If you clicked on this article, you’re either an absolute newb to the entire Animals concept or you’re a die-hard fan. I didn’t used to acknowledge such huge dichotomies in interest, but in the world of hyper-specific indie comedy fandom it feels like a pretty easy judgement to pass. None of you have watched, say, two episodes of this show. It’s either one and you said “nah, not for me” or it has been every single one and you’ve said “I’d give my first born to see more.” Consider me in the First-Born Camp.
Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano were two good buds working NYC marketing jobs that they absolutely hated. So to kill time, they started voicing the animals they could see from outside their office window. This was, mostly, pigeons. Matarese and Luciano have decidedly separate vocal stylings but a similar comedic thrust, and so the improv nonsense they kicked back and forth during downtimes became a genuine improv education.
Their work, via a live comedy show, attracted the attention of Mark and Jay Duplass, who convinced these dudes to move to LA and pursue the development of their animal-based laugh-jokes without any promise of money or a contract. Matarese and Luciano made the move, and the result was an HBO series born of crude animation and improved situation comedy, following in the footsteps of such cult classics as Home Movies and The Life & Times of Tim.
The intense dedication of the two leads, combined with the never-ending celebrity rolodex of the Duplass Brothers, has yielded a deeply disturbing and achingly hilarious series about the secretive lives of animals in New York City, from police horses down to fleas. And, yes, pigeons.
Also, just take a look at the guest talent on display in only the first twenty episodes:
The adventures of Animals have become increasingly hallucinogenic, with a C story that focuses on the lives of humans having now gone completely off the rails. Whereas another show would depict the subversive nature of animals in human civilization, the end of last season went out of its way to end human civilization. Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess.
Well, except for Matarese and Luciano. They know. That’s why I interviewed them ahead of tonight’s season three premiere.
Paste: New season. Same animals. What are you guys most excited for?
Phil Matarese: I’m really excited for people to see the ten episode story play out because it is a more serialized show. A really cool kind of complicated story that unfurls this year. So I’m interested to see how people react to that.
Paste: You guys have been done a six, seven year journey here. You went from the stairwell of a marketing office to where you are now, premiering season three of an HBO show. How do you feel in general?
Mike Luciano: It’s a dream, man. We get to make a show that we love and we have incredible support and it’s a really special thing to come into work. Every now and then things get pretty crazy and difficult. It’s just sort of a pinch me moment. To remember how good we have it. The nice part about having three seasons is you do get better at it eventually—eventually. So I think we’re especially excited for this season to show people what we’ve been cooking up past the past year.
Paste: What do you feel like the biggest change was season to season? In season two, you guys really lean into the longer story arcs in a way that, like you dabbled in in season one, deviated from what the show’s thesis seemed to be—or at least where you’d established where the jokes would live.
Matarese: We have no sketches in season three. Each episode is a single story inside of the episodes, but again, there’s a really nice ten episode storyline that it unveils. And secondly, we took out our animated human storyline for this season and we made it all live action. They’re basically these little bumpers at the beginning of each episode. Um, but on a more philosophical level, I think Mike and I were the sole writers of the show. So it’s the two of us exploring what excites us most about the stories we want to tell; the kind of world we want to build for each season. It’s organic and I love all those little stories that we told each other. I don’t know, I’m happy? I’m happy about it.
Paste: I’ve always loved the human storyline from the start, and the nightmarish depictions of depravity and injustice and stupid shit. So why go post-apocalyptic now?
Matarese: We thought it would be fun to start from a fresh slate and go into the animal storylines, um, without any human involvement. What is New York City like when the animals take over, for better or for worse.
Paste: You both seem like sincere emotional creators, who focus on the sincerity aspect even when you don’t want to. How much did the Flies episode from season one teach you about, I guess, not having to make a joke out of everything? Or to be confident in yourselves as storytellers without the cheats you might be used to?
Luciano: That had a sweetness to it, and I think everything we make does. It’s important to us. It’s very easy to—look, we have a crudely animated show. And our characters are much gnarlier than most animated shows. We’re a little bit sweet and a little bit sour. We like to make things funny and then when they get real, we like to keep pushing forward.
Paste: What was the reaction to this when it first came out?
Matarese: We have a lot of jokes that people connected to, like all the 311 references. But when you do references, people demand that you do more. And it’s like: why would that be a good thing? I don’t know, it’s hard to explain.
Paste: Instead of New York. the animals should all be in Omaha and then you can explain 311 narratively.
Matarese: Omaha Stylee!
(a long pause.)
Paste: What is the philosophy that you guys bring when you start writing an episode? What are the places you want to go, where are the places you don’t want to go? What do you think is funny?
Matarese: Just making sure that we are really excited about [it], you know, because we spend nine to ten months on production of each episode, so we gotta make sure that each episode is like a little movie that we keep getting excited about watching every time we have to watch it. So for us, making sure that it’s just a cool little journey. I don’t know. It’s just really organic to us. Making each other laugh in the room is what we’re pursuing.
Luciano: One of the things we try to do, it’s for better or for worse, as Phil said, we’re the only writers. It’s literally locking ourselves into a room. You become your own compass. And that’s what Phil and I have used from the beginning for everything.
Paste: With that much time spent together over the last few years, I gotta ask: How much do you like each other at this point?
Matarese Very good friends. We actually, we were both at the same concert last night. My Bloody Valentine. We didn’t meet up with each other. So I think that shows a level of comfortability. I had earplugs in and I was freaking out. I ate some marijuana and I don’t normally do that. And then I got a big beer at the show. I was in a bad head space and just drenched in sound. I don’t even remember how I got home.
Luciano: I drove you. We did meet.
Matarese: My girlfriend came home and I was being so quiet that she don’t know I was there for ten minutes. I thought it was like 3 AM? It was before 10:30.
Luciano: Yeah I drove you home. We did meet at the concert.
Matarese: I remember talking to security and asking for help. I had just left a recording session before I came and I kept trying to say that I was just in a very emotional state, and that’s why I was acting like this.
Paste: One of the things I’ve always really appreciated about what you guys do is that you open up about your process and especially things like pitching. You shared your pitch documents after the first season ended and I went through those. What sort of advice do you have for people that are are trying to make a similarly outside of the box show right now? What would you advise them to do?
Luciano: You just have to make as much of your idea as possible. Show them your little world. It’s really important to build as much of your little painting that you’re going to show these people who are going to give you a bunch of money to keep making it. And it also helps you retain control over where you’re making. The more flags you plant early on, the more likely those are there to stay.
Paste: At this point, why do jokes about the downfall of humanity at a point where we might be in the beginnings of the actual downfall of humanity?
Luciano: We started it a year ago and it felt like a different world back then. It’s tough to be too contemporary and all that sort of stuff. I think that the main thing that our show can do is just show empathy in a cool way and show, you know, good human nature through these animals being rewarded in a good way.
Paste: What’s your elevator pitch for why somebody should tune in to the third season tonight?
Matarese: I think it is a really cool ten episodes of television, doing something that I’ve never seen before. I think it’s an interesting amalgam of a episodic and serialized and live action and animation that’s all very accessible and enjoyable. It’s just like a really cool season with all these animals in a post apocalyptic New York. How cool is that? All these little stories; little stories and amazing guest stars. What else do you want from a TV show?
Season three of Animals begins on HBO on August 3.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.