Painful comedy must come from a place of understanding.
The entertainment industry is an ouroboros of production, hype, consumption, and reaction. Movies formulate, the press write about them, audiences watch them, and they – depending on the box office pull – spawn sequels or crush careers. Same goes for TV, music videos, whatever you can think of that’s full of glitz and glamour and ubiquity. It makes sense that in this cyclical marketplace, those producing the shows and movies would think to write what they know – namely making TV and movies.
Self-reflexivity becomes profitable when sets don’t need to be disguised as anything besides sets and characters can walk around between conference rooms and hallways that actually exist. That’s why it’s surprising that BoJack Horseman, one of the only animated attempts at an industry show, isn’t just one of the funniest uses of this setting, but also the most informative and accurate.
Comedies love focusing on how things are run because everyone has a job, so everyone can relate to hating their job. The Office, The Larry Sanders Show, Scrubs, and hell even The Andy Griffith Show focus on how people go to work. Sure we get snippets of the workings of each profession, whether it be ordering paper or diagnosing an illness, but these qualities are usually incidental to the comic characters and bear no deeper analysis. 30 Rock, focusing on TV production, gets closest to BoJack’s wheelhouse but isn’t mad at its position, just baffled at the insanity. It observes its shackles and rattles them at the audience with a smile on its face. Its little sister, Parks & Recreation, is frustrated but too sweet to do much more than kill what it hates (men’s rights, city government corruption, plutocracy) with kindness.
Seinfeld’s story of showbiz is, like most of the show, clever without much bite. It is meta analysis without cruelty because its characters are too petty to be outrageously provocative. The creation and pitching of a show, a show just like Seinfeld, within Seinfeld is funny – possibly even accurate to Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s experience – but good-humoredly patronizing to its audience (“Well, why am I watching it?” “Because it’s on TV”) and self-effacing to its creators. We’re meant to ask ourselves “What kind of talent does it actually take to make a show about nothing, anyways?”
However, the show doesn’t care about learning like it doesn’t care about lessons, morals, or well, anything besides social minutiae. As soon as it stops being funny, we move right along to the next “double dip” infraction.
BoJack is, pardon the pun, a different animal. It’s much angrier at everyone on all sides. The agencies, publicists, directors, writers, executives, and of course the actors are all different varieties of toxin. Their foibles aren’t cute like Seinfeld, they’re cruel to the bone. But this brutality opens the door to honesty. When you don’t care who you offend, you can have the kind of specificity needed to explain things to a layperson. It’s just a happy coincidence that the jokes work better when we understand how movies get created, made, and pushed. It’s a mixed bag of favors, back-scratching, and the economics of star power. When agencies, publicists, and assistants are considered – characters that all appear frequently alongside BoJack – many we understand the many livelihoods dependent on the egotistical selling power of one person. No wonder they must think of themselves as stars. They’re either stars or starving.
Extrapolating the problems of “Hollywoo” to the entertainment news cycle and those who watch it, BoJack explains why this selfishness isn’t a contained problem. These attitudes grow from a harsh environment that rewards narcissism and act as an invasive species to the rest of the world. We may not need to sell ourselves as violently as those inside the industry, but we consume them as we’ve been taught by the tail end of the ouroboros.
Taking the time to show deals being made or the behind-the-scenes of BoJack doing interviews in a hotel room makes “Hollywoo” more than a setting, but part of the show’s creeping menace. It wants us to very seriously consider how its animal-less cousin affects us in the real world. By stepping us through the TV and movie processes, it peels back the layer of mysticism it knows has been constructed by, well, people like A Ryan Seacrest Type. The more we understand, the more we find funny, and the more it hurts us when we bridge the gaps put in place by the cute cartoon animals. Truth spoken from a horse-man, or a Horseman, is less likely to ruffle important feathers than from a flesh-and-blood actor. The third season of the show features multiple jokes about Hollywood child abuse. That wouldn’t fly unless we understood the reality of the situation and the painful reminder that a live-action actor would almost certainly balk at making that joke, worried for their career.
BoJack isn’t a show that wants you to understand where it’s coming from like Parks & Rec or even 30 Rock, whose NBC ties were relentlessly mocked, because it’s much more than that. Its star is an personification of all the suffering and cyclical narcissism that comes from existing within his line of work and the only way we really get it is by being in the trenches with him. It needs us to understand how things work because it’s not Entourage. There’s no glamour here. It needs us to understand because it’s an exposé with a comedy veneer.