Why Is ‘Bob’s Burgers’ So Freakishly Lovable? This Guy.

Sometimes Loren Bouchard thinks about how close he came to having a totally different life from the one he has now — one that would not exist if he hadn’t bumped into his elementary-school science teacher in Harvard Square one day in 1993.

He was 23 at the time, a high school dropout who had spent the previous five years working odd jobs: museum guard, bouncer, bartender. At one point, he created a cartoon about a bartending dog and submitted it to a novelty book publisher, who rejected it. Then one day, as he was leaving an art supply store, he ran into Tom Snyder — his former teacher and an ex-colleague of his father’s. Snyder ran a company that made educational software for classrooms, and now it was expanding into animation. He asked Bouchard if he still liked to draw. Bouchard did. And so Snyder hired him to work on a project that would eventually become the animated cable-TV comedy “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.”

Bouchard told me this story on a sunny afternoon at the dining table of his beautiful house in the hills in Los Angeles. Without that chance encounter in Cambridge, he told me — as his wife, Holly, made us popcorn and one of his two sons did homework nearby — he might never have found his way here to any of this: never gotten into animation, met his collaborators, met his wife, won two Emmys, made a movie or taken up growing walnuts or fostering baby goats on his farm in Ojai, Calif. “I know it’s cliché,” he says of the transformative effect that one coincidence had on his life. “But it’s, like, stunning sometimes, the magnitude of the difference.”

Bouchard is now one of the most influential figures in adult animation, best known as the co-creator of the Fox hit “Bob’s Burgers.” The show is currently in its 12th season, putting it among the longest-running animated comedies, with a feature film, “The Bob’s Burgers Movie,” arriving in theaters now. (Bouchard also has a newer show, “Central Park,” an animated musical series he created with Josh Gad and Nora Smith for Apple TV+; he is also an executive producer on “The Great North,” created by two former “Bob’s” writers, Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin, along with Minty Lewis.)

“Bob’s” is about a lower-middle-class family and the restaurant they run together, making it at once a family comedy and a workplace comedy. It centers on Bob Belcher — the anxious and pessimistic owner of a struggling burger joint that, despite his talent, never seems to catch on — and his wildly optimistic wife, Linda, plus their three weird kids: Tina (boy-crazed, butt-fixated), Gene (flamboyant, obsessed with food, music and fart jokes) and Louise (adorable, scheming, borderline sociopathic). An atmospheric grossness clings to the Belchers like burger grease, and yet — despite Bob’s hairy arms, Tina’s excruciating adolescence and Gene’s booger play — the show never treats the Belchers as objects of contempt; in fact, it runs on the deep affection and respect it has for them and they have for one another. They seem, of all things, oddly dignified. When a mean girl steals Tina’s mortifying journal of “erotic friend fiction” and threatens to read it to everyone at school, the whole family rallies to recover it — but not before Tina, inspired by her mother’s pep talk encouraging her to be herself, pre-emptively reads one of her sagas to the student body as her siblings look on, cringing protectively.

From left: Bob, Linda, Louise, Gene and Tina Belcher in “The Bob’s Burgers Movie.” Credit…20th Century Studios

Adult animation has often been a space for cynicism and snark, but Bouchard has long gone against that grain. H. Jon Benjamin, who plays Bob, recalls a moment in the mid-1990s when he and Bouchard were taking “Dr. Katz” to Comedy Central. They were shown an early presentation for “South Park,” which was soon to begin its quarter-century run on the same channel, and saw doom. “It was the funniest thing I had ever seen animated,” Benjamin says, “and we were doing this very low, low-energy thing” — a show full of shambling, introspective conversations that Bouchard describes as “secretly a love story between a father and a son.”

With “Bob’s,” Bouchard wanted to create something equally rooted in kindness, rejecting the classic sitcom convention of the family as a conflict machine. (He recalls one executive saying the family members “love each other a little too much,” warning him that “even a family that loves each other fights.”) The show premiered in 2011 as a midseason replacement and began to gain momentum around its third or fourth season, but it really took off when it became available on streaming services, letting viewers spend longer, more intimate hours with the Belchers. Marci Proietto, the head of the Disney unit that produces the show, told me that people sometimes tell her, “We fall asleep to ‘Bob’s’” — “and I’m always like, ‘Oh, that’s a weird thing to say to me,’ but they mean it in a really loving way. They mean it like, ‘That’s my comfort food.’”

From the start, Bouchard and the writers knew they wanted the Belchers to live persistently on the edge of failure, always feeling “the pressure of when you love your kids but you know that every moment you’re not working could be the nail in your coffin.” The other thing they knew was that they were telling the story of an artist. Every day, Bob offers a fanciful but impractical new burger special — the Eggers Can’t Be Cheesers (with fried egg and cheese), the Cauliflower’s Cumin From Inside the House, the Let’s Give ’Em Something Shiitake ’Bout — to an indifferent world. Occasionally someone verges on recognizing Bob’s genius. The family’s landlord gives them a break after tasting one of Bob’s creations and declaring him a true beef artist, or “be-fartist.” A now-wealthy friend from college invests in the business, but his corny marketing ploys alienate Bob, who cannot compromise his vision. Driven by his creative urges, Bob communes with food; he actually talks to it, tenderly, and then does voices to pretend it can talk back to him. “We knew that he was going to be compelled to make these burgers that were not practical,” Bouchard says, “and that there was going to be a restaurant across the street that was ridiculously bad and yet successful because it was practical.”

The Loony, Sunny Humor of ‘Bob’s Burgers’

Now in its 12th season, Fox’s beloved animated sitcom is headed to the big screen.

Comedy Mogul: Thanks to a chance encounter, Loren Bouchard, the co-creator of “Bob’s Burgers,” is now one of the most influential figures in adult animation.Review: “The Bob’s Burgers Movie” is such a breezy, engaging film that it qualifies as a summer refreshment, our critic writes.Essential Viewing: Need a primer or refresher before seeing “The Bob’s Burgers Movie”? These are the 10 must-watch episodes.From the Archives: After watching the first episode, our critic wrote that the show had “a lackadaisical vibe,” its humor sliding by “in a deadpan monotone.”

What the writers didn’t know — because there was no way to tell what 12 seasons’ worth of stories would build — was that this premise would yield a remarkable study in optimism and grit: the constant question, as Bouchard puts it, of “what happens when you’re faced with your failure?” The new film stares even further into that abyss. It begins with a literal collapse: A water main breaks, causing a sinkhole to open in front of the restaurant just before one of the year’s busiest weekends. Naturally, the rent is due, as is a loan payment. Just as it seems things couldn’t get worse, a grisly discovery threatens to sink the restaurant for good. Bob despairs. “He sees the end,” Bouchard says; at one point things get so bleak for the Belchers that even Linda loses heart.

It’s impossible to watch “Bob’s” over a long period of time and not understand that the world is chaotic, cruel and profoundly unfair; that terrible things happen to good people, while bad people get away with murder. “Bob’s” seems to understand that we never really know what circumstance will yield. In one episode, Bob lucks into a profile in an influential magazine, an opportunity that could change everything — only to have his kids’ pranks accidentally leave him glued to a toilet seat on the day of the interview.

Yet beautiful things can be forged from tragedy, too, and that is consoling.

Loren BouchardCredit…Julia Johnson for The New York Times

When Bouchard was in ninth grade, his mother was diagnosed with cancer and died within a year. Until then, his childhood had felt charmed. He was born in New York City — where his father, a painter, worked as a building superintendent — but the family had soon moved away, first to a defunct dairy farm in Massachusetts, full of dogs and roosters and trees to climb. Bouchard remembers his parents having little money but not letting that interfere with their creative pursuits or their children’s good time. His mother, a writer with degrees from Brandeis and Harvard, struggled with the isolation; she got a doctorate, and eventually the family moved to Medford, where she taught English at Tufts. Bouchard’s father got a job teaching art at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge. Tom Snyder, who taught science there, recalls going to dinner at the Bouchard house, where the garage studio was filled with “acres of canvas.” Bouchard drew all the time, too; recently, while cleaning out their father’s house, his younger sister, Erica, found a business card Loren made in fifth grade, reading “Loren Bouchard, cartoonist.”

“Obviously I have to frame our whole childhood around our mother’s death,” Erica told me. “There was sort of the before and the after” — a house full of love and laughter and then a death that left the family “rudderless for a long time.” One thing they did, after, was talk about family businesses they could start. “People sometimes ask me, Do you see your family in Loren’s show or in the characters?” she said. “And the thing that resonates with me is that they genuinely like each other and they like spending time with each other. I mean, we pulled together after our mom died. It was like, ‘Well, who else would we want to work with if not each other?’”

Loren Bouchard’s parents, Lois and David, and his younger sister, Erica, in Massachusetts in the 1970s.Credit…Loren Bouchard

Bouchard got through 10th grade before, he says, “the wheels started to come off.” The following year, he found himself unable to do homework; by senior year he wasn’t going to any classes besides studio art. In April, the headmaster called him in and said: “I think you want me to kick you out, so I’m not going to. You have to make this decision.” Bouchard left that day. “He was right,” he says of the headmaster’s move. “I was like: ‘Yeah. Of course, that’s what I’m waiting for.’”

Five years later, on the day of that chance meeting in Cambridge, Snyder had just returned from a trip to Los Angeles, where he was asked to produce interstitial animations for HBO. His company was focused on educational software, but he was also a fan of improv comedy, and he realized that a cheap new form of animation he invented might pair well with digital audio, which made it easier to wrestle improvisational dialogue into a streamlined edit. A producer friend introduced him to the Boston comedian Jonathan Katz, and the idea for “Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist” started to take shape: Katz would play a psychologist, leading different stand-ups through their talk-therapy sessions. Bouchard had no particular background in comedy, and no formal training in animation, editing, audio engineering, writing for television or production of any kind — Snyder hired him as a jack-of-all-trades — but he would end up pitching in on almost every aspect of the show.

The comedians H. Jon Benjamin and Laura Silverman, who were dating at the time, went in to audition for parts. The setup surprised them. Bouchard, Benjamin says, “had converted Tom’s pantry into a recording booth. He hung a mic and secured it. He put a chair in and was sitting with a bunch of cans of vegetables. I sort of thought it might have been a prank show or something.” Benjamin was cast as Dr. Katz’s layabout son, and Silverman as his receptionist. “We would go in and record an hour of random conversation,” Benjamin says. “And Loren would take that and edit it down to a three-minute scene.”

Most prime-time animated shows start with scripts that are handed off to storyboard artists; the voices are then recorded one at a time, after which a rough animatic and later the finished animation are created. With “Dr. Katz,” however, Snyder’s interest in digital editing and improvisation converged. The cast recorded together, capturing their rapport and preserving their interaction. Dialogue was then edited down into a kind of radio play, which was sent to an illustrator to create images. (Snyder’s visual innovation, “Squigglevision,” used very little animated movement, just drawings whose wobbling lines gave them a sense of motion; “I boiled the lines,” he says now.) Snyder called his audio-first process “retro-scripting,” and it took weeks. Bouchard would put the audio on cassette tapes and listen in his car. He would play them for his father and sister. “The pleasure I took in it was so, so high,” he says. “I loved hearing their voices. I loved trying to find the right pieces to make it all work.” Snyder, Katz and the comedian Bill Braudis wrote outlines and then scripts, but the finished product was always built from both the script run-throughs and hours of improvisation, which Bouchard would painstakingly piece together into something magical.

Loren at home with his mother in Massachusetts in the 1970s.Credit…Loren Bouchard

“Dr. Katz” premiered in 1995 and ran for six seasons, prompting a creative chain reaction. Snyder was approached about doing new shows for Dreamworks, FX and UPN and created “Science Court,” on which Bouchard worked as a producer. A year later, he suggested that Bouchard create something of his own, centered on a local comedian he liked, just as they had done with Jonathan Katz. Bouchard frequented a comedy club on the third floor of a Chinese restaurant in Cambridge, where two roommates, Brendon Small and Eugene Mirman, used to perform. Bouchard and Small created “Home Movies,” about a weird, film-obsessed kid who worked through his problems by making movies on his camcorder, for UPN, where it lasted only five episodes — but one of the people who watched it was the TV executive Khaki Jones, who picked it up for a four-season run on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.

By this time, Bouchard had followed his girlfriend, Holly Kretschmar — whom he met while working on “Dr. Katz” — to a job in New York and then another in San Francisco. When “Home Movies” was canceled, he had an idea to do a version of “The Omen” with Damien as an angsty teenager, but he couldn’t get the rights. Instead he came up with “Lucy, the Daughter of the Devil,” which would run on Adult Swim. Once again, Bouchard built a little studio, this one in the Mission. He met Nora Smith, whose father worked for Adult Swim, and eventually hired her, impressed both by her skill with editing and her sense of humor. Since working with H. Jon Benjamin on “Dr. Katz” — his first voice-acting role — Bouchard has cast him in every show he has made; on this one he would play Lucy’s dad, Satan. Holly Schlesinger, whom Bouchard first hired as an intern on “Dr. Katz,” came on board; now she is a writer and executive producer on “Bob’s Burgers.” Many people have followed Bouchard from show to show, some bouncing between voices and production work: Eugene Mirman, Laura Silverman and her sister Sarah, Melissa Bardin Galsky, Ron Lynch, Damon Wong, Andy Kindler, Sam Seder, Jon Glaser.

“That garage-band quality — the homegrown quality did work for us,” Bouchard says of his early years in Boston, and the unique way he was able to develop his way toward the mainstream. “I think of ‘Bob’s’ as a cable show that snuck onto a broadcast. I totally get anybody who wants to move here” — to Los Angeles — “and work their way from the bottom up. But I also occasionally find myself wanting to say, like: ‘No, stay. Stay where you are and do it over there, and then you can really write your own ticket.’”

One day Suzanna Makkos, then the vice president for comedy development at Fox, saw an animation reel with 30 seconds of “Lucy” on it. “I’ll never forget the scene,” she told me. Lucy asks her father, the devil, to buy her a dress. “And he’s like: ‘Sure. What size are you?’ And she’s like, ‘I’m a 4.’ And he’s like: ‘Are you really a 4? I don’t want to have to return it.’ It was so pitch-perfect” — so like a terrible dad. Makkos called Bouchard and asked him to pitch something to Fox.

When he did, Makkos felt an immediate connection, one of just a handful of times in her career, she told me, when she has ’“sat with someone and known.” Bouchard told her he always loved the idea of a family that ran a restaurant. He was thinking of a couple of pizza places he knew, but figured burgers were more iconic. Then he got nervous that this wasn’t enough of a concept, so he pitched the Belchers as a family of cannibals. Makkos wasn’t sold on the idea of a hundred episodes of cannibal jokes, but she loved the rest. “I’ve never really talked about this,” she told me, “but my parents had a little diner that went bankrupt when I was a kid. It had red stools, the whole thing.” The Belchers, she said, feel real: “They can’t pay the rent, and they have a crazy landlord. Or they want to send Tina to horse camp but they can’t afford it. It’s just their reality. And it’s not depressing, but we’re not shying away from the truth of that.”

Before Bouchard developed the characters for the show, he already knew who would play them. H. Jon Benjamin would play Bob, of course. Linda would be played by John Roberts, whose YouTube videos of himself playing a character like his mother caught Bouchard’s attention. The comics Kristen Schaal and Eugene Mirman, he thought, were natural voices for kids: “They felt like siblings to me already.” Then, one day, Benjamin called him up and said, “You really have to hear this guy’s voice.” He was talking about a writer and stand-up he worked with on “Important Things With Demetri Martin,” Dan Mintz. People laughed at everything he said, and it was partly because of his voice — flat, dry and weirdly somnolent. Bouchard decided to cast Mintz as Daniel, the elder brother of the family.

Except Kevin Reilly, then head of Fox, didn’t like Daniel; he felt he’d seen that character a million times. Louise and Gene were fresh. Daniel was not. Bouchard took this note and came up with the idea of making Daniel a girl named Tina, frozen in puberty forever, obsessed with boys and horses. Makkos loved the idea. “He was never resistant, reluctant or mad,” she says. “He just did it. And then he said, ‘But we’re still going to have Dan voice her.”

Bouchard approaches casting as though he’s composing music. He told me he chooses actors largely for the quality of their voices, and for how those voices might sound together. “You start picturing this family, and it makes some kind of musical sense to you,” he said. “Just like bass and drums and piano and guitar.” It’s a sharp ear that can listen to the voices of Mintz and Benjamin and not only hear that it will work to have one play the other’s awkward teenage daughter but build a show in which that daughter actually becomes the breakout character. Mintz had been using his deadpan monotone to deliver surreal one-liners; Benjamin is known, in part, for playing cocky blowhards like the lead character on “Archer.” (A repeat note he has received from Bouchard, he says, is “Don’t be so mean.”) But on “Bob’s,” playing an anxious teenager and a dad patiently supporting her, they have a real and unexpected tenderness in their interactions.

Just as on “Dr. Katz,” everything is built on the unique interplay of these voices and sensibilities. Watching a Zoom meeting of “Bob’s” writers, I was struck not only by the ease and lack of hierarchy — like a family writing about a family — but by the way that, as adjustments were made to a script, the better joke didn’t always win; pacing, tone and trueness to character were more essential. The show’s humor, Bouchard would tell me later, is so character-driven as to be almost fragile. Each line needs to be delivered just so, or it risks throwing off the entire scene: “It’s not this bulletproof joke that can work with any delivery.”

At one point — in Bouchard’s small home studio, filled with books and instruments and recording equipment — I saw him attend to a last-minute query: Louise was delivering a rousing speech in her usual sarcastic way, and the words were underscored with some rousing music. But was it too rousing? It seemed funny to me, but Bouchard’s ear decided against it. If people took it seriously, it might come across as manipulative, insincere.

A couple of weeks after meeting at his house, I caught up with Bouchard again via Zoom. He’d been thinking about animation, and how it works. “I understand how it’s done,” he told me, “but I don’t understand how it works. You know what I mean?” It was mysterious to him that our minds could be tricked into accepting these drawings as real people; he wondered if something about the form entered the brain differently than live action. I wondered aloud if this might be related to the fact that, in animation, time doesn’t pass. Characters don’t grow or age or even change clothes. They remain stuck in an eternal present, expressing the same essential characteristics over and over until something clicks.

With Bob, there is a kind of ascetic renunciation in his suffering that borders on the spiritual. As Bouchard points out, he is “Job over and over again.” (Maybe it’s no coincidence that, insofar as he has a catchphrase, it is a plaintive, incredulous grumble of “Oh, my God.”) Beset by disasters, Bob never loses faith — or rather, he loses it all the time, but then Linda, or his children, or his friends, restore it to him. In the movie, this dynamic is threatened; the Belchers are faced with annihilation on every level, and it even affects the family system. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that, in the end, they all rescue one another.

Creative people, in movies or on TV, are often depicted as unlikable, unrelatable. There’s rarely much acknowledgment of the humbleness of their existence, or their struggle to get by. Even successful artists sometimes doubt the worthiness of what they do. “It’s easy to go: ‘This is silly,’” Bouchard says. “‘There are doctors who go into war zones and help babies. We’re in an edit suite moving a fart sound two frames to the left.’” The trick, he says, is that they can take this anxiety and project it onto Bob: “‘Is this dumb? Should we be doing this?’ He has no success to point to at all. He has no evidence that he’s doing the right thing. But he stays the course.”

Many of the show’s fans turn to it, in part, because it can be soothing. Lately I have found myself watching it for the same reason. Bad, unfair things happen all the time — a bad, unfair thing happened to me while writing this — and it can be consoling to see others struggle, together, without losing hope. The Belchers, decidedly nonaspirational, exist in an unjust, disappointing, fart-choked world. But they have built something comforting within it. They create meaning by focusing on the next burger; on the next musical showstopper; on the next “erotic friend fiction” story or power-hungry scheme; and of course, more than anything and always, on one another.

Carina Chocano is the author of the essay collection “You Play the Girl” and a contributing writer for the magazine. She frequently writes for the magazine’s Screenland column.