Recently, The A.V. Club spoke with Bob’s Burgers showrunner Loren Bouchard about the show’s third season. Following part three, this part covers episodes 15 through 19, beginning with “O.T.: The Outside Toilet” and ending with “Family Fracas.”
“O.T. The Outside Toilet” (March 3, 2013; written by Lizzie Molyneux and Wendy Molyneux, directed by Anthony Chun)
He is afraid. He is totally alone. He is a talking commode—voiced by Jon Hamm and befriended by Gene Belcher.
Loren Bouchard: The casting was in place early. We knew we wanted to get Jon Hamm to be the toilet and Neil Flynn was the Molyneuxs’ guy as Max Flush, so it all came wrapped in a bow. All that was left to do was put it together.
The A.V. Club: What was it like directing TV’s No. 1 leading man in the role of a robotic toilet?
LB: It was fine. I will tell you this: The one thing you can’t do the night before a voiceover gig is stay up late in a loud bar screaming, because your voice is going to be ragged the next day. But Hamm got a whole bunch of Emmy nominations announced that night and, I believe, stayed out past his bedtime. He was very apologetic and we were starting to think about maybe having to get him again at a later date, but we were saved by the fact that we were using him as a robotic, talking toilet. We were putting an effect on it anyway—it only would have been a problem if he was playing an actual human being.
We wanted for people to recognize Jon Hamm—normally we don’t care about that, but we did want people to get a sense of this human relationship and for the humanity of the toilet to come through by the end.
AVC: This episode is so on-point. Every joke lands, and the warmth totally comes through. Did it feel like that at every step in the production? Could you tell this was going to be one of the all-time great Bob’s Burgers episodes?
LB: They all feel like that at times and they all don’t feel like that at times. Generally speaking, I don’t like over-confidence. I tend toward the opposite; I’m a worrier. I tend to let humility be a guiding light and I like people who feel that way. According to our process, when the thing is on its way, there’s this opportunity to worry constructively and keep the pressure on because I fear the opposite—which is what you described—where you think you’ve got it and you’re just relaxing and that leads to disaster. So I love the fact that, so far, no episode goes quite the way you think it’s going to go. It’s impossible to handicap whether one or the other is going to pop out and really shine brighter than any other. This one, to me, felt exactly like the others: When you’re in the middle of it, all you’re doing is worrying if the jokes are in the right place, if the music doing what it needs to do, if the animation hurt the track at any point.
We spend a lot of care and attention on the track, and what’s interesting is how fragile it is. I am constantly terrified of the possibility that a scene gets less funny when it gets animated. And it’s no fault of the animator or the director or the board artist. One or all of us might have missed a trick—perhaps the camera should be on the character who’s not talking and you should focus on the reaction shot; the character looked afraid and perhaps they should look puzzled. There are huge amounts of comedy ground that can be gained or lost depending on where someone’s eyebrow is or the direction that their pupil is facing. Most of the time, we get it close enough to where the thing ends up on TV the way we heard it. The bad news is in the middle, you can completely lose your way and have an episode that you thought was humming along great—it had a good story, good scenes, good jokes—and then you might watch a screening and start worrying that it’s not playing. Was it the facial acting that was hurting the scene? Why is that less funny than it was last week? You have to always try to hunt down these dips or sags in energy or comedy or story—or all three.
AVC: Which makes sense, because the way you’ve described the vocal sessions for the show, you could very easily present Bob’s Burgers as a radio show.
LB: For a few weeks, we’re making a show that could play on the radio. We actually try and approach it from that point of view. If there’s an action, it doesn’t hurt to have an actor say, “Ow! That’s my foot! You dropped something on my foot!” Sometimes we take those out, but we err on the side of telling and showing. You could be a blind person and be a fan of Bob’s Burgers. Again, that’s not to take anything away from all the people who work here very, very hard to bring the images to life—to color, animate, time, check, and design. I spend a lot of my day doing that stuff, too—but the audio and the performance is the engine that pulls the rest of that train down the track.
“Topsy” (March 10, 2013; written by Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith, directed by Tyree Dillihay)
When Louise’s science-fair standby—a vinegar-and-baking-soda volcano—is squashed by an overzealous substitute teacher, she plans to get her (musical) revenge by exposing the truth about the teacher’s idol: Thomas Edison.
LB: If you look at the history, I think it’s pretty clear what kind of guy Edison was. [Laughs.] The Edison supporters, if they’re just going to stand on character, might be on fairly thin ground. They may want to move on from that particular aspect of his legacy.
AVC: And that’s where the substitute comes in, as someone trying to keep the heroic image of Edison alive?
LB: He got it in his head that Edison was his man and that he associates himself with Edison. At one point in breaking the story, we were even going to have him claim some dubious lineage to Edison, but we didn’t need it. We felt that the reenactor bit was even stronger. He really feels that the sun rises and sets on Edison’s accomplishments. Mark Proksch came in and played Mr. Dinkler, and I thought he did a fantastic job. Those scenes with him and Louise just gave us so much pleasure, when they’re going, [Yells.] “Ha! Ha! Ha!” in each other’s faces.
AVC: How often do the Belcher siblings’ wants and needs run into each other like this? Gene’s dream of this grand Edison musical puts a major kink in Louise’s plan to humiliate the substitute teacher by reenacting the electrocution of Topsy.
LB: Early on, we got a note from the network that I still value: “Don’t forget to have the kids have conflict.” The original conception of the characters included a “them against the world” feeling. Very quickly we realized it gets a little stale comedically. And in terms of storytelling, you just run out of villains if it’s always them against the world. Right away, the network said, “They’re three kids living under one roof. Kids fight. Kids want different things.” We knew that, but it was helpful to hear it. From the beginning of season one all the way up to “Topsy,” you get to see great kid-on-kid rivalry, where they really have two different goals and they’re pitted against each other in this hopefully funny way.
“Two For Tina” (March 17, 2013; written by Scott Jacobson, directed by Wes Archer)
With a school dance on the horizon, Tina is caught between two suitors: Long-standing, booty-shaking crush Jimmy Pesto Jr. and Josh, the fleet-footed boy from the dairy freezer (returning guest star Ben Schwartz).
LB: Tina has a wandering eye, shall we say. She feels a lot for Jimmy Jr., but she isn’t tied to him—primarily because he isn’t committed to her. There’s this almost Montagues and Capulets thing going on, but that’s about as far as it goes. When push comes to shove, he’s not that into her.
That leaves Tina open to play the field—we really wanted to see what that would look like. Breaking the story was so fun—to explore the idea that that drove Jimmy Jr. crazy. We’ve all experienced that nasty little jealousy-driven crush, which has a lot to do with availability and other people being interested. It’s not very noble, but it’s very human, so we thought we would just run with it. Tina seems very understanding about him blowing her off and stringing her along and giving her this soft “maybe,” but then she gets a firm invite from Josh, the boy from “Lindapendent Woman,” and it all made sense.
AVC: When you’re writing an episode like this—where there’s a strong conflict between a secondary character and a character who’s only been in one other episode—is there any concern that this conflict is going to pull attention from the leads?
LB: You always have to be careful: What does it mean to the leads? How are these characters going to inform or impact the lives of the main characters? If you keep that lens on, for the most part, you can flesh out a guest character and even a conflict they have with another character.
You write a show like this and the attraction of the new is always there. You have the guest character and all of a sudden you start having the fun of writing that character and you forget that your main job is to continue to flesh out your main characters, not to give all of your attention to this shiny new object.
AVC: Do you think you could ever write a full-on Jimmy Jr. episode? Or an episode where his brothers Andy and Ollie carry the A-story?
LB: We’ve been slow to do that. We really take a lot of pleasure in our family. We haven’t done an episode where we don’t hear from one of them. If an episode features Louise, you’ll still hear from her brother and sister and Bob and Linda in almost every scene. They’re always, always serviced. You’ll find very few episodes where one of them seems to have fewer lines. So it’s hard to get too excited about turning a light on a guest character or a recurring character and giving them their own story—but it’s also fun to do once the world is that fleshed out. If the audience is going to go along with you, and knows enough about that character, then sure, why not? I would like it to involve our characters. I wouldn’t follow Andy and Ollie on a camping trip without the Belcher kids, but I could imagine giving Andy and Ollie an arc where it’s really their story and they’re the ones going through something—as long as our kids can be there too. We dabbled with that a little bit with Hugo in “Nude Beach,” though that was ultimately Bob’s story.
“It Snakes A Village” (March 24, 2013; written by Kit Boss, directed by Jennifer Coyle)
The men of the Belcher family confront their greatest fears: Bob may have to ask his in-laws to move in (because they risk being kicked out of their polyamory-friendly retirement community) and Gene may have to face a 10-foot snake (because his sisters want $100).
AVC: Was this one a particular challenge? The humor of the episode is predicated on both the elderly and swingers, so it seems like there’s two audiences there that you could potentially offend.
LB: We weren’t that worried about offending either of those groups. We never set out to make fun of them. We knew from the beginning where we wanted to go with our take on a group of elderly people who’ve decided their entire housing development is swingers. We weren’t going to pass judgment on it. We wanted Linda to be grossed out because it was her parents, and we wanted her to have a negative reaction that she had to work through. We wanted Bob to think it was funny—which it is. And we wanted our kids to be oblivious, at least until the very last moment of the show. We wanted to make it feel like a dual A-story, where the kids’ adventure in the swamp was as big as the parents’ story—if not a little bigger. Technically, the kids’ story is the A-story, but when you describe [“It Snakes A Village”] to somebody, you can’t just skip over the fact that the B-story concerns Linda’s parents living in a retirement community that is full of swingers.
AVC: “It Snakes A Village” makes good use of camera movements and the musical score as punchlines. How did that zoom-effect-and-orchestra-sting gag become a Bob’s Burgers staple?
LB: We did the first demo for Bob’s Burgers with a very small team of people in San Francisco, using After Effects as our primary animation platform. In After Effects, it’s really fun and easy to control the camera, so we found ourselves laying everything out on this relatively flat background and then zipping the camera all around to go to a close-up. And rather than cut to another close-up, we would zip over in this cheesy, almost melodramatic style. Then we realized we could do multiple stings and zooms. This survived into episode one: You see the camera zoom in on characters one by one when Hugo reveals he used to be Linda’s fiancé, checking in with them for a microsecond and then you zoom out to some other character. We really like that sting—it just felt cheeky, but also big at the same time. We’ve probably used it two or three times an episode ever since.
AVC: Would you say it’s an important signature of the show’s energy level?
LB: I would. We’ve swapped it out and done other things and you miss it. “Give us the sting.” You want it. [Laughs.] John Keith recomposed it several times in several keys, because when we want multiple stings, we modulate it up a half step each time. We can do three to five stings where we need to. It really goes, I think, the full scale. There’s like 12 or 15 of them.
AVC: What does the relationship between Bob and his father-in-law, Al, give you that you can’t get from the other male relationships on the show?
LB: Once we realized this was going to be a story where Bob had to help Al find out what turned him on—so Linda’s parents wouldn’t move in with Bob and Linda—that seemed like such a great way to go into a scene. The stakes couldn’t be higher: They live in a tight space already. We know Bob does not want to live with these people. We know he’s right when he says they have three kids and one bathroom. It’s a terrible idea that the in-laws should move in and yet, Linda’s right: If they need a place to stay, they need a place to stay.
To find out what turns somebody on, you have to sit down and really talk to them. You can’t just beat it out of the person. We’ve got a gentle scene there where Bob asks Al some questions—and Al, it turns out, has this thing that really turns him on: A woman inflating a balloon and then sitting on it until it pops. He wants to tell somebody that. He wants to tell Bob. He blurts it out and Bob thinks he’s got the key, he thinks he’s got something he can work with. Despite the fact that Gloria hates loud noises, Bob thinks he can turn the corner on this. We were so happy with that scene as a little face-off, the most unusual kind of interrogation scene. That information needed to come out for Bob’s happiness. The rest of his life hinged on whether or not he could find out if Al had a secret kink and what it was.
AVC: In the development of the episode, did you consider any other secret kinks, or was it balloons from start to finish?
LB: No, that’s the one. I love those people and I’ve been researching that kink for a while, wanting to do something with it. We stumbled across it during Lucy: The Daughter Of The Devil. We tweaked it a little for our purposes in “Special Fathers Vs. The Vampire Altar Boys”: It turns out vampires, in addition to everything you already know, are also afraid of balloons. More so than garlic or crosses. I researched fear of balloons at that point—there are some people that have a terrible fear of balloons because they might pop. But I stumbled across all these fetishists when I was studying that—and phobias and fetishes are linked. You can go one way or another if you have a certain kind of early childhood experience. I looked at all these balloon-fetish sites and have had that in my back pocket since. I pitched that to Kit Boss—he wrote this episode—when we were looking for Al’s secret kink, and I was very excited to do so. Phobias are fascinating. I almost want to cultivate one, just so I can have one.
AVC: Was there any evidence of Gene’s snake phobia before this episode?
LB: No. We’ve always wanted to have Gene be afraid of something. Kids, obviously, have more fears than most grown-ups and so it’s there for us in almost any kid story. It worked out nicely to have him be especially uninterested in going in that little bit of swamp.
“Family Fracas” (April 14, 2013; written by Holly Schlesinger, directed by Don MacKinnon)
The Belchers become the reigning champs of a Double Dare-style game show hosted by family rival and local TV personality Chuck Charles (returning guest Thomas Lennon). But another family rival—Jimmy Pesto Sr.—stands in their way of earning the top prize: A new minivan.
AVC: The question this episode raises is “Can the Belchers ever truly win?”
LB: Early on, we knew what we wanted to do with Bob’s—to tell stories where the Belchers achieved small victories. We put it on a piece of paper and stuck it up on the wall when we were developing the show. It feels like part of its DNA.
We had fully intended to do that with “Family Fracas”—and it’s one of my biggest regrets ofthe season that we didn’t nail the tone of the ending. We wanted to give them this little victory: Jimmy Pesto’s changing a tire by the side of the road and Bob has this opportunity to emasculate Jimmy the way that Jimmy emasculates Bob at the beginning of the episode. We liked the circularity of that, but you end up feeling that Bob’s little bit of victory is sort of mean. Then the characters in his family call Bob out for it, so you’re left with nothing.
We actually had a different endingin an earlier version: We cut to the van parked in front of Jimmy Pesto’s and Bob and his entire family are pouring five-gallon buckets of Fracas Foam through the sunroof. Then Jimmy comes out and they run away and Bob yells ”Belchers rule!” It was a perfectly good ending. I don’t have a good defense for why we got cold feet about that, but we wrote away from it. We were hoping to build the most satisfying ending possible but we ended up with something that was less satisfying. It wasn’t our intention to go dark with this episode and not give the family a little sense of victory at the end. Why tell a story wherein they lose, and then they lose some more? It wasn’t what we set out to do. Holly Schlesinger, who wrote the episode, was on maternity leave as it came into post, and she trusted me to shepherd it all the way through to its final stages and I feel like I let her down.
AVC: When you feel like part of a script is painting the characters in a light you don’t want them painted in, is there an instinct that kicks in to call out that misbehavior from within the episode?
LB: It’s so satisfying to have a character misbehave—but to have the other characters point it out allows you to move your story along and still have some moral center onscreen. It makes it much easier to be true to your characters. Here’s how I learned that trick: When Jon Benjamin used to read a line that he didn’t think was in character, he would then ad-lib, “Why’d I say that?” And it worked. We could keep it in. You could have [Home Movies’] coach McGuirk or some character basically acting out of character for a moment—which perhaps suits your story or maybe you need for events to unfold—but then he calls himself out on it, so you really get the best of both worlds.
AVC: Chuck and his ex-wife, Pam, were previously seen in season two’s “Beefsquatch,” where they’re hosting a morning show together. Do you think there’s a way to bring them back in a non-TV context?
LB: Having a TV show within a TV show is always a little tricky. When I was a kid, there were four or five local talk shows to choose from. Now, I don’t know where I would find one. I do think there’s a way to bring them back in a non-TV context. Chuck seems like a player, you know what I mean? I imagine he’s a guy who saved some money, and it’s a relatively small town, and I see him as part of the elite. There has been a pretty serious pitch, which we didn’t end up going for, where he runs for mayor. I don’t think we’ll do that, but I do see him as a guy who could be a force in this town.