TV has a long history of blowing stuff up. I don’t mean actual explosions, but taking a good thing and making it bigger and longer. Comedy sketches and sitcom cameos get their own full-length shows, full-length shows get their own “giant-sized” episodes during sweeps, and “event” programming takes an idea that’s successful on one night and airs it almost every single night until America is fully sick of it. The thinking in TV circles is that more is always better, until, suddenly, it’s not.
Sometimes that thinking works out, and often with cartoons. The Simpsons and Beavis & Butthead started as cult cartoon shorts before getting their own 22-minute programs and becoming pop culture touchstones. It’s way too early to guess if that fate could be possible for Jeff & Some Aliens, which premieres on Comedy Central tonight, but its path pulls from the same playbook. The cartoon, about three aliens who come to earth to evaluate whether it should be colonized and wind up studying an unmotivated slacker they determine to be “Earth’s most average guy,” debuted as a series of shorts on the network’s cartoon anthology TripTank before getting a full half-hour slot on the channel’s schedule.
Like the shorts, the series grounds sci-fi flourishes in the mundane world of middle-class post-collegiate aimlessness. Jeff, barely employed at a mall food court, and living alone in a small, disheveled house, could be any 21st century slacker just barely drifting by in life. Probably the biggest thing he has going for him is he doesn’t live in his parents’ basement. Oh, and he has three high-strung aliens for roommates, instead of the office temps / aspiring DJs most of us wind up living with between school and marriage.
Going from three to 22 minutes is a massive increase in time and labor. This is also the first time the show’s co-creators, Sean Donnelly and Alessandro Minoli, have overseen their own full-length show, and they aren’t sure if the challenges they faced grew out of expanding the show or simply are part of the package when you’re doing a half hour. “It’s the only show we’ve ever made,” Donnelly says, “but my hunch is making any half-hour show is hard, whether you start off from shorts or not. It’s a lot of content to make in a year, ten episodes.”
Minoli credits the shorts for influencing the show’s pace. “When we were doing the shorts we were trying to put whole stories at the beginning middle and end, and as much as we could fit into these three minutes,” he says. “We’ve tried to keep up that pace, but with 23 minutes we’re telling about the same amount of story with much more time.”
They agree that the shorts were vital as a kind of TV training wheels. “I think if you started just going straight into a full show it’d be a little overwhelming,” Minoli says. “It was good practice, like tee ball before hitting Little League. A short is a lot easier to make so it was good to start with that. All you need to do is think of a quick little story and a couple beats and add a good joke and there you go.”
The two don’t just oversee the writing. They work in the same office as the production team, overseeing the entire process. Donnelly, who designed the characters, reviews all the backgrounds and character animations, giving notes when needed. Together with Minoli they’re able to work on tweaking the stories and the timing as the episodes come together visually. “It’s helpful to see through every step of it so it can be like one unified piece by the end,” Donnelly says. “We do as much as we can. We edit things, and put as much into it as we can. Alessandro also does a lot of music at times.”
Longtime fans of the shorts will recognize the extra work that goes into the new show. Although the lead characters still share the same aesthetic, the backgrounds are more detailed and intricate. “A lot of little things have been sweetened,” Donnelly says. “All of Jeff’s apartment has been redrawn, more shadows, elements and details. The compositing is taking it to another level with lighting and shadows on the characters. It’s the classic feel but sweetened more than reinvented.”
The main voices are also the same, with Minoli handling the aliens, and Brett Gelman voicing Jeff. For Gelman, the longer show is an expanded opportunity to work with old friends that he respects. “They’re not desperate for laughs over content,” Gelman says of Donnelly and Minoli. “They’re willing to push the envelope in a non-exploitative way. They presented a hilarious character in Jeff who I thought was a really relatable loser. And the storylines are just great. I love how every episode, once it starts, just takes off screaming and doesn’t stop screaming until the last moment of each episode.”
After watching a few episodes, Paste confirms that the pitch remains manic and high from the start. Those episodes rarely feel like shorts stretched too thin, but like fully-formed parcels of entertainment that are exactly as long as they need to be. The absurd sci-fi element could easily appeal to fans of Rick & Morty, but the humor that works the most is centered around the characters, both Jeff and the aliens, whose personalities become more differentiated and defined as the show goes on. As Donnelly summarizes it, the most compelling reason to watch might be the most sublime: “You’ve never seen an alien in a speedo before.”
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy, games and wrestling sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.