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Bugged By Insects? 'Buzz, Sting, Bite' Makes The Case For 6-Legged Friends

A look at the vast, bizarre world of insects, and why we can't live without them with Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson author of the new book 'Buzz, Sting, Bite.'


Other segments from the episode on July 29, 2019

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 29, 2019: Interview with Anne Sverdrup Thygeson; Interview with Lisa Hannawalt; Review of CD "An Obelisk.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Summer is insect season. And for many of us, it's a reminder of what pests they can be. But my guest is here to remind us of how essential insects are to our survival. "Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects" is the name of a new book by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, a professor of conservation biology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. She's also a scientific adviser at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.

She studies the role of insects in trees and forests. But in her book, she writes about all kinds of things pertaining to insects, from their varied shapes, sizes and sex lives to their unusual powers that designers are trying to mimic in various forms of architecture and technology. For example, dragonflies provided the inspiration for drones.

Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start by talking about one of the most detested of all insects, and that is the cockroach. I have never heard a defense of the cockroach that made me grateful for its existence. But you write about a potential life-saving way of harnessing one of the cockroach's greatest gifts, so I thought let's start there. What might cockroaches do to help us in the future?

ANNE SVERDRUP-THYGESON: The thing with cockroaches is that they are incredibly good at moving around. They can move at high speed, and they can get through different sort of hindrances - crawl over things, come through things. And researchers have been trying to make use of that so that cockroaches can actually come to your rescue if you're trapped inside a collapsed building or a building with a lot of pollution of some kind, like radioactive pollution.

And what they do then is to mod a little backpack on the cockroaches, and they attach it to the antennas and to the back of the cockroach. By using tiny electrical triggers, they can remotely control several cockroaches and send them into a building. And in that way, they can map the remains of the building. And they can also have a microphone there in this little backpack so that if people are trapped in there and they are, you know, crying for help, this can be recorded. And the people that are trying to rescue, they can come to the rescue, right to the spot where people are trapped. That's the idea.

GROSS: That's pretty remarkable. Has it been done?

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: No, it's on the research - it's being researched in the U.S., actually. And what might happen then is that, you know, the robotic technology might catch up with the true and real cockroaches before this is really put to use because they are also being used as models for small robots that can, you know, use the same technique of running quickly and coming through collapsed spaces. So maybe they will be, like, a big group of robotic cockroaches that you'll see instead.

GROSS: Great. So just as scientists have found a good use for cockroaches, they're going to be replaced by robots and just become pests again (laughter).

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: (Laughter) Well, they still have inspired the robots, though. So we can give them a bit of credit for that, can't we?

GROSS: All right, all right. You make a convincing argument that insects are a healthy and sustainable food that might make a good alternative to beef. In fact, you call insects mini livestock. What are their selling points...


GROSS: ...As a nutritious sustainable food?

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: They are really high in protein. Like, certain type of insects can contain almost 70% protein, which is extremely high. Your normal beef would be in the 20%-something. And this means that in a food security perspective, they can be really important. So the United Nations have spent quite a lot of time researching insects as food, especially for children and also for pregnant women that can't move that far from their home. They can be really important as a source of protein in certain communities and in countries of the world.

Even in the West, of course, we could eat insects if we wanted to as sort of an alternative to meat. And they also produce very little dung or methane or other sort of remains that we don't want to deal with.

GROSS: Unlike real livestock who produce a lot of dung.


GROSS: So when you talk about eating insects, you're not talking just about, like, you know, fried grasshopper or something. You see it more as insects being, for instance, ground into flour.

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: Yes, definitely. I mean, you wouldn't need a sheep with the wool on. So, of course, also with insects, they become much nicer to eat if you actually turn them into some foodstuff that doesn't look like a complete insect with legs and wings sticking out. And I think that's the way to go. You can make protein bars, for instance, or biscuits or something. And I think that is interesting, too, to farm insects as an alternative to meat, as a source of protein.

GROSS: I guess especially in the era of climate change, when we're really conscious about methane gasses being released into the atmosphere, since insects don't release that much methane.

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: No, exactly. And also the fact that the livestock that we eat, they take up a lot of the freshwater resources of the world. I mean, their grazing areas are enormous. They could partly be used for producing plant food for humans instead. Drawing down on our meat consumption is one thing that would help the climate issue. So - and maybe insects is one sort of step towards more vegetarian diet.

GROSS: When you talk about eating insects, there's also the yuck factor, that people think it's, you know, really disgusting to think about eating insects. Have you actually eaten food that has ingredients from insects?

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: Yeah, several times. But usually, you don't even taste it. If it's mixed into, you know, like, cookies or a cake or bread or whatever it is, you won't even notice it's there. But of course, if you taste them - I mean, some chefs would use ants, for instance, with this sort of, like, citric taste. That really adds a flavor to the food, and I've eaten that, too. And I think that's completely fine.

It's at least - it's a bit comparable to eating sushi in a way, I think, because when sushi came along, most of us thought it was a bit strange to eat raw fish. It's not something that we were that used to in the West. But then it just took a few years, and then it has switched completely. And, I mean, now everybody's eating sushi. No one thinks that's strange anymore. So maybe insects can be the new sushi in a few years.

GROSS: There is a vast number of insects on our planet. You write that there's quadrillions. So I had to look up what is a quadrillion. I thought a quadrillion was similar to a gajillion. There was basically, like, a made up word to mean, like, more than you can imagine.


GROSS: But it's actually - it's one with 15 zeros afterwards, which is a lot of zeros. There's more than one quadrillion insects on the planet, like, right now, maybe as much as 10 quadrillion.

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: Yeah, it's an enormous number. I think it makes more sense to count it per human. If we say that for you and for me and for everybody who's listening, there is 200 million individual insects for each of us. And that's the way it is for all people on this planet. Then at least you can sort of grasp the number.

And it is a lot. And they come in so many different shapes and, you know, ways of living. And that's what I think is so fascinating. And that's why I think people should know a bit more about them.

GROSS: Insects existed long before dinosaurs. Is that why they look like they're from another world?

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: (Laughter) Yeah, maybe that is true. They've been a - around for a very long time, more than 450 million years. And for 150 million years, they were the only type of organism that could fly because, I mean, this was of course before we had birds, before we had bats, before we had any sort of flying dinosaurs. So they were sort of ruling the air. They were the only flying organism for these 150 million years. And this is one of the reasons why we have so many varieties too. They have had a very long time to evolve into all these incredible, fascinating creatures that we see today.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne. She's the author of the new book "Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson. She's the author of the new book "Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects." She's a professor of conservation biology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.

In spite of the fact that there are quadrillions of insects on our planet right now, there are warnings of a coming insect apocalypse. Are we killing off insects in large numbers?

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: Most likely we are. The thing is that nobody has really cared that much about looking or counting or keeping track of the insects. What we do have today is a number of local studies from very different environments, from the agricultural landscape of Germany, from a tropical forest in Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, for instance, showing really dramatic decline in insect numbers, declines in 30, 40 years down to only 25% of the numbers that was 30 years ago in Germany, and even worse in Puerto Rico.

And these numbers are really, really scary. But we don't have enough data or enough information to know or to say what the global status is for insects. But it does make a lot of sense. I mean, we have changed the places where they used to live. We have removed a lot of flower meadows, dead trees in forests, which is actually - sounds strange maybe, but that is a very important place for insects to live.

Many insects are like janitors out there in nature. They clean up dead things, like the cockroaches do in nature, like a lot of beetles do and also other insects. And many of those will live inside dead trees that are downed and lying on the ground. They recirculate these nutrients and turn them into fertile soil again. So they're doing a really important job, although we don't think much about it.

GROSS: Is climate change affecting the insect populations?

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: One of the things that is really scary with climate change is this risk of ecological mismatch, which means for instance, if you think of insects pollinating flowers, you will need the flowers to be flowering at the same point of time as the insects are swarming, as the insects are out flying, right? And if one of these processes are governed by temperature - like, say the insects will swarm when there's a certain temperature, while maybe the flowering of the plants are more governed by daylight.

And then you can imagine, with our climate change now we are changing temperatures, but we are not changing daylight hours. And this means that these processes can move apart. And what happens then, if the flowers are flowering at a stage where the insects are not flying yet, or the birds have chicks needing insects for food at a point of time when the insects are not flying? And these things, I think, is really scary.

And this can be one of the reasons why, like in the study from Puerto Rico, they also found a quite substantial decline in the number of insect-eating birds in these 40 or 30, 40 years that they have been - in between these two studies, which makes a lot of sense because, I mean, insect-eating birds would depend on insects in order to survive.

And then you understand that if insects are declining, birds will decline. Freshwater fish will decline. Bats will decline. Some mammals will decline. And it's this ripple effect that is one of the things that we might see happening if this insect decline is continuing and if it's, like, a global trend.

GROSS: You know, I can easily see how insects are an essential part of the natural world and the natural environment, how they break down wastes in decaying things in forests and wooded areas, how they pollinate flowers and give us honey and all that great stuff. But what about the cities? In cities, it's hard to think of insects as anything but pests - you know, cockroaches, bedbugs, the moths that eat your clothing in your closet - what - oh, the ants that invade your kitchen. They're in our food in our kitchens. They're in our food in restaurants. So they're just seen as a source of, like, spreading filth into food.

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: Yes, of course. I mean, a fly can definitely bring germs from from other places if it lands on your food. I mean, it is a fact that there are a few insects that are bothersome to us. There are a few insects that can, you know, harm us, like a mosquito transmitting malaria. But I think, still, it is important to remember that these bothersome insects, they make up such a tiny, tiny, tiny proportion of all the insects that are out there. And all the others, they are doing good stuff for us. They are actually saving your life a little every single day doing all this pollination, cleaning up things, being food for others.

And they also in many ways can inspire us. Think about the fruit fly, which is sort of considered bothersome, I guess, in your kitchen. But they are actually one of the most important animals in medical research because it's easy to keep in a lab, they multiply very readily, and we've known its genome - all of the DNA. We have good knowledge of the DNA, and we've had that since 2000. And that means there is a lot of research that can be done on fruit flies that is highly relevant to humans and to human health.

We've learned a lot about the way that traits are inherited, for instance, about development, early development, about chromosomes. Also, completely different things like insomnia and alcoholism, is things that have been studied in fruit flies that is relevant for humans because, whether you like it or not, you actually do share quite a lot of your genes with fruit flies, and that's why it's relevant to use fruit flies to learn more about humans.

GROSS: So human DNA and fruit fly DNA have a lot of similarities?

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: Yes, it's - this one study on the - looking into disease-triggering genes, finding that about 70% of them we actually share. So there is definitely more common ground than we might think. And that's just one example of how insects can inspire us or, yeah, give us knowledge or products or ideas that we can use. In medicine or in architecture and lots of different parts of life, we are inspired by insects and the way they live.

GROSS: There is another insect I want you to tell us about, and I found this one kind of bizarre. It's a parasitic wasp that makes its home in the cockroach and then takes over control of the cockroach (laughter).


GROSS: So, like, what's the wasp and how does it manage this feat?

SVERDRUP-THYGESON: Yeah. Now, this is a very fascinating example. Let's call it a cockroach wasp. And when the female cockroach wasp finds a cockroach, she will actually sting it first, one time to just make it not run away, just for a short while, and then she will sting it again and this time in the brain. And she will use her ovipositor to sting the cockroach in this tiny brain, and she will inject a neurotoxin on exactly two very, very specific points in the brain of the cockroach. And that is not a very big thing, mind you.

And what she does, then, is to sort of take away the free will of the cockroach. And that is important because the cockroach is much bigger than the wasp, and the wasp needs the cockroach to walk on its own six legs to this grave that she has prepared underneath the ground - a little hollow, a little opening underneath the ground. She can grab the cockroach by the antenna, and then she can walk it, like you will walk a dog on the leash. She will just walk it along the ground into this grave chamber beneath the ground, and the cockroach will just have sort of no will of its own. So it will just follow.

It will walk straight into its own death because then the wasp will lay a little egg on its leg. The egg turns into a larva, chews its way into the cockroach and sort of eats it from the inside and out, saving the vital organs till the end so that it will have fresh meat as long as it needs. But then in the end, the wasp has eaten its fill, it will pupate, and the cockroach will die. And then from this dead cockroach is sort of a strange, you know, bird of Phoenix way, you will have a new cockroach wasp coming out instead, ready to start this all over again.

GROSS: Crazy.


SVERDRUP-THYGESON: Yes, it is quite crazy.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.


GROSS: Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson is the author of "Buzz, Sting, Bite: Why We Need Insects." She's a professor of conservation biology at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. She spoke to us from Oslo. After we take a short break, we'll hear from Lisa Hanawalt. She is the creative designer of the Netflix series "BoJack Horseman," which is nominated for an Emmy for outstanding animated program. She's also the creator of the Netflix animated series "Tuca & Bertie." This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Netflix animated series "Tuca & Bertie" has a look that's similar to another Netflix animated series, "BoJack Horseman." That's because Lisa Hanawalt, the creator of "Tuca & Bertie," is also the creative designer of "BoJack."

But "Tuca & Bertie" is very much its own show and reflects Hanawalt's more absurd style. There are strange plant-headed people. Subways are either snakes or caterpillars depending on whether they're express or local trains. Buildings have breasts. The main characters are two 30-year-old birds who are best friends living in Birdtown. The show follows them as they negotiate jobs and love interests, the onset of adulthood and some surprisingly serious issues like sexual harassment and abuse.

Comedian Ali Wang voices the character of Bertie, an anxious song thrush with an office job who's just moved in with her boyfriend Speckle, played by Stephen Yeun. Tiffany Haddish is the voice of Tuca, an irrepressible toucan who's not interested in holding down a job, settling down or really doing anything that even has a whiff of adulthood about it.

Lisa Hanawalt first started drawing Tuca and Bertie in her comics. She has two collections of her work called "My Dirty Dumb Eyes" and "Hot Dog Taste Test," as well as a standalone comic called "Coyote Doggirl."

Hanawalt spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with a clip from "Tuca & Bertie." Tuca has just gone on her first date since becoming sober, and it did not go well.


TIFFANY HADDISH: (As Tuca) I wasn't ready for tonight. I've never not been drunk on a date before.

ALI WONG: (As Bertie) Was this your first date since you've been sober?

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Yeah, and it was so much easier when I drank. Glug, glug, glug, smooch, smooch, smooch, blur, blur, blur, bang, bang, barf, barf, you know?

WONG: (As Bertie) Oh.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) But now, now I feel so exposed. I don't know how to be. I mean, I was cool with some, like, deli flirting. But then...

WONG: (As Bertie) But then I pressured you. Oh, I thought you were in love with him.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) In love with him? I don't even know his name. I've been calling him deli guy all night. I kept trying to text you how I felt.

WONG: (As Bertie) I completely misinterpreted all of your texts. I'm sorry I pushed you so hard. I've been so caught up in my own issues. Forgive me?

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Duh.

WONG: (As Bertie, laughing).

HADDISH: (As Tuca) So the sex book didn't help?

WONG: (As Bertie) Nope. But it's not just the sex or Speckle. It's just - I can't quite put my finger on it. I mean, I love Speckle. I have a good job. I don't know what I'm missing.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Hey, at least this is nice, though.

WONG: (As Bertie) Yeah, it is.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Woo, hey.

WONG: (As Bertie, laughing).

SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: And that's a scene from the Netflix animated show "Tuca & Bertie" starring Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong. And my guest is Lisa Hanawalt, who's the creator and showrunner for the show. Lisa Hanawalt, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LISA HANAWALT: Thank you for having me.

BRIGER: So there's a little visual gag at the end of that, where Tuca flashes the street and Bertie looks like she's about to flash the street, but because of her personality, she keeps her shirt...

HANAWALT: Yeah, she's like, nah (laughter).

BRIGER: ...Down and doesn't. Yeah, she decides not to do it. So I'd like you to describe the world that Tuca and Bertie live in. Before the show, you were the production designer for the Netflix show "BoJack Horseman." And so, like, there are some similarities in how the shows look. But the worlds are completely different. You're - the world of Birdtown, which is the world of "Tuca & Bertie," is more absurd and surreal.

HANAWALT: Yeah, Birdtown is like a cross between New York, LA, Mumbai and my own dreams and nightmares (laughter). So it's a lot more surreal than "BoJack." Like, there's buildings with boobs on them. There's trains that look like snakes and slugs depending on how fast they are, which makes sense to me.

BRIGER: Right.

HANAWALT: Objects can come to life and talk if it makes sense for them to do so. There's a lot more surrealism in this world.

BRIGER: Yeah, and people's words can become concrete. You know, it's interesting because a lot of animated shows, like, they seem to have a logic to them about, like, how they're willing to bend the rules of the physical world, you know? Like, there'll be shows that, like, only animals can talk, but plants can't talk. But your world seems much looser than that.

HANAWALT: Yeah, there's walking, talking plant people in my world because why not - that's just, like, fun to me - whereas "BoJack" has much stricter rules about how the universe works. So you won't see, like, a dog man walking a pet dog. But in my world, you will.

BRIGER: That's right. And so you - are you just willing to - well, I guess there's no rules to break. But you're just willing to do whatever it takes to tell the story. Is that how it works?

HANAWALT: Kind of. It really comes down to a gut feel about whether in that moment it makes sense for the story. Also sometimes, it's just whether it made me laugh really hard. So, like, there is a character called Ultra Sam, the ultrasound machine. And that character, it really is an ultrasound machine, but it comes to life in a way that just made me laugh so hard that I had to keep it in there.

BRIGER: Well, actually, I have that clip ready to go. This is a scene where Tuca has this cramp in her side, and she's afraid of going to the doctors for various reasons. But she's finally in so much pain, and she has this sort of thing hanging out of her side that she goes to the doctor. And she's there in the emergency room, and a doctor comes in. So let's hear that clip.


TIG NOTARO: (As Dr. Sherman) Hello, I'm Dr. Sherman. I'm here to exam...

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Are you going to cut me up and sew my booty hole to someone else's booty hole? Tell me. Tell me, woman. Caw, caw.

NOTARO: (As Dr. Sherman) Oh, you're nervous.

SUNGWON CHO: (As Ultra-Sam S380) Hi, I'm Ultra Sam, the ultrasound machine. I've been programmed to comfort you. We tried to teach doctors empathy, but it didn't take. Don't worry. Everything's going to be OK.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) That's what Bertie would've said. She's programmed to comfort me, or at least she was. Now all she talks about is Irish butter. The cultured cream enhances the flavor notes, Tuca.

CHO: (As Ultra-Sam S380) Good news, the doctor is almost done looking inside you. Nothing to worry about. She's just going to confer with some colleagues and check - OK, let's cut the (expletive). I need you to plug in my wife. She's right over there.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) She's a lamp?

CHO: (As Ultra-Sam S380) She's so much more. You're not seeing her in the best light. Oh, she would have laughed at that.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Aww.

CHO: (As Ultra-Sam S380) Cherish those you love, Tuca. You never know when they may become disconnected from your life. So please plug her in - they're back. Be cool. Be cool. So if that weird bulge turns out to be cancer - hey, sometimes life gives you cancer, and you make can-sirloin steak.

NOTARO: (As Dr. Sherman) OK, we need to get some X-rays. Are you going to be a big girl, or do you need the robot?

BRIGER: (Laughter) So talk about writing that scene. Where'd that come from?

HANAWALT: Originally it came from a photo I took at a hospital when I went for a doctor's exam. And it was a two X-ray machines side-by-side, and they just looked like brothers to me. And one of the exec producers, Steven Cohen, kept bringing it up to me, like, it's so weird that you took this photo. Like, it almost seems like that should be a part of the show.

So I brought it up in the room, and we just started joking about what, you know, a talking machine would sound like. And I also really like joking about doctors who lack empathy because I think that's a real problem. And it kind of explains partly why Tuca's character is so afraid of doctors and didn't want to go to the hospital in the first place. Like, a lot of women have trouble being taken seriously by doctors when they have pain.

So it kind of - it's a joke that ties back to a serious issue I care about.

BRIGER: Do you see faces in inanimate objects a lot? Like, do you go around and personify the objects in your life?

HANAWALT: Only when I'm really bored or anxious (laughter). It's like - maybe it's a defense mechanism. Like, especially when I'm at the dentist, I see faces everywhere.

BRIGER: Yeah, maybe sadistic ones.

HANAWALT: (Laughter).

BRIGER: So you say that oftentimes women feel like they're not taken seriously by their doctors. Do you have that experience?

HANAWALT: Yeah, I have. Like, I went to a doctor for, like, stomach pain, and he just wanted to put me on antidepressants. I'm like, I'm sure that would help in some ways, but that isn't actually, like, tackling the source of the problem (laughter).

BRIGER: Right.

HANAWALT: So yeah, then I just...

BRIGER: That's just the manifestation of the pain in some ways. It doesn't help.

HANAWALT: Yeah, and I'm like, I'm sure that that's connected, like, the gut and mind are very intricately connected. But I'm like, I don't want to just take a pill. Like, I want to, like, actually figure out what I should be eating and stuff. And he just kind of, like, dismissed it. Like, oh, you know, you have IBS or whatever. Like, just kind of one of those, like, diagnosis that just kind of covers, like, well, we don't really quite know what's going on with you, but here.

BRIGER: Well, let's talk about a scene that actually you're in. This is Episode 2, I believe. And Bertie's felt that a male coworker, who's - was actually a rooster coworker named Dirk, has said some inappropriate things to her, and Bertie hasn't been able to get any help from the human resources goose who you play, who seems to equate sexual harassment with flirtation. She and Tuca take it on themselves to organize a sexual harassment seminar at the office.

So I just wanted to play this scene, and you're the first voice we hear. And your character doesn't seem to have much of a grasp on sexual harassment.


HANAWALT: (As character) Wow. I wasn't super prepared for this, but I'll start with the basics. OK, who here can tell me which parts of this doll it's OK to whistle at?


HADDISH: (As Tuca) What's the plan now?

WONG: (As Bertie) I don't know. I thought Dirk would feel so guilty during this meeting he'd confess to sexually harassing me.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Oh, you pure-hearted dummy.

HANAWALT: (As character) Now, if we get kissed without consent, maybe with a little bit of tongue, do we really need to use the word assault? Seems harsh.


WONG: (As Bertie) That's it. OK. Hi. I feel like we have a problem with sexual harassment in this office, and I want to talk about it.

HADDISH: (As Tuca) Yeah, yeah.

HANAWALT: (As character) Bertie, the storytelling part comes after I do my condom demo.

WONG: (As Bertie) Hey, Dirk. What you said to me yesterday made me uncomfortable.

JOHN EARLY: (As Dirk) Whoa. Hey, I was just kidding around.

WONG: (As Bertie) It was inappropriate. My boob ran away.

EARLY: (As Dirk) I'm sorry if my joke hurt your feelings.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) He's been weird to me, too.

NICOLE BYER: (As character) He goosed my butt.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) He honked my goose. I mean, I am a goose

HANAWALT: (As character, laughter) what a playful guy.

WONG: (As Bertie) You made me think about my own body at work. That's disgusting.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Yeah.

BYER: (As character) That's right.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Bodies are terrible.

EARLY: (As Dirk) Whoa, let's not get into a mob mentality here.

RICHARD E GRANT: (As Holland) Dirk, I think you should pack your things and leave the office for the day.




BRIGER: ...Can you talk about creating that scene? I mean, one of the things I really love about the show is that you get to some serious issues. You're dealing with it on multiple levels. This one in particular is mostly comedic. But you can hear - you're using, like, old-school animated sound effects. So just talk about how you decided to write that scene that way, please.

HANAWALT: You know, this was an issue that I wanted to explore, but I didn't want to do it in, like, a preachy, like men are bad, sexual harassment is bad way. Like, I think it's funny to have the character of the HR lady, who's just a bad feminist. I think it's fun to make fun of women who get it wrong or even good feminists who have, like - you know, like, I make fun of them in that kind of WTUS (ph) meeting, women taking up space meetings. Like, it's sort of a form of feminism that seems good on the surface but maybe isn't actually helping in the real world.

I just think it's fun to take these really serious topics and kind of poke fun at them a little bit.

BRIGER: Yeah. And I think the show acknowledges the messiness of life. Like, there's not a lot of body positivity in that group of women. You know, they're saying, like, bodies are disgusting or...

HANAWALT: (Laughter) There's even the character who at one point says, some women are body positive, but not me.


HANAWALT: It's, like, really funny because a lot of us promote body positivity, but then we hate ourselves. So that's - just seems realistic to me.

BRIGER: Right.

HANAWALT: And, you know, Bertie, you know, she conquers Dirk in the scene, like, she brings attention to his behavior. But then he just gets sent home for one day, so he doesn't really get punished that much.

BRIGER: Right, there's not a lot of consequence for his action.

HANAWALT: No. And then, you know, not to spoil it, but she gets this promotion. And then she kind of sits down at her desk and has to stay late at work, and she's unhappy still. She didn't quite - it isn't really what she wanted actually in the end. She thought it would make her happier, and it doesn't.

BRIGER: That scene references an earlier scene where Bertie's left breast is so upset by Dirk's comments that it just gets up and walks out (laughter).


BRIGER: It, like, decides it needs a drink, and it just, like, leaves her body, and Bertie's left with, like, a big hole on the side of her chest. And you have Awkwafina that's voicing the boob. It's - I mean, (laughter) where did you come up with that idea?

HANAWALT: I really like the idea of boobs that can pop off and leave your body. Yeah, I thought it would just be such a funny response to sexual harassment, where, you know, sometimes people say something to you about your body that makes you wish you could just kind of take your body apart and hide it away. So it really kind of came out of that feeling of shame and embarrassment.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Lisa Hanawalt, creator of the Netflix animated series "Tuca & Bertie." She's also the creative designer of the animated Netflix series "BoJack Horseman." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Lisa Hanawalt, creator of the Netflix animated series "Tuca & Bertie" and creative designer of the Netflix animated series "BoJack Horseman."

BRIGER: You've talked about how you have anxiety that you've dealt with since you were a kid, and it sounds like drawing was a coping mechanism for dealing with that, and some of it was social anxiety. Did that crop up during meetings for "BoJack Horseman?"

HANAWALT: (Laughter).

HANAWALT: Yeah. I mean, in meetings, I tend to sit in the back of the room and stay quiet and just draw the whole time. You know, I mean, especially working on "Tuca And Bertie," I had to learn to, like, sit at the front of the room and actually speak up because everyone's looking to me for my opinion (laughter).

BRIGER: Right. You probably can't just have your head down drawing in those meetings.

HANAWALT: I do sometimes, but I can't get away with it all the time. It's hard. It's definitely not natural for me. It's very uncomfortable for me to speak up. The more people, the more difficult it is. I've learned to cope (laughter).

BRIGER: How did you channel your anxiety into your art?

HANAWALT: I think it just helped me to busy my hands with something. It sort of calms my mind down. I'm now thinking, like, maybe I had a touch of ADD or something, and that was just my way of expressing it. You know, I had trouble in school paying attention to anything anyone was saying unless I was drawing or doing something with my hands at the same time, and I've always been that way. Like, I just need to fidget.

BRIGER: Were you, like, drawing pictures of your teachers while they were trying to keep your attention and things like that?

HANAWALT: Not until high school, when I had a bit of a naughtier streak. In elementary school, I was just drawing animals.

BRIGER: Was there a time when, like, a teacher, like, caught you drawing and then they looked at what you were doing and there was, like, a picture of them like a pig or an elephant or something?

HANAWALT: (Laughter) Not that I can remember.

BRIGER: That's good.

HANAWALT: There was definitely a college teacher I had a crush on, and I would draw him all the time. And he was like, I can see you drawing me. I'm like, I'm just going to continue.

BRIGER: (Laughter) Yeah.

HANAWALT: In hindsight, I was...

BRIGER: Just keep on going.

HANAWALT: ...Harassing him a little bit.


HANAWALT: But I think he probably enjoyed the attention.

BRIGER: You know, in your book "Hot Dog Taste Test," you have this story where you enumerate your anxieties. And they include agoraphobia, claustrophobia and emetophobia, which I didn't know. I had to look up, and it's...

HANAWALT: That's one of my worst ones.

BRIGER: ...The anxiety around vomiting.


BRIGER: And you know, when I read that, it was really interesting to me because it explains - I don't know if it's a theme - but imagery that I've seen in your art a lot, where there's, like, a lot of things either flying out of someone's mouth or their eyes or, like, flying in. Like, the cover of one of your books, there's all these aircraft flying out of a dog's eyes. And then even in "Tuca And Bertie," there's a scene where Dirk the rooster - like, all these baby snakes come out of his mouth. So I guess...


BRIGER: ...I was wondering about the relationship between having these thoughts and then drawing them out. Does drawing these things help you address the anxiety about those thoughts? Or do you just draw these images because you're thinking about them all the time?

HANAWALT: It's both. I think drawing can be a way of exorcising those fears. And for me, it's a way of controlling them. And you know, if I make a joke about someone barfing snakes, then that idea is less scary to me. Maybe it propagates the fear even more. I don't know. I'm not sure. That's a good question.


HANAWALT: I mean, sometimes when I'm drawing, like, kind of creepy things - like, I draw a lot of snakes. And I am afraid of snakes, but I think something about drawing them and, like, kind of humanizing them kind of helps me, you know, sit with them a little longer.

BRIGER: You clearly love horses a lot. You actually have your own horse. You've drawn horses for a long time. You said at one point that when you grew up, you were going to be famous for drawing horses. And you actually even pretended to be a horse when you were in school. What years was that?

HANAWALT: I stopped when I got into middle school because my brother sat - my older brother sat me down and said, listen. You're going into middle school now. Other kids are going to make fun of you if you pretend to be a horse, so you're going to have to stop. So I kind of - I stopped doing it at school during recess, but I kind of kept doing it at home on the sly for a little bit. But I basically stopped around age 12, I think.

BRIGER: And would you just sort of prance around the school grounds or...

HANAWALT: Yeah, I would gallop around on the grass. Like, I crawled around on all fours so much that I actually had calluses, like, on my knees and on the tops of my feet.

BRIGER: Yeah. I had a cousin who loved horses when she was young. And in her backyard, her parents set up, like, this miniature horse jumping set. And then she would just, all day long, just jump through, like, pretending to be a horse. So...

HANAWALT: I love her parents for doing that.

BRIGER: Yeah. But it sounds like a kind of common thing that people like to do. So...

HANAWALT: Yeah. So a strange thing about horse girls is that you love horses so much that you kind of feel the need to be one. Yeah. I can't really explain it. It's, like, something about our DNA.

BRIGER: And you still enjoy riding.

HANAWALT: Yeah, I do. Yeah, I got my own horse, like, six months ago. And I was worried that I would get sick of it. I'm like, well, now that I'm going to the barn, like, five times a week, like, am I going to ruin my favorite thing by doing it too much? And no, that hasn't been the case at all.


HANAWALT: I'm still obsessed.

BRIGER: Well, Lisa Hanawalt, thanks so much for coming on FRESH AIR today.

HANAWALT: Thank you so much. It's so great to be here.

GROSS: Lisa Hanawalt is the creator of the animated series "Tuca And Bertie." All 10 episodes are streaming on Netflix. She's also the creative designer of the Netflix animated series "BoJack Horseman," which is nominated for an Emmy for outstanding animated program.

Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews the new album by Titus Andronicus. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of a new album by Titus Andronicus, a band that formed in New Jersey more than a decade ago. The album is called "An Obelisk." One of their previous albums was a collection based on the history of the Civil War. Last year's album, "A Productive Cough," was built around a series of ballads. Ken says the new album has a louder, more aggressive style.


TITUS ANDRONICUS: (Singing) They're taking an old religion, fitting it with a different name. Now we're cutting our own incisions and inserting their hurting pain. There's another innocent victim shivering in the frigid cold. They're making a dirty fortune selling something that's barely working, an inferior version of rock and roll.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Patrick Stickles, lead singer and songwriter of Titus Andronicus, presents a narrator who is an angry, frustrated man throughout the band's new album "An Obelisk." Stickles sings and writes in the voice of an impatient, impetuous man who blames his own unhappiness on outward targets - government, religion and a pop culture devoted to satisfying immediate gratification. Here's our hero - or antihero - blaming a vaguely defined society.


TITUS ANDRONICUS: I blame society. Society's to blame. I claim society is playing a hostile game. Inside my diary, I hide my private shame, and I blame society, society. Society's to blame. I'm not sick. It's the world that is. They're hiding their disease behind a giant sign. It's twice the size of life as we perceive it to be. This sign I describe, it reads, in silence you are free. That's how they try to tie and tightly bind us, reclined in our seats. Oh, my, they think that we are spineless. I think they are all cheats. It seems the Earth is speeding swiftly towards a grave catastrophe. That's my anxiety. It's the opposing team to my sobriety.

TUCKER: As you can hear, Titus Andronicus is exploring its punk-rock side these days. "An Obelisk" clocks in at a very tidy 38 minutes and has been produced by Bob Mould of Husker Du fame. Mould knows how to frame Stickles' voice within a dense thicket of guitar and drum noise on a song such as "My Body And Me."


TITUS ANDRONICUS: (Singing) My body and me, we don't always get along. He tells me it's all right. I tell him he's all wrong. My body and me - it's only my body and me. But who is going to be the team leader between us, my body or me? We're gonna see. My body and me...

TUCKER: Patrick Stickles is coming up with novel ways to promote this new album. Most impressively, he's put together the pilot for a make-believe sitcom called "Stacks." You can watch it on YouTube and other places. In "Stacks," he plays a caricature of himself as a rock musician who is pained by the failure of his band to break into the big time. There are some very funny moments, including a super-awkward interview with a music website that only leaves Patrick more convinced that he may already be a has-been. The music, however, tells a different tale. The fake sitcom includes this fine song, also on the new album, called "Troubleman Unlimited."


TITUS ANDRONICUS: (Singing) You're trying to rob me, but I ain't got nothing, man. How are you going to rob me? There's nothing to take. You better back up off me, or I'll give you something, man. I'll give you a piece of the thing that I make, and that's trouble, man. Summertime judge came to bust my bubble. Now I got trouble. If the summer should fall, I would fall right along with it into the puddle with nothing for company but leaves as I bawl out for someone to function as some kind of buffer between me and my ugly side. It's too close to call out for anyone but the one love out the hundred who will love me for what I am under it all. You see, I used to be my father's son...

TUCKER: If the music on this album sounds simple and raw, well, it took a lot of skill to make it seem so. And the ideas behind the music aren't simple at all. The troubled man Stickles embodies is angry at the world when he ought to be looking within himself for the true source of his problems. And Stickles himself seems to wonder whether anyone can truly change one's basic nature. The result is a quandary that Titus Andronicus leaves unsettled, even as the band's music makes its decisive impact.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed the new album "An Obelisk" from the band Titus Andronicus. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Laura Lippman, author of the Tess Monaghan detective series set in Baltimore. Her new standalone novel, "Lady In The Lake," is set in Baltimore in the mid-'60s. The main character is a Jewish woman who's left her husband and is trying to become independent by becoming a reporter and investigating the story behind the death of a young African American woman whose body she helped discover. Lippman's father worked at The Baltimore Sun during the period the story is set. Laura Lippman worked there later. The novel is filled with insights about racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia at a time when the cultural landscape was shifting or was on the verge of shifting. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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