How "Bob's Burgers" uses "foxhole humor" to keep the American dream alive after 200 episodes

Creator Loren Bouchard spoke with Salon about the "hope and grit and optimism" of the oft-struggling Belchers

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published November 15, 2020 11:00AM (EST)

Bob Belcher and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Kids” milestone 200th episode from "Bob's Burgers" (FOX)
Bob Belcher and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Kids” milestone 200th episode from "Bob's Burgers" (FOX)

If I had one sentence to describe the appeal of  the Fox animated sitcom "Bob's Burgers" as it releases its 200th episode on Sunday, I would simply say that it somehow always manages to find the technicolor heart beating inside everyday doldrums. 

In the world of "Bob's Burgers" it's not just a teenager going through puberty, it's soloing for the "The Hormone-iums." Scholastic mock trial is replaced with a student body-led investigation into yogurt theft. A seemingly futile search for a two-butted goat turns into an exploration of coming-of-age motivations and fears (and still ultimately delivers said two-butted goat). 

The show also, as I've written before, excels at capturing the love and craft of cooking just as genuinely as more "serious" food television. In an age of prestige culinary media — from the Vivaldi-scored "Chef's Table" to quietly contemplative documentaries like "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" — "Bob's Burgers" is almost always at its strongest when the creators train their focus on Bob's dreams of running a better restaurant and making the best burger. 

This has led to standout episodes like the aptly named "Best Burger" and "Boys Just Wanna Have Fungus," and has also traditionally placed the show in a different category from other adult animation like "South Park" and (to a somewhat lesser extent) "The Simpsons," which actively engage with current events and politics on a week-to-week basis.

But then the pandemic hit. 

Local restaurants across the country have struggled for nearly nine months to survive amid government-mandated closures and reductions of service. Owners have had to get creative — transforming into bodegas, creating to-go cocktail kits, streaming culinary how-to videos from their empty kitchens. And, especially as someone who writes about food, when watching Bob (H. Jon Benjamin), Linda (John Roberts) and the kids (Kristen Schaal, Eugene Mirman and Dan Mintz), it's hard not to wonder what they would do in a similar situation.

It's something that the show's creator, Loren Bouchard, has thought about, too. 

"Poor restaurants. I feel for all of them, even the chains," Bouchard told Salon. "Well, some of the chains."

He continued: "Every time a restaurant goes out of business, that's someone's dream dying. And if they were buying good ingredients that means they're connected to a whole bunch of small farms and suppliers who were counting on those orders. It's all so fragile even in the best of times. It's beyond tragic what's happening now." 

And while "Bob's Burgers" isn't going to have a "pandemic-themed episode" — though "Worms of In-Rear-ment," in which Gene contracts pinworms, comes close enough — Sunday's 200th episode is a timely nod to the challenges restaurants are facing right now, and, more importantly, the people who are keeping them running. 

We're at a place where another level of government restrictions, without the promise of any kind of government bailout, could easily bankrupt a locally owned restaurant. That level of precarity is something that this episode, called "Bob Belcher and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Kids" understands. 

It opens the day before the Ocean Fest, a small business showcase, combined with an art crawl, and Bob is counting on that foot traffic to turn a profit. 

But a dramatic, upsetting incident occurs at the restaurant that impacts the restaurant's ability to serve food. Then, on top of it all, Bob's flattop breaks. It's a one-two punch that leaves Bob wondering how the restaurant is going to make ends meet if they can't even make burgers. 

"Bob Belcher and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Kids" isn't as splashy as the series' star-studded 100th episode, "Glued, Where's My Bob?" but it's perhaps more indicative of the show's heart. The spotlight is on the family's resiliency and their joint commitment to making their American dream of owning a small business work. 

"I guess one thing we think about differently on 'Bob's'  — one thing among many I'm sure  — is how we present that little spark of hope and grit and optimism that keeps the family going in tough times," Bouchard said. 

Tough times are abundant. I mean, the restaurant industry is hard. Products are expensive — as viewers saw in episodes like "They Serve Horse, Don't They?," where Bob is on the hunt for premium protein at a better price, and ends up accidentally serving horse burgers. Good help is hard to find, which is how the Belchers briefly ended up hiring Mickey, an ex-bank robber who once held Bob hostage. 

The restaurant kitchen always looks kind of broken-down, especially when compared to those of much nicer restaurants, like the one hidden away in Felix's jazz club, which Bob gets to briefly cook in during this season's episode "Copa-Bob-bana." That's a reality that Bouchard said likely won't ever change. "They can't afford much of an upgrade," Bouchard said. "But in an upcoming episode, [they go] to great lengths to get a used sink." 

But the Belcher family remains hopeful even when all odds are against them, which, Bouchard said, if not written well "could feel trite and small when the whole world is going through tough times." 

"We have to present their optimism as a choice that's hard fought, and well-earned and would hopefully make sense both in their narrative and in ours," Bouchard said. 

And one of the reasons that it does make so much sense is the familial support system that the writers have created through the show's 11 seasons — specifically the relationship between Linda and Bob. 

"Part of the core of their relationship, in my opinion, is humor," he said. "It's not  'ha ha' humor, the way they use it. It's more like foxhole humor  — the kind of humor that I imagine doctors in emergency rooms have."

That's what gives Bob's "Oh my God"s so much of their charm, Bouchard said. 

"If Bob and Linda express exasperation, it's only funny because you never question their commitment to each other or to the family," he said. "And by expressing it now and then, it's like a little wink, as if to say, 'We're in this together — it's good, but it's hard, right?'" 

That's why there's no question in viewers' minds that Bob, Linda and the kids would do what needed to be done to keep the restaurant afloat — which is a big part of the 200th episode — because that's also their way of demonstrating their care for each other. That's why it's also heartwarming when members of the community rally around Bob's Burgers to keep the restaurant's doors open. 

Especially amid the pandemic, when things are tough for so many people, it's some nice fantasy fulfillment to watch things turn around for genuinely good people through a combination of personal drive and community care. Put another way, the people behind "Bob's Burgers," led by Bouchard, understand that in the world they've created, it's not just about the trials and tribulations of the titular restaurant. It's a micro-view of the ways the people behind those restaurants are the heartbeat of a thrilling, thankless, industry. 

"Bob's Burgers" airs new episodes on Sundays at 9 p.m. on FOX and is currently available for streaming on Hulu.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Bob's Burgers Fox Interview Loren Bouchard Pandemic Restaurants