughter) There's even the character who at one point says, some women are body positive, but not me.


HANAWALT: It's, like, really funny because a lot of us promote body positivity, but then we hate ourselves. So that's - just seems realistic to me.

BRIGER: Right.

HANAWALT: And, you know, Bertie, you know, she conquers Dirk in the scene, like, she brings attention to his behavior. But then he just gets sent home for one day, so he doesn't really get punished that much.

BRIGER: Right, there's not a lot of consequence for his action.

HANAWALT: No. And then, you know, not to spoil it, but she gets this promotion. And then she kind of sits down at her desk and has to stay late at work, and she's unhappy still. She didn't quite - it isn't really what she wanted actually in the end. She thought it would make her happier, and it doesn't.

BRIGER: That scene references an earlier scene where Bertie's left breast is so upset by Dirk's comments that it just gets up and walks out (laughter).


BRIGER: It, like, decides it needs a drink, and it just, like, leaves her body, and Bertie's left with, like, a big hole on the side of her chest. And you have Awkwafina that's voicing the boob. It's - I mean, (laughter) where did you come up with that idea?

HANAWALT: I really like the idea of boobs that can pop off and leave your body. Yeah, I thought it would just be such a funny response to sexual harassment, where, you know, sometimes people say something to you about your body that makes you wish you could just kind of take your body apart and hide it away. So it really kind of came out of that feeling of shame and embarrassment.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Lisa Hanawalt, creator of the Netflix animated series "Tuca & Bertie." She's also the creative designer of the animated Netflix series "BoJack Horseman." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Lisa Hanawalt, creator of the Netflix animated series "Tuca & Bertie" and creative designer of the Netflix animated series "BoJack Horseman."

BRIGER: You've talked about how you have anxiety that you've dealt with since you were a kid, and it sounds like drawing was a coping mechanism for dealing with that, and some of it was social anxiety. Did that crop up during meetings for "BoJack Horseman?"

HANAWALT: (Laughter).

HANAWALT: Yeah. I mean, in meetings, I tend to sit in the back of the room and stay quiet and just draw the whole time. You know, I mean, especially working on "Tuca And Bertie," I had to learn to, like, sit at the front of the room and actually speak up because everyone's looking to me for my opinion (laughter).

BRIGER: Right. You probably can't just have your head down drawing in those meetings.

HANAWALT: I do sometimes, but I can't get away with it all the time. It's hard. It's definitely not natural for me. It's very uncomfortable for me to speak up. The more people, the more difficult it is. I've learned to cope (laughter).

BRIGER: How did you channel your anxiety into your art?

HANAWALT: I think it just helped me to busy my hands with something. It sort of calms my mind down. I'm now thinking, like, maybe I had a touch of ADD or something, and that was just my way of expressing it. You know, I had trouble in school paying attention to anything anyone was saying unless I was drawing or doing something with my hands at the same time, and I've always been that way. Like, I just need to fidget.

BRIGER: Were you, like, drawing pictures of your teachers while they were trying to keep your attention and things like that?

HANAWALT: Not until high school, when I had a bit of a naughtier streak. In elementary school, I was just drawing animals.

BRIGER: Was there a time when, like, a teacher, like, caught you drawing and then they looked at what you were doing and there was, like, a picture of them like a pig or an elephant or something?

HANAWALT: (Laughter) Not that I can remember.

BRIGER: That's good.

HANAWALT: There was definitely a college teacher I had a crush on, and I would draw him all the time. And he was like, I can see you drawing me. I'm like, I'm just going to continue.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.

HANAWALT: In hindsight, I was...

BRIGER: Just keep on going.

HANAWALT: ...Harassing him a little bit.


HANAWALT: But I think he probably enjoyed the attention.

BRIGER: You know, in your book "Hot Dog Taste Test," you have this story where you enumerate your anxieties. And they include agoraphobia, claustrophobia and emetophobia, which I didn't know. I had to look up, and it's...

HANAWALT: That's one of my worst ones.

BRIGER: ...The anxiety around vomiting.


BRIGER: And you know, when I read that, it was really interesting to me because it explains - I don't know if it's a theme - but imagery that I've seen in your art a lot, where there's, like, a lot of things either flying out of someone's mouth or their eyes or, like, flying in. Like, the cover of one of your books, there's all these aircraft flying out of a dog's eyes. And then even in "Tuca And Bertie," there's a scene where Dirk the rooster - like, all these baby snakes come out of his mouth. So I guess...


BRIGER: ...I was wondering about the relationship between having these thoughts and then drawing them out. Does drawing these things help you address the anxiety about those thoughts? Or do you just draw these images because you're thinking about them all the time?

HANAWALT: It's both. I think drawing can be a way of exorcising those fears. And for me, it's a way of controlling them. And you know, if I make a joke about someone barfing snakes, then that idea is less scary to me. Maybe it propagates the fear even more. I don't know. I'm not sure. That's a good question.


HANAWALT: I mean, sometimes when I'm drawing, like, kind of creepy things - like, I draw a lot of snakes. And I am afraid of snakes, but I think something about drawing them and, like, kind of humanizing them kind of helps me, you know, sit with them a little longer.

BRIGER: You clearly love horses a lot. You actually have your own horse. You've drawn horses for a long time. You said at one point that when you grew up, you were going to be famous for drawing horses. And you actually even pretended to be a horse when you were in school. What years was that?

HANAWALT: I stopped when I got into middle school because my brother sat - my older brother sat me down and said, listen. You're going into middle school now. Other kids are going to make fun of you if you pretend to be a horse, so you're going to have to stop. So I kind of - I stopped doing it at school during recess, but I kind of kept doing it at home on the sly for a little bit. But I basically stopped around age 12, I think.

BRIGER: And would you just sort of prance around the school grounds or...

HANAWALT: Yeah, I would gallop around on the grass. Like, I crawled around on all fours so much that I actually had calluses, like, on my knees and on the tops of my feet.

BRIGER: Yeah. I had a cousin who loved horses when she was young. And in her backyard, her parents set up, like, this miniature horse jumping set. And then she would just, all day long, just jump through, like, pretending to be a horse. So...

HANAWALT: I love her parents for doing that.

BRIGER: Yeah. But it sounds like a kind of common thing that people like to do. So...

HANAWALT: Yeah. So a strange thing about horse girls is that you love horses so much that you kind of feel the need to be one. Yeah. I can't really explain it. It's, like, something about our DNA.

BRIGER: And you still enjoy riding.

HANAWALT: Yeah, I do. Yeah, I got my own horse, like, six months ago. And I was worried that I would get sick of it. I'm like, well, now that I'm going to the barn, like, five times a week, like, am I going to ruin my favorite thing by doing it too much? And no, that hasn't been the case at all.


HANAWALT: I'm still obsessed.

BRIGER: Well, Lisa Hanawalt, thanks so much for coming on FRESH AIR today.

HANAWALT: Thank you so much. It's so great to be here.

GROSS: Lisa Hanawalt is the creator of the animated series "Tuca And Bertie." All 10 episodes are streaming on Netflix. She's also the creative designer of the Netflix animated series "BoJack Horseman," which is nominated for an Emmy for outstanding animated program.

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new album by Titus Andronicus. This is FRESH AIR.


Sam Briger