A horse walks into a bar. The barman is a pelican. He takes the whiskey under his wing, then starts pouring it, asking the horse to say “when.” The glass overflows, and whiskey floods the bar, running onto the floor in an amber torrent. The horse finally says “when.” There is no punchline.
The horse is BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett), of BoJack Horseman, the Netflix smash hit created by illustrator Lisa Hanawait and Raphael Bob-Waksberg, in which a washed up ‘90s sitcom actor, who is also a horse, lives through a clear-eyed portrayal of depression. Throughout its four seasons, the show’s adherence to, and subversion of, comic tropes and stereotypes — like easy closure, clean resolution, the happy ending, punning, and referential world building — are mutual antagonists. BoJack Horseman makes its contradictory shades the butt of its own punchlines. Writing in the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum is typically astute in calling the show “one of the wisest, most emotionally ambitious and — this is not a contradiction — spectacularly goofy series on television.”
While the show is rightly lauded for creating a world — “a teeming, surreal alternative universe,” in Nussbaum’s words — in which the sociocultural relations between animals and humans are taken to limits both satirical and philosophical, the realities of that world, outside of character, are largely under-explored. Food in BoJack Horseman both communicates the show’s cardinal themes and interlaces itself into the tessellation of callbacks and allusions that map its structural tensions. While a meal can’t fix BoJack Horseman’s broken world, it can stitch in another joke. Characters consistently need food not just to convey, communicate, or traffic meaning and emotion, but to mean, to be meaning, to intrinsically mean something. The real meaning touches the void that food Band-Aids, the punch rather than the line. It is a site of romance, confrontation, comfort, and anguish; always ripe for comedy, always ready to be played for highly referential laughs.
At one of BoJack’s lowest ebbs, in Season 3’s “Best Thing That Ever Happened,” he tells agent, life coach, on-off lover, and cat Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), “I ordered a few feel-better pizzas to feel better. It did not work. Then I sprinkled happy pills on them, and washed it all down with a ‘Please, God, make my pain go away’ vermouth and ice cream float.” Delivered at propulsive speed, his desperate, angry frustration at pain and loss and shame all piled atop each and every mouthful maps the opacity of self-destructive excess. Parsed, BoJack’s addictions to food, drugs, alcohol, and the idea of his lost self toll clearly. His compulsive reliance on cathexis — investing objects and people with blazing, hard, uncontainable emotion — betrays its futility. His breakfast smoothie, nonchalantly laced with pills and vodka from the first episode, starts life as a throwaway laugh and slowly becomes his autobiographical calling card. It’s the thrumming, inexpressible baseline of existential angst that conducts the BoJack Horseman every day.
It is here that the show’s presentation of depression and addiction is most clear-eyed. It may not be on the surface at every given moment, but — like the callbacks and allusions that stitch the comic fabric — its instances accrete in the background, ready to punch us in the gut at a moment’s notice. In Season 3’s “That’s Too Much Man,” that one-two callback hits hardest with the death of Sarah Lynn (Sarah Schaal) minutes after she “dies” as a joke. BoJack’s last words to her in the Griffith Observatory bring this cathexis to its nadir against a constellation of stars: “Right, Sarah Lynn. Sarah Lynn. Sarah Lynn?” He waits interminably for his validation to be reciprocated, for the response to the callback, for the punchline. The rest is silence.
These repetitions and subtle revisions extend to what food leaves behind, too. Takeaway detritus — scattered beer bottles, cans tossed aside, at one point a mountain of barfed up cotton candy clinging to the hillside — signifies BoJack’s depression. It hits him, as much as he might point out to Todd Chavez (voiced by Aaron Paul, somewhat problematically), his adventure-having, down-on-his-luck-but-high-on-ludicrous-ideas housemate, that, “I weigh over 1200 pounds, it takes a lot of beer to get me drunk.” It hits Diane Nyugen (voiced by Alison Brie, somewhat problematically) in Season 2’s “Yes And” after she prematurely returns from the war-torn Republic of Cordovia. She and BoJack build pizza box representations of American monuments, but cannot reclaim the substance and meaning that they seek. The pair’s mutually destructive enabling recalls Season 1’s “Prickly Muffin.” The first line of that episode is Todd saying, “Who wants chocolate chip pancakes? I do, I do!” BoJack rejects him. But as soon as Sarah Lynn reappears in his life, he’s making them chocolate chip pancakes. It’s that cathexis: not just substituting a plate of food for emotional engagement, but mixing that felt, hard, unspoken emotion into the batter. None for Todd.
Those pizza boxes. In Season 1, Diane is the seemingly happily, seemingly comfortable person BoJack wishes he could be. In Season 2, the roles reverse, until the pair luxuriates — as BoJack the character so often does — in the easy, false nostalgia of his ‘80s sitcom Horsin’ Around. This is the facile escapism that Bojack Horseman cannot counsel into an entire world. As Diane and BoJack build “Buckingcan Palace,” an Eiffel Tower, and the Statue of Liberty out of cans and Pigaroni pizza cardboard, Wanda (Lisa Kudrow), BoJack’s girlfriend, enters with a bag overflowing with fresh groceries. The contrast could not be more stark. It’s the moment things fall apart, the moment Wanda realizes that, “When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags.” Building worlds out of waste and entropy cannot bring meaning, or nourishment, to BoJack or Diane.
BoJack’s bias to negligent excess doubles back on him in Season 4, when Hollyhock Manheim-Mannheim-Guerrero-Robinson-Zilberschlag-Hsung-Fonzerelli-McQuack, his suspected daughter but actual half-sister, struggles with an eating disorder. Equally, the world — of Hollywoo, of BoJack Horseman — has never provided nourishment through traditional means. BoJack’s dysfunctional, at times destructive relationship with his parents and Diane’s alienation from her own family are keystones for their struggles. Conventional modes of feeding and nourishing have never satisfied.
By contrast, Todd — the only character in the show who is able to eventually actualise his internal struggles — enjoys his most pivotal moments at craft service bars and diner tables. This is still BoJack Horseman, so these are craft service bars at which honeydew melon’s status as “garbage fruit” is a running joke. At one point, BoJack opines to Princess Carolyn, “HONEYDEW? WHY DOES CANTALOUPE THINK THAT EVERY TIME IT GETS INVITED TO A PARTY IT CAN BRING ALONG ITS DUMB FRIEND HONEYDEW? YOU DON”T GET A PLUS ONE CANTALOUPE!” And these are diner tables at which cows serve up steak to awkwardly apologetic customers and declare that “this cow likes to be tipped.” But they are craft service bars and dining tables nonetheless. Food is the site of Todd’s growth.
Where other characters eat blockish representations of “food,” Todd enjoys a vividly drawn salad of cocktail olives and cubes of vegetables. In Season 3’s “That Went Well,” Todd comes out as asexual (“I don’t think I’m really… anything”) over ice cream sundaes in the very same diner that BoJack meets embattled publisher Pinky Penguin of Penguin Publishing. It’s the very same diner where Todd concocts hare-brained schemes with Mr. Peanutbutter, the labrador TV star, gameshow host, and founder of “PB Livin,” a production/lifestyle company that attempts to make Halloween in January a thing and severely injures Andrew Garfield in the process. In that same episode, the confluence of a massive blimp and a spaghetti ship collision joins a story arc involving a house full of unused spaghetti strainers. Yes, really. Food is comedy, food is tragedy, food is farce: it is all these things at once, in a show that is all these things too.
There are two episodes in BoJack Horseman’s four seasons that explicitly take food and its intersection with our cultural lives as their subject. Season 2’s “Chickens” sees two competing slaughterhouses advertise on television. Chicken 4 Dayz — whose motto is “Don’t ask questions, just keep eating” — takes the trope of the morally bankrupt abattoir, while Gentle Farms represents the organic, free-range idyll. But the latter is run by chickens. The animals are friends and food. “We lovingly inject them with natural, delicious hormones, which makes them meat, thereby erasing any moral grey area,” say… the chickens. It’s a complex philosophy to contemplate, let alone enact. At the same time, the episode features multiple slapstick iterations of “bawk, bawk, bawk” being variously mistaken for “back,” “Bach,” and “Beck.” Hollywoo’s resident police officer Miaow Miaow Fuzzy Face assumes the role of contemplative cop. “We know the chicken crossed the road,” he says. ”The real question is… why?” Food, politics, and ethics intersect. Moral dilemmas and astounding puns feed off each other.
In the show, “food” chicken noises are gibberish, but “friend” chickens can talk. The jokes make the gibberish legible and audible, but only by co-opting it into the dominant language and comic structures. This smartly questions the erasure of that “moral grey area” by interrogating compassion for others’ cultures and place in the world. A news report on the crisis on MSNBSea clinches the argument. “A chicken has flown the coop and for a certain populace, the sky is falling,” the anchor, a blue whale, blusters. “Admit it, your company counted your chickens before they hatched, and now, those chickens are coming home to roost.” The chickens — living, breathing, talking characters — are reconsigned to figures of speech as the show slips back into “human” idiolect. They take up the same place as they do on earth.
The moral grey area wins out, despite the fact that animals in BoJack Horseman quite literally go to restaurants. At the end of Season 4’s “Underground,” in which Mr. Peanutbutter’s house actually falls to the center of the earth, BoJack, Diane, Peanutbutter, Princess Carolyn, and Todd evade their mutual tensions by discussing injera, the Ethiopian bread, and where they might go to eat. Friends versus food becomes friends versus friends. That meal can’t fix what’s broken, again stitching a skit to Band-Aid the gaping wound. That restaurant-going is, of course, deflated by a referential nod to the animals of the world when a dog in a supermarket complains, “I shouldn’t eat chocolate, because it can literally kill me.” Mr. Peanutbutter is bought food in a dog bowl as often as he eats off a white plate at a table.
Ultimately, the restaurant is where things unravel, back in Season 3’s “The Best Thing That Ever Happened.” Elefante, the restaurant BoJack bought in Season 1 after an insufferable one-upmanship round with Mr. Peanutbutter, has a restaurant blogger with an absurd rating system. This restaurant blogger also has an an actual blog with an actual absurd rating system on the actual internet. As BoJack fires Princess Carolyn, the head waiter at Elefante thinks he is being fired, and launches into a highly stylized Italian tirade ending with, “You are not an onion, because if I cut you, I am not going to cry.” The restaurant is in disarray. The critic is tutting. The chasm in BoJack and Princess Carolyn’s relationship grows ever wider.
The new “chef” — in a kitchen again littered with detritus and overspills — throws a donkey customer an apron. She then becomes a waiter, falls into line, and loses her important business meeting. BoJack begins to admit the truth about his incapacity to love. “You either end up hurting someone or they hurt you, so what’s the point? I don’t know.” But he delves deeper. “I think maybe if you’re good at putting out fires you just run from fire to fire and…” Before he can finish that thought, BoJack is interrupted by the chef, and the kitchen, which is on fire. Princess Carolyn cooks risotto for the critic as her history plays out in all its intricacies and shared regrets, bound by comic devices and sight gags as much as guilt and existential fear, such as the The Big Book of Broths by Philip Broth. Food is once again the site of something shared, something essential, and something irreparably broken. As she seasons the final plate, BoJack admits — for the first time, to anyone — that he loves her, “as much as I’m capable of loving anyone, which is never enough.”
The restaurant remains the site of romance, confrontation, comfort, and anguish. Food once again maps the show’s cardinal themes. The tessellation of callbacks and allusions gets ever more intricate. Facile closure is resisted. The Horsin’ Around paradigm is rejected. Puns are leaned on. Relationships and emotions writ large in kitchens and at tables ask for happy endings never to be served. That dinner, that critical verdict, is asked to bind up a broken relationship and contain a lifetime of emotion, as well as just be some risotto for a pin-sharp spoof on restaurant blogging. “I assure you the animated gifs with which I describe this encounter will be scathing,” the critic remarks. The mutual antagonism of subversion and acquiescence — to comedy, to meaning, to despair— rolls inextricably on. When Mr. Peanutbutter says, “The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning, it’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense,” he echoes words to live by that BoJack Horseman’s relationship to food can never counsel.
“Don’t ask questions. Just keep eating.”
James Hansen is a food and culture writer based in London. He writes, edits, and socials for Eater London, as well as writing features here, there, and everywhere.
Editor: Greg Morabito