How ‘Bob’s Burgers’ Quietly Became One of TV’s Greatest Comedies

It’s fitting that The Bob’s Burgers Movie would serve as low-key alternative fare, a charming, warmhearted, clever piece of counterprogramming to the packed houses and flashier entertainment of a movie like Top Gun: Maverick, which also opens this weekend. That’s the role it’s played on television since 2011 as the most modestly scaled, understated animated series in FOX’s Sunday night line-up, where it’s quietly become one of television’s most consistent comedies — and one of its best.

In the 2022 landscape of prestige mini-series and shows that last three seasons at best, the continued success of Bob’s Burgers—helped along by reruns and streaming—looks unusual. Created by Loren Bouchard, then best known as a veteran of Adult Swim favorites Home Movies and Lucy, Daughter of the Devil, the series has never been desperate for attention, interested in chasing trends, or eager to change what’s worked from the start. For 12 seasons and 238 unhurried, droll, often winningly poignant episodes, it’s kept a tight focus on the Belcher family, parents and restaurateurs Bob (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) and Linda (John Roberts) and their three children: 13-year-old Tina (Dan Mintz), 11-year-old Gene (Eugene Mirman) and 9-year-old Louise (Kristen Schaal). Like the restaurant at its center, the show has mostly stayed put, waiting for customers to wander in and discover it and trusting those who find it it will keep coming back.

But eleven years ago the thought of the show lasting this long, much less spinning off a movie (to say nothing of soundtrack albums, toys, and other offshoots) seemed unthinkable. The first season of Bob’s Burgers earned some kind reviews but nearly as many mixed notices or outright pans. In the Washington Post, Hank Stuever called it “another gross cartoon where the laughs get burnt to a crisp […] pointlessly vulgar and needlessly dull” and suggested “somewhere, once again, Fred Flintstone weeps.” In TV Guide, critic Matt Roush dismissed it as “rancid,” warning viewers to “avoid at all costs.” Even those who liked the show from the start tempered their praise. At The A.V. Club, Emily St. James called it a “borderline case” worth a “very mild recommendation” on the basis of Bouchard, Benjamin, and Schaal’s track record.

Viewership mirrored the tepid critical response. The first season ratings were only good enough for the ratings site TV By Numbers to call it a “toss-up” for renewal. “We always felt we could be killed at any moment,” Bouchard told The Hollywood Reporter in 2016, attributing subsequent renewals as much to word of mouth and intangible enthusiasm as traditional factors because Fox “[wasn’t] necessarily seeing it in the numbers, but they were hearing about it from their friends and from their kids and from social media.”

Vanity Fair contributing editor Maureen Ryan reviewed the show positively in its second season (for The Huffington Post) and now says she’s glad she waited. “It was really not hard, for a while there, to find animated shows that took their inspiration from South Park and The Simpsons, without displaying the acerbic intelligence those shows have when they’re on their A game,” Ryan tells GQ now. “I think I dismissed Bob’s Burgers as just another show that was going to be a little gross and a little funny, without realizing how much heart it would ultimately have.”

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