To fans of animation—especially the offbeat variety found on Adult Swim—Loren Bouchard has been a big name for the last 12 years. He started out as a producer and writer for the Comedy Central series Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist and as the co-creator of the series Home Movies, which aired on UPN and Adult Swim. Both shows featured a sardonic tone and naturalistic conversation that became a signature style for cartoons on Adult Swim and elsewhere. This past season, Bouchard graduated to a broadcast network with Bob’s Burgers, which centers on a struggling hamburger-slinger in a small shore town who’s forced to put his entire family to work, much to his consternation. Following the announcement that Fox has picked up Bob’s Burgers for a second season, and before the first-season finale on May 22, Bouchard spoke to The A.V. Club about the show’s long development process, how he managed to get Kevin Kline to do the voice of a man named Fischoeder, and how he feels about his star, H. Jon Benjamin, also playing a bumbling spy on Archer.
The A.V. Club: How sure were you about the show getting picked up for another season?
Loren Bouchard: Oh, I never take anything like that for granted. It’s hard to get a show. I feel like there are a very few number of shows in the world, there’s hit shows and then there’s everyone else. And we definitely weren’t a hit show. We weren’t Glee. So I didn’t feel sure. I thought that we stood a good chance, and what was nice is the network was and is really into the show. They’re really a great partner with us on this, and they’ve been excited about the show since we started. So that was really nice. If you read TVbythenumbers.com, it looked a lot bleaker than when we talked to the execs at the network. Talking to the execs make us feel pretty good. But, I never took anything for granted.
AVC: What were the executives saying?
LB: They were saying that we were doing well. They read the numbers differently than the Internet did. So if we held roughly 80 percent of our lead-in, they were very happy. And we did that fairly consistently. So there was a sense of, “You’re doing good, keep it up.” So we didn’t feel like we were on the bubble because of our ratings. The only thing that’s scary with them is that they have a lot of stuff in development, in the pipeline, and they just have very few slots for a fair number of shows that they’ve already green-lighted.
AVC: Judging from other interviews, the development cycle of the show was quite long. What was the show like when you first pitched it to Fox? And how did it morph over time?
LB: The development cycle was long. But in retrospect, it was the right amount of time. It wasn’t painful. They pay you during that time, and frankly, it’s kind of a warm, cozy place. If it ends well. If it ends with you getting a pick-up, then you look back on it and it’s all roses, and you almost want it to be longer. The show that we started with is, in many ways, very much like the show now. There was a brief period when I first started talking to them—because I was coming off of doing Lucy: Daughter Of The Devil and I had this kind of more occult-y, sort of darker edge to the way I was thinking then—I did pitch the show [as] a family of cannibals who runs a restaurant. There’s sort of a Sweeney Todd aspect to it. They basically said “everything but the cannibalism,” and that included the cast. We had the entire family cast, and the only tweak that we did in development is that originally, Dan Mintz was playing the oldest boy named Daniel. [The executives] were just sort of probing, and they were interested in whether the boys were differentiated enough. And we pitched the idea that what if it’s a girl, played by Dan Mintz? And they liked it. So that was the biggest change. But other than that, we had [H. Jon] Benjamin as Bob, and John Roberts as Linda, and Kristen [Schaal] with the bunny ears [as Louise].
AVC: And the cannibal angle did make it into the pilot, so...
LB: It did. You know, cannibalism is great. I love it.
AVC: What was it like shifting to a major network, as opposed to Adult Swim, as far as development is concerned?
LB: There are more notes. That’s the short answer. In development, in a way it was similar. There’s a little more pressure, and they pay a little more in development. Those were the two big differences, I think. It’s kind of like your at-bat feels a little more like a big deal. But at the same time, you can really starve [while] developing shows on cable. It’s not a good way to make a living. Other than that, it wasn’t very different. The biggest difference in production is just how many bites you get at the apple, so to speak, when you’re working on any given episode. And that’s kind of great. For somebody like me, I really don’t like to let things go. I love to keep fiddling. You work on an episode for nine months, and during that time, you get a lot of notes from the network, and you get a lot of chances to fix stuff, and that’s really satisfying and fun. You do a table read, which I’ve never done before, you get a round of notes. And then you do an animatic, you get a round of notes. You do a re-write, and then you get the color animation back, and you get another round of notes, and you do another re-write, and then you get to post. It’s heaven for somebody who likes to keep tweaking things.
AVC: Was there any trepidation when you were getting your first set of notes that they were going to ask for something that you couldn’t deliver on, or just wasn’t really germane to the show?
LB: Very little of that. I have to say, the network execs that I’ve worked with at every stage have been the opposite of the cliché. The image of the network exec who’s kind of sticking their dick in it, so to speak, and messing with the show for the wrong reasons, I just haven’t experienced that. The network execs I’ve worked with at Adult Swim and at Fox come off as passionate, intelligent fans. And so you’re always having a conversation about the show that feels like they’re watching as closely as they can, and they’re catching things, ideally, that make sense. The differences between them and an actual passionate, intelligent fan is they’re your boss, so when they say it, you have to do it.
AVC: Was this a type of show, when you pitched it, that you were thinking, “Oh, the networks aren’t going to buy this?”
LB: I don’t know. I would never want to be a trend-spotter, in any field. I just think I would be bad at it. I have very limited range, in terms of the tone of the show, that I’m capable of making. I couldn’t make a show that sounded like The Simpsons, or sounded like Family Guy, even if I wanted to. So for me, it wasn’t hard; I knew that I had a shot at maybe giving them what they wanted, partly because they said they wanted that. There’s one scene in Lucy, in the first episode after the pilot, where Satan’s on the phone with Lucy and he’s going to order her uniform and he says, “What are you, a size 12?” And she says, “12? I’m a 6!” And they get into this argument, and he hurts her feelings, and it’s all in the context of, “This is supposed to be how the world’s going to end.” They’ve gotten distracted talking about whether she’s a size 6 or a size 12. And they said, “That’s what we want. We saw that, and we knew we wanted to work with you.” So it was pretty easy to just do my thing, and let them worry about whether or not it would work on their air.
AVC: When you went to write it, how tough was it for you to balance that Adult Swim-like tone with the more family-oriented stories?
LB: You know, Home Movies was a family sitcom, if you will. It’s hard to tell any story. It’s hard to write a good half-hour of television. Telling stories about a family is pretty easy, ultimately, because we all have one. But the difference between doing something maybe a little higher-concept and doing just a straight-up “family runs a restaurant” [show] is that there’s no crutch you can rely on. It’s not also a story about the devil or whatever. So you have to change your scale. But that’s the nice thing in a way. You can make a little thing feel like a big thing. To me, it’s all tone. Tone is the most important thing in the world. Then character, then story, or something like that. I don’t really have the formula. I should pretend that I do. I guess I should go back to your earlier question. The other difference between a network show and a cable show also is your writing staff. On other shows, we had more than one writer, but usually not more than two. On this, we have an incredible team of people. So almost any problem, whether it’s telling a family story, or telling a network-quality story, or answering a network note, becomes essentially instantly solvable, because you have a bunch of brains sitting in a room.
AVC: What characters in Bob’s Burgers come from your life, or the lives of the writers?
LB: Well, I should say the characters come from the actors. The actors were cast before really one word was written. This is a group of people, some of whom I’ve worked with for years and years, and some of whom I haven’t. But they are characters. In the case of Linda, that was a character that John Roberts had completely and fully developed, and knew more about her than I ever could. So the first thing we did was cast, and then we could sort of write into the characters a little bit. But in terms of the aspects of my life, it’s a little bit from here and a little bit from there. I worked in restaurants and bars before I worked in animation, and so I have a sort of fondness for people who try and do that work. It’s incredibly hard, and also sort of creative in its own way. So the Bob character is a mish-mash of guys I knew in Boston who were in the restaurant business, and also my dad in some way. Not that he had a restaurant, but once you start writing a story about a family like that, you start… well, I don’t know. While we were developing the show, I’ve become a father twice over. So you start having a lot of affinity for dads, I gotta say.
AVC: That does show you how long the show’s been in development.
LB: It does. It sums it up right there. This stuff takes a long time. And ironically, TV is considered fast compared to films. I don’t know a lot about that world, but I’ve heard people say, “Oh, in film everything takes forever.”
AVC: So when you sketched Louise, do you think, “I want Kristen Schaal to be one of the kids, and I want her to be the craziest one, because she’s got the sweet voice”?
LB: Yeah. Kristen has the voice of a precocious child. So it’s so easy to wrap that character that became Louise around her voice. It just makes sense. She is that character onstage, basically, so it’s pretty easy. Casting is magic. I feel like a lot of animation can move pretty far down the path before the actor is cast, and in my opinion, it should almost always be the first thing you do, and then write, and then draw and record. The voice, to me—and this is something I got from my boss [Tom Snyder] when we were doing Dr. Katz—the voice is everything.
AVC: With Jon Benjamin, were there any worries during the development process that he would also be doing Archer?
LB: It’s really annoying. I mean, yeah, there was a concern.
AVC: What was your concern?
LB: That these things are fragile. You try to cast a spell a little bit. You don’t expect everyone out there watching to believe that this cartoon is real, that this drawing has really come to life. But on some level, you do. You try to cast a spell. You want the world to feel real. It’s a nerdy pursuit. I didn’t play Dungeons And Dragons, but I imagine it’s what the Dungeon Master does. They stay up late drawing characters that are going to be in the background, and worrying about whether the guy should be wearing flip-flops or shoes. And you’re just making all these little decisions about the world, and you get so caught up in it, it’s just frustrating if anything might come along and undo some of the little suspension of disbelief that you’re asking of the audience. You don’t want somebody to be distracted by the fact that the voice sounds like another cartoon. But, that said, if we do our jobs right, and if Jon does his job as an actor, you can get past it. When you’re watching Will Ferrell in Talladega Nights, you’re not confused by the fact that he was also in Anchorman. You know what I mean? Theoretically, we do this with actors. And so I do ultimately trust Jon and trust the audience both to kind of push past it.
AVC: Which part did he have first?
LB: Bob’s Burgers. We were in development for a long time. And while we were developing it, I think he auditioned for, got Archer, [and it] got picked up. I don’t remember how it happened exactly. I could be wrong about chronology. But we were in development a long time. But you know, it doesn’t matter. If it was Archer first, it doesn’t matter to me. I don’t want to be that guy: “We got him first.” I feel that way about Jon, but I just feel that way because I’ve known him for 15 years and we’ve been working together since the mid-’90s. But it’s not fair. I just feel that way. [Laughs.] I want to keep him in my pocket, you know what I mean? What I’ve said before, and I’ll say it to anyone who cares to listen is, he’s been in everything I’ve ever done. I have no desire to find out what it’s like to do a show without him. And I hope I never have to. He can and has done lots of stuff without me. So it’s just an asymmetrical relationship, but it’s fine. I don’t mind. There are way worse lots in life, and I’m just glad to work with him.
AVC: What is it about his style that has lent itself so well to your shows, and shows like Archer, where it’s an alternate sensibility than most people are used to with animation?
LB: I can’t speak to Archer, but my impression of what he brings is a couple of things. One is I think he’s just an extraordinary actor. He’s fully present with his voice. You get a great sense of a real character there. Secondly, what I think he does that keeps me coming back for more is he can go from annoyed to amused and back again in a very short span, which is just incredibly endearing, I think, in a character. Obviously he did this as Coach McGuirk for many, many years on Home Movies. He’s annoyed, then he’s amused, then he’s annoyed, and it’s such a funny thing to build on, especially in Bob’s, where he’s a dad. So by definition, you’re vacillating between those two states constantly, if you love your kids but you’re also annoyed by them.
AVC: He has this “I don’t give a rat’s ass” attitude when he does press tours and interviews.
LB: Very surly. Yes, he’s very surly.
AVC: Does everybody record his or her part separately, like in other cartoons?
LB: No, we’re religious about trying to get people together. It’s sacrosanct and it’s much harder to schedule, but in our opinion, it’s worth it. Having the actors together is one of the most important things that we can do. They feed off each other. They get a kick out of each other, and again, that goes back to that tone that Benjamin brings as Bob. It’s like it’s partly real. He loves working with Eugene [Mirman, who plays Bob’s son Gene], then he gets annoyed with everyone because he’s a misanthrope, and then he gets amused again. Trying to put some of that energy into a cartoon has just been this thing I’ve been trying to do, that I got addicted to going back to Dr. Katz when Jonathan Katz and Benjamin were just cracking each other up in the booth. That was something we put in almost every episode, but it was real.
AVC: Does that help with the dynamic of people talking over each other, and interrupting each other?
LB: Yeah. It’s like workshopping a script. You know, they’re fooling around with it in the booth, and we happen to be recording it, and then we can edit it. But it’s the same energy that you get when a bunch of people are in a room trying to come up with funny stuff.
AVC: It’s surprising to see Kevin Kline in your semi-regular cast. How did you get him to play Fischoedor the landlord, considering he’s rarely done voice parts before?
LB: There’s two parts to it, as I understand it. One, he has kids who, I don’t know how old they are, but I believe they are Eugene Mirman fans. So there was a connection there, that Eugene was on Kline’s radar because his kid has been to a bunch of shows, and I think they had a drink together or something at some point. And then our casting agent put the show in front of him through some connection that she had, knowing his manager or something like that, and he said yes. It was only after he said yes that I heard that he was notorious for saying no to things and turning things down. To us, it was just this nice connection to a guy with a shared sensibility, and a fantastic voice. He’s also a great improviser and [has] a great rhythm. The fact that he’s this movie star is kind of just this oddity. And it wasn’t even like we were trying to stunt cast. It was just a nice connection to a really funny actor.
AVC: Was this a case where the character was written out beforehand?
LB: In this case, the character was written. This was one of the few cases where the network pushed us away from our [choice]. We had Steven Wright in there and they were worried that it was a little low-energy for that part. So we had actually the landlord character on paper before we had Kevin Kline.
AVC: You have a lot of guest voices, like Sarah and Laura Silverman playing twin boys in ‘Burger Wars.’ What’s the process of bringing some of these guest voices in?
LB: I’ve worked with Laura for a long time; she’s the receptionist on Dr. Katz, and we had her back while we were doing Home Movies. I’ve worked with Sarah a little bit; she was a patient on Dr. Katz, and I did a pilot where she was a voice. So those guys, for example, it’s just one of those things where you just want to work with people you like. A lot of the guest voices are like that. You know, we had Brendon Small, who I worked with on Home Movies, and Paul F. Tompkins was in an episode. Because Paul F. Tompkins is really, really funny. You look for opportunities to work with people again. Todd Barry’s in that episode, and Jay Johnston, who’s somebody I hadn’t worked with but always thought he was really funny. So we cast him as Jimmy Pesto as this kind of foil for Bob. Generally, casting is kind of this funny process of who do you think is funny, and who do we know. And now, because we have this great staff of writers, now it expands the pool of people that we know. I’d never worked with like, Oscar Nuñez or Jack McBrayer before, for example, but Jon Schroeder, one of our writers, had, or knew them anyway. So it’s easy to reach out to people. It starts to feel very friendly and sort of informal.
AVC: Was there anyone that surprised you with how receptive they were to do it, besides Kevin Kline?
LB: Yeah, Kline’s a perfect example of that. Who else? Megan Mullally. I don’t know that she’s done voices before, but she was great. We worked with Carol Kane. We didn’t end up using her, actually. It was more of a rewrite than a recast situation, but she’s an example of somebody’s that just—it’s fun, and I don’t think she’d done a ton of that. I could be wrong.
AVC: Who would be your dream guest voice?
LB: You know, I hate to sound spoiled, but we like our cast. I get gun-shy about new people. I tend to think of all new voices as a potential for failure, and all the people I’ve worked with before as the greatest potential for success. It’s more like, “Oh we can get Benjamin to do this voice, and we can get Larry Murphy to do this voice?” Personally, I almost have to be pushed to put new voices into the mix. It’s really lazy of me, but it’s like that, you get into a little bit of a troupe mentality. You have your troupe and you just want to see what they can do.
AVC: Will we see those transvestite hookers that Bob picked up in his cab? Jack McBrayer was one of those voices, right?
LB: Yeah. Jack McBrayer, Oscar Nuñez, and Steve Agee. And then there’s another one who makes an appearance in the middle of the show, voice by Dave Herman, a character called Marshmallow, who has one of my favorite lines ever written, which is, “How do you get your name?” And he says, “If you show me a sweet potato pie, I am on top of it.” We want to see all those characters again. That’s the other thing, you literally fall in love with world-building, and you also nerdily fall in love with your characters and your guest characters and your side characters. I think of it as especially part and parcel with doing character-driven stuff. You have to have this childlike belief that they’re real. And you kind of have to like that aspect of it, maybe more than anything else. You just want to hear what Marshmallow would say if you put her in a different [situation], if you found out that she works during the day, she works at the post office not in drag, or whatever.
AVC: How tough is it to come up with those burger names that are on the board every episode?
LB: Oh, Jesus Christ, it’s the hardest part of the job.
LB: No. No, no. We have a team. We have a staff here. Plus, the nice thing about that is that they can’t be too terrible. There’s no such thing as a really bad burger there, because they’re supposed to be bad. So we enjoy coming up with them. Someday we’ll put out a cookbook.
AVC: What was the biggest groaner? And is it going to make it into an episode?
LB: “I Think I’ve Created a Muenster” is in there. That really sucks.