BoJack Horseman: Breaking The Rules Of Structure

This week we are going to be talking about BoJack Horseman, but we aren’t just going to be talking about the series, we are going to be talking about one very particular episode, and doing a really deep breakdown: Season 4, Episode 9 which is entitled Ruthie.

A lot of the times when we talk about television, we talk about TV bibles, we talk about the idea that every show needs to have an engine, a structure that is replicable, that can be done again, and again, and again.

Selling a series is like selling a franchise, like selling a McDonalds or Starbucks– you are selling not just the brilliance of your writing, or the brilliance of your idea, you are selling the replicability of it.

You are selling the ability to do it again, and again, and again, even if the writing team changes, even if the showrunner changes, even if the directors or in this case the animators change, that you have the same engine again, and again, and again.

And so, what is really exciting about this episode is that it shows what starts to happen, once you really understand your engine, once you really understand the formula for your series.You can start to play within it, and then you can also start to play against it.

You can start to open up new avenues of what your series can be, especially, once you’ve established what it is for both your audience and for yourself as a writer.

What is really interesting about this episode is, we don’t start in the present, we start in the future, we start with Princess Carolyn’s great, great, great, great, great, great, great granddaughter, who is telling a story about her ancestor, Princess Carolyn.

Now, if you don’t watch BoJack Horseman, let me catch you up a little bit about how this series works. BoJack Horseman is both the most ridiculous and the saddest series that you will ever watch on television. It is an animated send up of Hollywood, in a world in which some of the people are people and some of the people are part animal. And, the animal-people are basically just people except they have certain animal traits…

Pretty wild concept already for a series!

And generally in the series, what happens is we watch BoJack Horseman, who is the ultimate narcissistic movie star, and we watch the funniest possible trainwreck we could ever watch as BoJack consistently makes his own universe harder, and harder, and harder.

Princess Carolyn is BoJack’s former lover and former agent, and Princess Carolyn is a cat who is dating a mouse, and her mouse is pretty much the perfect man. And all Princess Carolyn has wanted for the whole season is just to get pregnant, and it is just not happening.

Usually we would watch Princess Carolyn’s story as a B story in an episode. But in this episode, Princess Carolyn’s story becomes the A story.

Now how do you get away with this, you aren’t supposed to just be able to reverse the whole structure of your series; you’re not supposed to just change up what you’ve been doing especially in a series as successful as BoJack, why did they get away with this?

Well, what is interesting is they don’t just get away with changing the focus; they also get away with changing the structure, because we are actually going to the future. And we are going to start off watching Princess Carolyn’s great, great, great granddaughter tell the story of Princess Carolyn’s awful, awful, awful day.

So the A story is going to be Princess Carolyn’s journey, the B story is going to be BoJack’s story, and the C story is going to be this unusual thread that starts in the future, and then flashes back to our present.

And what is really cool is this is something that the series has never done before. There have been times where we flashback to the past into BoJack’s story, or even into BoJack’s mother’s story, but, there has never been a point where we have flashed from the future back to the present.

So, what is happening is the engine of the series, the rules of the series, are actually getting complicated. We are starting to riff on the basic structure which is that we are going to watch BoJack Horseman destroy his own life, but instead we are going to flip it and we are going to focus on Princess Carolyn and her terrible, terrible day as reported by her great, great, great granddaughter.

Why does it work?

The real purpose of a bible or of an engine, is to make sure that the audience comes back, and every time they get the same feeling but also something different.

So, when an audience comes to watch a TV show, you want BoJack Horseman to feel like BoJack Horseman; you want it to feel like BoJack Horseman in every episode. You don’t want one episode to feel like BoJack Horseman and another to feel like Curb Your Enthusiasm, even though both pieces are about similarly narcissistic Hollywood characters. You want the show to maintain its integrity.

So, here are the things that are consistent in the show, is every episode is going to be filled to the brim with pun, and of course this episode is no different: it is pun on top of pun on top of pun.

In every episode, we are going to watch a character who is loved by the people around them, make all the wrong choices that end up destroying their own lives. And always, we are going to watch this happening in the funniest way possible; we are going to be surprised when those tears end up hitting us.

And what this episode does so brilliantly is that even though it completely changes the structure focusing on Princess Carolyn and reducing BoJack to a B story. Even though it creates a random C story (usually the C story would be Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter and those characters make brief cameos in this episode). Even though all those things are happening differently, the end product does the same thing. And what is really amazing is how the end product does the same thing in a way that still feels funny.

Jerry Perzigian, who teaches our TV Comedy Classes here at the studio, is an Emmy Award winner. He was the showrunner on Married with Children, The Golden Girls, The Jeffersons. He was a writer on Frasier. If it was a hit show in the 80’s or 90’s Jerry was on it, or he was running it. He has a really interesting way of teaching: he actually runs his classes just like real writer’s rooms, where basically on your day you pitch your project to the class and everyone collaborates together on structure, and engine, on characters, on jokes.

And Jerry has a quote that I really love, which is this: “First you write it true, and then, you make it funny.”

And I think this is such a powerful lesson for screenwriters and TV writers which is, the tone is something that you can control.

And what is interesting about this episode: this episode is about Princess Carolyn’s terrible, awful, awful day. It is so freaking dark. this episode is about a woman whose only desire is to have a baby, and guess what, she is not going to have it.

And, this is about as dark a topic as you can handle. And this is a comedy; you aren’t supposed to be doing this. So, how do they keep the tone from getting so dark that we would lose the fun and the laughter that brings us to a series like this? How are we supposed to laugh at Princess Carolyn’s miscarriage?

Well, the magic is actually in that structural game they are playing –by flashing into the future — because the mere existence of this little girl from the future telling the story of her ancestor, lets us know as an audience that it is okay to laugh, that it is okay to have some fun, that as awful and dark as all this stuff gets, it is still going to be okay at the end.

In other words that little opening sequence controls the tone of the piece, it allows the audience the permission that the audience needs to enjoy themselves.

And this is the brilliance of BoJack Horseman, and we have seen BoJack Horseman play these kinds of games with us before, if you think about BoJack’s experience with his Deer Friend in earlier seasons, BoJack is constantly walking the line between tragedy and comedy, between laughter and pathos. And it is walking it in the most ridiculous way, because the writers of BoJack are geniuses with tone.

And here is the important thing to remember about tone, and it goes back to Jerry Perzigian’s quote tone you can control, you can allow anything to have any tone you want as long as there is truth underneath it.

Tone is like the plate on which you serve your screenwriting or your TV writing. And simply by changing the plate or changing the arrangement, you can actually completely change the tone of any scene.

A wiser man than me once said, “Comedy is just tragedy without empathy.”

But what BoJack actually does is somehow manage to create comedy that is both tragedy and empathy that actually lets us feel and also lets us laugh at the same time.

So, first what happens is they break their own rules, but, they break their rules for a very specific reason, because they need that permission, because, otherwise, this thing is going to go off the rails into darkness.

So, first they write it true and here is the story of Princess Carolyn’s very, very, very, very dark day, and guess what, it is too dark. And this happens to us all the time in our writing, we write something and we aren’t controlling the tone, we are going off the rails, we are losing the genre of the piece.

We’re not watching The Crown here, we are watching BoJack Horseman. It has to feel like BoJack Horseman.

But, rather than just rejecting the idea, well I guess Princess Carolyn can’t have a miscarriage because that is too freaking dark, and too freaking sad, instead what happens is we run towards it.

We write the truth and then play around to create the tone that we need in the execution.

So, it is always okay to break the rules, it is okay to break the rules in your own writing, it is okay to break the rules in a series, it is okay to break the rules in a feature, it is okay to break the rules in a web series, we can always break the rules, even in big Hollywood stuff we can break the rules.

But we need to be breaking the rules for a reason.

If we are going to go up against our own rules, we want to break them for a reason, and we want to break them at a time where the audience understands enough to appreciate the break from the rules, to appreciate that this isn’t just a writer who doesn’t know what they are doing, who sometimes it is like this and sometimes it is like that, but rather to create a pattern and then to break it, to create that pattern and then to break it, to create that pattern and to break it…

Because, each time you break it, what happens is you shake up the audience’s expectations. You allow the audience to be surprised.

So, we go on this whole journey with Princess Carolyn, and Princess Carolyn, just like any character is going to begin the episode with a strong want.

And this is especially important in an episode where you want to make sure that the character doesn’t just become a victim of circumstance.

So, you want to make sure that the character is driven not in a reactive way, but by a strong want. And what is her strong want today? She has no idea that she is about to have a miscarriage, she wakes up at the top of the world which is where you want your character especially if you know that it is going to end really dark.

If you know that this is the episode where you are going to knock your character off their path, it is great to start them on that path. If you know that this is the episode where your character is going to find their path, it is great to start them off the path.

In other words, you want to create the biggest possible journey between where the episode starts and where the episode ends, where the character starts and where the character ends.

So, we meet Princess Carolyn and she is at the top of the world, it doesn’t matter what is going on with her life, she is happy as hell, because she’s got the perfect man, and she is going to have her baby.

So, she starts the episode with a really strong want which is to get a new role her client Courtney Portnoy who is going to be the subject of not only a ton of puns but also of Princess Carolyn’s business machinations. She has got a crazy role for Courtney and she is going to make sure it happens.

In order to do that, she has to confront Vanessa Gekko and Rutabaga Rabbitowitz, her competition.

Similarly, Ralph her mouse boyfriend, is off with his strong want which is he needs to introduce a new campaign for his greeting cards company, and he’s got the obstacle of not having the right idea. So the episode starts off and both characters already have a want, and so both of them are launched into the action.

And Princess Carolyn is feeling great.

In fact, her day is starting so strong that even BoJack can’t knock her off track, because even though she has got some deals pending for him, she is pretty clear with him that she doesn’t represent him and she isn’t going to get sucked back into his baloney.

Even Vanessa Gekko, her archrival, doesn’t bother her, she is able to give her a nice dig and burn, feeling the confidence of being a newly pregnant woman on the way to get the role of a lifetime for her client.

And then of course what happens is something we call the inciting incident: the door to change gets opened.

So we start off on the strong trajectory towards a strong want and then BANG! What happens?—the worst possible thing—Courtney fires her, she is now signing with the rival firm, the movie that Princess Carolyn thought she was getting for Courtney doesn’t even exist, the whole thing is a big joke.

Luckily, Princess Carolyn has the most amazing assistant in the world, Judah, the assistant that everyone wishes they had, the assistant who anticipates her every need and her every desire. And he coaches her right back up– he even suggests getting BoJack Horseman back in the pun-intended stable.

But Princess Carolyn insists she isn’t getting dragged back into that baloney, BoJack is off the table.

Instead, she places a call to Mr. Peanutbutter: new want!

So the first thing fails, Courtney she goes, “No, no BoJack, don’t worry I have got it, I am going to call Mr. Peanutbutter.”

But Peanutbutter is busy working with Woodchuck Coodchuck on his political campaign, so he isn’t interested in being in movies.

So, along the way back to work, she stops to get the clasp replaced on the necklace that she is always wearing. And from the future we pop back to the C story and we get the story of this necklace.

This necklace is something that I call a marvelous and terrible object. It is an object imbued with power, with emotional meaning.

And from the future, little great, great, great granddaughter Ruthie tells us the story of this necklace that has passed down through the generations, the one thing that wasn’t sold by Princess Carolyn’s struggling family, the thing that reminds her that she is always going to land on her feet, that she has a legacy behind her.

And at the jeweler– BANG! Another moment that opens the door to change, she bumps into Charlie the frog, and Charlie if you remember is a total bumbling idiot, and Charlie tells her he was surprised that she turned down his offer to buy her company and that instead he bought the Utah Jazz, “They make terrible agents but they are learning” he tells her.

And Princess Carolyn is surprised because she never even heard of this offer, but Charlie insists that he spoke to some guy named “Judah” which launches another shred of doubt in Princess Carolyn’s mind. Is Judah, her perfect assistant capable of deception?

So she asked Judah, “I just ran into Charlie Witherspoon, how does that make you feel?” and Judah responds hilariously, “This doesn’t make me feel anything, but that’s not a reflection of who you are as a storyteller,” he is always trying to make her feel good.

And he just seemed so unconcerned about it that Princess Carolyn kind of lets it go, and after all she does have a doctor’s appointment that she is late for which she totally forgot, because this doctor’s appointment is the least concerning thing in her mind right now, because things are going great and she is pregnant. And of course at the doctor’s appointment this is when: BANG! The next bomb drops.

You can see what we are doing, we are slowly chipping away at her perfect day, we are just slowly chipping away at her confidence.

So, she is at the doctor’s office and the doctor who is a rhinoceros reports, “Sometimes you fly an airplane and sometimes you lose a baby,” and she is like, “What!”

And this is another really incredible piece of writing because what they do is they allow the doctor to say all the things that Princess Carolyn is feeling on the inside. He of course is the worst doctor in the world, which is fabulous for the comedy.

But all – the humor around him grows out of the darkness that is already inside of Princess Carolyn. She asks him, “Why does this happen?” and he says, “Don’t beat yourself up, maybe you wanted it too much, maybe you didn’t deserve it.”

He tortures her with all the questions that she is torturing herself with, and of course because it is a doctor saying it, it is hilarious, whereas, if she was saying it on the inside it would be a tragedy.

And even now, Princess Carolyn tries to hold it together, she is going to land on her feet.

So, she continues to her day, goes back to the jewelry store to pick up that necklace that thing that reminds her she always lands on her feet, and what does she find out–it is costume jewelry bought in 1963. “Someone just told you a story,” the jeweler tells her.

And in the car after that moment that is the moment that she cries.

And that is the moment she cries because that is the moment that she is starting to question her own story.

See, It’s not  just her belief in her ability to have a baby that is being questioned, it is her belief in the stories that she is telling herself about her life, the stories that she is telling herself about Judah, the stories that she is telling herself about her clients, the stories that she is telling herself about BoJack, the stories that she is telling herself about Ralph.

And that is why when Ralph calls her, she doesn’t tell him the truth; she lies that her appointment got pushed back and that she is just heading in right now. And Ralph being a perfect supportive boyfriend tells her, “It is so easy with you, that’s why I love you.”

And it is a loveliest possible thing to say, but it is going to be the line that is going to end up hurting later, and it is going to be the line that keeps her from telling him the truth, because she wants to stay easy because she wants his love.

So, she is telling herself a story now about, “he only loves me because I am easy.” She is telling herself a story that if he knew about the baby, that he might not love her anymore.

So back at her office, Judah comes in and is surprised to find her drinking. And a little bit tipsy, she confronts him about lying. Judah insists that he was trying to protect her, that he knew if she talked to the frog that she would feel obligated to sell and he felt that if he protected her and gave her time she would make her own decision, which she did.

But because her story about Judah has shifted, she fires her perfect assistant, and so this is the second truly tragic decision she has made.

So, on the first half of this episode everything is moving towards holding on, landing on your feet, and the second half of the episode everything is moving towards pushing the people you love away. And she has taken the first step with Ralph and now she is taking the second step with Judah.

But even this moment is played for fun. After one moment of devastation, of being wrongfully fired, Judah hops right back into his perfect assistant character, “thanks for my time here I enjoyed it except for this moment, don’t forget you have reservations at eight,” and we give a little chuckle, again playing with tone even in the darkness.

To play with it even more, we flash back to the C story, and in this story Ruthie is being challenged by her teacher that the story is getting really dark, just like that little voice in our own head sometimes as writers going, “Woah, woah, woah, what are you doing, this story is getting really dark!” just as that own internal sensor says, “Woah, woah, woah, this is not how you are supposed to build the story.”

But Ruthie reminds us, “It has a happy ending, I promise,” and that lets us take a little breathe and remember, yes, it is all going to be okay, we know it is going to be okay because Ruthie is there and Ruthie means that it is okay to laugh.

And as a good storyteller, Ruthie breaks the rules of her teacher and flops back into the unauthorized B story where we catch up with BoJack Horseman who has been working throughout this episode with Diana, to try to get Hollyhock, his potential daughter’s, birth certificate by using his celebrity.

And again, an ironic twist, it is Diana’s celebrity as a blogger that ends up getting him access rather than his own celebrity, which is driving BoJack crazy.

And we catch up with him and he is having a total meltdown with the clerk, because he is starting to feel like his celebrity is no good anymore, it’s not useful.

Meanwhile we catch up with Princess Carolyn and she is having dinner with Ralph, and using that engine of pun, pun, pun, as she is having dinner, one actress after another comes in, and each name is put together as a pun for miscarry, “Miss Carrie Underwood, Miss Carey last name Mariah”

So again, the writers are playing in a hilarious, pun filled way to get under Princess Carolyn’s skin.

And Princess Carolyn is trying to hold on to Ralph’s perfect reality, even as hers is getting attacked, and attacked, and attacked, once again using the same method of other characters saying the thing that is in her head.

She ends up leaving Ralph at dinner and she doesn’t go back to their home, instead, she goes to her old apartment which she is keeping secretly– where Todd makes a little cameo appearance walking with his crazy dentist clowns– which you may remember if you’ve been watching this season, and she decides just to have a nightcap and go to bed.

But seven nightcaps later she is hammered out of her mind, realizing that she has lost her necklace.

And Ralph shows up at the door just at this worst moment.

And he tries to do all the right things. He tries to support her, he tries to help her navigate the problem, he tries to help her think about exploring some other options even as he has to navigate his own problems of being lied to. not knowing about the apartment, not knowing that she has had five miscarriages.

And at the end of this scene, having been told one more time that they should think about other options she says, “How about this for another option?” and breaks up with him, tells him, “Save it for the one who is easy.”

And then returns to her bedroom where she finds that necklace and clips it onto her neck with that paper clip.

And at that moment, we feel Princess Carolyn trying to hold on to that past even knowing it isn’t real.

And that is when she gets a call from her old friend BoJack, who starts off by telling her he doesn’t want to do any of the offers he has been given, still treating her like his agent, realizes that he said something wrong asks her how her day was, and before she can even answer tells her about his terrible, awful day…

And we realize this woman really has nobody.

And this is the real kicker and this is the moment where we cry.

At the end of that scene Princess Carolyn says, “You know what I do when I am feeling down, when I have had a terrible day? I imagine my great, great, great, granddaughter,” and she sees her in all that confidence telling the story and then she knows it is going to be okay because otherwise how could she have told the story?

And BoJack says, “But it’s fake!”

And Princess Carolyn responds, “Well, it makes me feel better.”

And this is about as devastating of a line as you will ever see in a comedy or a drama.

Because we realize we are right there with her, that we have been telling ourselves a fake story that it is going to be okay for her, that we have believed that story that she is telling herself.

And what is so beautiful about this is that that flashback, even though it breaks the rules, actually locks us into the story of the character.

That flashback doesn’t exist just for the audience, it exists for Princess Carolyn.

And structurally we are forced to confront our helplessness in the face of fate at the same moment that she has to confront it.

So, we’ve learned a lot today about engine, about tone, about how to break the rules.

But I want to end on one last really important idea which is that we are storytellers, and this is an episode about storytelling, and we have a tremendous power and a tremendous responsibility as storytellers.

We have a tremendous power to tell the stories that we believe in.

We have a tremendous power to actually shape the way our audiences tell themselves the stories of their own lives.

And just like Princess Carolyn by simply shifting the story, we can change the tone, we can change the feeling, but we can also change our lives.

We can transform those moments that feel like pain into moments where we laugh at ourselves, and into moments where we can rediscover our sense of hope, into moments that can shape both the way we and our audiences look at the world.


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