Netflix's 'Tuca & Bertie' Puts The Lady Birds In Charge

May 1, 2019
Originally published on May 1, 2019 4:06 pm
Tuca & Bertie is an adult animation that centers on a brassy, colorful toucan (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) and her neurotic best friend, a songbird (Ali Wong).
Netflix

Tuca & Bertie is the latest adult animation to hit Netflix, and it centers on a brassy, colorful toucan (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) and her neurotic best friend, a songbird (voiced by Ali Wong). But the strongest voice on the show is behind the scenes — that of creator and executive producer Lisa Hanawalt.

Hanawalt, who helped shape the hit animation BoJack Horseman as its creative director, describes herself as someone vacillating between confident and anxious. So when her own show got a green light, she deliberately focused on a female perspective, and gave both sides of her personality a character.

Her brassy, bold self is woven into Tuca. "Confident, yet relatable," Tuca describes herself in the premiere. "Wearer of short shorts."

Her more uncertain, anxious side got life as Bertie. The birds are best friends in their 30s — a theme Hanawalt felt needed more exploration.

Lisa Hanawalt is the creator and executive producer of Tuca & Bertie.
Eddy Chen / Netflix

"So they're getting older, and Bertie maybe wants to buy a house and start a family and get married, and Tuca feels a little left behind," Hanawalt says. "I wanted to explore what happens to a friendship like that — when you've been best friends for 10 years, but things are changing and you're maybe moving in different directions."

That this is an animated show allows Hanawalt and her team to embrace her unique sensibility. It involves absurdist humor and ... boobs. Lots of boobs.

In this show, boobs are on animals, on buildings; one boob even gets personified, popping right out of Bertie's chest in protest of a sexual advance. "I am finished. I'm finished!" the talking boob says. "I am done with today! I need a drink."

"You can just slap boobs on anything," Hanawalt says. "Boobs on a snake! That doesn't really make sense, but it doesn't need to. There's a surreality to the world."

This surreal world starring women of color and created by a woman showrunner marks a first. The existing adult animations out there — Family Guy, Archer, The Simpsons — are driven by men behind the scenes and male protagonists on the screens. So Tuca & Bertie breaks ground, as a comedy about finding your way in a male-dominated world — but also as proof that Hanawalt has found her way in a heavily male animation industry.

"I've had it pointed out to me when I'm the only woman in a room," Hanawalt says. "Some people think that that's a relevant thing to just say out loud, and I'm like, 'Really! That's a comfortable way to start a meeting. Thank you for pointing out how different I am.'

"There's a lot of people working in this industry who are just blissfully unaware of certain things and how they could be coded, or how they could come across to different types of people. So, yeah, I think it matters a lot who's in the room, and who's empowered to speak up about things."

When she became the boss, she was deliberate in her hiring.

"If you make that a goal of yours, it is not difficult to find writers of all colors and shapes and genders," Hanawalt says. "It's really not difficult."

Amy Winfrey, who directs several Tuca episodes, says she feels the benefits of a diverse room in how the show is made — the creators being "open to suggestions from everybody just in trying to get the best show possible" — and editor Molly Yahr says it shows up in the finished product.

"There is just a genuine importance for shows just displaying different parts of culture, and this show is a good indication of a type of female culture," Yahr says.

For Hanawalt, showing that women are weird and gross and multifaceted, just as she is, helps normalize our weirdnesses and idiosyncrasies.

"I just hope that the people who watch it connect with it, and that it makes them feel better about who they are, so they don't have to feel apologetic for being a certain way or not being the status quo or whatever," Hanawalt says.

To create that connection, Hanawalt is at the center of all the decisions on this show, from the overarching vision down to the sly jokes. On one afternoon, she and Yahr compare different voice takes of Wong and Haddish excitedly reacting to a Girl Thingz store (it's reminiscent of the accessory-store mall stalwart, Claire's).

"Girl things" is a cheeky reference on Tuca & Bertie. It's also the show's big idea.

Ted Robbins edited this story for broadcast.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

An animated exploration of female friendship will be available on Netflix this Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCA & BERTIE")

ALI WONG: (As Bertie) Tuca and Bertie, and Tuca and...

TIFFANY HADDISH: (As Tuca) Bertie.

WONG: (As Bertie) Bertie and Tuca, and Tuca and Bertie. Tuca and Bertie.

CORNISH: It's called "Tuca & Bertie," and it's about a brassy toucan, played by Tiffany Haddish, and her neurotic best friend, a songbird voiced by Ali Wong. The strongest voice on the show is one you don't hear, but you'll see her influence everywhere. NPR's Elise Hu explains.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: Tuca and Bertie are animated bird women navigating a comedic fictional world dominated by dudes. They're creations of Lisa Hanawalt, an artist and showrunner who describes herself as vacillating between confident and anxious.

LISA HANAWALT: Oh, sorry. Weird handshake. Here we go.

HU: In the runup to her show's debut, we meet Hanawalt at the offices of a Hollywood animation studio, ShadowMachine. It's also home of the hit animated comedy "BoJack Horseman," which Hanawalt shaped as its creative director.

When her own show got a green light, she deliberately focused on a female perspective and gave both sides of her personality a character. Her brassy, bold self is woven into Tuca.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCA & BERTIE")

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Confident, yet relatable. Wearer of short shorts.

HU: Her more uncertain, anxious side got life as Bertie.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCA & BERTIE")

WONG: (As Bertie) I don't want to be boring. I want to know that everything's going to be OK so I can relax.

HU: The birds are best friends in their 30s, a theme Hanawalt felt needed more exploration.

HANAWALT: They're getting older. And, like, Bertie maybe wants to buy a house and start a family and get married, and Tuca feels a little left behind. And I wanted to explore what happens to a friendship like that, when you've been best friends for 10 years, but things are changing and you're maybe moving in different directions.

HU: That this is an animated show also allows Hanawalt and her team to embrace her unique sensibility, throw in absurdist humor and boobs - lots of boobs. On this show, boobs are on animals. They're on buildings. One boob even gets personified, popping right out of Bertie's chest in protest of a sexual advance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCA & BERTIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I am finished. I'm finished.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Gross.

HU: This is the talking boob.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCA & BERTIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As talking boob) I am done with today. I need a drink.

HU: And this is Lisa Hanawalt.

HANAWALT: You can just slap boobs on anything. Boobs on a snake - that doesn't really make sense, but it doesn't need to. There's a surreality to the world.

HU: This surreal world starring women of color and created by a woman showrunner marks a first. The existing adult animations out there - "Family Guy," "Archer," "The Simpsons" - are driven by men behind the scenes and male protagonists on the screens.

So "Tuca & Bertie" breaks ground. This comedy is about finding your way in a male-dominated world but also proved Hanawalt has managed to find her way in a heavily male animation industry.

HANAWALT: You know, I've had it pointed out to me. When I'm the only woman in a room, some people think that that's, like, a relevant thing to just say out loud. And I'm like, really? That's a comfortable way to start a meeting. Thank you for pointing out how different I am.

There's a lot of people working in this industry who are just kind of blissfully unaware of certain things and how they could come across to different types of people. So yeah, I think it matters a lot who's in the room and who's, like, empowered to speak up about things.

HU: When she became the boss, she was deliberate in her hiring.

HANAWALT: If you make that a goal of yours, it is not difficult to find writers of all colors and shapes and genders. It's really not difficult.

HU: Amy Winfrey, who directs several "Tuca" episodes, says she feels the benefits of a diverse room in how they make the show.

AMY WINFREY: We were just open to suggestions from everybody just in trying to get the best show possible.

HU: And editor Molly Yahr says it shows up in the finished product.

MOLLY YAHR: There is just a genuine importance for shows just displaying different parts of culture. And this show is a good indication of a type of female culture.

HU: For Hanawalt, showing that women are weird and gross and multifaceted, just as she is, helps normalize our weirdness and idiosyncrasies.

HANAWALT: I just hope that the people who watch it connect with it and that it makes them feel better about who they are so they don't have to feel, like, apologetic for being a certain way or not being the status quo or whatever.

HU: To create that connection, Hanawalt is at the center of all the decisions on this show, from the overarching vision down to the right voice takes from her stars, Haddish and Wong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HADDISH: (As Tuca) There's a Girl Things here.

WONG: (As Bertie) Girl Things.

HANAWALT: Take five.

WONG: (As Bertie) Girl Thingz, with a Z?

HU: Girl things is a cheeky reference on "Tuca & Bertie," but it's also the show's big idea. Elise Hu, NPR News, Hollywood.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEW JACKSON SONG, "PUT THE LOVE IN IT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.