Louis CK’s forthcoming feature, The Secret Life of Pets, isn’t the only animated comedy in which stand-ups plumb the thoughts of New York City’s canines, felines, snakes, and, of course, rats. Animals, a debut series produced by the Duplass Brothers and featuring comedians like Nick Kroll and Chelsea Peretti, hits HBO tomorrow, Feb. 5, at 11:30 p.m., and is available on HBO Go and Now as of today. It’s already been dubbed “the worst HBO comedy in some time,” which prompted Phil Matarese, creator of the show along with his buddy Mike Luciano, to (semi?)-jokingly call out “fucking Variety, you piece of shit” at a preview screening last night. “I’m’a Uwe Boll any critic that talks shit about our show. Google it, he boxed all his negative critics.”
To be fair, the irreverent, often lewd show (it starts with two rats watching in horror and fascination as a pair of humans have sex) about the inner lives of New York’s pigeons, cats, dogs, swans, geese, flies, squirrels, and even Chinatown’s tiny turtles has also gotten some positive attention.
Regardless of critics, Matarese can be happy that he has an HBO deal at the age of 26. “That’s right, Lena!” he bragged during the post-screening Q&A. “I got one, too!”
But Mark Duplass wasn’t so confident Animals would land at a major network when Duplass Brothers Television put up the financing for it a little over two years ago. In fact, he figured it’d be lucky to land at a network like Starz.
The mumblecore actor-director turned indie tastemaker described why he and his brother, who also produce Togetherness for HBO, were attracted to the series: “Jay and I had been starting to think about producing an independent form of a television show and we got really excited about this idea of, what if we could make something in tv that essentially does what we did in independent film– we take it, make the whole thing, go out and sell it.”
But first, he had to seduce the show’s creators, who came up with the premise when they were working together at a New York ad agency and spotted a pair of pigeons out of their office window. “We just started being dumb and talking as them, and it made us laugh,” Matarese recalled last night. Next thing, he was animating the birds as Luciano edited the largely improvised audio, and “Pigeons” was born.
After a quarter-hour version of that episode won Best Comedy at the 2013 New York Television Festival, the duo began shopping it around. That’s when Duplass landed them. “I gave them this very aggressive, paternal, knowing pitch that was like, ‘Boys, you could take the show out, everybody’s going to love you, they’re going to want to buy it, they’re going to develop it into a half-hour show where it’s going to get watered down a little bit. Then they’re going to greenlight you to shoot the half-hour show where it’s going to get watered down a little bit more, and then they’re going to drag you along. And then just when they’re about to greenlight the show that you don’t even want to make anymore because it’s so watered down, they’re not going to greenlight it and it’s going to be two years of your life.”
Duplass, playing the self-described role of “pop-pop,” gave them an attractive alternative: “We said, ‘Move out to LA, we’ll get this apartment for you guys to live in and work out of and we’ll make you into versions of what Jay and I did,’ which is we tortured ourselves in our apartment making work in our twenties. And I said, ‘We will promise you guys you can make a whole season of your show exactly how you want to make it, we’ll go out and sell it. We might make $4 or, like, we might do really, really well – we don’t know what’s going to happen, but we can promise you you can make it the way you want to make it.’”
At one point in the Q&A, Jersey-born Matarese’s actual dad asked Pop-Pop Duplass just how much faith he had in the project from the very beginning. The producer admitted he “did not know that this was going to work” and said, “I thought the astronomically best-case scenario was to find a hungry place who didn’t have the prestige of one of the major cable networks, like somebody like Starz or somebody like that who’s like, ‘I need something….’”
Materese interrupted. “Starz! I think I’m going to be sick! That’s insane!” he deadpanned.
After showing two episodes at Sundance, Duplass was surprised when HBO offered to buy two seasons— “that was way beyond what I thought we were going to get.” But, he added, “That’s what pop-pops do, right? We believe in our children even though we’re not quite sure that they’re that good.”
After the show’s structure was outlined, Duplass’s job was to “get famous voices to be in the show,” and he delivered. Among the actors are Jon Lovitz, Wanda Sykes, Kurt Vile, and Rob Corddry. In the season’s first episode, Jason Mantzoukas (no stranger to NYC vermin) plays a womanizing, hard-partying rat who brags about his talent for making babies while Nathan Fielder plays a dorky record-spinner named DJ Labrat. In episode four, comedian Chelsea Peretti is the bullying alpha poodle at a dog park; Kumail Nanjani and Aziz Ansari also voice canines (“Hey, can I ask you a weird question? Can I sniff your butt?”).
According to Duplass, Ansari recorded his part the day after a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, but he was cool about “coming to our little, quite frankly shitty apartment, recording in a room with blankets on the walls.” Even if the makeshift recording studio was “bad, it was real bad,” comedians appreciated the rare opportunity to improvise for an animated series.
Plus, the show’s bare-bones, DIY production was partly what made it appealing to HBO. “We are making the show at a price for them that’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so much cheaper than we make everything else, how wonderful.’ We are also making the show at a place where it gives us a nice salary so that we don’t have to live in crappy apartments anymore, and everybody’s winning on this front where it’s cheap for them and it’s cheap for us.”
Duplass caught Matarese shooting Luciano a look, and asked: “Are you guys okay?”
“I gave him a look like, ‘We’re out of the apartment baby!” said Matarese.
“Are you homeless?” Duplass asked with mock concern.
“We’ll talk after…”