Friday, December 1, 2023

‘Animals’ Creators Reveal Secrets Behind HBO’s Alt-Comedy, Bizarrely Tender Adult Cartoon

On the surface, you’re tempted to say Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano’s HBO show Animals. isn’t doing anything different. The genre of talking animal cartoons has known Mickey Mouse and Looney Tunes and Ninja Turtles and recently Bojack Horseman. Animals. could be seen as another variation on that format, and it doesn’t help audiences can’t identify a main character to root for or be wowed by the drawing or things of that nature.

But Animals. is animation’s iceberg: all the weighty, interesting things happen underneath the surface. Attempting to describe the brilliance of the show to someone unfamiliar causes you to reach for phrases like “explores big existential ideas” and “delivers TV’s best dick jokes” and “bizarrely tender.” The show is all these things and features gender-confused pigeons and rats jilted on love. Combining a lo-fi aesthetic with a cocktail of internet-age humor, Animals. is unlike anything you’ve seen but also like everything you’ve seen.

None of it would work without Phil Matarese or Mike Luciano. Their voices and their wide-ranging narrative interests drive the show to recruiting Kim Gordon and discussing entropy, both facets of Animals.’s second season. I sat down with the two during South by Southwest to learn more about their process and the show’s genesis.

You created the first season of this show in a vacuum. Then your precious creation goes into the world and some are divisive on it. So when you were coming into this new season, was there any difference to your approach?
Phil: You know, I didn’t read any of the bad reviews. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It’s not because I’m a snowflake or anything like that—or at least I’d like to think so. But because…

Mike: What’s the point?

Phil: What’s the point? What am I getting out of this? I just want to argue the person and have my say. Comment, “Now here’s what you didn’t get about it, ma’am.” So I didn’t read anything really. And I don’t read the really positive reviews—I mean, I love that shit. Everyone loves to pat themselves on the back a little bit. I don’t really dive into the nitty-gritty and think, “That stuck out to that guy.”

Basically what I’m getting at we wanted to, for this show, keep that vacuum feeling and have it be this really honest-to-goodness, for better or for worse, this Phil-and-Mike thing that’s this certain type of comedy that we’ve fallen into. That’s lowbrow-highbrow, that’s us when we’re fifteen years old, everything we wanted to see is what we’re doing with this. Honestly we were writing season 2 when season 1 was airing. Even if we had three months or four months to sit on stuff, we would’ve no matter what came out with the same season.

If anything that was the takeaway from season 1: Let’s just lean into the animals, the world we’ve created a little bit more. Get it more weird, more insular. At the same token, just push away a broader audience as much as possible. Just really make it as niche as possible. About seven people retweeting and that’s it. That’s all I want.

You guys have this improv style and you bring in all these different actors for the show. Are there any rules or things you tell them when they’re coming in?
Phil: There are no rules.

Mike: There are no rules. Pretty much no. Because we improvise off this outline that we write. Once we establish what that is and everyone knows the deal going in, we record it in bursts, beat by beat, scene by scene. It’s just a free-for-all improvise-wise.

If we cast them, we want those people’s voice who we cast to be the characters. It’s never anything with voice acting, or put on character voices.

Is there anything you say with regards to the animals? Like make sure you act like this animal?
Phil: Not really and people ask us that a lot. They’ll come in and be like, “Okay I’m a fish. Give me some fish facts.” And we’re like, “None, that’s good.” It’s just that top-of-mind mindset that’s going to hit home the most with the most amount of people joke-wise. That’s important to us and there’s nothing less funny than getting scientific about shit. It’s just too many thoughts going into it.

Our show’s about relationships and serving a bigger story.

Mike: A lot of time you can just plug and play any fucking animal for what’s happening.

Was there any non-improv actor who came in and surprised you this season?
Phil: Kesha was super funny. She was great. Who else really knocked it out?

Mike: Usher was amazing. We got a bunch of music people this season. Usher, we did just us and him. But we found that pairing those type of people with people who were stronger in improv brought out the best of both people. The improv person leaned into connecting with them more and they were just so much fun to make new characters.

That’s interesting because [Moonlight director] Barry Jenkins says the same thing. He said, he tries to bring in classically trained actors and people who are non-actors. And it does create a really interesting reaction.
Mike: If I had to make a comparison for our show…

Phil: I would say our show is definitely…

Phil and Mike, together: Moonlight-esque.

Phil: It’s kind of like the Moonlight-lite, I would say. Like a Diet Moonlight.

When you guys are outlining the show—I’m very interested in the writing process—obviously you have different animals that you keep hitting with the pigeons and rats. But is there ever a moment where you think, “Okay let’s just do caterpillars this episode.”
Phil: Yeah, given the nature of our show—nature, because of animals and all that—given the nature of our show, there’s a lot of different avenues that we can approach writing. Most of the times it’s a relationship, something we want to explore in that realm, or a bigger idea, like we want to do a disaster movie or something religious or something like that.

Or sometimes it’s like, me and Mike think it’d be fucking funny if we were two halves of the same worm. Straight up. And then we work our way up from there. That becomes an episode, too, and you just think broadly: We’re a worm, there should be a bird, then add something else, and before you know it, it’s one of the episodes this season. It’s a food chain-type episode. Sometimes we work from the animal-out, but most of the time we work from the story-in.

Mike: Sometimes, also, we like to have two really good people, just go at each other. This season, like Tim Heidecker and Jon Daly, we just wanted them screaming at each other. So let’s create a way for that to happen.

Phil: And then have Kim Gordon sing a song.

How, with being animals and focusing on that, does it open you guys up to these offbeat, very unique, and almost touching moments within the storytelling? Because you’re talking about adult, kind of serious topics with relationships and death, but then you’ll get hit with the funniest animal pun. How do you find the balancing act between it.
Phil: The amount of how naïve these animals are, turning that up or down, whatever serves the story best, whatever makes that the funniest version. Our pilot episode is all these rats at a party making babies. On one level it’s this virginity story about this dude, and it sort of has American Pie outdated vibes to it, but it’s really about this dude who’s left out of something everyone is doing. Mike at the beginning of the episode has a baby, by the end of it, she’s fully grownup. It’s just this thing everyone’s doing. So really it’s about a guy being left out and a guy searching for someone to care about him.

That’s fun to play with where we can work those things on multiple levels.

I consider you guys part of this new wave of animation, like BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty and your Starburn Industries brethren Anomalisa. Because it’s animation, and you’re viewing stories on this askance plane, you’re able to sneak in these almost profound moments of just life.
Mike: We started this as a series of shorts. They were a minute long, we did a different animal each month. One of the first ones we did was rats, just me and Phil. Okay, so we’re rats now. What do rats talk about? So we set them down on the subway track.

It was basically the seed of that pilot episode. He’s going to a party and he says, “I ate a bunch of stuff over there.” And he’s like, “Oh that’s rat poison. You’re going to die.” It was that idea summed up in a minute-long thing and that became the DNA of what we wanted to do. Ride that line of, that was a really sad little story in a minute, but I laughed throughout it. And it’s really funny that’s he’s dying, somehow it led up in that way. The whole process of making this show has just been those little early nuggets, and Phil set the aesthetic of it and everything. Little by little growing it and how we want to push that. That’s how we eventually got to the half-hour format and that’s what we like and that’s how it’s always been.

Is there any reason you guy were interested in doing it that way? Sure, you stumbled upon it, but you wanted to continue it for some reason?
Phil: I think it’s just the tone of Mike and I. There’s been talking animals since the 1920s, so there’s many different ways you can skin it. It’s us putting our stamp on it and making it feel unique and warranted. And already we’re dealing with a set of animals other shows and movies have dealt with before. It all felt the natural way to go with it.

They’re in a really human, really sad environment already. It’s kind of hard and disingenuous to tell full-on happy stories because you can’t deny a rat’s or a pigeon’s life in New York City probably is fucking shitty. It’s probably really bad.

Maybe you won’t admit it in the moment, but sometimes do you think that’s a metaphor for just being alive?
Phil [chuckles]: Yeah. I think so. This season, we’re dealing with this idea of entropy and the fact that everything’s chaos and nothing really matters. I think we really turn that up a little more. My day job is making animals talk and cartoons, so it’s kind of funny to also take a look at existence. It feels good to scratch that itch and I think it’s healthy to scratch that itch.

Even something like Inside Out was very existential and very adult-themed. Is there any reason, you think, within the past decade, there’s been this resurgence of an adult version of animation?
Phil: I hate cutting into the whole business of it, but there’s more outlets. More stuff is getting made, so inherently we’re going to see a different array of stuff. There’s more places to put adult animation stuff. Anomalisa was a Kickstarter project, BoJack is a Netflix show. Technically if you think of the dawn of Adult Swim, I guess it’s that. It was a little silly and stuff.

But I think it’s a good time and it’s ripe for even more production of that. We can still explore it more and I thought Anomalisa was so exciting and the barriers of entry are lower and you can make an Anomalisa, outside of studios, with Charlie Kaufman, it’s like why not explore as many mediums as possible and make art in new and interesting ways?

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