How Nickelodeon, Annie Proulx, and Trolling Inspired Lisa Hanawalt for 'Tuca & Bertie'

The 'Tuca & Bertie' series creator talks about her favorite '90s cartoons, ensemble stories, and more.

lisa hanawalt, lisa simpson, garfield, succession
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

Tuca & Bertie is one of the richest texts of modern women's experience that just so happens to be a joke-stuffed cartoon. Its titular best bird friends, voiced by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong, will be going through something dark—crippling anxiety, workplace harassment, searing period pain—and then an airhorn blares. Its tonal flexibility is part of what makes the series so immensely (re-)watchable, along with its mile-a-minute visual gags, original showtune asides, and bright, surrealist landscapes. As a writerly pitch to compel more people to watch, it's often mentioned in the same breath as Broad City and, more recently, Hacks, two messy-gal comedies about millennial women figuring out their shit, but creator Lisa Hanawalt welcomes the comparisons. "It makes sense why different artists would conquer the same topic," she says over Zoom. "It's really juicy, and I think there's a lot of extra juice in there."

Now airing its third season on Adult Swim (and on HBO Max the day after), Tuca & Bertie is thriving in all of its weirdo glory after Netflix—where Hanawalt designed and produced BoJack Horseman for six seasons—unceremoniously canceled it in 2019 after its first season. To learn more about what has inspired Hanawalt's signature illustrations and her journey as a show creator, Thrillist talked to her about her favorite old cartoons, the fun of world building, and the TV shows and movies she returns to over and over again.

tuca & bertie season 3
Adult Swim

Following her anthropomorphic tree bliss

I would troll Raphael [Bob-Waksberg, Creator of BoJack] with this and be like, "I'm going to put a plant in there," and he'd be like, "No! Plants in BoJack don't walk and talk. No, stop it." I was always trying to troll him with more surreal stuff. It just didn't fit the tone of BoJack, and it wasn't his vision. But I think that little bit of frustration—it was playful frustration, but what I could and couldn't do on BoJack was part of what led to me even considering that I could do my own show. Which really, I thought I did not have the skillset needed to do this. But Raphael helped a lot in making me believe that I could do it and also teaching me a lot of things I needed to know to do it. So, yeah, it was exciting to do my own show where I'm like, "Plants are a thing, I don't need to explain it. It just is."

Especially with this new season, where we have this tree character that was really tough to come up with. I knew I wanted Tuca to have a new love interest and I wasn't sure what I wanted it to be. I was lying in bed at night and suddenly just had it, just knew what he was and what his deal was, and the metaphor of him having this inner rot. When you date someone new, there's always some inner rot that you need to uncover and it's gnarly. How are you going to cope with that? I also just thought it was a fun challenge to make a sexy tree. Which I think we accomplished. Some people like to describe this show as by women for women, which I really object to. But it is by perverts for perverts.

Annie Proulx novels and ensemble TV shows

Here's something I can pull out of my ass that will make me sound smart. I got really into novels by Émile Zola, who's a French novelist. My partner, Adam, was reading his book Germinal, which is about a coal mine. And so, I read it too. Then I read The Ladies' Paradise, which is my favorite one, and then I read Pot Luck, which was my least favorite. But he's written 20 novels and they're all about society back in the 1800s. He does a similar thing as my favorite writer, Annie Proulx, does in my favorite book, Barkskins, where he sets up all these characters and it's his own little ant farm. And then he just has them interact with each other and do things in interesting ways that represent varying classes and levels of society and all the problems with all of them. Nobody's good and nobody's evil, they're just very human. I think Annie Proulx does something similar in her writing, where it's just observing humanity.

Barkskins I like because it's so brutal. She has these really cinematic deaths. It's just something I really responded to and enjoyed. She doesn't love her characters enough, in a way. She's several steps back, where she's really absorbing them at a distance. And I'm not like that. I love my characters and identify with them very strongly. But there's just something about that where you've created all these little dolls and then, as a show creator or as a writer, you're like, "What do I want these dolls to do?" Like, "What am I interested in?" And I'm not necessarily trying to be didactic and be like, "This is how people should be in society." It's just like, "Here's something I've observed" or like, "This is an experience me or one of the other writers has had."

It's something I'm working out in my brain and I just think is interesting and a good story. And we go from there. That, to me, is the funnest thing about making a show. You can probably tell what my political leanings are from the show, what my general worldview is, but I'm trying to make it a little more complex when I can. That's when I'm succeeding, I think, is when things are in a weird gray area. Like, this character is like, "I should like them, but they're being really bad right now." That's what I like about Succession, which is one of my favorite shows. Where it's like, you should hate all these characters, but you do kind of pick your guy and you do feel empathy for them. It's really fun, and it's just these constant, subtle shifts. Like, if you look at the last season, it's like nothing even really happened.

ren & stimpy
'The Ren & Stimpy Show' | Nickeldeon

'90s cartoons

I loved Sailor Moon. It always felt a little bit distant to me because it was so pretty and so girly. At that time, I didn't fully connect with that or feel like that was my identity. So I loved it for how extra it was. It was just to the max, sparkly, shiny, sexy, you know? But I was a Ren & Stimpy girl. The animation was so good. It's too bad that John K's DNA is baked in there because he sucks. But there's a lot of really talented people who worked on it too, and the artwork is part of my body. I watched it so much. I like the really gross, off-putting side of things. I think Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, that was in my box of things.

I liked a lot of different stuff. Loved Garfield. You know, just such a '90s kid in every way. The Simpsons was one of those shows that the whole family could watch, which was unique, something that my parents would enjoy just as much as me and my brother. And, you know, I was obviously connected to Lisa Simpson in many ways. Just her earnestness and dorkiness, I felt represented.

Simple, but iconic animated characters

Tuca was a webcomic before this was ever a show idea, so her design was kind of baked already. She's a very weird drawing of a toucan that's very unrealistic; she's sort of a bean. She's just interlocking bean shapes, which I really enjoy. I think it makes her more of an iconic character that you could easily draw, even if you don't know how to draw a realistic bird. And same with Bertie. The characters are on a spectrum of realism obviously, but yeah, I just wanted something iconic of a bird. Didn't matter that they're birds—they could be cats or horses. I wanted something not human, something you could project things onto easily.

Maximalism and visual gags

When I was growing up, we listened to a lot of musicals. I liked Les Mis and stuff, but Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was always my favorite. Just something about the music—I memorized it and listened to it every day. Also, I think it's just my attention span. I like having a lot of stuff going on at once, which I think is one thing people have to adjust to when they start seeing the show. There's a lot visually and audibly happening. But also with my illustration background, when there's an idea presented, I'm like, "Well, I just can't let this go without seeing a visual popup of it." My dad always complains about this when he is watching the show. He's like, "The gags go by so fast and I can't catch them." I'm like, "Dad, it's supposed to make you want to rewatch it."

There's a point this season where Lowry's talking about how he bought a sports car for his duck boat. And we were watching that scene in the review and I was like, "You know, I just keep feeling like I need to see what that car looks like." What would a car look like that you buy for a giant duck? And in the meeting, I was like, "Okay, so it's like a convertible, but it's full of, like, pond water and lily pads." And I was amusing myself so much. This is what I'm best at, is just coming up with something so stupid, but that part really makes me laugh. This isn't in the show, but just internally, I think of it as the Ponda Civic.

broadcast news
'Broadcast News' | 20th Century Studios

Endlessly rewatchable movies and TV

My favorite shows, I just rewatch all the time. 30 Rock is just like, every time I watch it, I pick up something new. It ages less and less well each time I watch it. I'm like, "This show made Alec Baldwin seem acceptable," which I have a problem with. But it is very joke-dense in a way that I admire and obviously is a huge influence.

A lot of movies from the late '80s and early '90s I find really re-watchable because they have so many weird moments in them. Movies have gotten so slick that there's not a lot of room for just weird stuff in there. Like, there's nothing extraneous. If you watch the original Ghostbusters, there's just weird shit in there. It's just like, What is this, just Bill Murray fucking around? I can't tell. How is this even part of the script? I really love the movie Broadcast News. I could rewatch that endlessly. That's one of my favorite movies.

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Leanne Butkovic is a senior entertainment editor at Thrillist, on Twitter @leanbutk.