Mike and Phil Have Enough Personality to Populate an Animal Kingdom
By Eleanor Laurence
Animals. co-creators and co-stars Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese talk about giving human personas to animal forms, the comedy they love and picking celebrity voices for an animated show.
“I’m watching Mike mule down a salad right now; it’s beautiful,” Phil Matarese observes over the phone. He continues to narrate: “He’s making eye contact. ...Is that tofu?”
It seems appropriate to interview the brains behind the animated series Animals. by phone. Their disembodied voices carry over the line from Los Angeles, conjuring up images of their on-screen animal forms: rats, pigeons, cats — aka the native creatures of a gritty New York City. Show creators Mike and Phil sound just like their characters, as if they were the animated rat-best friends on the other end of the line.
Luciano and Matarese began making animated shorts featuring furry and feathery urban inhabitants while working for an agency in New York. The Duplass brothers (creators of HBO’s Room 104 and Togetherness) took note when Luciano and Matarese won Best Comedy at the New York Television Festival in 2013. Flash forward five years, the pair are onto Animals. Season 3, doing press while eating salads.
HBO: The animals of Animals. have highly recognizable human identities. Do you tailor specific human archetypes for specific species?
Phil Matarese: In Season 1 we had swans be kind of “snooty,” and geese be kind of, you know, “nerdy” compared to them. Cats are bat-shit crazy as animals, so their characters are bat-shit crazy. Now, in Season 3, we write stories and focus on the characters. If we know we need a brash counterpart to a ferret leader, then that is how we write it.
Wow, I am just realizing how hard it is to describe a lot of our episodes.
Mike Luciano: Specifically in Season 3, it’s been an interesting wiping clean of the slate. In previous seasons, the animals live alongside humans in New York City. Season 3, there are no humans, and all the animals native to New York City have formed their own boroughs and communities. When it came to writing, those neighborhoods helped dictate each character.
HBO: What was the inspiration behind the “Tower of Babel” premise you have going, where all the animals are unable to speak with each other across species?
Mike Luciano: The rule we established from the beginning was that, like humans, who can only speak with themselves, it makes sense that each species can only communicate with themselves. It became a fun device to work against: The species can’t communicate with each other but are living alongside each other, and need to rely on each other. Throughout Season 3, communication becomes a vital part of the storyline.
Phil Matarese: We wanted to start out with the worst possible way animals could have established a civilization, really isolated, really segregated, and then work from there. All 10 episodes in Season 3 tell a sweet story of the Animal Kingdom, and how it comes together and falls apart.
HBO: You guys record all the scenes with the actors in the same room. I imagine getting people from wide ranging backgrounds in entertainment to record together can inspire a fair amount of improvisation.
Mike Luciano: When we’re recording with our guests, the scenes take on a life of their own. We write for two months, and that’s the overarching blueprint. As we record the episodes, we are continuing to write them. It’s what makes the show special and keeps things spontaneous.
HBO: Which comes first — casting or character? Do you write characters for specific people, or do you first come up with the character and cast from there?
Mike Luciano: Usually, character first. We try not to fall in love with a specific person. Every now and then, when we have a character, Phil and I will come up with a group of people that we’d like to go out to. What’s fun is that a lot of those people are entirely different directions for the character.
Phil Matarese: Even gender doesn’t matter a lot of the time. Luckily, when you write an animal named “Chompy,” gender doesn’t matter. Anybody on Earth could knock “Chompy” out of the park. Carole King was our number one, so we didn’t have to go too far down our list.
HBO: Three seasons in, is there a moment that stands out to you guys as most surreal? For example, “How did we end up on the phone with Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) asking her to voice ‘Poop’?”
Phil Matarese: This season there is a lot of live action, and the whole nature of that live action shoot was totally bonkers. Just shooting the shit with Demi Moore… I remember a few of those shoot days just really flying high.
HBO: What inspired you guys to make live action a bigger part of the show?
Mike Luciano: It became a way to further the story and also have a fun entrance point for each episode. In all the seasons, we’ve had dual storylines. This season, we took out the sketches, and that ended up streamlining the animated stories really nicely. The live action intros created a window into the episodes.
HBO: More broadly, where do you see Animals. fitting into the entertainment landscape? What is your creative goal for the show?
Phil Matarese: Mike and I are the sole writers of the show. We write it to make each other laugh. We find that people who like the show, absolutely love it. No one’s really half on board. So, give it a darn tune in, and I think it’s maybe going to be your favorite thing. Probably. It’s not for everybody. Nothing should be for everybody.
Mike Luciano: We always say, “Funny first.” Pack in as many jokes as we can. But also have some storylines that 1) don’t go in places you expect, and 2) have some underlying heart. I think that’s something Phil and I are both drawn to in comedy. We don’t try to hit you over the head with it. We’re not into sentimentality too much, but our sweet stew is having a story that is unconventional, uh…
HBO: Take a bite of salad, if you need to mull it over?
Phil Matarese: Just put in brackets, “fart noise.” [Makes fart noise] Just say, unconventional [fart noise].
The show is funny because it is unconventional, actually. So it’s pretty genius that Mike would say something like that.
Mike Luciano: Just end the period earlier.
Start Animals. Season 3 now.