Two guys walk into a party in a grungy underground space in New York. As a painfully awkward DJ spins trendy cuts by Porches and Mr. Twin Sister, they begin to discuss their main goal of the evening: getting laid. Several unsuccessful attempts later, one finally heeds the advice of a persistent acquaintance and pops a mysterious pill in the hopes of giving his game some chemical assistance, only to discover that it's not the substance he thought it was. This could describe your buddies' Friday night, but in this case, the two guys are rats, the party's underneath some subway tracks, and the pill just so happens to be rat poison.
This sort of deft interplay between human and animal characteristics is the lifeblood of HBO's Animals, an animated half-hour comedy series that premieres on February 5th. Set entirely in NYC, the show's only speaking roles belong to the various non-human species that populate the metropolis. Dogs shame each other for using the word "bitch," pigeons note the subtle flavor of buffalo mozzarella, a bedbug justifies his recent decision to pierce his ear—er, antenna—but Animals also use the perspectives of characters to explore the existential questions that plague us all.
Each episode casts creators Mike Luciano and Phil Matarese as a new species. Whether rats, pigeons, cats, or dogs, their chemistry thrives and attention to the minutiae of everyday life persists, together forming the good-natured core of Animals. The duo originally hatched the idea while working together at an advertising agency, quickly putting together a web series and going on to win an award at New York Television Festival. From there, they were connected with the Duplass brothers, who helped them construct the entire series before they even began shopping it out to networks, putting together a star-studded cast along the way.
Having Nick Kroll, Adam Scott, Jason Mantzoukas, Rob Corddry, Aziz Ansari, Ike Barinholtz, Ellie Kemper, Zach Woods, Marc Maron, Nathan Fielder, Paul Scheer, Chelsea Peretti, Kurt Vile, A$AP Rocky, and A$AP Ferg listed in the credits certainly helped when it came time for Sundance 2015, where Animals was picked up by HBO for two seasons. "Our show's really hard to convey through a trailer," Luciano said. "Famous people doing funny voices is obviously a good hook though." If that's the case, come for the cast, and stay for the crushingly honest and observant stories. Over the phone, VICE spoke with the co-creators as they prepared for the show's debut.
VICE: So it's been just over a year since you debuted this at Sundance. How long ago did the original idea come to you guys?
Mike Luciano: 2012 or so. Phil and I met at an ad agency/production company-type of place. Phil was a copywriter and I was a video editor, and we were goofing around between projects in the office. It had these big, panoramic windows, and there were these two pigeons on the roof across from it, and we just started voicing these pigeons, which made us laugh, and then we decided to put animation to that. That was the first short we did, after about a month of knowing each other.
A lot of the writing on the show feels off-the-cuff and improvised. Do you feel the same?
Phil Matarese: Well Mike and I write all of these scripts, and they end up being 12 to 15 page outlines that are the basic details of what the story's going to be. A lot of it is Mike and I fucking around and just things we find funny, the types of jokes and stories that we want to tell, that really excite us. So we'll write these plot lines, then meet up with the Duplass brothers and act it out and see if it's doable to improve.
Luciano: We end up with these loose outline scripts, and we'll try to write characters with casts in mind, but sometimes it's not going to work out, so we just cast from the gut. We've realized that when we get in the room with the actors, it's usually the less writing, the better. Setting up their motivations and then giving them free reign winds up being the best result more times than not.
Matarese: The less work Mike and I do, the better this show gets. The most exciting thing is when we cast someone who might be a bit of a curveball, and they come in and give it something brand new that we weren't even expecting or even something we could have written ourselves.
Like Aziz Ansari playing a purebred, supremacist dog with a swastika tattoo?
Matarese: Well we've loved Aziz for a long time. I remember Googling him when YouTube just started.
Luciano: It was not by design for that character though, it was just a scheduling thing that worked out, and he was down to do it. We had this weird character that was sort of a question mark, and I remember thinking, Would Aziz do this? It ended up being the perfect thing, because he's got that sweetness to him.
Matarese: Yeah, I think that character really needed something like that to bring it down.
I'm also curious how musicians like Kurt Vile, A$AP Rocky, and A$AP Ferg ended up in the cast. Do they have any experience with voice acting?
Matarese: Mike and I have really eclectic tastes and we're both really into music. I'm obsessed with rap, but Kurt Vile was something we really bonded over when we were first doing this. His last two albums were like a soundtrack to [making] the show. I don't want to spoil anything, but for an episode we had the idea to do a Scooby Doo type thing, where he meets the Monkees or the Harlem Globetrotters.
Luciano: I think a really big aim of our show is to let people in who wouldn't necessarily get this chance in other cases. Every time we brought someone like this in, it's super loose and real and funny.
The show feels much more rooted in human experience than I was expecting. Did you get more of your ideas from observing people or animals?
Matarese: We wanted to tell evergreen stories, but we do have the added benefit of having a different little world to influence the story. With two house cats, there are only so many stories you can tell inside of an apartment.
With a few [episodes], we worked from the animal backwards—really New York-based stuff. You know, like referencing the tiny turtles they sell on Canal Street. That's a New York-specific thing and it's so fucking weird that you just want to zoom in on and think, What do those turtles think is going on? What's the world like around them?
Yeah, the city can be inhospitable and weird for humans, who created it, so it's even more amplified for the animals that end up living there.
Luciano: Early on, that became the whole idea of the show, to cast New York City as the least habitable, natural place for anything to live in. It's entirely man-made. Just the idea of animals living in it, and that being their natural home is absurd.
You also seemed to have fun playing around with species' actual traits. Obviously rats only care about reproduction, swans are exclusive—those make sense. But you know, why are the bedbugs having midlife crises, the fish having a tense dinner, rather than other species? It often seems arbitrary.
Matarese: That's what's fun about our world. We really don't go into these things and read an entire book about bedbugs or study their characteristics. To make for a better, easier TV show, we just shoot from the hip and go with the general things we know—or assume to know—about these animals.
We're not going to nail a joke getting an exact fish body part right. Although I will say that Mitch Hurwitz knew that a pigeon's asshole was called a cloaca.
Luciano: We thought he made up the word off the cuff, but then we looked it up. That line of what's human about them and what is specifically their species is a line that we don't even really talk about. We know when we're writing it what makes sense for it and what doesn't, at least in our minds.
After seeing the rats acting like dumb humans at a party in the first episode, I was surprised by how existential the show ends up getting.
Matarese: We always want it to come from a place of sweetness and a general outlook on life. It's the pigeons questioning gender, or we have a flies episode that's just a big reflection on life itself. It's a fun way to approach these big questions and stories. Mike and I both really like film and it's a good way to exercise the more dramatic sides of our personalities. It's a lot of fun allowing the show to be sad and weird and dark.
Luciano: And it's fun to hit at those bigger themes from the place of these animals who are innately naive with everything. It's just a more subtle way to get at that stuff. In the first episode, Phil is learning what dying is—a very simple, baseline thing.