pets with issues

Talking Anxious Pets and Horny Tortoises With the Creators of Housebroken

The therapy-seeking menagerie of Housebroken. Photo: FOX

When Clea DuVall, Jennifer Crittenden, and Gabrielle Allan worked together for the first time, it was on a show about stubborn, self-involved, psychologically imbalanced political animals: Veep. Now the three are working together again, on a new show that’s also about stubborn, self-involved, psychologically imbalanced animals — except these ones are literally animals.

Housebroken, an animated series that debuts Monday night on Fox, was co-created by Crittenden and Allan, who act as showrunners, and Duvall, both a writer and the voice of a corgi named Elsa. The comedy centers on Honey, voiced by Lisa Kudrow, who leads regular group therapy for all the pets in her Los Angeles neighborhood. That includes Diablo (Veep alum Tony Hale), a terrier with anxiety issues; Nibbles (Bresha Webb), an equally rattled hamster; Chico (Sam Richardson, another Veep alum), a cat who is overly dependent on his owner; Tabitha (Sharon Horgan, also an executive producer), a sophisticated Persian cat; and Max (Hale again), a pig who tells everyone repeatedly that he belongs to George Clooney. Oh, and there’s also Chief (Nat Faxon), the St. Bernard who co-habitates with Honey, and a tortoise named Shel (Will Forte), who, in the first episode, gets into an intimate relationship with another tortoise that turns out to be a Croc. Yes, as in the shoe.

DuVall, Crittenden, and Allan recently got on a Zoom call with Vulture to discuss how they conceived Housebroken; the fact that DuVall constantly worries about getting fired from a show she helped create; and how their own pets made their way into the series. Oh, yeah: We also talked about how horny tortoises are in real life. It’s true!

Clea, I think the idea for Housebroken originally came from you. Is that right?
Clea DuVall: Well, it was an idea that I had that I pitched to Jen and Gabby, who then made it a thousand times better. I was wanting to go to therapy with one of my cats. And I was like, what if there were a show about going to therapy with your pets? That would be so much fun. So I pitched that idea to them and they were like, but what if it was a group of animals all together instead of just one animal at a time? The group therapy angle really came from them. So we went from there and brainstormed and created the rest of the world together.

How did you come up with the different kinds of pets to include? Cats and dogs are a no-brainer, but you’ve got a wide spectrum of animals.
CD: I mean, we always wanted to have a wide spectrum right, guys? We didn’t want it to just be cats and dogs.

Jennifer Crittenden: It was a struggle because you want to make a realistic sort of world for the animals, and they also have to live near George Clooney to get Max the pig, so we figured somewhere in Los Angeles, Los Feliz — sort of a wild Los Angeles is what we were imagining. Then we thought it would be really fun to have animals with the more issues, the better. So of course, Nibbles lives in a school and she’s tormented by all the students. Or Shel: We really liked the idea of a very old tortoise. We didn’t know that tortoises were so horny before we started researching and writing, so that was a pleasant surprise.

Wait, time out. Is that real? 
JC: Oh, yeah.

Gabrielle Allen: Well, they hump everything.

JC: Everybody who has tortoises is saying it’s really true: “We love him but he’s so pervy.” Our editor has a tortoise, he says that. The humping the Croc [thing] we got straight off the internet because we just thought it was so funny, and also so sad that he’s putting so much love into this inanimate object.

When you say you got it off the internet, was there a news story?
JC: Ten years ago I think, there was a video — I don’t know how viral it went. But I saw a video of a tortoise humping a Croc and making all these sad noises like eee, eee. Every time we’d look it up to see, there’d be more [videos]. It stuck in my head. It was one of those things I wished I kind of hadn’t seen.

You had these initial conversations about the show on the set of Veep, right? 
JC: One of our first brainstorming sessions was at a café, and we worked and we ate and we took pictures of ourselves. We sent them to Tim Simons [who played Jonah on Veep] and said we were working on something without him and we hoped he felt jealous.

GA: And he did.

Jen, you had written for an animated series before on The Simpsons, but Gabby, you had not, right?

GA: The only animation I wrote was when Jen and I did a polish of Shrek 4. That was super fun, and we loved it. But as far as the day-to-day details of animation, I was exposed to very little.

Was it an adjustment? 
GA: It’s so different. I mean, anything is possible in animation, literally. It’s kind of how I felt on a smaller scale when I first started writing for single-camera after writing for four-camera. When I started writing on Scrubs, we would do these fantasies and pop-aways and all this sort of stuff. I was so excited because it was this whole other way of thinking and writing that I wasn’t used to, because four-cameras is so fun, but it’s so limiting. When I went to single-camera, that was really expansive, and mind-opening, just being able to think that way. Getting into animation is even more. They asked us at the beginning to continue to think more visually and that has been an adjustment. It’s a fantastic challenge.

JC: I’ll just chime in too — even though I worked on The Simpsons, I was not prepared for what it was like running an animated show. You know, on The Simpsons, it was fantastic and I loved it and everything was possible and all that kind of stuff. But there are so many things that just, as a writer, you don’t get to do and you don’t get experience with. On The Simpsons the way they did it when I was there, the showrunner directed the reads, the showrunner did the edits, they did everything, and so we were just a happy staff of writers.

Here, there’s so many layers and jobs and points at which you can make choices that change the whole tone of the show. So it was a complete learning curve for me as well. Gabby was not alone. Everyone at Bento Box [the animation studio] was so patient with us and really helped us.

Did you have people in mind for the voices as you were creating these characters?
GA: Well, maybe not when we were creating them. Did we have anyone in mind?

JC: We knew Clea. We knew we wanted Clea to be something, we knew we wanted Sharon to be something. Then it was kind of wide open. And we thought that Clea would probably be a cat because she has two amazing cats, and the whole idea started with her talking about her cat. Then every time she pitched jokes for Elsa, the fake service dog, she was so funny. We were just like, you have to be Elsa. Then Sharon did a really funny accent for Tabitha that we thought was great.

Tim Simons plays a character who comes into the fourth episode. He’s a raccoon. Honey wants to bring him in to shake up the group and maybe see how it is to interact with a wild animal. We always thought that Tim would be an amazing raccoon. We were really excited to work with Sam again, from Veep, because  he’s so funny and such a wonderfully nice person.

GA: And Tony. Now that I’m thinking about it, I feel like we were like, how do we get all these fantastic people that we just worked with in the show?

JC: We knew Tony would be funny as both Diablo and Max, but we didn’t know how it was going to be logistically. When he does Max, his whole body changes. He’s like a totally different person.

Clea, how was that process for you? I’m trying to remember, have you done animated voice work before?
CD: No, this is my first time. I was really nervous because I was like — I didn’t want to get fired because I thought that would be pretty awkward.

I feel like that’s impossible in your situation, as a co-creator of the series.
JC: She still worries about it.

CD: I still worry about it. I still am like, I’m the worst one.

GA: No, Clea is so good. Elsa’s so good, and so real and heartbreaking. We love Elsa.

CD: Well, I love playing Elsa, but I was really scared at first because it is so different and I have no musical ear, so things sound in real life very different than they sound in my head. I actually worked with a coach before we did the first records and first table reads and stuff because I was just like — I’m also so bad at table reads just in general, that I was like, I can’t —

JC: None of this is true. This is so crazy.

GA: When have you been bad at a table read?

JC: You’ve never been bad at a table read.

CD: Table reads are not my thing. So I saw a coach and he put me in a booth and was like, “Do three different reads of this line.” I would do it, and he’d be like, “Come and listen to it.” In my mind, I was doing a whole range of things. He played it and they all sounded exactly the same. And I was like, okay, so, some work to do. But he taught me how to listen, and how to think about the lines in a different way. It’s really fun and really freeing in a way that I’ve never experienced in live action.

Tell me if I’m wrong about this, but I’d imagine it was easier to get back to work during the pandemic because animation is easier to proceed with under those circumstances.
GA: Yeah, we didn’t really skip a beat. Everybody went home March 13, and then like March 15, we were up and running. We got right back in the room [on Zoom]. Thankfully, we had broken a lot of our stories, so we were in a rhythm and knew where we were headed, which was great. And then Bento, our animation studio, had a lot of shows they needed to keep going, so they figured out really quickly how to get everything on Zoom. There were glitches, obviously, that we had to work out, the kinks of doing it all online, but we didn’t shut down.

So before we end this, let’s go around the Zoom horn and have each of you tell us about your pets.
CD: Pilot is the most handsome cat. He’s the sweetest. He’s very needy. He’s very doglike. I’m really obsessed with him, to the point where I think the rest of the people in my household are like, you two should relax. Take it down a notch. And then Twig is very catlike, very aloof, very strange, very complicated. All I want to do is make her happy and meet her needs and please her, I just love her so much.

GA: Twig is really the reason we’re all here. I mean, between Clea’s need to please Twig …

CD: Yeah, my desperate need to please Twig.

JC: You know what, Twig is still not impressed.

CD: Yeah, she’s not.

GA: Clea went to her and was like, “There’s a whole show now!” And she’s — [Allen shakes head]. Does not give a shit.

CD: They’re from the same litter and I picked Pilot, and Mia, my partner, picked Twig. Pilot is like the cat version of Mia, and Twig is the cat version of me.

JC: Aww. That’s really cute.

CD: I guess now that I’m saying that out loud, I’m basically just a complete narcissist.

JC: Who thinks she’s going to get fired.

Jen, I know you have dogs, right?
JC: [Shows one of her dogs resting.] That’s Frankie.

CD: Oh my God. Look at that face.

GA: Oh, Frankie.

JC: She’s the new one. She’s a rescue. I got her DNA done, and she’s 25 percent Siberian Husky, so that’s why she has the blue eyes. She’s one year old, and then I have a three-year-old, Hugo, who is a Great Dane kind of mix, and he’s —

GA: So handsome.

JC: He and Frankie are in love. Then we have a little ten-year-old terrier who’s 12 pounds and she bosses everyone around. She has an underbite and that was sort of the visual inspiration for Diablo.

Gabby, what about you?
GA: I have a six-year-old Cockapoo that we rescued after he was in a horrible car accident.

JC: He was driving drunk. It was totally his fault, he is such a jerk.

GA: He’s a bit of a douchebag. He has issues. But he’s so unbelievably cute, he looks like a stuffed animal. But Jen hates him.

JC: I really do.

GA: She really hates him. He’s heavily featured in episode five. His name’s Carter in the show. And then at the beginning of the pandemic, we rescued the muttiest mutt, and she’s just an angel.

JC: She’s so cute.

GA: She’s really cute, and so sweet.

CD: And also in episode five.

GA: Oh, that’s right, she’s in episode five, too. She doesn’t speak, but she’s there.

Talking Pets and Horny Tortoises With Housebroken’s Creators