Bojack Horseman has always been a show that pokes fun at Hollywood—or “Hollywoo” as it has been known since the title character stole the “D” from the iconic sign in Season 1. So it only makes sense that in this hyper-politicized time, the show’s fourth season takes on the hot new trend of celebrity politicians. And instead of Donald Trump, Bojack Horseman has Mr. Peanutbutter.
In the first episode of the new season, which starts streaming on Netflix this Friday, we are immediately thrust into the California gubernatorial campaign of Mr. Peanutbutter, the yellow lab and former sitcom star voiced by Comedy Bang! Bang! alum Paul F. Tompkins.
The long-shot candidate doesn’t actually stand anywhere on the issues, because first his campaign needs to get the sitting governor, Woodchuck Couldchuck Berkowitz (a delightfully exasperated Andre Braugher), recalled. “I’m mainly for people right now, and also for the future,” he says of his platform.
When the recount effort fails, Mr. Peanutbutter tells his wife Diane, played by Alison Brie, “Personally, I like Woodchuck and he’s a fine governor, but for some reason, even though I have zero qualifications, I honestly thought I would have made an even better governor.” So instead of simply conceding defeat, he decides to challenge the incumbent to a ski race for the governor’s seat.
But while Mr. Peanutbutter and America’s current president share both a hair color and a lack of interest in governing, Tompkins and the show’s creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg stress that they could not be more different.
“Mr. Peanutbutter is not Trump. He’s not that guy,” Bob-Waksberg says emphatically. “I think there are similarities, certainly in the way both are more interested in being liked by people and being popular than they are in any substantive policy conversations. They both ran somewhat empty campaigns, but I think one was based on hate and negativity and one was based on positivity and good feelings.”
Tompkins agrees, explaining that Mr. Peanutbutter is such a “positive” and “suggestive” character that “when somebody says something to him, he’s like, of course that sounds like a good idea. Of course I’m going to jump into it and it’s going to be the only thing I talk about until the next thing that somebody suggests.
“The idea that this fun, lovable dog would get any political traction makes a lot more sense to me than Donald Trump being successful in politics,” Tompkins adds. “And it speaks to a very depressing part of our politics right now. We have this president who got elected, for many people, because of spite, because he said things that bothered other people.
“And that was enough for these people to say,” he continues, “we want this guy who has zero experience, doesn’t know how politics works, doesn’t know how government works, doesn’t know the Constitution, doesn’t know really any of our laws, doesn’t know anything about foreign relations, I’m willing to put this guy in the chair because he makes people I don’t like angry.”
Aside from that last bit, all those things could also apply to Mr. Peanutbutter.
“That to me is the biggest difference between Donald Trump and Mr. Peanutbutter,” Tompkins adds. “He has just as much experience, but none of the sourness. Mr. Peanutbutter’s not mean, he’s not trying to hurt anyone, he genuinely thinks that people can get along and that life is good.”
One of the questions Bob-Waksberg had to ask himself was, “Is that any less dangerous, to run an empty campaign with good intentions than to run an empty campaign with bad intentions?”
The writers almost put the “PB 4 GOV” storyline into motion as early as Season 2, but they felt like they weren’t “quite there yet.” After Season 3, they decided it was finally time, “dumbly not anticipating that there was an actual election that would take the wind out of anyone’s sails who was trying to do any sort of political comedy,” Bob-Waksberg jokes.
The showrunner says he was “less interested in taking jabs at politicians and the political process” and more interested in looking at how the specific characters in his story would handle the world of politics. “We really tried not to mirror anything specific that was happening in the election, but I also think that the nature of writing it during the election is that things kind of crept in.”
That includes the way the media enabled Trump’s rise. We see Mr. Peanutbutter hype his ski race challenge on late-night television. The bet becomes a top story on MSNBSea, where anchor Tom Jumbo-Grumbo (a blue whale voiced by none other than Keith Olbermann) says, “Of course there are reasons why a gubernatorial election should not be decided by a ski race, but are there also reasons why it should? For the sake of fairness, we’ve brought in two experts with opposite opinions, who will now have equal time to just say those opinions, because that’s what news is.”
In the 2016 analogy, Mr. Peanutbutter’s opponent becomes a stand-in for Hillary Clinton. He’s a level-headed, competent, establishment politician who struggles to compete with Mr. Peanutbutter’s unique celebrity charm.
“That goes all the way back to Saturday Night Live, which had the Bush vs. Dukakis sketch,” Bob-Waksberg recalls. “Where Jon Lovitz as Dukakis says, ‘I can’t believe I’m losing to this guy,’ which feels evergreen.
“You see it over and over again, with Schwarzenegger, with Jesse Ventura, with George W. Bush,” he says. “You think think, oh, these guys are suckers, what idiots. And then it’s like, no, they have charisma, they’re connecting. Even though they know nothing about what they’re talking about, I think their charisma is very powerful.”
When I bring up Michael Moore’s theory that only a celebrity like Tom Hanks or Oprah Winfrey could beat Donald Trump in 2020, Bob-Waksberg lets out an, “Oy.”
“Oh good, I can’t wait to see who our Trump is, that’ll be fun,” he says. “Mr. Peanutbutter might be the Trump of the left, although his politics aren’t exactly left.” At one point in the season, Peanutbutter endorses fracking much to his progressive wife’s disappointment. Of course, Trump’s politics weren’t exactly conservative before or even during his campaign. Just this week, he realized the right’s worst fears about him by making a deal with Nanci Pelosi.
“I don’t like that trend at all,” Tompkins says of our political celebrity moment. “Whether it’s Trump or Kid Rock or Shailene Woodley or The Rock, I don’t think that the lesson here is more people who have no experience should be doing this.
“I’m not saying that someone from outside of the world of politics shouldn’t run for office,” he adds, “but I think if you do run for office, you should absolutely spend a ton of time learning how the government works, how laws work and America’s place in the world. Rather than just assume, oh, there are people who will tell me that. If you have a serious desire to run for office, the desire should be serious enough that you actually study what it is you’re going to do, and I can’t imagine any of these people are going to do that.”
Sen. Al Franken, who began his career as a comedy writer, stands out, Tompkins says, as someone who “took the time to learn about the government, about how our society works.” He adds, “I think that’s why he’s different from any of these people who are doing this now.”
Franken is also wary of the move to find a larger-than-life celebrity candidate to run in 2020. “I’m not sure that you have to be Trump to beat Trump,” Franken said recently on MSNBC, making the point that presidents have often been quite different from their predecessors.
“Are there any celebrities I’d like to see as president? No!” Bob-Waksberg says definitively. “I don’t think any celebrities should be president. I don’t think the president should be a celebrity. Maybe we just shouldn’t have a president. We’ve got some stuff to figure out as a country.”
Just as Trump’s unexpected victory caused showrunners to rethink the arcs of their latest seasons, from Broad City to The Good Fight, Bob-Waksberg says it made him see the trajectory of Bojack Horseman Season 4 differently. The election happened the night before the table read for Episode 9, which centers on Amy Sedaris’ Princess Carolyn character. Calling it “one of our saddest episodes of the season,” he says, “to wake up early and go to the table read was not the most pleasant thing.”
Trump’s win did not “specifically change anything” in the scripts for those three episodes. “But I do feel like the idea of Mr. Peanutbutter, who has no experience and no real values or any sense of what a good governor is, the idea of him winning this race, what that would mean for our characters and for the world, changed over the course of this last election,” Bob-Waksberg says. “It’s no longer fun or silly or exaggerated or satirical that Mr. Peanutbutter could win. It felt like, oh, he actually could win, not in this crazy, cartoon Bojack universe, but in the real world.”
He was forced to contemplate, “What does that mean and how does that change the story that we want to tell?
“I don’t imagine my show is necessarily going to change anyone’s mind in any direction,” Bob-Waksberg says, acknowledging the limited influence of a niche animated show about talking animals on Netflix. “But I would like to think maybe we’re starting some conversations with some people. I would hope that people watching this season would think, ‘When the real Mr. Peanutbutter runs in real life, maybe I won’t vote for him.’
“But again, he’s better than a lot of other alternatives we’re presented with,” he adds. “There are worse people who could hold public office than Mr. Peanutbutter.”