Netflix’s Tuca & Bertie Is a Surreal Celebration of Friendship

Lisa Hanawalt, the cartoonist known for her work on BoJack Horseman, discusses making a new animated comedy about the bond between two young bird-women.


The easiest way to describe Netflix’s animated comedy Tuca & Bertie is to say that it’s like BoJack Horseman meets Broad City. The new show, out Friday, was created by Lisa Hanawalt, the cartoonist and BoJack production designer whose colorful and absurd visual style notably features hybrid animal-people. And much like the recently concluded Comedy Central series Broad City, Tuca & Bertie is about two 30-year-old, codependent best friends who get up to various misadventures in work, love, and life.

Because this show came from Hanawalt’s brain, the protagonists aren’t humans, but bird-women—a loud, lovable, messy toucan named Tuca (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) and a sweet, anxious, people-pleasing song thrush named Bertie (Ali Wong). The inseparable duo live in the city of Birdtown, where Bertie works at a magazine publisher called Condé Nest and Tuca does gigs for a freelance service called ChoreGoose. Each episode of the show has at least one brilliantly bizarre scene that has nothing to do with the main plot but that sticks in your brain: At the end of the pilot, for instance, Bertie’s boyfriend, Speckle (Steven Yeun), discovers that his dead grandmother’s ashes have accidentally been baked into a cake that has now come alive with her ghost.

Despite its delightfully random moments, Tuca & Bertie is, in some ways, such a classic coming-of-age sitcom that it can be easy to forget how rare it is in the world of TV: It’s one of very few adult animated shows made by and about women. In an interview, Hanawalt discussed the thrills of making a series about a nuanced female friendship but lamented how male-dominated the industry she works in is. “It does feel like the stars needed to align just perfectly for a woman to even get a chance to get in the door,” Hanawalt told me. “I know a lot of women who pitch; it’s not that women aren’t pitching, and it’s not because they don’t have great ideas.”

For Hanawalt, the stars aligning meant that her acclaimed work on BoJack made Netflix receptive to her pitching a TV project. Originally, she was in talks to make an anthology-style series in which each episode looked like it was drawn by a different artist. But Hanawalt kept coming back to a collection of comics she had drawn about a “single, female toucan” named Tuca; finally, she settled on the idea of adding in Bertie as a counterbalance and making an entire show about their special dynamic.

At the start of Tuca & Bertie, the friends are presented as opposing yet complementary archetypes: Tuca is the gregarious, confident, raunchy, and irresponsible one; Bertie is the introverted, slightly repressed, and accountable one. They’re like sisters who are a little helpless without each other. When Bertie struggles to ask for a promotion at work (“I’m a really important cog in the machine—but sometimes I wonder, What would it be like to be a bigger cog?,” she explains), Tuca teaches her how to advocate for herself. When Tuca gets an STD in the episode “The Sex Bugs,” Bertie helps manage the grotesque catastrophe that erupts from her friend’s careless application of medicated ointment.

As the 10-episode season unfolds, the hard line between the women’s personalities gets smudged and their respective backstories and past traumas get shaded in. With Tuca, Hanawalt told me, viewers might start to see her unflagging confidence as a defense mechanism—a cover for her fears that she’ll never amount to anything. Meanwhile, Hanawalt added, “Bertie on the surface seems to have everything together: She’s got a stable job, a stable relationship, but she’s kind of a mess inside. She doesn’t really know what she wants, and she’s constantly getting mixed signals from herself.” For all the duo’s differences, the season sees both Tuca and Bertie engaged in a never-ending project of self-improvement—a self-conscious, mundane, and often performative process of “adulting.” Many viewers will feel a twinge of recognition watching these characters hope their various forms of low-stakes aspirationalism—trying to keep a tidier home or to speak up in a work meeting—will amount to something life-changing.

Bertie considers attending a meeting of a group called “Women Taking Up Space” or WTUS (pronounced woot-us). (Netflix)

In making her first series, Hanawalt took seriously the opportunity to tell an animated story about the lives of adult women. Because of the dearth of comparable projects to look to as a model for Tuca & Bertie, she drew inspiration from children’s shows such as Steven Universe (whose creator, Rebecca Sugar, Hanawalt called a “genius”) and live-action series such as Broad City and Hulu’s Pen15. She also knew she didn’t want Tuca & Bertie to be yet another animated program with a mostly white, mostly male staff; Hanawalt estimated that roughly half of the writers on her show were women and that slightly more than half were people of color.

Though she’d learned a lot on BoJack, Hanawalt thought about ways she wanted to distinguish her series tonally and visually. So she reflected on the things that had sometimes frustrated her creatively about working on BoJack. “As an artist and as someone who has my own personal style, I was always like, ‘Why can’t we have plant people? Why can’t inanimate objects come to life?’” Hanawalt said. Finally, she decided on a sensibility for Tuca: “It’s going to be very cartoony and surreal and loose—and set in a little bit more of an optimistic world than BoJack.” Tuca certainly has its gut-punch moments, but it has a much frothier vibe than BoJack; the inventive use of stylized sequences involving claymation and puppets further sets the series apart. While Hanawalt praised the fascinating women characters on BoJack, she knew her show would go further by having a female friendship as its central focus.

Telling a smart and relatable story about grown-up women meant resisting the urge to make her characters models of good behavior. Hanawalt describes herself as a feminist, but she wanted to make fun of certain elements of mainstream feminism, such as the superficial empowerment rhetoric that Tuca and Bertie sometimes glibly embrace. “I don’t want my characters to do what’s correct morally, which is a weird expectation that viewers sometimes have of fictional characters,” Hanawalt told me. Tuca & Bertie indeed has a few story lines that comment on weightier issues such as sexual harassment without offering straightforward or satisfying resolutions; if this sometimes makes for uncomfortable viewing, it’s also realistic—a way of grounding a show in which the subway is a giant caterpillar and the hottest new pastry is a cruller–bundt cake combo known as a “crunt.”

What remains consistent throughout the season, as Tuca and Bertie each try to reach some next level of adulthood, is the bond between the two. The show makes clear that their relationship isn’t invulnerable, which makes it all the more meaningful when they stick by each other’s side. This weird, frustrating, and affectionate dynamic was apparent in Hanawalt’s original comics, and it is the one that ultimately drives the show.

The “Sex Bugs” episode does a particularly lovely job illustrating how well the two fit together. The day begins with Bertie feeling especially anxious, which Tuca recognizes immediately. “You’re having one of your ‘I can’t go outside because literally everything terrifies me and my body is holding my mind hostage’ days,” Tuca declares before dragging Bertie out of the house for a bit. What follows is an uncannily accurate depiction of extreme anxiety that draws on Hanawalt’s own experiences. Consumed with panic at the grocery store, Bertie starts to sing a musical number called “I’m Losing My Shit”—a song that Hanawalt herself performed for Netflix executives during the pitch meeting for the episode—before being rescued and distracted by Tuca.

The episode comes across as a kind of miniature tribute to the people who’ve helped Hanawalt through similar situations in real life. “I have friends who aren’t as anxious as I am, but something about them makes me want to be a braver, better person,” she told me. “In a way, it’s more relaxing to be around someone who’s bolder and less afraid.” What makes her show a joy to watch is that sometimes the “braver, better person” is Tuca and sometimes it’s Bertie. But sometimes it’s neither—and that’s okay, too.