Cats in a mafia or doing bondage, young flies staring at a nudey mag, cockroaches amid an apocalypse, gender-fluid pigeons, Ty Segall and Kurt Vile become squirrels, and rats wearing pants to hide “nervous boners;” these are just some examples of the hijinks and situations that exist in the world of Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese’s HBO comedy, Animals.
The show is currently in production for the third season, which is aiming at a summer release. Animals has stood out against its animated competitors because of its nonchalant approach to analyze our world, the humans, through the lens of animals. Pigeons don’t call golf “golf,” they call it “white-guy-white-ball.” The Thanksgiving tradition of politicians pardoning a turkey isn’t a nice gesture; it’s a turkey’s opportunity for revenge for his wife.
Luciano and Matarese have created a world of absurdity and simultaneous gravity. Season one ended with a storyline of a corrupt New York mayor. Season two left off with the animals becoming the only inhabitants of New York City. Now with season three coming around, the animals have officially taken over.
The wacky-eerie-not too serious New York that Matarese and Luciano have created has also become so popular because of the guest voices on the show, along with the soundtrack behind the scenes. The soundtracks to the first two seasons, have actually garnered a large following on Spotify leaving fans wondering when they’ll be sold as merchandise. They include artists Mr. Twin Sister, Speedy Ortiz, Chairlift, Mission of Burma, so many others, but especially 311- the band that has become a running bit on the show like when Phil (as a pigeon) had a 311 tattoo.
Kumail Nanjiani and Ellie Kemper voicing two dogs whose owners are on their first date is one thing; but hearing these comedians voices asking to sniff each others’ butts is really something that you have a hard time not laughing at.
The show is different from other shows because it really doesn’t have a premise. They’re takes on real world, everyday situations just hyperbolized because they’re presented through animals instead of humans. The show makes serious statements without taking itself too seriously.
Antonio Villasenor-Baca: What are you guys up to right now, in terms of making the show and in general?
Phil Matarese: We are, right now, in an overall view, working on season 3. So we’re about 50% done with that process. We’re looking at a summer premier, so kind of just chipping away at that. Yeah, finished writing it. Almost finished casting up on it. Just in a weird amorphous period between being done and having started. So I guess, in other words, the middle of it. Just cranking on Animals.
AVB: Just for clarity on how you guys met and how this show came to fruition, I read that you guys started working on Animals and met while working at an ad agency in New York. Had you known each other before that or how did you meet?
Mike Luciano: Nope. We both met at the ad agency. It was like a small production company in New York. I was a video editor. Phil was a writer. And we were kind of the two in the office that were making our own projects outside of work. And then one day, we were on a break, and we saw some pigeons on the ledge, and Phil said ‘hey. Let me try animating something to that.’ And we started doing that every month; screening it around the city. And we kept at it, and over the next year and change, we eventually made a thing that made it to the New York Television Festival, and that won best comedy there, and that started us on a little journey, in which we met the Duplass [Mark & Jay] bros. And they pitched the whole idea for us to do the show independently, so we were down for that. We moved to L.A. And then for a year we lived in an apartment in Los Feliz and made the first two episodes over that year. And then we screened it at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015 and then sold it to HBO for two seasons. And we’ve been at it ever since.
PM: You said something good yesterday [Mike] about how us not being childhood friends was a good and kind of beneficial thing to our process and I had never thought of that; and it is, because we kind of have a…I’m not advocating this necessarily but we had a business kind of mindset when it came to Animals. We took it seriously and always had a package, a font, and an aesthetic for it.
ML: It was an extension of our job in a way.
PM: Yeah, just a little bit. Still is fun to do. It was a fun job.
AVB: Every episode of the show has two characters called Mike and Phil with different relationships; how do you pick those relationships and is it at all based on you and your own traits?
PM: Well, we usually start with the big story, or the big idea of what we want to do. Well roaches, are in an apartment and it’s getting exterminated, that’s fun. We can do a big action movie, that’s great. I can be like maybe a single father, and we just try different tropes and things like that. It’s fun to keep it special for each species. Mike being a priest who’s trying on the antagonist hat. We have a great episode this season where Mike’s like, ugh, just a beautiful horse antagonist and he’s so fucking weird, its’ great. But whatever serves the larger story and whatever itch we’re trying to scratch with the theme of the episode or the content of the larger joke as a whole. But I think a lot of the characters, Phil and Mike, to an extent ourselves. You know we’re not a strictly scripted show so for anyone we bring in, we want a little bit of them to come through. If you have Jon Lovitz, you want a little bit of Jon Lovitz to be in this squirrel or whatever this person is going to be. So yeah, I think inherently regardless of what we are, there’s a little bit of US, powering the engine of the creature.
AVB: And where do you get the ideas for the episodes? How does it develop into more complex from an idea like an apartment being fumigated for roaches?
ML: It’s a little bit chicken or the egg sometimes of figuring out, because sometimes we’ll have an animal species that we’re interested in and then we’ll be like, ‘oh! What’s the cool dynamic that can come from that?’ And then sometimes the character dynamic or the simple joke of the way the animal or that species work together will then dictate a framework for the story to happen or sometimes it’s the other way. And I think for us, it’s just making each episode as interesting and funny as possible. It’s kind of simple, but that’s really what we’re after. And I think we’ve realized now being in our third season, we’ve realized that it takes a long time to do an episode and to make it production-wise. You live with it for a long time. You refine it over many months, and I think we realized that we really need to love each episode and have each one feel like it needs to be out in the world. And so I think we’ve now been more in tune to really trying to make each episode something special and interesting, every step of the way. I think that helps make the story hopefully more interesting.
AVB: It seems like each episode has an undertone or an underlying message in each episode; are you just trying to be funny and do a successful TV show or are you trying to express some deeper meanings behind the show?
PM: Oh, man, I would love to be a success. I’m just speaking for myself. I’m doing it for the money. That’s all I’m doing it for, and I care about money. Most of the messages, if you really look deep in the show, is about money and my personal journey towards getting as much of it as possible; the benefits of it, and just like the fun things you buy with it, more or less. So that’s what I’m focused on right now, in my life, I’m focused on money- making it, as much of it as possible. I would marry it if I could.
ML: For me it’s about, you know, the human condition, I think is where I’m at. And getting at that through animals. And also, how much money can a person get?
PM: Toot! Toooot! Train is leaving the station! Show me the money!
ML: I guess that’s what it really comes down to.
AVB: Right. Okay so the first season had that separate storyline of the corrupt mayor. Can you give some insight then on where that came from?
PM: We thought it was funny, interesting, incongruent, what have you, to have our show that’s about talking animals in these little nooks and crannies of New York, to have a nonspeaking, guttural human storyline, where we just see that they’re the fucking worst in this Gotham-like version of New York City. And that was just fun to us and something we knew we kind of wanted to have in the show from the get-go, was this little bit of surreal-ization to entice people to watch all ten episodes so you have this kind of fun story unfold. But mostly it’s just funny. And it kind of felt like a necessity too. If you’re like inside of New York City I don’t want to have it just be like Muppet babies where it’s just like me walking by. I kind of needed a little but of humanity to it and that’s what our show is: it’s microcosms, and macrocosms, and it’s like zooming in and out, and small stories and big stories so it just felt like we’re trying to be a lot of things at once. And I think we do it.
AVB: And so going in to the third season, do you guys have favorite episodes? Any that stand out to you?
PM: Yeah, I do. Season one, episode seven, the flies episode, just because that felt like a big departure for Mike and I. It’s like ‘let’s just do something that’s kind of, mostly, sweet.’ I liked that. Um, what else?
ML: Episode nine of our second season is one where we did three different species all in an interconnected story. So it was worms, birds, and possums. That one came together really nicely, and was a fun dynamic. And then there’s a bunch in our new season I think we’re really, really excited about. Again we really just tried to make every episode a standout one and I think for the most part, it kind of is. Each one has something I’m really excited about.
PM: It’s like Mike was saying, you have to love each one of them and I do love every one of the episodes we’ve put out. We spent nine months working on each one in some way, shape, or form. So I got a lot of love for the squirrels two-parter in the first season, there’s a dog episode in the first season was so great, um the cat mafia two-parter was great. But this season I agree with Mike. I just got so much love for every one of these lil’ weird 22 to 28 minute pieces of art.
AVB: Whether it’s inside or out of the show do you guys have a favorite animal, like a spirit animal?
PM: Hm. I think dog, I think a dog. Probably a dog.
ML: Dogs are great. Dogs are god backward.
PM: Woah..what the fuck!? Don’t come at me with that.
ML: It’s true, dude.
AVB: When you’re writing the scripts, do you have specific guest voices in mind when you’re writing them or does that come later?
PM: We think with a type in mind but we don’t really, I think even more so nowadays then we use to just because we’ve gotten so use to people’s crazy schedules and all that sort of stuff. We’re trying not to as much and the surprise a performance gives you and breathes life into that character- it’s like what I was saying before. We want a little bit of that person to come in where you just get something new and special. For Mike and I, that’s important and to not have every character in the universe sound like Phil and Mike but it’s just coming through Edie Falco’s mouth or Anthony Mackie’s deep, sultry voice.
AVB: And who’ve been the most exciting people you’ve worked with?
PM: I love the hardnosed actors and actresses are always so fun to bring in because it’s like we could be done in fifteen minutes because every take is amazing. They just have a certain control over themselves. A lot of fun that we’ve had has been with Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham. We’ve had a few scenes with them so far that were just so hilarious we could’ve used much more of them. Wayans bros; getting them in was so amazing. I just wanted to stand back and hangout. I have a lot of fun with Lauren Lapkus. She’s become a little friend and one of our only regulars throughout the three seasons of the show. And also our friend Meghan O’Neill, whom Mike and I have been making this with since before even HBO or anything. I’m just remembering a scene where we’re three orphans in the upcoming season, and I was just like losing my mind laughing.
AVB: Are people starting to recognize your voices, like in day-to-day life?
PM: No. Never has happened. I wish. That would be sick. That’s kind of like my dream scenario. I’m at the bank or something, chatting up a cute bank-girl, she’s like, ‘wait a minute. You sound familiar. Are you on Bojack Horseman? Are you sucking helium from a dentist’s office?’ Why would a dentist give you helium? That didn’t make sense.
AVB: Do you pick any of the music for the show and is there is any particular reason why there’s that running bit with the band, 311? Is that a band you actually like that much or is that just a joke?
PM: Mike and I pick all the music on the show. We work with a music supervisor who helps us get it cleared and stuff but every single song is picked out by Mike and I. We’re avid, voracious fans of music and initially it was a reflection of what we would go see at like, Shea Stadium and all these venues in New York City. So it would be like a bunch of bands that we would see around town and that just stems from the original shorts; we needed to have our friends’ bands be the soundtrack so we could clear it and have it all good to go. But it’s a big part of who we are as people. We were both in bands in high school and stuff like that so it was important to have that be ingrained in the show, be it soundtrack wise or have people come on the show. That’s been a lot of fun to do as well. 311 is a band I am genuinely a fan of and yeah, it just became a runner of the show.
AVB: Are there any plans for the soundtracks to be released and sold separately as merchandise?
PM: Maaaan, we’re trying. Yeah, you know, it’s tough. People don’t buy things that much. And I guess it’s like a lot of different labels and stuff like that, that we would need to clear, but we got it all on Spotify, If, people reading this, want to hear how AMAZING our taste is in music, they could search Animals-HBO on Spotify and you could see season one and season two playlists.
AVB: Now getting into the upcoming season three, are there any details you can give, anything that you’re really excited for?
PM: I think it’s a new show. It feels really like a 50% departure from the previous two seasons. That’s not to say you need to watch the first two seasons to get it, that’s not to say you shouldn’t watch the first two seasons to get this season. I think both can work. A lot of it is informed by the end of what happened in season two, and it’s just structurally different. We don’t do any sketches this season.
ML: There are no humans in the city so the animals have all taken over New York City. They have their boroughs according to species and everything so we had a lot of fun making this world where the animals are in charge for once and take a look a, ‘okay what is that like now? What is life like for all these animals that have been so use to having humans around in this big man-made city? Now that there are no humans, how do they all coexist? How do they fight? What are the problems that arise?’ So that’s kind of the overarching narrative throughout all ten episodes, is seeing how all these different species figure it all out, figure out living together.
PM: In the back half of the season, it gets a bit more serialized, which is interesting for our show. I think it’s ten episodes of a season that I’ve never seen before on TV. It is holistically unique, in every sense of the word. I’ve never seen this sort of thing on TV before. There’s going to be more live action, there’s going to be more fun and surprises every single episode basically. It’s going to be fun and it’s going to surprising. Like those little treasure boxes that dentists’ offices have when you’ve been a good boy through the whole thing. We’ve got great voices. We’ve got great music coming through. We have a big episode with a shit-ton of original songs that we’re going to get. I don’t want to leak any of those yet just because we haven’t fully crossed the bridge on a lot of things. We’re getting a lot of musicians to do voices, just fun people we like that we’re huge fans of. Actors, great character actors that we’ve always loved.
AVB: Is there going to be another episode specifically with another musician like we’ve had with Ty Segall and Kurt Vile?
PM: Um, yeah. I’ll say that.
AVB: Do you guys have anything else that you want to say?
PM: Hm. Season three is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. It is the most important thing I’ve ever seen. Season three of Animals on HBO will change the world. No. It will save the world. Thank you. I love money. Mike…?
*Matarese broke into laughter after Luciano’s long pause.
ML: I got locked up from that! No, we’re super psyched for everybody to see it.
PM: We’re doing it as fast as we can, too. I just want to say that. We would love to have it out. But they took a little to pick us up so that put us back. Blah blah blah blah.
ML: Working really hard, and it’s going to be sick. If you liked the past two seasons, you’re going to love this one. And if you’re new to show, boy oh boy, you’re in for a ride. You’ll love it as well. Be nice to animals.
PM: Be nice to animals, yo.