The surreal Netflix animated comedy Bojack Horseman follows a washed up horse actor who lives in a world where animals and humans coexist as equals. As such, a lot of the show's jokes involve visual gags about animals adopting human traits—like a crocodile wearing croc shoes.
But when a fan wrote to the show’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg via Tumblr to ask about that croc joke, Bob-Waksberg took the opportunity to discuss another topic: gender in comedy. The fan had misidentified the crocodile as a man, and Bob-Waksberg had this to say:
NOW, it struck me that you referred to the craft services crocodile as a “he” in your question. The character, voiced by Kulap Vilaysack, is a woman.
It’s possible that that was just a typo on your part, but I’m going to assume that it wasn’t because it helps me pivot into something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year, which is the tendency for comedy writers, and audiences, and writers, and audiences (because it’s a cycle) to view comedy characters as inherently male, unless there is something specifically female about them. (I would guess this is mostly a problem for male comedy writers and audiences, but not exclusively.)
Here’s an example from my own life: In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa [Hanawalt, the show's head designer] designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.
My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”
I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.
The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.
Bob-Waksberg goes on to talk about The Lego Movie, The Muppets, and The Brave Little Toaster. Be sure to check out the full post on his Tumblr.
[h/t The Mary Sue]