David Remnick: In the 1990s, inspired by The Simpsons, an entire wave of animators started making cartoons for adults. One of those animators was Loren Bouchard. Bouchard worked on niche late-night shows like Science Court and Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist. Eventually, Bouchard took to prime time as the creator of Bob’s Burgers about a family-run burger joint in some seaside town.
Bob Belcher: Listen, you're my children and I love you, but you're all terrible at what you do here and I feel like I should tell you. I'd fire all of you if I could.
Tina Belcher: Bob.
Bob Belcher: All right, hands in. All right, sell some burgers.
Belcher Children: [murmering] Sell some burgers.
David Remnick: Here is Sarah Larson, a longtime staff writer.
Sarah Larson: I've been a fan and admirer of Loren's work since I first encountered it and him in the mid-to-late '90s. We were both living in Boston and working in the world of writing and comedy. We were used to The Simpsons being brilliant and crazy, but this was funny in a different way. It's a mainstream-looking family comedy. They're a regular family. They run a burger restaurant. They have neurosis and vulnerabilities, but they're also very plucky and very creative. They really love each other. They're weird but they accept each other as they are. They're always trying to make the best of everything.
David Remnick: After a decade on television, a Bob's Burgers movie just came out and it's called, you guessed it, The Bob’s Burgers Movie. It's written and directed by Loren Bouchard. Sarah Larson talked with him last week.
Sarah Larson: I was so excited when I found out that you were making a movie because I just had a feeling that what I love about Bob Burger's on a small screen would just explode into glorious, wondrous, exciting stuff on a huge screen. Can you tell me about what intrigued and excited you about the possibility of making a movie as opposed to a show?
Loren Bouchard: Yes. It's two parts. I think that one part is the easy part that probably all of us share, which is I love movies. I love going to movies. I love watching movies. I have always loved movies. That part was just built-in. Then separately, there's like the who do you think you are, just pure gall to think that we could make one. That happened in a very specific way too. I remember clearly when we were quite sure that we shouldn't make one.
Sarah Larson: Why? What was that all about?
Loren Bouchard: That was just simply doing the show, we spent so many seasons on the bubble, as they say. We were never a sure thing to get renewed. We always fought for our dinner and in a way got used to that. It was like working in an emergency room. We were just under pressure all the time. It was always, at first, the fans who brought it up, when a fan would say, "You should make a movie," it was like, "No, no, don't say that. We can barely make this show. We don't even know if we're going to get picked up." I would squint at that and recoil with a little bit of fear.
Sarah Larson: Can we back up and talk a bit about how you got into animation in the first place and your evolution as a writer, director, composer, and so on?
Loren Bouchard: I love telling the story because it's a study in sheer, incredible luck on a galactic scale. I was raised by creative, artistic people. I had many creative and artistic urges, but I got a little derailed. My mother died when I was a teenager and I had a few years of drifting a bit. I did not finish high school. I was working mostly bartending. Despite not finishing high school, I got high-quality education up until that point, I should say because my father was the art teacher at a private school in Cambridge, Mass, and so my sister and I got a full ride there.
As part of that, I had known this guy, Tom Snyder. He had been the science teacher at the grade school I went to. He was a really fantastic teacher and just a magnetic personality. I think I had piano lessons from him for a time. I was connected to the guy. He was a sweet presence in my middle grade, fourth, fifth, sixth grade, then he left teaching. I, to some extent, had stayed in touch, and then I'm 23 years old, I am quite sure that I have wrecked my chances of having the life that I had imagined for myself, which is to say a creative life.
I was taking classes at the Cambridge Adult Ed Center. I was thinking maybe I could try to be a writer, or cartoonist or something. I had this sense that there was a job for me that combined my interests. I even had a sense that animation would be good. I had been watching The Simpsons. It had come on, I think, maybe when I was about 18. I understood that there was this world but I had no idea how to access it. I had no sense that I could figure out a way for me to get into it.
I run into Tom Snyder in Harvard Square and I'm coming out of an art supply store. I believe he was on his way to a funeral, we just cross-paths on the street. He says, "Hey, do you still draw on stuff?" I say, "Yes." He says, "Come see me. I might have some work for you. I've been getting into animation."
Sara Larson: Wow.
Loren Bouchard: I knew it. I knew right then and there I was getting lucky. I experienced clarity like you wouldn't believe. I basically said, "I'll do anything." He said, "Okay. It's not going to be much money. I can't promise anything. This animation thing may not pan out," but it did. He had the great idea to team up with Jonathan Katz, this local comic. They had the great idea to make Jonathan into the therapist, and then have other comics do their standup routines but have it be as if they were in therapy.
Comedian: Katz, what is wrong with me?
Katz: Well, that's not such a simple--
Comedian: Come on you bloodsucker. How long are you going to suck off my teat before you cure me? Fix this. Fix this.
Sarah Larson: When I first saw Dr. Katz and then Home Movies, we were used to this wonderful gift of The Simpsons in our cultural landscape. The aesthetic that you guys had and the way you were doing what you were doing felt so new, so thrilling, and different because it felt conversational. It felt more realistic in the way that it had pauses. It sounded like the way people really talked.
Loren Bouchard: To be fair, we wrote scripts for Dr. Katz but they were treated somewhat as a safety net rather than as the script the way we'd normally understand it. We would have the actors improvise before they'd even read the script. We didn't want them to be colored by it. The improv was really king. Even now, I tremble to think what one of those scenes would look like if we'd written, "Dr. Katz makes a joke, Ben laughs, Ben makes a joke, Dr. Katz laughs." It's going to be trickily, but when it was improvised and discovered in the moment, it wasn't, or I hope it wasn't.
Sarah Larson: Those shows were really beloved by the people who saw them, but a lot of people didn't see them. It was such a tragedy in our world when Home Movies was on for a few episodes, and it was excitingly on buses that would go by and I'd go, "What's happening?" Then suddenly, it was gone and replaced by a show called Shasta McNasty. [laughs] It was, "What is happening?"
Loren Bouchard: I used to tell people, "We weren't just canceled, we were extra canceled." The guy called after our first episode aired and he said, "Your ratings were so bad I would be fired if I even suggested you had a chance at renewal."
Sarah Larson: Yike.
Loren Bouchard: Yes, got extra canceled. We got canceled and then he just pushed the coffin lid closed as I was still trying to wedge my fingers out.
Sarah Larson: Could you just tell me a bit about creating Bob's, what that moment was like and what you were looking for?
Loren Bouchard: I had been thinking about a family that runs a restaurant. I'd been thinking about it for years in fact.
Sarah Larson: Why?
Loren Bouchard: I'd had a few iterations. I just was fascinated. I'd worked in restaurants and I had frequented restaurants where the kids were behind the counter. It's just evocative of a certain kind of childhood and I just was excited by that. In this first iteration, we made the family also cannibals. Family that runs a burger shop, finding victims, grinding them up, making burgers out of them Sweeney Todd style. We did not get very far.
Blessedly, the network simply said, "We love the idea of a family who runs the restaurant. You don't need the cannibalism. Why do you want the cannibals?" I basically just felt relief. I said, "I think you're right. I think you're right. I don't know. I put it in out of fear. If you don't need it, then I certainly don't need it." We were suddenly released from that feeling that we had to be that edgy and that high concept. We could simply be, I don't know what Bob's is, let's call it low concept. A family that runs a restaurant, that was it. That was the hook. They were happy with it and so was I.
Sarah Larson: There's something I love about the way that the movie opens as it begins. They're all worrying about money. They've got this loan that they have to pay back very fast.
Tina Belcher: We have a meeting this morning and we're going to ask for an extension on a loan payment.
Louise Belcher: Oh fun.
Bob Belcher: We really really need to get that extension.
Sarah Larson: They're also thinking about their summers and who they're going to be this summer and what's going to happen this summer.
Tina Belcher: Its only one more week of school. Then summer Tina and big things are coming for summer Tina.
Gene Belcher: Big things like that heat rash you get sometimes?
Tina Belcher: Bigger.
Sarah Larson: They all have these beautiful notions of what might happen. Here you are, you've got this movie that's opening as the summer begins. It's a real summer movie. What are your thoughts about this summer and you, and what will come of all this? What would you like for this summer?
Loren Bouchard: You can imagine what I'd like. It's not hard to picture but I go into this coming weekend with a lot of, well, fear, I guess frankly I'm being a bit Bobish here if I may use the characters to define my moment, but we are still a small movie. We aren't a big movie and it's a 2D animated movie. I guess what I want to say is it is a smaller movie. It's a big movie in terms of our ambition of the storytelling and the scope and the spectacle. I just don't think that I am going to be happy.
If I think this movie is going to be some mainstream success. Then I find out I'm brought to back to earth when the box office numbers come in and it doesn't compare to Sonic 2 or some Pixar movie. Some animated movies, they can be incredibly successful. I would love for that to be the case but I also am fine if our movie is just beloved by the people who find it and who want it be they fans or new fans. I want to stay in that zone. I'm trying really hard to stay there so that I'm not knocked around by lukewarm reviews or lukewarm box office because my little soul can't take it. If I let myself dream too big about the summer success of Bob's, the movie, I think I'll be disappointed.
Sarah Larson: I think the thing I love about the Belcher family and the show and the movie is that whatever combination of good and bad that's going on all around them, they will just make the best out of whatever happens to be going on. It makes you feel like, well, we can do that too.
Loren Bouchard: Optimism is a very powerful thing. We were making this movie during Trump, during COVID, and all the other things that feel really heavy at in this moment and we're raising families in this time, and optimism. It isn't cheesy and it isn't just wishful thinking. It isn't fact a stance. It's a choice, and it isn't because you expect a good outcome. It's because to face the future with a pessimistic attitude is worse for you no matter what comes.
I know that sounds funny given that I just predicted doom and gloom for the Bob's box office. In fact, that's I think still me exercising maybe a double Dutch backwards optimism but it still feels like I'm just trying to imagine the best path for the movie that doesn't have to be-- It doesn't have to be a box office smash in order to succeed.
Sarah Larson: Exactly.
Loren Bouchard: Well it sounds a little pretzeled.
Sarah Larson: That is beautiful.
Loren Bouchard: Oh thank you. I'm glad you think so.
David Remnick: Lauren Bouchard the creator of Bob Burgers talking with the New Yorkers Sarah Larson. The Bob Burger movie is out now