“Tuca & Bertie” creator discusses codependent friendships and teases a "disaster" of a finale

"Is the best friend you had when you were 28 who you need when you're 35? Things change a lot"

By Kylie Cheung
Published July 18, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)
Bertie tries to cheer up Tuca in "Tuca & Bertie" (Adult Swim)
Bertie tries to cheer up Tuca in "Tuca & Bertie" (Adult Swim)

Therapy and getting any sort of help for mental health was once stigmatized and mocked, and luckily, we've come a long way since. But arguably just as problematic are social media quips that regard therapy as an easy, one-stop fix for all of life's problems, when that's just not what it is. In fact, anyone who's ever sought therapy probably relates to a storyline in the first episode of the new season of "Tuca & Bertie" – which Adult Swim snapped up after Netflix canceled it after one season –  in which the anxious song thrush Bertie (Ali Wong) faces a convoluted, anxiety-inducing maze trying to find the right therapist. 

Lisa Hanawalt, creator of "Tuca & Bertie" and production designer for Netflix's acclaimed "BoJack Horseman," says the storyline was based on some of her own lived experiences. "Therapy has been really important to me in my life," Hanawalt told Salon. "But when I was first trying to find one, I went through some duds who just made me feel alienated, and made me feel worse, honestly."

In fact, much of "Tuca & Bertie," a show about two 30-something bird women, best friends weathering life's hilarious ups and downs together, is based on experiences and stories from Hanawalt's life, and her friends' lives. This season, as the show wades deeper and deeper into the layered stories of Tuca (Tiffany Hadish) and Bertie, and their loving but imperfect friendship, it only builds on the refreshing realness that characterized the first groundbreaking season. Codependency, mental illness, and the natural peaks and valleys of adult friendship are explored amid a delightful backdrop of talking trees, dancing tomatoes, and all of Hanawalt's signature whimsy. 

Continue reading for the full interview with Hanawalt in which she teases a season=ending twist, the agonizing realness of "canceled" men returning to our lives and more.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you get your start as an artist and creator? What brought you to "Tuca & Bertie"?

I was just looking at some of my drawings I made when I was like seven years old earlier today, and they're cat people and horse people and very similar in some ways to what I do now. It didn't change that much. I feel like I was just an artist, it was like a coping mechanism from when I was a little kid so I just kept doing it. It became what I was best at, so I just continued. 

It was never my plan to work in TV or work in animation, but Raphael [Bob-Waksberg] was a good friend from high school, and when he pitched "Bojack" he included my drawings in it, so it kind of came from there. After several years of working on "Bojack," he asked me if I had ideas for my own TV show, and "Tuca & Bertie" kind of came out of that!

"Tuca & Bertie" brings to life such fundamentally human and particularly human women issues, like the trauma of sexual assault, codependency, mental illness. Why did you choose to tell these stories through birds? 

I like telling stories through animals — I think part of it is, a lot of these stories are really personal to me, and even though I changed all the details, it still feels pretty raw sometimes. I also think you see humans onscreen with all these preconceived notions based on what the humans look like, since we're so attuned to human faces. If we see a person, we're like, "Oh, that reminds me of my best friend," or "That reminds me of my teacher from second grade," so when they're animal-people, you kind of come into it not knowing who they are. 

So, it makes it a little more universal in some ways — the characters are very well-defined, but in some ways, because they don't look like people, it's easier for audiences to project themselves onto them, like, "I'm a Tuca," or "I'm a Bertie," or "I'm a Speckle." I just like telling stories with animals — it makes them seem sort of allegorical. And the kinds of stories I'm telling are really just what I'm interested in, things I've experienced or my friends have experienced, and a lot are things I haven't seen much of in adult animated comedies before. So, I'm trying to do stuff I haven't really seen before, pave new ground if I can. 

The first episode of Season 2 shows how therapy isn't one-size-fits-all. What message if any were you trying to convey with Bertie's struggle to find the right therapist?

Even when I found the right therapist for myself, I wasn't sure at first. It was a process of growing and figuring out what I needed from them, like Bertie is trying to repair some of her trauma and deal with her panic attacks, and she has all these problems and is finding the process really frustrating, because it's not as easy as she thought it would be. It's not going to be a quick fix, or be smooth in any way. A lot of the things she's struggling with are going to come back over again in her life. I wanted to write some storylines that speak to that. 

Tuca and Bertie's struggle to live balanced lives without each other this season has sparked important conversation about codependency. Was it difficult to portray this dynamic at the same time that you show their friendship is also fun and powerful?

I didn't want it to seem like, "Oh these two definitely shouldn't be friends." They do a lot for each other, they really help each other, they depend on each other. This season, they're going through really different life changes, and I think Tuca is worried her friendship with Bertie is holding her back a little bit, but maybe she also needs her. So, I want that constant push-pull — is this healthy, is this helping both of us? That happens as you get older, naturally. You go like, is the best friend I had when I was 28 who I need to depend on when I'm 35 or 38? Things change a lot, especially in our 30s. That's something I wanted to explore.

There's a lot of honesty in the casual misogyny we see in the workplace for Bertie, and in the streets with street harassment. How important was it for you to create characters and experiences that audiences can relate to in their own way?

I think that's just how I make art. I'm either making stuff to make myself laugh, or I'm trying to connect with other people and I think making art is my way of doing that. I want people to connect with it, but don't want it to just be simple. I think there's a lot of gray area and complexity in what I'm trying to do, like the fact that Pastry Pete — his storyline seems to come to a satisfying conclusion in Season 1, but then it's Season 2 and he's back and he's thriving. That, to me, is interesting — how people don't go away after they are cruel to us, or they've been "canceled." They stick around, and that's interesting to me.

The show's approach to Bertie's sexual assault last season has been widely praised for being survivor-centric. What went into that episode behind-the-scenes, from how you decided on the visuals of the episode, to your discussions with the actors? How did you bring to life this story to center Bertie and all survivors?

It was really collaborative. A lot of people have been through something like this, a couple of my writers came to me after we were pitching that and said, "Something similar happened to me, I'm so glad you're telling this story," which really meant a lot to me. The director, Amy Winfrey, really worked a lot on those visuals, and she nailed it. It was really important to me that we not focus on the bad guy, the guy that does that to Bertie, and not focus on the details of it. I don't want to see exactly what he does, because I don't want anyone to judge Bertie's reaction to it and whether it's appropriate or not, because it just is what it is, that's her response. 

I didn't want to show that — and in fact, I don't think we showed any men in the episode at all. A lot of rape and assault scenes have been shown in TV shows, and I'm not a big fan of how a lot of them have been treated. So I felt like there was room to do a new perspective on it, that felt more empathetic toward the audience, who may or may not have experienced a similar thing.

I don't want to be like, "This show is going to take care of you, the audience, and you're never going to be hurt or feel uncomfortable watching the show." I think that gets really dangerous — I don't think my show is always going to feel safe to every person, because it just can't, I just don't know. But I do my best to be considerate.

What can we expect Tuca and Bertie's futures to hold? Are we going to see more growth around Bertie's experiences with therapy and mental health, or any particularly zany adventures for Tuca?

Yes, I think more wild adventures, more mental health issues, definitely! The characters grow in some ways and then regress in other ways, so there's always going to be conflict and there's always going to be stuff for them to work on. I'm really excited for people to see the rest of Season 2, because I think it goes to some really interesting places. We're slowly picking up on a lot of the threads we started in Season 1, so that's fun!

What has the transition been like from working on Netflix to Adult Swim?

We had quite a big hiatus between the seasons, while we were figuring out how to move it over to Adult Swim. It took some time. It's been really smooth since working with Adult Swim, it's been great. What's nice is they loved the first season so much, they really understood what the show was, so I didn't really feel the need to explain it. Like, "OK, there's gonna be snake trains!" 

It's just such a weird show, that it felt nice to have that be accepted and encouraged. It was bizarre trying to make it during the pandemic and wildfires, and the whole thing made remotely, which is nuts. And my state of mind wasn't always very joyful during that period. It was really difficult. So I wonder if that affected the tone of the show at all, I couldn't say. But yeah, it's been great working with Adult Swim, and it's fun to have it come out every week. 

Was this entire season made remotely during the pandemic? Did the pandemic and its effects on mental health shape the stories of the second season in any way?

Yes, the whole thing was made remotely. I'm really excited for people to see all of it. I'm really proud of it, the crew worked so hard on it. And the fact we had to make it during such a weird year, I'm really proud of what we were able to accomplish.

It's hard for me to say what shaped it and what didn't, because everything that happens to me and everything I read or look at shapes what I make in some way or another. I'm kind of just a sponge! A lot of the story was stuff I already had in mind that I wanted to do before the pandemic hit. So, maybe it just helped intensify or focus some of those storylines. It's not like a pandemic happens in Season 2, I never want to make that direct of a reference to real life. But there are some connections people could make to what happens — I'm not going to spoil the end of the season, but some stuff goes down, and I think it could be seen as an analogy for worldwide disaster of some sort.

"Tuca & Bertie" airs news episodes on Sundays at 11:30 p.m. on Adult Swim.


Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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