Points of Reference
The Secret Ingredients of 'Bob's Burgers'
The creator of the Fox animated series tells us how Disney, Monty Python, and Gordon Ramsay helped shape his hit show.
Ever since the "Grand Opening" of Bob's Burgers in 2011, we've been addicted to the Fox animated series, following the misadventures of Bob Belcher (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) and his family as they struggle to run a burger joint. Bob dreams of being a burger savant, but his three children—rambunctious Louise (Kristen Schaal), permanently awkward Tina (Dan Mintz), and chipper oddball Gene (Eugene Mirman)—continue to subvert his efforts (like the time they opened a casino in the restaurant's basement...). Bob’s Burgers series creator Loren Bouchard, who was also responsible for the underrated animated shows Home Movies and Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil, has created a program that's inherently sweet without sacrificing talking-toilet gags.
The Bob’s Burgers crew heads to Seattle next week (May 8 & 9 at the Neptune Theatre) for Bob’s Burgers Live, which combines the voice actors’ stand-up and a live reading of an episode. “The actors who are on Bob’s are such great performers," says Bouchard, "so it was purely a selfish desire to see them all in one place doing their thing, but kind of wrapping it with a Bob’s Burgers wrapper around it."
For our latest Points of Reference interview—where we ask artists about their pop culture influences—we caught up with Bouchard to find out what shows, movies, and records shaped Bob’s Burgers.
There was a very important piece of pop culture I was consuming right when we were developing Bob’s Burgers, which was Kitchen Nightmares. It’s kind of a fantastic show. I don’t watch it fanatically, but it was really important, because it boiled it down so well—the failing restaurant as kind of, like, the most dramatic human moment there can possibly be. [These restaurants] are on the edge of failure and Gordon Ramsay comes in and finds what’s good about them and helps them take that and polish it and save themselves. It’s kind of incredible television and human drama.
And the show brings up all the little details that can go wrong.
Yes. There are so many things that can go wrong. They had the dirty kitchen, and the dysfunctional family causing problems with communications, and, of course, lack of customers is the universal problem. And so often they’re family businesses. That’s somehow baked into running a restaurant—fighting with some member of your family.
A movie that also dealt with the failing restaurant ... Big Night is a great film on its own merits, but it was especially helpful because it crystalized this idea of the failed businessman who's an artist. Tony Shalhoub plays the brother who won’t give up his standards. They’re running this Italian restaurant, and he’s making Italian food the way he thinks it should be made. He’s a perfectionist, he’s a great chef, and they can’t get anyone in their restaurant. There’s this great scene in the beginning where the lady wants risotto and spaghetti, or something like that. And the other brother who’s running the front of the house has to explain that sometimes the spaghetti wants to be by itself.
We really wanted Bob to be a great burger chef. The idea that Bob is an artist is important. I don’t talk it up because it’s not the source of comedy necessarily, but it’s the source of conflict. He can’t give up his standards; he won’t give up his standards. He wants to make the burgers the way he makes it. He’s good at it but he just hasn’t found his audience.
I remember the episode ("Burger Wars," season 1, episode 10) where Bob has an elaborate formula to make the perfect burger.
Yes, the Meatsiah. That was the episode where the landlord who holds Bob’s fate in his hands basically says, you’re not a businessman, you’re an artist; you’re a beef artist. We’ve always said Bob’s is kind of like Big Night meets The Simpsons.
Obviously, animation looms large. ... But in a way, one of the things just on the other side of animation is the Muppets. I’m talking about Sesame Street, which is probably one of the first things I ever saw on television, to Yoda. That continuum of Muppets was really influential on me, and I don’t always know how to define it except just that they were sweet. For the most part it was about these characters—it was character driven in a lot of ways. When it was on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, they had musical numbers and they had these dopey jokes, but I feel like the depth of it was just these characters that you wanted to see more of. It was also so performance driven, especially with the Frank Oz and Jim Henson characters. Those guys were just gifted voiceover actors who were also gifted puppeteers. Grover just had these little sounds he would make that were funnier than any of the bits that they were doing.
When The Muppet Movie came out that was huge. I was just the right age to really appreciate that. The ones that came after, I think I was already a little too old, and I was too old for Fraggle Rock. But that golden-era Muppets is deep in my subconscious.
Monty Python and The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball
I was really focused on records when I was a kid. I liked watching TV and going to movies, but I think in some ways, records—in particular comedy records—burned their way into my head even deeper than all the visual stuff. I was listening to Steve Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy, and the one that came before that (Let’s Get Small), and Monty Python records. I loved Monty Python on TV, but in a way, I think I was more into going over to my friend’s house and listening to, I think, The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball [a benefit record featuring Monty Python castmembers]. I didn’t have that record, but just going to my friend’s house and listening to those bits, and then we would do them back to each other. We would do the dead parrot sketch. And somehow having it divorced from any visual information was powerful. It didn’t send me down into a career in radio, but it did influence how I approach animation, because I was raised on listening to comedy rather than watching it, or at least in addition to watching it.
Disney’s Robin Hood and The Jungle Book records
The last thing, which goes all the way back to the very beginning for me, is Disney Records. In particular the soundtrack—and when I say soundtrack I mean the story and the music—of Disney’s Robin Hood and The Jungle Book. Those two records were what my parents put on when my sister and I were going to sleep when we were little, little kids. I’m sure they read to us too, but some of my earliest memories were lying in bed listening to Robin Hood. And again, it was music, and voices, and sound effects to create this story that ultimately was, of course, from an animated movie. But I didn’t see the movie! They weren’t protecting me from seeing it, I just didn’t get around to it somehow. It was before everyone had VHS even. So I didn’t see Robin Hood, I only wore out the record. I knew every sound every character made without ever having seen it. And then Jungle Book, which has this fantastic music in it too, and these even better voices. I often think back on how funny it is now that I sweat and labor over the soundtrack to Bob’s probably because I spent so many hours at a formative age listening to the sounds of these old Disney movies.Bob's Burgers Live
May 8 & 9, Neptune Theatre, $25–$29