Oy. This is way overdue. I can offer two excuses: first, it's no longer winter, and I've been less interested in sitting inside and thinking about cartoons than I was in February and March. And second, Bob's Burgers is a lot harder to write about than Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist or Home Movies because SO MANY OTHER PEOPLE are writing about Bob's Burgers lately. Why wouldn't they? It's the best animated sitcom since The Simpsons, after all. I fear anything I could add to the conversation would be superfluous.
Nevertheless, on we go.
Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil. We also know that around 2008 or so, Bouchard had some impetus to escape from Adult Swim. Strike one: the terseness with which Adult Swim boss Mike Lazzo evidently broke the news of Home Movies' cancellation to the Soup2Nuts crew while the fourth season was still in development. Strike two: deferring from greenlighting more Saddle Rash episodes. Strike three: cancelling Lucy after its undeservedly brief first (and only) season. This is only speculation, of course, but after a decade of producing low-budget shows exclusively for Adult Swim and finding his work rather underappreciated by its executive and its late-night stoner/geek audience, it was only reasonable for Bouchard to seek greener pastures elsewhere.
He found them on FOX, which responded positively to his pitch for an animated sitcom about a family of cannibals who run a restaurant and occasionally butcher their customers and serve them up as entrees. This residual Lucy darkness was eschewed early on by the FOX folks—not because they found it too grisly, but because they felt it was unnecessary. (A form of the cannibalism angle appears in the series pilot and revamped first episode, "Human Flesh," in which the restaurant comes under investigation after the health department hears rumors that the meat contains more human remains than is legally permitted.)
Developing a show for network prime time is a very different endeavor than putting one together for late-night cable: many, many more people are involved, and the network exerts much more control over the shape the project eventually takes. (This kind of studio meddling isn't necessarily a bad thing: after all, if George Lucas had been allowed to go with his original vision for Star Wars, Han Solo would have been a giant lizard, Luke Skywalker would have been an old man, and the Jedi would have fought with "lazer swords.") FOX's greatest contribution to the Bob's Burgers recipe was pairing Bouchard with King of the Hill writer and executive producer Jim Dauterive to develop the show. (The network has a history of assigning veterans of its successful animated shows to work with the creators of new ones. Greg Daniels was transplanted from The Simpsons to help develop King of the Hill; David Zuckerman was reassigned from King of the Hill to help develop Family Guy.) The result of this collaboration is a cartoon that I frequently find myself describing to friends and coworkers as the lovechild of King of the Hill and Home Movies. It takes King of the Hill's big beefy beating heart and emphasis on character over gag humor, and combines it with Home Movies' fisheye lens worldview, conversational humor, and pitch-perfect dialogue.
Say. Why don't we meet that family?
Dad. Third-generation restauranteur. Owner of Bob's Burgers. Brilliant burger maker; lousy businessman. Introverted. Grouchy. Out of shape. Not much of a fighter. Enjoys Thanksgiving, coming up with puns for his Burger of the Day, and consuming mind-altering substances. Knows how to make paella. Can't afford employees for his restaurant, but has a wife and three children. Would really prefer employees whom he could actually discipline and/or fire. Voiced by H. Jon Benjamin, who finally assumes the role of titular protagonist in a Loren Bouchard joint. It was about bloody time.
It'd be too easy to describe Bob as a cross between Hank Hill and Jon McGuirk, but here we are. Like the fundamentally decent Hank, Bob is an honest, earnest family man who (almost) always tries to do the right thing. But unlike the terminally square propane salesman, Bob has a certain charm about him—the same weary, rough-edged charm that Benjamin brought to his role as Home Movies' John McGuirk. What's unusual about H. Jon Benjamin's performance here is that it's the first time he acts as the primary Order Muppet: he's the reluctant, easily exasperated party pooper who groans and sighs at his family's nonsense. Bouchard's original mentor Tom Snyder has actually wagged his finger at Loren for putting Benjamin in a role that doesn't permit him to cut loose and be the scene-stealing hellion he was as Ben Katz and John McGuirk. Perhaps Snyder hasn't seen enough episodes of Bob's Burgers to notice that Benjamin's role as Bob doesn't compel him to stifle his personality or charisma in any way: it's as natural for him as any part he's ever taken played, and just par for the course for such a versatile and staggeringly talented voice actor. And it wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that Bob has no spark of chaos in him: small business owners tend to be people who chafe at following rules, and Bob can act pretty crazy when his pride is under attack or when he's under the influence of liquor, pain pills, absinthe, or (maybe) crack.
Mom. Bob's wife and partner in running the restaurant and household. Likes everyone she meets and gives everyone the benefit of the doubt. Supportive to a fault. Enjoys singing, chanting, trying new things, and having a good time. Has only two out of five sexy parts intact, which isn't bad for having three kids. Voiced with Long Island gusto and uncanny femininity by John Roberts.
Linda is such a great character, though it might take the first-time viewer a few episodes to warm up to her. She has a lot working against her: her voice is Fran Dresser-caliber annoying, and she possesses the same mixture of stubbornness, obliviousness, and near-absolute self-confidence that can make King of the Hill's Peggy a difficult character to sympathize with. But Linda just bubbles over with joy and love, and would be an absolute angel if she weren't so loud, crass, and temperamental. But when the hell were angels ever interesting or fun?
The firstborn child. Thirteen years old. Self-declared smart, strong, sensual woman. Awkward. Really, really awkward. Horny. Really, really horny. Her monotone speech belies the tornado of pubescent emotion within. Likes horses, zombies, boys, and writing erotic fan/friendfiction. And butts. Loves butts. Can't stop thinking about butts. Voiced with charismatic non-charisma by Dan Mintz.
I'm finding that Tina is the hardest cast member to write about. Not that there isn't plenty to say about her—but most of it has been said and repeated already. She's the fan favorite, the giffiest Bob's Burgers character, the heart of a show with so, so much heart, and the sweetheart of feminist-minded viewers: a young female character whose gawky sexuality is never treated as something to be squelched or ridiculed, and something of a fuck you to the writers of Family Guy, who make Meg Griffin a punching bag simply because they can't think of anything else to do with a teenage female character.
What makes Tina's status as a girl-power icon a little peculiar is the fact that she's voiced by a man. Unlike the casting of John Roberts as Linda, Dan Mintz's role as the elder Belcher daughter was a decision made fairly late in the show's development. In the pilot, Mintz played the role of Daniel Belcher, a monotone, graceless, itchy lad who basically looked and acted like a male version of Tina. When the FOX folks decided Daniel was a weak link, Bouchard's solution was to switch Daniel's sex and change his name to Tina, and that was that. It is to the show's credit that it never uses Tina's deep voice as a portal for jokes implying some grotesque misplaced masculinity. Tina is a lady through and through.
The middle Belcher child. Eleven years old. Apsiring musician. Hedonistic. Imaginative and strangely perceptive, but unfocused, a little dim, and more excitable than a puppy. Loves his family. Loves himself. Loves the spotlight. Loves food. Loves flatulence. Doesn't like snakes. Possibly gay, depending on which fans you ask. Voiced with pitched ebullience by Eugene Mirman.
Of all the Belchers, Gene might be the least developed—but at the same time, his definitive characteristic is his lack of complexity. He serves as the show's main platform for toilet humor (this is FOX, after all), and Bob's Burgers somehow manages to turn Gene's farts and bowel movements into something cute and even sort of sweet. Incidentally, there was a fairly recent Fresh Air interview with Gillian Robspierre and Jenny Slate (who occasionally appears on Bob's Burgers as gassy mean girl Tammy Larsen) in which the conversation took a turn from their film Obvious Child towards fart jokes. Naturally, Slate mentioned Bob's Burgers, but also said something that seemed to fit Gene like a Queen Latifa costume:
I always thought that farts were funny, and I always thought that they were mine to talk about because they came out of my body. Or I heard them, in life, coming out of other people's bodies, so they're part of my experience . . . . I never thought of it as something that a woman or a girl wouldn't talk about . . . . maybe I'm imagining a world where my nature is celebrated.
Perhaps she imagines a world like this?
Child #3. Nine years old. Brilliant. Manipulative. Troublemaking. Loki incarnated as a bunny-eared little girl. Enjoys messing with people. Expresses fondness for her friends and family by slapping and mocking them. Is much less kind to her enemies. Secretly a bit of a daddy's girl. Voiced by Kristen Schaal, whose voice I could listen to forever.
Louise is as terrifying as she is cute. It's important to realize that while she's impish, she isn't a sociopath. Though she rags on her family and causes them no small amount of trouble, she does love them and, when it comes down to it, she does have their backs—and Louise is definitely someone they want working with them rather than against them.
From the beginning, Louise was Bob's Burgers' hook. A character-driven show can take a while to get into; you can't really follow what's going on until you've become acquainted with each character and understand their vector quantity in the ballistic physics of the conversation. Louise is easily the funniest and most interesting character for first-time viewers, and helps keep them glued to the screen for as long as it takes for the rest of the family to grow on them.
audio department. Obviously the man who cut his teeth as Dr. Katz's audio editor and directed Home Movies is going to be very particular about having rapid, natural, authentic-sounding dialogue. He insists that the cast record their lines together, though not necessarily in the same room—thanks to ISDN, he can digitally link up his New York and Los Angeles cast members and have them record their scenes together remotely. This is just to be expected; we already know that Bouchard is as fixated on chatter as Stanley Kubrick was on shot framing. I find it more remarkable that he went about casting his voice crew and designing his characters in reverse order. In most cartoons, the writers come up with characters first, and then put out a call to find the voice actors most suited to play the roles. But Bouchard assembled his actors first, and then set about designing the characters they'd represent onscreen. As a result of all this (and of Bouchard's usual encouragement of improvisation) the conversations in Bob's Burgers rarely sound like performances: after all, the actors are basically playing themselves and speaking to (and over, and past) each other.
The voice work is so excellent that it can be hard going back and watching The Simpsons afterwards. When the Simpson family has an expository conversation at the breakfast table, you can almost imagine them reading from scripts in their laps. Not that The Simpsons isn't exquisitely crafted, but for a show about a dysfunctional family, it's such an orderly affair. They wait for each other to finish talking, and they all manage to stay on topic with each other. This does not happen in Bob's Burgers.
Hmm. Let's stay on The Simpsons for a minute.
Being a faithful devotee of The Simpsons (and I mean The Simpsons, not Zombie Simpsons), I can't resist comparing it to Bob's Burgers, and vice versa. There are ample grounds for comparison, after all. First of all, in terms of quality, Bob's Burgers is absolutely on par with The Simpsons at its best—and this isn't a claim I make lightly. I can't watch either show's fourth season without feeling some disbelief at how good they are. Secondly, they are both "modern American family" cartoon sitcoms airing on FOX; and while they do have their similarities, I'm more fascinated by their differences. It's a given that they're going to be different—they were created two decades apart by different people with different aims—but the armchair cultural critic can't help looking for points of intersection and divergence between a pair of successful animated sitcoms twenty years removed and speculating as to the provenance of their dissimilarities. (For this sort of comparison, it's important that the shows in question be successful—"success" on television is as much a measure of technical and artistic virtuosity as of the extent to which the content resonates with the mood and nerves of the audience. And even though Bob's Burgers isn't nearly as huge as the iconoclastic Simpsons ever was, it's still doing much better for itself than most prime-time cartoons can usually manage.)
Google's Ngram Viewer provides us with a fascinating starting point:
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The phrase "dysfunctional family" rose sharply in use during the early and mid-1980s. The original Simpsons shorts first premiered on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, and "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" kicked off the series proper in 1989. The frequency of the phrase "dysfunctional family" in English-language publications peaked around 1993, and has declined ever since. The Simpsons is a show about the representative dysfunctional family; Bob's Burgers is a show about a living in an America where the phrase "dysfunctional family" doesn't really mean much anymore.
Before we explore Bob's Burgers' correspondence with The Simpsons, it's worth mentioning another FOX show to which it has close ties: King of the Hill. What King of the Hill did so differently from the likes of The Simpsons, The Critic, Beavis and Butthead, Family Guy, and South Park was that it eschewed satire. While The Simpsons is a lampoon of Everytown, USA, King of the Hill is a portrait of Arlen, Texas. This has less to do with the realism of its artistic style than the unjudgemental, Tolstoy-like detachment with which it treats its characters. It refrains from indulging in caricature or farce, and so does Bob's Burgers.
As we know, The Simpsons was created by Matt Groening, who began his career with the underground comic strip Life in Hell—one of the darkest, most cynical, and most wrenchingly funny things you'll ever read. Groening was writing very much for a Generation X audience—a group described by Gen X laureate Brett Easton Ellis as "the most pessimistic and ironic generation that has ever roamed the earth." Groening had an axe to grind, and he carried it with him onto network television when The Simpsons began its run.
Satire serves as a kind of cultural antibiotic. It mocks, criticizes, and attacks the deleterious standards of its age. It's easy to overlook it now—after all, it's been twenty-five years—but the satire of The Simpsons was once so incisive that it had the Maude Flanders and Helen Lovejoys of the nation mobilized against it. It was actually considered dangerous; Bart Simpson T-shirts were being banned in public schools, and the show was bashed on more than one occasion by President George H.W. Bush. More than its Nielsen rating, this backlash indicated that The Simpsons was a complete success. It was designed to strike a nerve, to offer a gritty and frank counterpoint to the cuddly, smarmy, imaginary American family that was being broadcast to the world on shows like Family Ties, The Cosby Show, and Full House.
After decades of competition with the Soviet Union and all the accompanying propaganda, the superiority of The American Way of Life had become something of a given in the mainstream American consciousness by the time the jingoist Reagan years came along. Less than a year after Ronald Reagan left office, The Simpsons arrived on television to put a mirror to the unflattering realities of Everytown, USA, and its cartoon portrayal of an America without its makeup on had audiences transfixed, appalled, and delighted.
Much of The Simpsons is about the dissonance between Norman Rockwell's America—one that cultural conservatives then and now still treat as a fact of history rather than an idealized myth—and the lazy, mediocre, materialistic, abusive, alcoholic, underachieving, misbehaving, hypocritical, dysfunctional reality. The term "dysfunctional" is crucial when considering The Simpsons: it implies certain expectations about what the family (the cellular nucleus in the tissue of society) is supposed to look like and be. The Simpsons are a dysfunctional family because it tries and fails to live up to the standards imposed upon it (and there is nothing within the family's frame of reference to suggest that any alternative exists). These standards bear down on them from a society that's just as screwed up as they are. Everything is dysfunctional in Springfield. Not a person, place, or thing exists that isn't constructed so as to satirize The American Way of Life and its myriad shortcomings. It would be tiresome to list them all here. If you'd like examples, watch the first season of The Simpsons with a case of beer and take a drink every time some American institution gets smeared. Try to keep track of how long you're able to see straight.
Living in such a world has left its marks upon the members of the Simpson family. Homer is worn-down slob who tranquilizes himself with bad beer and worse TV. Marge lives in the quietly desperate rut of an unappreciated young homemaker. Bart is a square peg being forced into a round hole, and suffers from a stifled spirit. The precocious Lisa is isolated, neglected, and lonely.
The Simpsons has heart, sure—but the heart is merely the sugar coating that made its acrid satire palatable to a network audience attuned to Cheers. It's still an antibiotic. Although the family does love each other, and although they always manage to muddle through, these really aren't happy people, Homer really isn't a great husband or father, and the world in which they live is going to be standing on their necks for the foreseeable future.
The Simpsons criticizes American culture circa 1990 by sketching out the type of family it creates. Bob's Burgers, on the other hand, celebrates a family that dances to its own frenetic rhythm. By the standards of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Belchers might be considered a dysfunctional family: the C-student kids run amok, Mom likes to drink, and Dad is incapable of keeping his business problems from spilling over into family problems. But the Belchers aren't being judged by the same standard as the Simpson family. Homer and Marge blithely wandered into and got stuck in the "average American" lifestyle, while Bob and Linda flat-out rejected it.
We can get a good idea of the nature of said nonsense, and of where Homer and Marge are coming from (and how they got where they are) by looking at some of the advice they give to their children in The Simpsons' first season.
Homer to Bart:
Always make fun of those different from you. Never say anything unless you're sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do....
Being popular is the most important thing in the world.
Marge to Lisa:
It doesn't matter how you feel inside, you know. It's what shows up on the surface that counts. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down, past your knees, until you're almost walking on them. And then you'll fit in, and you'll be invited to parties, and boys will like you, and happiness will follow.
It was shitty advice then and it's shitty advice now. But the Simpson parents are merely conveying the logic of the world they live in. "Conform, dammit, conform. After all, look how happy conformity made your mother and me."
Bob and Linda never say these sorts of things to their kids. After all, it would be profoundly hypocritical for a man and woman doggedly pursuing a dream despite losing odds to tell their kids to straighten up and fly right.
That might be the handle of it, I think: The Simpsons illustrates the dysphoria that can come with social conformity in a dysfunctional society. The Simpson family doesn't like where they are, but don't know where else they'd rather be. It would be easy to suggest that, conversely, Bob's Burgers shows the joy that comes with nonconformity. But that begs the question: nonconformity to what? Everything and everyone in their world is as eccentric as they are.
The Simpsons' world is a reply to the revived social conservatism and cultural tripe of the Reagan years. Satire was a perfectly reasonable, even necessary reaction to the accumulated bullshit of the age.
The fundamental truths about the world in which Springfield, USA exists—that people are mostly ugly and stupid, all institutions are ineffective if not harmful, and everything of value is going to be so molded over by the rottenness of everything around it that it ultimately won't amount to much—are nearly the opposite of the ethos at play in Bob's Burgers.
The foundations of Bob's Burgers' unnamed shore town are built upon the the post-9/11, recession-era, Generation Y incarnation of the New Sincerity.
summing up what might be the basic characteristics of New Sincerity:
What is The New Sincerity? Think of it as irony and sincerity combined like Voltron, to form a new movement of astonishing power. Or think of it as the absence of irony and sincerity, where less is (obviously) more. . . .
So now, dear reader, you're in on the Next Big Thing. Something more Hedwig than Rocky Horror; more Princess Bride than Last Unicorn; more Bruce Lee than Chuck Norris. Something new, and beautiful. So join us.
Our greeting: a double thumbs-up. Our credo: "Be More Awesome." Our lifestyle: "Maximum Fun." Throw caution to the wind, friend, and live The New Sincerity.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald offers a more thorough explication of sincerity in early twenty-first-century American culture in The Atlantic:
All across the pop culture spectrum, the emphasis on sincerity and authenticity that has arisen has made it un-ironically cool to care about spirituality, family, neighbors, the environment, and the country....A recent Knights of Columbus-Marist Poll survey found that among Millennials, six out of 10 prioritized being close to God and having a good family life above anything else. For those in Generation X, family was still important, but the second priority was not spirituality——it was making a lot of money. Clearly, a change has been underway.
Whatever the New Sincerity is, it's woven as deeply into the fabric of the Bob's Burgers universe as late-1980s cynicism saturates Springfield, USA.
The universes of Bob's Burgers and The Simpsons are a little like this. There are people in each who look a lot alike and fulfill similar functions, but the moral order (for lack of a better term) of each universe conscripts them towards different purposes. Again, it's where the similarities end and the differences begin that we can extrapolate some parameters of the two universes.
Instead of looking at the protagonists of each, it might be more interesting to put the lens to three members of each show's supporting cast—all of whom look alike insofar as they represent certain sitcom archetypes, but who are made into different animals by virtue of their respective ecosystems. I think there are three worth examining.
The Neighbors: Ned Flanders and Jimmy Pesto
Before he became a one-note okely-dokely do-gooder in later seasons, Flanders had a yuppie streak to him. He had everything that Homer lacked: more money, a nicer house and yard, better-behaved kids, and a wife with a firmer butt than Marge's. He was also a really nice guy, while Homer was an ass.
Bob's "peeing races" with Jimmy Pesto—who runs a mediocre but very successful Italian restaurant directly across the street from Bob's Burgers—somewhat mirror Homer's early inferiority complex with regard to Ned Flanders. But whereas Ned unintentionally made Homer feel inadequate, Jimmy delights in antagonizing and trying to screw over his hard-up competitor.
The satirical cartoon casts a beer-swilling oaf as its protagonist; his foil must naturally be the happy, well-off, nice guy living next door. In the world of The Simpsons, the only character capable of being a contented, genuinely friendly, and thoroughly functional person is also going to be so insufferable that we root for the loud, rude jerk instead of him.
This point of irony is absent from the Bob/Jimmy rivalry in Bob's Burgers, and the whole matter becomes a lot more straightforward. Bob is a soft-hearted underdog, so it follows that his nemesis is a rival restaurant owner who enjoys a thriving business, but is also a lousy father, a bad enough husband to have evidently undergone a divorce, a crummy chef, and an unhappy person—someone Bob has no reason to be jealous of.
On paper, Jimmy Pesto is the winner. In reality, Bob is altogether the better man.
The Losers: Barny Gumble, Teddy
Barney Gumble is a loser. Period. He doesn't have any friends but Homer. He's lonely, unattractive, friendless, and spends most of his time sitting on a stool in Moe's tavern. Barney has no redeeming qualities but for the fact that he's easy to laugh at—and we are never laughing with him.
By the time the Teddy-centric episode "Uncle Teddy" came along in season four, fans were saying it was way overdue. There are no early Simpsons episodes centered around Barney: nobody really wanted them, and they would probably have been too dark and disgusting for network television.
The Arch-Villains: Charles Montgomery Burns and Calvin Fischoeder
Mr. Burns would be offended by the suggestion that he needs an introduction. He's the most powerful man in Springfield, and he's rotten to the core. He runs roughshod over people with impunity and without consequence, and he always gets what he wants—and what he wants is more of what he already has.
And so Bob's Burgers begins and continues precisely where Home Movies concluded: WE ARE STRONG TOGETHER. Or, if you will, Bob and his family follow the advice Voltaire gives at the end of Candide: they cultivate their garden together. The world isn't always nice and it certainly isn't fair, but it's not so far gone that we can't carve out and fight to keep a space where we can be happy with the people we love and follow our bliss together.
I'd say that about covers it for Bob's Burgers, and for our overview of Loren Bouchard's career in animation. There's a fifth season of Bob's Burgers in the works, so he'll be busy with that for at least another year. We'll just have to wait and see if it gets picked up for a sixth, and it's impossible to predict where he might go and what he might do after Bob's Burgers closes up shop. I doubt Bob's Burgers will be the last cartoon he ever makes, but man—it's going to be a very hard act to top.