When the talking-animal cartoon Tuca & Bertie debuted on Netflix in 2019, it was praised by many (including us) as one of the streaming services’ best new offerings. The showrunner, Lisa Hanawalt, who had been the production designer for Bojack Horseman for years, suddenly enjoyed much Twitterish acclaim, as did Ali Wong and Tiffany Haddish, who voice the titular duo—two best friends who happen to be birds. Then Netflix canceled it. But then Adult Swim snatched it up, promising a new season in 2021.
Hanawalt suggests there’s an element of destiny to the show’s survival. “It feels like what I was born to do,” she says. Even the Covid-19 pandemic won’t stop her—she’s still showrunning from home. And doing other things besides, like releasing I Want You, a book of her filthy and hysterical early work. WIRED caught up with Hanawalt to see how things are going in Birdtown, in Los Angeles, and inside her brain.
Being booted off Netflix sucks. “I was disappointed, obviously,” Hanawalt says. “I do think it was an algorithm thing, and I don’t think algorithms should make decisions. I knew about it for a month before I could tell anyone. It was hard to sit with that news alone. When we announced it, I expected people to say, ‘Ah, well, that happens.’ The fact that people were as upset as I was felt cathartic, because it really did feel unfair. It was nice to have fans banging the drum. For months they wouldn’t let up.” Although she thinks the outcry helped Tuca & Bertie find a new home on Adult Swim, Hanawalt emphasizes that fan support isn’t always enough. “Not every show that is on Netflix can go to another network,” she says. “It was just a full year of back and forth with lawyers figuring out whether or not we could continue.” Hanawalt won’t make any further comments about the streaming giant directly, but she seems very pleased that Adult Swim is letting her proceed with “the stories I intended to tell” on Netflix.
On ‘By Women, For Women’
Much of the praise for Tuca & Bertie heralded it as a kind of feminist takeover of a traditionally bro-y genre, and as a show that was sure to appeal to women. Hanawalt has mixed feelings about that assessment. “There aren’t that many adult animated shows run by women still. And I'm the first on Adult Swim. That seems important,” she says. “But I get a little bummed when people say it’s made ‘by women, for women.’ A lot of cool men work on the show, and I want men to watch it as well. I’m not just preaching to the choir. A lot of women don’t like it. Women are not a monolith. It just happens to be made by a woman, and be about the experience of being a woman.” All the pink-tinted hype reinforces that, in so much art, a male perspective is default—and presumed universal.
Staying Animated at Home
Work on Tuca & Bertie’s second season is rolling ahead despite the pandemic, though even Hanawalt seems surprised at how well it’s going. “It’s bizarre! We’re recording a lot of the actors at home out of their closets. As showrunner, I’ve had to fully ostrich myself into the process. I wonder how I’ll feel when I come up for air,” she says. “I’m head writer, I’m rewriting every script, I’m running the writer’s room on Zoom, I’m directing all the voice actors, I’m reviewing every animatic, I’m pitching the network, I’m getting feedback from them and changing everything to suit their notes. And sometimes I’m lying in bed in a weird position and kind of moaning into a pillow. Or I’m doing sad yoga on a foam roller. It feels like being the leader of a three-ring circus and like making a show on a desert island. Sometimes I wonder if anyone will ever see it. I hope so: It’s looking fantastic so far.”
The Future of Tuca & Bertie (and Animation)
Of course, there’s every reason to believe that people will see more of Tuca & Bertie, because animation is booming even as televisions and movie studios shut down production on their live-action programming. “It’s the only thing you can make safely during a pandemic, so cha-ching!” Hanawalt says. “And it’s inexpensive to make. Usually a trend happens because it’s profitable for somebody. It’s great because a lot of artists are getting hired right now, and that’s an opportunity to make more things. I just hope it's not a bubble that pops.” She’s cagier about her own show’s future, since most details about what season two might hold are still secret. She did offer a few hints, though. “It’s not like this season is about coronavirus. I don’t work that literally, but people can draw connections.There are metaphors,” she says. “I promise visual and conceptual metaphors will happen in season two. Fans crave metaphors. At least I think my fans do.” (If people who like a show about horny anthropo-avians who travel on trains that are snakes and bake grandma’s ashes into a sentient cake aren’t fans of the figurative, I have a lot of questions.)
Anxiety and Optimism
Hanawalt rejects pandemic-fueled creative malaise. “I’m driven by anxiety. I’m spurting out as many things as I can before I die. Now, with the feeling that I’m more likely to die than ever before, I am very productive,” she says. “Of course, sometimes it feels like I’m wading through mud. Just this weekend it was 114 degrees in LA, and everything was covered in ashes from wildfires. Thinking about the future right now is hard. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s an election year, and a civil rights crisis is happening. But I still have to move forward. I’m an optimist because I have to be. When things like this happen, I say it’s because good change is going to come out of it.” She tries to imbue Tuca & Bertie with the same spirit. “In my show, at the end of the day, things are going to be OK. Even though lots of episodes end on a sad feeling and there is conflict that happens and some parts are depressing, it trends upwards.” Hanawalt has to believe that the outside world will too.