Best friends Tuca the toucan and Bertie the Song Thrush take on Bird Town and its sleazy men. Screenshot: Courtesy of Netflix

Culture

The Netflix Show ‘Tuca & Bertie’ Is a Major Hit, Thanks to Its Bird-Inspired Creator

Behind its trippy style and talking animals, there’s a surreal familiarity to Lisa Hanawalt’s universe. We asked the artist and writer about its origins.

While her UCLA classmates spent their free time in the sun, Lisa Hanawalt passed hers away in local pet shops, chatting up parrots and learning their personalities. Eventually, she got her own when a neighbor handed off his ex-wife’s lovebird. The relationship didn’t last long. “She was the most hateful creature,” Hanawalt says. “She would bite me like crazy.”

Happily, Hanawalt’s avian journey didn’t end there. After graduating with an art degree in 2006, she moved from Los Angeles to New York City, where she joined a collective of female cartoonists and began drawing walking, talking, feeling fauna for a friend’s animated show. Long story short, that show became BoJack Horseman, which wrapped up its fifth season last fall on Netflix. Hanawalt is credited as a producer and designer—a title that doesn’t describe her full role as the visionary behind BoJack’s compelling hybrid universe. But it did lead to a 10-episode contract for her own series, which premiered this May under the banner of Tuca & Bertie.

A native Californian, Hanawalt started sketching wildlife when she was six or seven. Her love of horses, along with her parents’ work in microbiology, drove her to explore boundaries between people and nature in creative ways. As she went pro, she developed a more singular style of illustration: animals with human bodies, including lizards with tattooed tights and runway-ready legs and felines with beatnik sweaters and angsty expressions. The colors she chose were otherworldly, too: eye-popping palettes of corals, blues, and golds.

Her appreciation for birds didn’t dawn until later in life—first with the parrots and then with toucans. “I was watching a documentary about how they eat eggs out of nests,” Hanawalt tells Audubon magazine. “It just seemed so peckish and selfish; it reminded me of my id.” That sparked the idea for a standalone comic starring Tuca, an audacious but self-conscious bird-woman, who could do all the things the artist herself couldn’t in today’s gendered society. 

Though Tuca was fully fledged from the outset, Bertie evolved through the years. “I wanted to make her a shy, sensitive character to match how I behaved on the outside,” Hanawalt explains. The chubby, nondescript bird debuted in 2015 in a print strip about a couple settling into their new home. As Bertie appeared in future stories, her identity also crystallized. “I decided, ‘Oh, she likes to sing in the shower,’ ” Hanawalt says. And so, Bertie became a Song Thrush

For years the toucan and thrush resurfaced in Hanawalt’s collections, but it wasn’t until her collaboration with Netflix that she finally turned them into an odd power couple. Their contrasting strengths provided the perfect backbone for her own show: two thirty-ish besties, trying to build themselves up in Bird Town (an amalgam of Los Angeles, Manhattan, and Mumbai). Hanawalt filled out the rest of her feathered cast by consulting the internet and the many nature books she had at home. “I found this hilarious-looking cock-of-the-rock. It’s basically a block of cheese,” she says with a laugh. It worked its way into the last episode of the series—as a priest, nonetheless.

Ultimately, the artist wanted to represent the visual breadth of Aves without getting technical about it. She chose species with bold shapes and colors and homed in on quirks that would adapt well on screen. Binocular vision is one such example. “The fact that birds’ eyes are on the sides of their heads gives them a flat appearance, similar to a hieroglyphic,” Hanawalt says. That, she notes, is great from a design and character perspective, especially when combined with more dynamic elements like looooong beaks.

But just as the show is defined by aesthetic, it’s the fictional personas that add to its genuineness. “I’ve always anthropomorphized animals; it makes it easier to tell stories that are allegorical and universal,” Hanawalt says. For Tuca & Bertie, she and her writers blended natural behaviors with their first-blush impressions of birds. The robin isn’t just a robin . . . he’s Bertie’s earnest, loyal, and often vexed boyfriend. The cassowary is temperamental, the penguin is vindictive, the teenage Blue Jay is a bully, and the Barn Owl and turaco are lesbians.

Screenshot: Courtesy of Netflix

Tuca and Bertie, meanwhile, are harder to pin down. Freed from their avian instincts, they propel each half-hour episode by growing as individuals, women, and finally, friends. Tuca, voiced by Tiffany Haddish, contends with a reproductive crisis at one point; Bertie, played by Ali Wong, battles sexual trauma throughout the season. For the bird-minded viewer, it might seem like Hanawalt is using wildlife as a proxy for gender issues. But she says that’s reading too far into it. “Can animals be feminists?” she asks. “They’re just birds.”

Which doesn’t mean that the show is devoid of political substance—it hits on misogyny and the movement against it in several subplots. Some parts are modeled after Hanawalt’s own working experiences: She’s one of the first female showrunners in animated TV. “It’s difficult when your industry is dominated by a kind of person who’s different from you,” she says when asked to weigh in on other pursuits, like birding, where ladies tend to be marginalized. “I’ve always tried to carve out my own space and stay true to things that I care about and want to do. I focus on the people who support me and make me feel human.”

Screenshot: Courtesy of Netflix

Indeed, though the show is lush with birds and ska-loving lice, it’s Tuca & Bertie’s human familiarity that sets it apart. These are characters we know from our own lives, making the same poor decisions, suffering the same problems. Diving into Hanawalt’s carefully construed sequences is an exercise in seeing beyond the surreal and singling out what makes us flawed, living creatures.

While the future of the series is still unclear—Netflix hasn’t announced a second season, despite the buzz and positive reviews—Hanawalt continues to draw up new Bird Town jokes in her head. “Geese are kind of stupid,” the artist says. “Bertie has always hated them, and it’s never really explained. I want to get into that.”

She’s also been meaning to get into birding, though she wants to wait until she has more time and patience. She’s already picturing the day: mid-60s temperatures with a Santa Ana wind blowing over Los Angeles. She’ll hike around Griffith Park and make a million stops to check every tiny plant and animal for star quality. She won’t be able to ID most of them, but they’ll probably make it into her next opus anyway. 

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