WHILE growing up in Palo Alto, California, Raphael Bob-Waksberg was a serious consumer of popular culture.
He would watch TV for hours on end and view films repeatedly until he memorised them. In particular, he was a huge fan of The Simpsons.
“We used to talk about Bart and Lisa at the dinner table as if they were real people,” said his mother, Ellen Bob.
Nowadays, the conversation around dining tables is more likely about BoJack Horseman, a Netflix animated series, created by Bob-Waksberg, which started its fifth season last week.
The show is an adult drama-comedy, set in an imaginary Hollywood populated by humans and anthropomorphised animals.
It has catapulted Bob-Waksberg’s career to new levels in the real Hollywood.
In addition to his work as head writer and showrunner for BoJack, Bob-Waksberg is developing new shows for Netflix and Amazon. He’s also writing a book of short stories, scheduled to be published next year.
The 34-year-old’s success has come as no surprise to family, friends, rabbis and teachers in the Bay Area who nurtured his creativity and independent thinking from an early age.
“I think Raphael was really headed in that direction since his teen years,” said family friend Nechama Tamler, a Jewish educator.
Simultaneously sad and funny, BoJack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett of Arrested Development), struggles after his successful acting career flounders. Once famous for sitcom Horsin’ Around, BoJack is now a 50-something depressive addicted to alcohol and drugs.
The message of the show is that there are no easy answers, and that making amends takes hard work. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words.
Bob-Waksberg’s father, David Waksberg, recognised the Jewishness of this value immediately.
“When a friend asked me about it after the first season, I said it was about teshuva (repentance),” he said.
For his part, Bob-Waksberg wasn’t quite sure how to answer when asked whether his Jewish identity influences his writing, and in particular the melancholic humour of BoJack.
“Asking me that question is like asking a fish how much being in water has affected it,” he said.
Bob-Waksberg grew up in Palo Alto in the late 1980s and 1990s with two younger sisters, Becky and Amalia, in a family that is still very involved in the Jewish community.
Dad David worked to free and resettle Soviet Jews, and is now chief executive of the San Francisco-based Jewish LearningWorks, the central agency promoting Jewish education in the Bay Area.
Mum Ellen Bob ran a Judaica store (Bob and Bob) with her mother for 26 years and, in 2011, joined Congregation Etz Chayim as executive director.
Humour was always central to life at home.
“We like to laugh... big belly laughs,” Ellen Bob recalled. “David is a great storyteller and joke teller. He would regale the kids with routines from Steve Martin, Woody Allen and songs from Tom Lehrer.
“I’m more of a wisecracker. Like my son, nothing gives me more pleasure than to make someone laugh.”
She said she is always pleased when her son makes a point of telling his interviewers that his was a happy childhood, and that BoJack’s family is not based on his family of origin.
“I’m delighted to be known as Raphael’s mother, as long as people don’t think BoJack’s mother is based on me,” she said, alluding to Beatrice Horseman (Wendie Malick), a neglectful and abusive heiress to a sugar cube company who appears primarily in flashbacks.
In looking back on his childhood and adolescence, Bob-Waksberg pointed to Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School (now Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School), the Palo Alto Children’s Theatre and the Gunn High School drama programme as other outlets where his creativity was rewarded.
“In school, there were a handful of teachers who understood me. And there were many who didn’t. I didn’t make it easy for them,” he joked.
Rabbi Sheldon Lewis, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, recalled Bob-Waksberg as “not an easy student” at cheder.
“It was because he was so clever and beyond his years in creativity, humour and mischief,” he said.
Despite having grown up in the Palo Alto academic pressure cooker, Bob-Waksberg’s parents were always supportive of his creative leanings.
“It was pretty clear to me that he was going to need to figure a way to make a living through the arts because it was the only thing he knew how to do,” his mother said.
The shows Bob-Waksberg is writing for Netflix and Amazon are also animated. It’s not a format the graduate of Bard College in New York originally planned to work in when he moved to Los Angeles, after trying his hand at comedy writing in the Big Apple.
In his spare time, he collaborated off and on for a decade with his high school friend, illustrator Lisa Hanawalt, on a cartoon featuring human-like animals, which became the basis for BoJack.
Hanawalt is now a production designer and producer for the show, which was in development with Michael Eisner’s company, Tornante, for a few years before it went to Netflix, which wanted it to be put into quick production for a summer 2014 premiere.
“I didn’t know I would get into animation. I was initially writing for live action, but BoJack is the one that went,” Bob-Waksberg said.
He said this decade has been an exciting time to be working in animation, and that he has an appetite for more.
“Animation is a format, not a genre,” Bob-Waksberg said. “There is a lot to do in animation for adults. What has been done in the past has been limited in scope and has lived in the shadow of The Simpsons.
“The new shows I am developing are about women, which is really fresh.”
Much has changed for Bob-Waksberg in the past few years. On the personal side, he was married a year ago.
Bob-Waksberg and his wife have not yet found a synagogue in Santa Monica that feels like the right fit for them, but they welcome Shabbat on Friday evenings at home.
“My wife grew up more observant than me, so she has been a good influence and has helped me reconnect to Jewish practice,” Bob-Waksberg said.
“We even had benchers at our wedding, which surprised my parents.”
Professionally, Bob-Waksberg has become more aware of his role and responsibility in the pop culture universe.
First, he checks himself as to whom he hires, ensuring that he brings in writers and cast members of diverse backgrounds.
Additionally, he doubts he would now make some of the jokes he made about antisemitism, the Holocaust and Nazis in the show’s first season.
“Those jokes were made in the spirit of Mel Brooks, in the sense that you have to laugh at the things that scare you,” he said. “But now I think a lot about how what is said on BoJack will be perceived by the audience.”
Bob-Waksberg recalled how, as he was growing up in Palo Alto, other kids would tease him with antisemitic taunts they had heard on South Park.
The writers of that show meant it to be satirical and did not intend to actually be antisemitic, but that was lost on Bob-Waksberg’s young tormentors.
He would hope that viewers take dialogue from BoJack in context, understanding that it is not what the writers are saying, but rather the flawed characters’ thoughts or opinions.
However, Bob-Waksberg said he is more averse these days to taking a writing risk, lest the point be lost or weaponised.
“If we make jokes that are bad for society,” he said, “then it is on us.”