Inside the New Season of HBO’s ‘Animals’

Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano created, write, direct, and voice each episode of the animated series Animals on HBO. The duo might still be creating branded content for an advertising agency in NYC if not for the pigeons preening outside of their SoHo office window. Inspired by the city birds, they made an animated short film, giving the pigeons dry humor and personalities. A version of the pilot episode “Pigeons” won Best Comedy Pilot at the 2013 New York Television Festival and caught the attention of Mark and Jay Duplass, who signed on as executive producers. In season 1, Matarese and Luciano imagined and animated an inner life for flies, cats, squirrels, turkeys and more. Season 2 of Animals debuts on HBO tonight with a host of new creatures and crises. Phil and Mike took some time to reflect on the wild life.

How would you describe the heart of Animals?

Phil Matarese: The heart of the show is definitely the Phil and Mike of it. It really started with this web series of me and Mike just doing voices and really being ourselves. So I think the heart of every episode, at least the story, stems from what is the relationship of those two characters. Basically it’s just as many iterations of Phil and Mike that they can take on. Everybody has got a little voice, everybody has got a little story. From a horse to an algae, no matter how big or small, everyone has got something to say. We don’t think about that at all when we are writing the show, but that’s nice little blurb that we could use. I don’t actually believe that at all, I think you need to be big, you need to be powerful in this world.

Mike Luciano: I don’t refute, I agree. Animals in our everyday lives, especially ones that aren’t domesticated, we almost look at as things or objects buzzing around us, and it’s nice to take a second and go, hey that’s a living being, what’s going around in their head?

Phil Matarese: Having more of a worldly world view. Really thinking less about yourself. We’re often surrounded by cognizant things whether we mean to be or not.

Did you receive any responses to season 1 that you found surprising?  

Phil Matarese: I’m always surprised that everyone on earth doesn’t love it. But what are you going to do? It was so much time between making it and it coming out that we really forgot, oh there’s a whole other threshold of what people think of the thing we’re making. I sort of made a promise that I wouldn’t put too much weight into what I read and what other people think of it. We were picked up for a season 2 and if we started listening to too many other opinions it would fuck up the whole process. None of it is going to feel good to anyone probably. That being said, I don’t really fucking listen to the haters, but I do listen to my fans!

Mike Luciano: I would say that it’s surprising and fun to see what animals and species people get really excited about and gravitate towards and get really passionate about. Some people were really into the cat episode and some people were really into the dog one. It’s fun to see what animal dynamic people really take to. Our show airs on TV weekly so we see the response at that time, but throughout the year it’s available on HBO GO so people were finding it and were really passionate about it while we’re in the middle of making season 2.

How do you choose which animal characters to create?

Phil Matarese: Well, we have our rats that are kind of our hero characters, so when we’re writing the season we know we want at least three appearances from them. Whether it’s kind of two A stories and a solid B story that’s almost an A story or…So we want to make sure that we give them their own A story throughout it. But as for other main characters of episodes, it’s really thinking about New York City, what you can see and what we want to explore, and then again really, it’s what story we want to tell or even feeling we want to show. This season, we kind of wanted to do something that was a tad more on the action/disaster movie side a little bit. And then Mike being religious. That was kind of a religious allegory we wanted to tell. So we thought of things that would bring on that kind of incident, and all of a sudden you’re at an apartment getting exterminated and you’re dealing with roaches.

Sometimes you fall into it, but sometimes it’s as simple as we’re really young and we’re squirrels, fuck it, let’s go from there and whatever happens happens. We want to make sure there’s a nice spread of things. So it’s not just all various furry things the whole time. Because then after a while why not just have it be the rats the whole time. We have an episode in season 2 where Mike and I are two halves of the same worm. We try our darndest to make sure it’s not a sketch that’s possible to be seen on any other show. Something unexpected, something interesting. Really fun, really weird. Just letting those be open to the improvisation we’ve got going on. We have an algae scene. That was our version of a fucked up Pixar short. Maybe that’s what we’re going for. A Pixar short if it was written by someone who was hit in the head really hard.

Yeah, the show takes many dark turns. Where do you think that comes from?

Phil Matarese: With this season we really had the idea of entropy in our minds. That everything will inevitably turn to chaos. That was something we really wanted to work into the season because that’s really what we were feeling that way while we were writing it. I’m not going to veer into what’s happening now with everything – I mean we wrote it in April and it’s not like we knew that we’d have a fucking – this guy doing this thing in the White House, dang it! But we wanted to have our mini-version of New York, which is already dark and stormy, to be the darkest and stormiest that it’s ever been. I don’t know man, it feels good to scratch that itch sometimes and get real dark and feel real bad for a little bit. But then we have a squirrel wedding that takes place and that’s alright. Overall it’s pretty fucked up. It’s not as happy viewing as it should be, but whatever.

Mike Luciano: We try to balance that with heart.

Phil Matarese: That’s true too. We do always try to have a semblance of heart. Like we have this really graphic cat gang episode but Mike’s character is a sweet second-in-command kind of dude. He’s got a good moral compass. It’s real sweet.

How much do these characters reflect your real personalities and life experiences?

Mike Luciano: I think each character that we’re playing is slightly different. Like in the rats and pigeons episodes, Phil is kind of the lovable fuck-up character and I’m kind of the more straight-laced straight man. And there are moments of that that do reflect our friendship. But then like Phil doesn’t have a dad in either of those, but in real life Phil’s dad is the nicest guy in the world. Larry Matarese.

Phil Matarese:  Same name as the character unfortunately in the show. There’s actually a moment where someone says “Larry Matarese is a piece of shit.” So I had to call my dad and say, I’m so sorry Dad, I slandered you on my HBO show for narrative reasons.

Mike Luciano: Also, we have a roaches episode where Phil is a very sweet, loving father who is dealt this blow and has to survive, and I’m this out there catty preacher roach and I end up being the bad guy. So the dynamics of each character switch.

Phil Matarese: On the counterpoint of that, our show is improvised. So we’re not reading scripts or anything like that, so when we get in the booth it’s going to be Phil and Mike the humans to a degree. That ends up coming through. Sometimes we just put on the hat of “let’s just be us when we were sixteen” and make those kinds of jokes and make stuff that’s kind of uncouth at our age. Just us relaxing and being silly.

Mike Luciano: And honest about being a teenager and what that’s like.

Who are some of the featured improvisers this season?

Phil Matarese: I’m going to try to do every episode. Emilia Clarke, Harmony Korine, Jason Alexander, we’ve got Usher, Killer Mike and Big Boi made a up a song, Joe Wengert, Meghan O’Neil comes back, we’ve got Lauren Lapkus.

Mike Luciano: All the Wild Horses.

Phil Matarese: RuPaul, John Early.

Mike Luciano: Mindy Kaling.

Phil Matarese: Jon Lovitz, Pauly Shore came in this season. We got Whoopi in this season. We got Whoopi! Michael Pitt, Fred Armisen is in a two-parter, he’s a real freaky bad guy called Alabaster, he’s a hairless cat. It’s going to be a real good arc. Jim Rash, Andy Richter, Thomas Middleditch. Neil Casey.

Wow, that’s an amazing lineup. Did you have any unexpected moments working with one of these stars?

Phil Matarese: Big Sean was so great. He showed us his new music video before it was out. He was so fucking nice and so fucking cool. I’m going to root for him for the rest of my life. Big Sean, if you’re reading this Splitsider interview, how are you doing? I love your new album.

Could you guys ever have predicted that this is the direction your life would go?

Phil Matarese: No, no way. If we had set out to do this from the beginning it definitely wouldn’t have happened. I think we needed all that growing of it being a web series and us doing it independently to get to where we are now. It felt good to have it snowball a little bit. But I’m going to stop saying “snowball,” because that includes an element of outside forces. Mike and I did everything. We deserve that credit. What’s a better metaphor for that?

Mike Luciano: Hard work?

Phil Matarese: Hard work. We needed our LEGO pieces to…you know what, I’ll get back to you on the metaphor.

Okay, now I have a harder question for you. There has been some criticism that show is a little bro-oriented or can err a little on the misogynistic side.

Mike Luciano: I don’t quite understand that. We have so many great female comedians on the show, from Jessica St. Clair to Lennon Parham, Chelsea Peretti. I mean, the show is based on two characters, Phil and Mike. But I think we make a pointed attempt, especially in the second season, to make the show as diverse as possible. I don’t know.

Phil Matarese: I don’t know, that’s tough. That hurts a bit to hear, but if that’s how people feel…

I’m referring specifically to the LA Times article and the Variety article. I wanted to give you a chance to respond if it’s something that you’ve thought about.

Phil Matarese: It’s a two hander show about two guys so no matter what, there’s a lot of focus on that. You hear the same shit about Workaholics where it’s a three-handed dude show about three dudes. But that show is its own show…that being said, I lost my train of thought, fuck, I had it.

Mike Luciano: I think the other thing is too, those articles you’re referring to – I think, our first two episodes, we made in an apartment. Our first two attempts going at this, just getting into the season – I think some of that stuff might be short-changing the show a little bit. I think people that take the full show in really know where we’re at. And I think especially with our second season, almost all the music is female-fronted music. Because that’s what we like. So hopefully in the second season that gets reflected a little bit more.

Phil Matarese: Yeah, when we’re casting the show and writing the show, we try to make sure it’s not leaning too hard one way or the other. And for these rat characters, they’re fifteen years old, they’re idiots. That’s what it’s supposed to be. And also, we’re doing our goddamn best and there are other hills to die on. It’s a fucking animated cartoon. Believe me, we’re both conscientious. We both understand that there is a lot of shit going on and it’s tough to be putting out stuff nowadays that doesn’t necessarily jive with everyone. We do the best that we can to cast a wide array of voice talent. We try to make sure it’s not just twenty people who look exactly like us. Cause we do look exactly alike, and it’s an issue.

So what’s next for you? Do you know?

Phil Matarese: It’s a big question mark. It’s kind of like we just came out of the cave from making Animals for two years, so we’re still blinking and scared of sunlight and all that stuff. Ideally, we get picked up again and get to keep telling stories. This has really been a dream come true creatively, we get to flex any sort of writing muscles that we want. Drama or sci-fi, whatever. We’re honest to goodness right at the beginning of thinking of other things. Animation has been a really cool medium to work in. Mike and I are writers from the live-action world. But now we’ve done twenty animated episodes. So, we think there are still a lot of new and interesting stories to be told.

Inside the New Season of HBO’s ‘Animals’