Lisa Hanawalt has no problem relating to animals; it's pretty much her thing. Long before she became the illustrator who developed a singularly wacky vision of a Hollywood inhabited by anthropomorphic animals on BoJack Horseman, Hanawalt was a self-described horse girl whose love for equines as a child extended to literally crawling on all fours to imitate them.
But despite spending five seasons and counting depicting the humanity of a clinically depressed, washed up sitcom star horse on BoJack, Hanawalt tells Bustle she's "not just a one-animal girl." If a horse and all his showbiz friends could entertain you with their silly hijinks and then catch you off guard with the emotional complexity of their circumstances, you'll be similarly delighted and moved by the two birds at the center of her new Netflix animated series Tuca & Bertie.
The show follows Tuca, a confident, brash toucan voiced by Tiffany Haddish, and Bertie, an anxious, well-intentioned songbird voiced by Ali Wong, as they navigate the wrinkles of 30-something life as their paths begin to diverge. Bertie has just moved in with her boyfriend Speckle (Steven Yeun), leaving her former roommate Tuca feeling left behind. What follows is a 10-episode journey that's at turns gleeful, surreal, and heartbreaking. Technicolor pastel landscapes blur behind the cavalier ambition of an amped-up Tuca blazing through Birdtown, boobs dislodge from their owners' bodies and walk out the door after they're ogled by distasteful male co-workers, and even a place as innocuous-sounding as Jelly Lake can take on crushing significance thanks to a poignant flashback.
It's a fully realized, gorgeously idiosyncratic world that's indebted to Hanawalt's unique creative quirks. She spoke to Bustle about Tuca & Bertie, and everything that went into bringing these soon-to-be iconic characters and their colorful world to life.
Creating the characters
Hanawalt's decision to create a predominantly avian universe was one that came from her pen, not her brain. "They’re just fun to draw in a simplified form, and we can kind of project a lot of human emotion onto them," she says. "I haven’t gotten bored of drawing birds yet, and I’ve been drawing them for like a decade."
Both Tuca and Bertie were characters who existed in some form in Hanawalt's other work before she conceived of the show. "Tuca the single female toucan" first appeared in a comic for Hazlitt in 2013; Hanawalt says she got the idea after watching a toucan in a nature documentary steal eggs from another bird's nest. Its gobbling reminded Hanawalt of herself — "'cause I get kind of greedy with food sometimes," she laughs. "It was like, 'Oh my god, Tuca is like the selfish id version of me.'"
Bertie's more buttoned-up, anxious demeanor was already present in Hanawalt's work, too. Her 2015 comic Planting, which first appeared in Lucky Peach magazine, chronicles a young bird couple in bright watercolor panels as they move into their first home. The wife begins to obsess over collecting plants, and starts using them to literally block herself off from the world. Bertie's anxiety and tendency to retreat into herself in tough times remains in the series, even if she's not using plants to do it.
Pairing these two opposite characters together seemed like a natural fit to Hanawalt, who wanted to dive into themes of female friendship between (bird) women in their 30s. It also helped that the characters felt like two separate parts of a whole. If Tuca is Hanawalt's id, Bertie is her more "shy, sensitive, and anxious" ego — the person she's like in her day-to-day life. That idea helped guide the designing of each character's signature outfit.
"Tuca is kind of what I wish I could be every day, and Bertie is what I actually am," Hanawalt says. "So what I actually am is like jeans and a sweater and boots. But Tuca is very comfortable with her body, she wears the short-shorts... man, I wish I could pull that off. She’s a lot more carefree with her wardrobe."
Haddish, who Hanawalt says is "such a Tuca," mentions in a featurette for the show that she loved that her character "got ass." When it comes to depicting different body types for her bird people, Hanawalt tends to draw sturdy, athletic builds. But she acknowledges that she likes drawing characters with "big booties," too. "I have a large ass myself, and so I want large ass representation out there," she laughs.
Unlike BoJack's universe, which is populated by all kinds of talking animals and even some humans, Tuca & Bertie stays mostly within the confines of Birdtown, whose residents are predominantly, well, birds. Hanawalt hasn't figured out the "hard sci-fi" of the universe — though she has some ideas why some birds can fly and others can't, and why some are anthropomorphic and others don't talk — so for now, the decisions are mostly for aesthetic purposes.
"I like that birds come in so many shapes and silhouettes that it really felt like we could flesh out a pretty interesting-looking town out of like 90 percent birds," she says. The other kinds of species, from snake people, to plant people, to the few humans who sneak into frame mostly to spy on the birds with binoculars, were added for some "jungle-y" variation.
That variation is clear upon closer inspection of the meticulous details present in every background on Tuca & Bertie. Whether it's dozens of turtles creeping through the frame each carrying a random item in an overgrown mandrake's apartment, or some whimsically bouncy breasts on the exterior of a building blending into Birdtown's cityscape, the show's detailed world is a smorgasbord of styles and influences that reflects Hanawalt's own eclectic sensibility.
"The world looks so playful, it's almost like a Richard Scarry book," Hanawalt explains, referencing the famous children's author and illustrator known for his bright, detailed depictions of towns filled with anthropomorphic animals. "We wanted to make sure it also looked adult, so that's part of the reason there's tits everywhere."
Tits, toucans, and tender depictions of friendship: Welcome to the world of Tuca & Bertie.