‘Bob’s Burgers’ Loren Bouchard on Taking Risks and Writing 100 ‘Good’ Episodes
When it came to writing the Bob’s Burgers‘ 100th episode, Loren Bouchard didn’t want to do anything too special, or rather different. Instead, he and the show’s creative team decided they wanted to make what seemed like a “quintessential” episode of the long-running animated series, which after this Sunday will have six seasons under its belt and almost three times the number of puns—including the Burger of the Day, and those displayed on the Exterminator Van and Store Next Door in the opening credits.
“We didn’t want to break the mold and accidentally have this thing that didn’t represent the show,” explains Bouchard of the show’s approach to celebrating the milestone. “We wanted to do an episode that could have been our first, one that feels super normal for Bob’s if that makes sense. In a way, it’s sort of back to basics.”
Sunday’s episode—which takes place entirely inside the restaurant—sees Bob Belcher (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) accidentally glued to the toilet by his children on the day he’s going to be profiled for a magazine piece. In a way, this is par for the course for the Belcher family patriarch, and so feels just like any other Bob’s Burgers episode. Or as Bouchard explains it, “This is Bob in his most Job-like role that he plays sometimes in the family, and in his life.”
But even though the series revolves around the tight-knit Belchers, it’s also home to a lively cast of supporting characters, many of whom will make a brief appearance in the milestone episode—including regulars like the Belcher’s obscenely wealthy landlord Mr. Fishoeder (Kevin Kline), Bob’s rival Jimmy Pesto (Jay Johnston), local handyman Teddy (Larry Murphy), neighboring mortician Mort (Andy Kindler) and Jimmy Jr.’s best pal Zeke (Bobby Tisdale). Occasional visitors like Marshmallow (David Herman), Gretchen (Murphy again) and now, celebrity chef Skip Maroosh (guest star Kumail Nanjiani) will also be featured.
“We tried to bring back many of our usual suspects,” says Bouchard of the familiar faces (and voices) that will crop up over the course of the half hour . There are also some new characters (if not voices) jumping into the mix, namely the magazine interviewer and photographer who’ll be voiced by Children’s Hospital’s Rob Huebel and Key and Peele‘s Keegan Michael Key.
With the animated series approaching such an important milestone, TV Insider spoke to Bouchard about the characters’ growths, taking risks, and any updates on the show’s soundtrack.
Considering the plot of the 100th episode, would you say that Bob’s struggle against life, in a way, is the core of the series?
Bob’s struggles and his successes. Job is interesting because you kind of get the sense of a luckless guy. We didn’t want Bob to feel quite so dark. It’s as if all the problems and all the successes in his life come from his family. Does that make sense? They both help him and thwart his dreams at every stage. If he didn’t have a family, he wouldn’t succeed, and he isn’t succeeding because of his family at the same time.
It’s interesting that this is a Bob-centric episode in a way, because we rarely ever see that. How do you decide when it’s the right time to shift the focus onto him?
We have this ensemble cast, and we always try to vary the episodes so that, to an extent, an episode might focus on one character’s journey or the relationship between two characters, like Linda and Louise in “Mother Daughter Laser Razor”—or Bob and Gene in the one where he goes and returns a remote control helicopter. We try to spread those out so that over the course of a season or even a half a season, you feel like you’ve gotten roughly equal time with all the characters. Generally speaking, when you get to a Bob-centric episode, it should feel like just about time that you’d just be wanting it, like we haven’t had one in a little while. Same for all the other characters.
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Seeing how popular the show is, are you still requesting guest stars or are people asking to be on the show?
We get that occasionally. We’ll hear that somebody’s a fan and they want to be on the show. That’s always gratifying. Often we’ll start thinking about that right away. If you hear somebody interested and they have a unique voice, then we’re interested. There is a little isolation though in animation. We keep our little heads down. We’re mostly working. A lot of people I would imagine if they want to be on this show, we just wouldn’t know about it until we reach out to them and they hopefully say, “Yes, I would love to.” That’s I think probably more often the case. We don’t get out much.
There are a lot of recurring and minor characters coming back in this episode. How do you balance that with the story still being about this core family?
That’s the job. An important part of doing the show is always keeping focused on the family almost to the point of obsession. Writers, myself included, get bored much quicker than the audience. I think this is true of all shows. You can see it sometimes, where the writers have been living with any given set of characters for let’s say a year or two years. We spend all day, every day thinking about these characters. For us, we start to get distracted easily, like children, and we want a new toy to play with.
Part of my job is to advocate on behalf of the audience and say, “No, let’s not do an episode about where we see Hugo the health inspector through his life.” As much as we love him, he is a guest character. We’ll see, maybe in Season 8 we’ll do a Hugo story. But my feeling is, mostly in the early stages of the show, and I consider us still in the early stages of this show—or I humbly ask that maybe we’re still in the early stages of the show—our job is to always keep looking at it as a show about this family and all the guest characters exist just to bring out another aspect of our core characters. You reject the stories that don’t fit that filter.
You mentioned Season 8. Knowing that you have 2 seasons ahead of you, is it allowing you guys to take a few more risks than you would have otherwise with the storytelling?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. We always try to take risks because again, it keeps us interested, and focused and excited to come to work. You don’t ever want it to feel like you know what you’re doing. That’s the beginning of creative death, if this feels like a factory job and we’re just putting together the same episode over and over again in different ways. You definitely want it to feel like every single episode is not going to repeat something we’ve done before and is bringing something new.
Generally I think we take risks as part of just coming to work everyday. That said, you also don’t want to break the show. That exact phrase, “taking risks” has some implication that we’re going to mess with the essential formula here, which is being true to these characters and telling pretty grounded stories, something we set out to do early on. This is not a show that can just take a big flight of fancy and suddenly the Belchers win the lottery in one episode, but then by the episode, they’re back again. We wouldn’t do that. We have to stay grounded for this thing to work. It’s part of the DNA of the show. I don’t want to take risks just for risk’s sake. We don’t want to take a risk that feels like it’s wanted, or we’re just out there pitching crazy ideas for novelty’s sake. It’s balanced.
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One of the most beloved aspects of the show is the music. Is there any kind of musical number in this episode?
Yes! I’m so glad you asked. We didn’t originally plan for the episode to have a musical number in it, but as sometimes happens. We were part way along the process, we had written a script and recorded the actors, and we had begun the process of doing an animatic, which is kind of an animated storyboard, when we realized we wanted to put a song in there. We knew it had to be a duet between Bob and Louise.
Bob is the one stuck to the toilet, and Louise is the one primarily responsible for him being stuck there. At that point in the episode, she really doesn’t want to admit that this is her fault and that she’s responsible and culpable. Understandably, she’s 9. Nobody likes to really own that. It’s a duet between both of them, really really hoping that everything’s going to turn out okay. It’s called “Bad Stuff Happens in the Bathroom.”
Of course I also have to ask about the soundtrack. Is there any possible update about that?
Yes! I’m like, moments away from being able to give details. We’re so, so, so close. The soundtrack is definitely going to happen. It’s happening on a really cool label, and we’re racing to get the contracts done so that it can be out by Christmas. It is something we’ve spent a good part, well, a little part of every single day on because we really, really want to get this out even if not a single person in the world ends up listening to it, at least we’ll just have gotten the damn thing out. It’ll be a labor of love from beginning to end, and we’re trying to get it done. For those that want to be able to find the music of the show, we want them to be able to find it. It’s really important. Oh, and The National is going to cover the song from the 100th episode, by the way.
Oh cool! In the show?
No, outside of the show. We wanted our characters to be singing it in the show, but we have this wonderful relationship with the National, where they have enjoyed covering our music and sometimes completely re-interpreting it. Look for that after the show airs.
Looking back from your 100th episode, what are you proudest of?
Thank you for asking that. While we’ve been rolling into this 100th and talking and thinking about it, I have to say that the thing that I keep coming back to in a way is that 100 episodes by itself is not actually an accomplishment. You could crap out 100 episodes and still throw a party for yourself. I don’t think it would be that much of a big deal. I mean, 100 episodes of a disposable, unfunny, mean-spirited show would not make me proud. Just getting to 100 by itself is not what makes me proud.
Personally, and I think I’m speaking for everyone who works here, what I think we’re really saying when we’re celebrating 100 episodes is that we tried as hard as we can to make 100 good episodes, that hopefully, every single one of those episodes is somebody’s favorite. You know what I mean? That out of every single one of those shows, someone out there says, “This one’s my favorite.” Of course there’s no way to ever test that or for me to know the answer to that. But if it’s true, then I think we’re allowed to take a moment and feel a moment of pride for what we’ve accomplished. That’s really the goal, to make the best show you can 100 times, rather than to just reach some point of longevity, this three-digit number that sounds like a show that’s been around for awhile. I’d rather be celebrating the quality than the quantity. For me, that’s the big accomplishment.
Are there any episodes or scenes that you’re particularly proud of?
Some of the other episodes that have aired or are going to air in these last two weeks are some of the episodes that I am proudest of. Every episode is my favorite when we’re working on it, so maybe I’m just in the glow of post-production here. Tina had a Tina-centric episode this last weekend called “The Horse-riderer,” where she gets to ride a real horse for the first time and so chooses to say goodbye to the imaginary horse she’s had for years, named Jericho, voiced by Paul Rudd. I thought it was really sweet.
Then there’s another episode that’s going to air on the same night as the 100th episode, called “The Secret Admiral-irer.” It is also somewhat of a Tina episode, though her siblings are very much involved, where they help a little old lady with sort of a romantic engagement, and it is very sweet. Cloris Leachman plays Meryl, this old lady that Tina is sort of volunteering to visit with at an old age home as part of her Thundergirls group. We were excited to work with Cloris Leachman and a lot of us are fans and remember her work. She also is a fantastic voice actress. She’s 90 years old and she sounds like it, but she’s perfect for our show. We’re really excited about how that came out, too.
One of the things I appreciate about the show is the way you explore these smaller milestones in the kids’ lives, like Louise has her first crush, or Tina saying goodbye to her imaginary horse. Is that how you avoid them growing up in a way?
Yeah, you’re noticing something that it took us awhile to articulate, but since we’re lucky enough to still be around and making shows, we’ve had to realize, “Oh, this is a weird, kind of a weird non-reality, where they have had six Christmases, but they’ve all been in the same year.” This is like Groundhog Day, they’re never going to age. We’re always going to keep finding things that are important to the characters at this point in their life as a 9-year old girl, an 11-year old boy, a 13-year old girl, and their 40-something year parents. That is always what we’re going to be telling stories about.
As a result, we’ve become, or we aspire to be experts on what those issues might be like crushes and imaginary horses and all the boring but hopefully funny stuff that comes with being 40-something. We’ll just always be exploring that stuff. So yeah, they’re not going to age and our job is to make that interesting.
Fans have really responded to how sweet the show can be. Is that the writers’ sensibilities at this point, or is that something you constantly have to be aware of?
Both. I think cast, writers, crew, everyone is generally a pretty sweet person. We’ve assembled a crew of essentially nice people. We really like spending time with each other. A lot of people do have families and are starting families now that we’re five years in, and there is a lot of that. We are kind of what we eat around here, but you also have to always adjust. A joke might seem funny and then later in the cool, reflective light of day, you might say, “Oh you know what? That feels a little mean, maybe we shouldn’t do that” or vice versa. You can’t be too sweet, it’s not funny.
You have to always be looking for points of conflict and looking for what we call “treacle cutters” so that we still have some kind of edge or musculature to it so that the show isn’t just devolved into soft mushiness. We’re always trying to find the right balance, and that’s just part of what makes writing the show fun.
Lastly I wanted to ask you about how the show approaches the characters’ developments, Tina especially, in such a gentle manner. Was that something the show had to work at when it first started or was it just easy?
It was pretty easy. You treat your characters humanely, and as if they were real people and you love them, then the rest of it kind of comes pretty easily. You’re not going to make a joke at her expense, you’re not going to have the other characters in the family feel essentially disdainful or disgusted by her. It’s sort of all follows from that. If we’re taking care of these characters and they themselves are taking care of each other, it kind of tells you how to write it. You don’t really need to think about it too hard.
It’s surprising that it sticks out on TV. It’s too bad that there aren’t more shows that manage to strike that tone. I mean, there are shows out there of course, and it’s nice to be a part of that. I guess part of that conversation, or at least just part of that tone, it’s just tone setting really, and you can go for an easy joke or you can try to work a little and stay a little later and come up with a joke that maybe, hopefully, is just as funny but isn’t at somebody’s expense, in this case, maybe Tina’s.
In the six seasons you’ve been doing this, is there anything you’ve wished someone would ask you about in regards to the show?
What I often focus on is the cast, because I love them, and they’ve given so much to this show. We’re so lucky to have them. I often get questions about the writing, and I love and am proud of the writing. But I’ll say this, I think the animation has come so far and now is truly really gorgeous. When we first started, it was hard for me because we were always trying to get the right expressions on the characters’ faces. In a way, my whole world was shrunk down to just eyeballs and eyebrows. I barely would look at a shot. I would just look at their eyes to make sure they were looking in the right place, and their mouths to make sure they were smiling or not smiling at the right moment.
I’m sort of performance-focused in that way, but the whole 100th episode is directed by our supervising director, Bernard Derriman. He’s a perfect example of, “We’re so lucky to have him” and the show has his secrets all over it. When you watch the musical number, I think in particular, there’s this moment where we go into Louise and Bob’s fantasies and they rise up out of the restaurant and then float up into the sky, and it’s really sublime. I don’t want to oversell it, but I just thought Bernard did such a good job imagining that moment. I do feel lucky to have this crew, these directors and these artists. We’ve got a show now that I think looks kind of good as it sounds. It’s been a lot, and it’s a big accomplishment.
The Bob’s Burgers 100th episode airs Sunday, May 22nd at 8:30/7:30c on FOX.