The End of Hollywoo: Discussing ‘BoJack Horseman’ with Score Composer Jesse Novak

BoJack Horseman is one of the most influential shows to hit Netflix since the service began running original material in the early 2010s. The nuanced intersection of gut-busting comedy and soul-crushing drama is nearly unparalleled. Even as an animated series about Hollywood with some anthropomorphic characters, it’s still one of the most human shows we’ve had in years. Musically, score composer Jesse Novak rises to the massive expectations surrounding the show.

Novak has forged a close relationship over the years with BoJack creator/showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg, a friend from college with whom he’s also worked on Netflix show Tuca & Bertie. Their bond is palpable in the music of BoJack, a show starring Will Arnett (as BoJack himself), Amy Sedaris, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, and Aaron Paul. (A note: Novak composed all the music for the show but for the Ralph & Patrick Carney title theme and Grouplove’s end credits music.)

Novak, a veteran of studio time with acts like M.I.A. and Vampire Weekend, offers a multi-decade, multi-genre experience on Bojack. It serves as quite the showcase of Novak’s comfort level with everything from 1990s pop and rock to 2000s R&B and playfully emotive synth score cues. The latter is particularly of note for its role as the only thing you hear on the universally acclaimed “silent” episode entitled “Fish Out of Water.”

BoJack Horseman recently finished out its run, leaving Novak with 77 episodes of the masterpiece behind him.

“It was a really great time in my life working on the show,” Novak told Vehlinggo in a Skype interview recently. “It was a chance to create a great body of work.”

The BoJack score — out now via Lakeshore — is the latest item on Novak’s growing resume. He’s previously scored The Mindy Project, a show created by his brother B.J. Novak’s friend Mindy Kaling. (You know, those comedians from that one show that takes place in Scranton, Pennsylvania.) He also has contributed the main title themes for TruTV’s Adam Ruins Everything, starring Novak’s longtime pal Adam Conover. In addition, he’s contributed score cues to another Netflix show, Ezra Koenig’s anime Neo Yokio. That’s just the tip of the iceberg on the score front.

In this interview, Vehlinggo and Novak focus mostly on his work on BoJack Horseman — we discuss what it takes to score a show with this much emotional depth and variety; how he’s coping with the show’s end; his comedy roots, and what he’s learned from working with rock bands, among other things. It’s a good time.

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Vehlinggo: BoJack Horseman concluded its five-year, six-season run on Netflix in January. How do you feel about the show ending and that chapter of your life being over?

Jesse Novak: I think I’ve accepted it. When I first heard on the inside that the show was in its final season — or I started to hear the rumors — I thought, OK I guess it’s about time. I knew I would miss it, because it has been a great experience. But I am one of those people that likes to feel like… something I’m working on stays good the whole way. It never got long in the tooth. It never got to an awkward stage. Some people say the show began with an awkward stage in the first few episodes, but pretty much everybody seems to feel as though it blossomed very quickly.

[The show] helped me feel in my career that… I’ve accomplished things. I did this thing from start to finish. When a show ends and it feels really premature, that’s jarring. BoJack — it does feel like it ended at the right time, but because it was so much fun to work on, it does bring a bit of sadness to me personally just because it was a cool job.

Right. And it wouldn’t be BoJack if there wasn’t some level of sadness.

Yeah. But on the other hand, I won’t miss feeling upset for days because of some episode I was working on… [in which] I had to watch some disturbing scene over and over and just really put myself in it — and keep looping the most distressing, horrible parts over and over as I was scoring it. It was sometimes hard to be in a cheerful mood after that. There have been many times where I’ve felt melancholic in some way and it was directly related to what I was working on.

“There have been many times where I’ve felt melancholic in some way and it was directly related to what I was working on.”

But then at the same time, I know I’m doing it right if I’m feeling that way while I’m working on it, because that’s just my compass that I use when something hits me. Every time I write a cue, I need some kind of a compass to tell myself, “OK, this feels right.” Or,“This isn’t quite right yet; let me try again.” So getting to those moments with the gut-wrenching stuff, where it feels like it hits — it’s kind of a good pain, because it makes me feel like I’m doing my job correctly.

Jesse Novak composed the score for ‘BoJack Horseman.’ Photo provided by Rhapsody PR.

I’m curious how six seasons have had an impact on you — other than obviously watching the same show or the same scene over and over again and feeling down — because it’s not just a downer show. It has some hilarious sequences. Essentially, I’m interested in the trajectory of your craft as a composer over this period.

Broadly, I would say to some degree I was still finding my footing in the very beginning. By the end of season one, I felt like I found the sound. Now I know what to do in any type of scene. Maybe one day, when I’ve done dozens of shows, I’ll have some incredible super instinct for it and I’ll never take a misstep.

But let’s just say that in the beginning, everybody is still finding some things. [They’re] finding the tone: what’s serious, what’s comic, what’s dry, what’s scored, and how energetic is this thing or that thing going to be. And it is part of my job to keep track of everything that’s going on. It’s collaborative, but I need to make sure that I keep things consistent to some degree, so that the universe feels cohesive. Just like the art direction, there’s a million different characters and locations — they’re all different — but there is a consistency.

There are rules that are followed stylistically with the exception of drug sequences and stuff like that. So I’m teaching myself the rules, suggesting rules with some of the steps that I take to see if the other people on the show like what I’m doing. But then it is about following some rules to some extent for that consistency. It didn’t take me too long to feel like I was there. I think I felt as though I was given a little bit more license as the show went on to do gags on my own, which I love.

And I think it was season one that I threw in the Mr. Peanut Butter theme song that nobody asked for, because I thought it was funny. And a few seasons later, they wrote a scene and they wanted the full length. To me that was the ultimate validation. So the more stuff like that that happens, I feel like people are trusting me and that makes me feel good; and that makes me want to keep pushing more and more to see how far we can take this element of musical storytelling and musical gags and stuff like that.

You made the transition from being a comedian/comedy performer to working with acts like Vampire Weekend and M.I.A. And then from there you got into composing. Were there any composers or scores in particular that served as guideposts/inspirations for you? I do remember you mentioning the Rugrats theme by Mark Mothersbaugh et al in another interview.

Well, I always thought that was a great opening title, and it’s so unique and special and fits the show so well. It’s a good symbol of a modern opening title because, let’s say from the early TV days there was a formula— there would be a song with lyrics— and now it’s really who knows what. It could be five seconds. It could be instrumental; usually it is instrumental. I would say that when I started doing TV music, probably the composers I was looking to as really good at what they do would be people like Michael Giacchino [Alias, Lost, and many J.J. Abrams and Brad Bird films] and Jeff Richmond [30 Rock].

When I first started doing TV on The Mindy Project, I was thinking, wow, these are both masters. Totally different sounds. Michael Giacchino’s music on Lost really moved me and really colored things; and got me so involved [with the story]. Jeff Richmond’s music is so light and so playful and just sounds so classic — like you can’t even believe that it’s being written in a contemporary way, because it just makes everything feel like it’s just this comedy that’s always existed.

Those are two names that come to mind. But the stuff that influences me seeps into my brain, [and] I can’t always identify where it comes from. Usually, it comes from something that I was exposed to as a child and it stuck in my head a little bit. I always think of Looney Tunes. That’s probably why I’m stuck in the comedy world, just because I watched so many Looney Tunes growing up and those were the funniest things in the world to me. They still kind of are. They have a ton of music, as you know.

Oh yeah, it’s kind of wild the depth and breadth of music those cartoons had. So we’re close to sign-off time here. I guess the only other thing I would ask: When you look back on these past six years — seven years almost — what are some favorite memories from working on BoJack? I mean you worked on it with one of your friends from college — show creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg — so it seems like it was a pretty tight knit group.

Yeah, it was. It was a really cool group. I loved the way Raphael led the project. I liked going to the studio and seeing not just how my work was going, but getting a glimpse of what was going on with the animators and the writers and all the stuff that was going on. And I would be in and out for my meetings, but I would always be paying attention. So it’s always cool to be behind the scenes of a show, which you do get to do when you’re in post-production as a composer.

One thing we haven’t touched on yet is that you got your start as a comedian. You were just doing comedy. I can’t remember if it was standup or improv, but it wasn’t the musical side of things.

I do have a comedy background from when I was younger. It started in college. I was working with some fellows and ladies at my school that had a thing called “Old English.” Notable alumni include Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Adam Conover.

So I knew Raphael from those days. And yeah, I used to write and act and do the music, and it was an event. But at the same time, I was feeling a little bit less at home with the performative and the comedic aspects and as I was getting more and more interested in the music. And after school, when people were deciding what are they going to do, some of those folks were deciding to keep pushing the sketch comedy and try to make a real career out of it.

“So I said, ‘I still want to work with you guys, but I want to be doing your music.’ “

And I didn’t see myself wanting to do that. So I said, “I still want to work with you guys, but I want to be doing your music.” That was sort of how that went. And I continued to get gigs, scoring comedic things. I think from the first time I ever was recording music, even for fun, I wanted to do jokes and make people laugh — do funny edits of songs or use funny sound effects to create a scene. I always feel like listening to things can be really funny and that’s just something I’ve always been interested in.

Right. So you have this understanding and experience with comedy. You’re pretty well positioned to be able to translate that in the musical sense and complement what’s going on.

I think so. It’s totally subjective, of course. I can’t guarantee that I might score something that I think is hilarious and everybody would take it the same way, but I definitely have a lot of fun with comedy material. And in my mind, I get pretty detailed oriented about the “what”
and the “why” — and the subtleties of what I can do to emphasize this thing, de-emphasize this thing, and all the things that you can do with the timing and the tone of the music to kind of encourage that funniness to settle and land.

Right on. Full Disclosure: I think your scores are friggin’ great and I’m pretty excited for what you have in store post-Bojack. Along those lines, what’s next for you?

Well, The Baby-Sitters Club — if you’re nostalgic for that or you’ve got kids that might want to watch it — is coming in March to Netflix. I did the score for that. And it’s live action, it’s funny, it’s touching. It’s Alicia Silverstone.

Can’t go wrong with Alicia Silverstone heading a project.

Yeah. That’s kind of new for me to do more of a family type show, and that was fun, too.

(Editor’s Note: This interview as edited and condensed for length and clarity. I also removed all of the gear talk; I know how that appeals to only a narrow swath of music fans out there.)

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