Hello! I am going to answer your question, and then I am going to talk a little bit about GENDER IN COMEDY, because this is my tumblr and I can talk about whatever I want!
The vast vast vast majority of the animal jokes on BoJack Horseman (specifically the visual gags) come from our brilliant supervising director Mike Hollingsworth (stufffedanimals on tumblr) and his team. Occasionally, we’ll write a joke like that into the script but I can promise you that your top ten favorite animal gags of the season came from the art and animation side of the show, not the writers room. Usually it happens more the second way you described— to take a couple examples from season 2, “Okay, we need to fill this hospital waiting room, what kind of animals would be in here?” or “Okay, we need some extras for this studio backlot, what would they be wearing?”
I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that the croc wearing crocs came from our head designer lisahanawalt. Lisa is in charge of all the character designs, so most of the clothing you see on the show comes straight from her brain. (One of the many things I love about working with Lisa is that T-Shirts With Dumb Things Written On Them sits squarely in the center of our Venn diagram of interests.)
NOW, it struck me that you referred to the craft services crocodile as a “he” in your question. The character, voiced by kulap Vilaysack, is a woman.
It’s possible that that was just a typo on your part, but I’m going to assume that it wasn’t because it helps me pivot into something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last year, which is the tendency for comedy writers, and audiences, and writers, and audiences (because it’s a cycle) to view comedy characters as inherently male, unless there is something specifically female about them. (I would guess this is mostly a problem for male comedy writers and audiences, but not exclusively.)
Here’s an example from my own life: In one of the episodes from the first season (I think it’s 109), our storyboard artists drew a gag where a big droopy dog is standing on a street corner next to a businessman and the wind from a passing car blows the dog’s tongue and slobber onto the man’s face. When Lisa designed the characters she made both the dog and the businessperson women.
My first gut reaction to the designs was, “This feels weird.” I said to Lisa, “I feel like these characters should be guys.” She said, “Why?” I thought about it for a little bit, realized I didn’t have a good reason, and went back to her and said, “You’re right, let’s make them ladies.”
I am embarrassed to admit this conversation has happened between Lisa and me multiple times, about multiple characters.
The thinking comes from a place that the cleanest version of a joke has as few pieces as possible. For the dog joke, you have the thing where the tongue slobbers all over the businessperson, but if you also have a thing where both of them ladies, then that’s an additional thing and it muddies up the joke. The audience will think, “Why are those characters female? Is that part of the joke?” The underlying assumption there is that the default mode for any character is male, so to make the characters female is an additional detail on top of that. In case I’m not being a hundred percent clear, this thinking is stupid and wrong and self-perpetuating unless you actively work against it, and I’m proud to say I mostly don’t think this way anymore. Sometimes I still do, because this kind of stuff is baked into us by years of consuming media, but usually I’m able (with some help) to take a step back and not think this way, and one of the things I love about working with Lisa is she challenges these instincts in me.
I feel like I can confidently say that this isn’t just a me problem though— this kind of thing is everywhere. The LEGO Movie was my favorite movie of 2014, but it strikes me that the main character was male, because I feel like in our current culture, he HAD to be. The whole point of Emmett is that he’s the most boring average person in the world. It’s impossible to imagine a female character playing that role, because according to our pop culture, if she’s female she’s already SOMEthing, because she’s not male. The baseline is male. The average person is male.
You can see this all over but it’s weirdly prevalent in children’s entertainment. Why are almost all of the muppets dudes, except for Miss Piggy, who’s a parody of femininity? Why do all of the Despicable Me minions, genderless blobs, have boy names? I love the story (which I read on Wikipedia) that when the director of The Brave Little Toaster cast a woman to play the toaster, one of the guys on the crew was so mad he stormed out of the room. Because he thought the toaster was a man. A TOASTER. The character is a toaster.
I try to think about that when writing new characters— is there anything inherently gendered about what this character is doing? Or is it a toaster?
Wow~ Wonderfully written up.
As a creator I face this all the time too when crafting original concepts because we really want to be clear all the time, and adding more ‘traits’ can really detract from a message. It took me quite a while to really parse this in the context of women characters – that making someone female is adding a trait, and that’s what had bothered me so much about it. It shouldn’t be like that, and as creators we have to struggle with when to actively de-self-propagate this, and when we just need it to read ‘clearly’. It’s sad that this is the way things are right now, and hopefully soon this won’t be such a thing that leads people to hesitate either way when creating in the future. It’s 100% up to us as creators to dictate what happens in media, so ultimately, it’s up to us to de-propagate. I think we all just need to be aware of this as a Thing. Let’s keep this in mind.
I couldn’t agree more. This is definitely a Thing. I’ve fallen prey to it, as much as anyone else, and in spite of myself, it’s a thing I need to remind myself of when I’m writing. I mean, my short story A Hand of Palaver has four characters in it, one of whom is male, but my reason for doing that wasn’t just that there should be more female characters; it was because, well, why should a bunch of adventurers swapping stories around a campfire default as dudes? The point is that so many of our cultural norms of what a character is or should be are gendered, when really, there’s no reason for this except precedent and self-propagation.
There is no way in which the story would have been weakened – or even changed that much, honestly – if the Potter books had been about The Girl Who Lived, instead. Gandalf could have been a lady. So could Peter Pan, or R2-D2. Like, why are robots usually default male unless they’re sexy robots? Because male is more basic, simpler. Making a robot female, even just using female pronouns, well, that’s trying to make some kind of statement, or complicating things more than necessary.
Except it isn’t. There is no way that male is inherently more default than female (heck, if you really want to pull science into this, don’t all embryos start out following a female blueprint before differentiating into sexes?). This is the thing that we need to actually work on, because the cultural default of a person being a straight cis white male is… creepy. It’s creepy, guys! There are way too many things that tend to be considered “other”, both in fiction and reality. Look around you. Talk to people. There isn’t really an “other”. And hey, guess what? Straight cis white males are every bit as complex and interesting as everyone else. The defaulting of that person type as being basic does no one a favour. So let’s try to remember that, especially when we write, and see what we can do to make things make more sense.