When Tuca & Bertie launched on Netflix in 2019, it seemed like a slam dunk, from the lush, extravagant animation that had become creator Lisa Hanawalt’s signature, to the show’s shared DNA with Bojack Horseman, the longer-running cult hit that Hanawalt designed in collaboration with Raphael Bob-Waksberg, who was also on board for Tuca. Hanawalt had twisted everything that people loved about Bojack into something a little less acerbic, a little more feminine, and a whole lot more earnest. Tuca & Bertie accumulated a passionate—and vocal—following that was outraged when Netflix suddenly passed on a second season three months later.
The show’s cancellation became a lightning rod for concerns about the streaming era at large, the feeling being that anything not algorithmically engineered to be a viral hit was getting cut down before it was given a chance to grow. Hopes turned to the idea of a new platform—something its creator was serious about pursuing—that would pick up Tuca & Bertie.
Enter Adult Swim, whom Hanawalt had once called out for airing a sketch comedy show run by an alt-right comedian, connecting it to Adult Swim’s egregious history with female animators. “As someone who wants to have a show someday I probably shouldn’t call them out,” she said then, “but the gate’s already closed to me.” Five years later, the gate has opened: Tuca & Bertie has returned from a long hiatus on none other than Adult Swim.
So what changed? Hanawalt feels the world of adult animation is gradually opening its doors to women like herself, and the fact that Adult Swim approached her within days of hearing of the show’s cancelation felt like proof that they were serious about pursuing new voices. Ahead of the second season, which follows Tuca and Bertie through new challenges as Tuca starts to date and Bertie starts therapy, Hanawalt spoke with GQ.
GQ: How far along were your plans for the show’s second season when you heard that Netflix wouldn’t be picking it up?
Lisa Hanawalt: When we left Netflix the second season was just a series of loose ideas that I had. I hadn’t started writing it, thank God. I wanted to go to Planteau and see the plant people in a new city. I wanted Tuca to start dating someone and I had a loose idea of who that person would be. I wanted Bertie to go to therapy, and I wanted her to be confronted by Pastry Pete continuing to succeed in his business while hers was struggling and wanted to get across that idea that the bad people don’t just disappear and go away. Their story doesn’t end so tidily. A lot of those ideas I’d already had, and then it was just a matter of gelling them all together and having this thing of Bertie not wanting to stand in the way of Tuca’s new relationship, but then also Tuca needing Bertie in that moment.
Were you waiting around for a new platform to pick it up?
I didn’t know what would happen when the news came out. I thought people would just shrug, but the fan reaction— people being, like, “NO! This show has to continue!” — felt really good.
Adult Swim expressed interest very quickly when the news came out, and we were, like, “Great. Sounds good.” They pounced. It seemed like a great fit. It’s nice that this network understands animation and they know what the show is. They were really persistent, which was great, and when we finally got the news that we could start writing I had all these ideas saved up. We really hit the ground running. And then it was just a matter of moving the show over.
Did being on Adult Swim change how you went about this season at all?
I had an awareness of the fact that it would be coming out weekly instead of being bingeable all at once. I wanted people to be able to drop into the show at any episode and enjoy it. I do a mix of serialized stories that arc over the entire season and episodic ones. Every episode feels unique, like you could describe it a certain way. Eventually the show will be bingeable, so I want it to be enjoyed on that level as well. I don’t think you should have to binge a show. I like that feeling of wanting to watch more and having to wait a little bit.
Did you also record during the pandemic?
Yeah, pretty much. A lot of the actors were recording from their closets and stairwells. We sent microphone kits to them. It was technically difficult. Our engineer had to become a tutor in how to record. We had a couple actors come into a recording studio and sterilized between people. It was challenging but it worked surprisingly well.
You’re very used to navigating boys’ clubs in animation. Was any of Adult Swim’s history in mind when they jumped on board?
I think a lot of that is shifting in the landscape of adult animation in particular. I was happy to benefit from that shift. I’m glad the timing worked out where they wanted this show really badly.. So I’m glad they’re opening the gates for me. The fact that the show is about women should be irrelevant. It’s an animated show about birds. But I know that it does stand out. There aren’t a lot of shows with strong female voices, but I hate when people describe the show as being for women. It’s for everybody. Everyone should see women being funny and being themselves. I want us to be fully realized and humanized. It was surprising to me that I hadn’t really seen those kinds of stories in adult animation. Sometimes when I’m writing the episodes I’m thinking, what haven’t I seen? What do I wish I could watch right now on TV? I’m gonna write that.
What are some of the plotlines that came from that?
Bertie being confronted with Pastry Pete still being around. His story could have wrapped up and he could have gone away, but that doesn’t happen in real life. When you have an abusive interaction with someone, they tend to stick around. And sometimes they have success in spite of their transgressions. For her to be confronted with that, I really wanted to see that play out. And see her dealing with her trauma sort of bubbling back up over and over again even though she feels like she’s dealt with it and should be put to bed, but it persists for her.
After the experience with Netflix, did you write this season with any kind of wariness about whether or not there will be a third?
I mean, I’m always, like, “Okay, the world may end.” This year was nuts. I hope this makes it to air. I don’t know, the apocalypse is happening, much less a possibility that a corporate merger results in my show getting dropped. We’re not in control of what happens. So all I’m doing is telling stories that hopefully people see themselves in, or they watch it and it makes them feel nice and good and entertained. That’s the best I can do. I like working and I wanna continue. And I love these characters, I like spending time with them. I feel like I could tell stories about them forever, so as long as I get the chance to, I’m happy. But, you know…I have other ideas.