‘Animals.’ Creators Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano Discuss New Guest Stars, Improv and New York Culture

Life in the Big Apple sure ain’t easy. Especially if you’re one of the handful of animals that populate the concrete jungle.

New York sure can have a dichotomous status. On the one hand, it’s grimy, unforgiving and filled with some of the most cynical people on the planet. On the other, it’s a wondrous place, teeming with culture and beautiful people. For “Animals.” creators Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, that strange area in between the two perspectives is exactly what they call their home.

The two former ad agency buddies began their project in their former company’s supply closet. Born out of a desire to explore New York culture, a burning affinity for comedy and a fascination with animation, Matarese and Luciano set out to create a TV show that anthropomorphizes a series of urban animals.

From pigeons, rats, and flies to squirrels, cats and carriage-drawing horses, the riotous showrunners have made it their mission to unpack the monochromatic hilarity of New York life. And with a second season underway, “Animals.” is set to return to the naive profundity it has so hysterically explored last year. The Knockturnal had the opportunity to sit down with creators Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano to discuss the upcoming season, some of their newest guest stars and giving them the reins to improvise.

Animals.

It’s a New York Thang

There are so many shows on television these days that use New York as the backdrop of their narrative. And more often than not, the last few years has seen a surge in misanthropic Brooklyn hipster protagonists. Exploring a new side of the nihilistic, the “Animals.” creators have instead focused their attention on telling the story through the eyes of a series of dirty, mangy animals.

“It’s kind of a good joke. All these animals are living inside an area that’s so manmade. It was really interesting to focus in on the nooks and crannies of that world. The human element is an afterthought in our show,” said Matarese. Luciano added that “the constraints of being in New York are really fun. We’d get asked a lot about bringing the pigeons to Miami or over to Europe and we quickly realized that that wouldn’t work.” The showrunner went on to say that “the show is forever in New York and our version of New York. It’s a fun, creative challenge going forward.” Thankfully, the duo have captured a quintessential aspect of New York life that few other shows have so hilariously expanded on.

Finding a Balance Between Comedy and Somberness

Any TV show worth its salt that is set in New York can’t rely on a singular genre. Sure, sitcoms like “Friends” and “How I Met Your Mother” did just that but it’s hard to say that either really tried to genuinely portray New York as the city it really is. Instead, that representation is left to the Lucianos and Matareses of the world, who dive into the deep-end of urban insanity.

Animals.

Matarese jumped into explaining the dark nature of the show by saying “We constantly ask our animation designers to make the character’s look shittier. We say, ‘give me shittier lines.’ Our show is obsessed with shitty lines. We try to dent the character design.” To which Luciano added, “which adds more detail.” The writer went on to explain, “we want each episode to feel unique so having the characters have that extra level of detail is great. Phil adds lines to things that aren’t paid attention to but when you get that shot of the baby shoe that’s in Rat Mike’s little room, it establishes the tone that we wanted in the show.”

Matarese, reflecting on the genre balance that they have struck, said “it’s fun because the stories can be really existential and still be really funny. You can turn up how naive they are about death or gender. You can take a really plain look at these things and tell an interesting story that doesn’t feel like Mike and I saying it.”

Improv: The Lifeblood of a Show

So many television shows that rely on guest stars give them free rein to explore their characters how they see fit. Some are privileged enough to tack on anything they want to a character while others are restricted to a few cursory nuances. For showrunners Phil Matarese and Mike Luciano, the potential for improv proves to be a huge benefit to the show’s hilarity. And with a slew of comedians coming to grace the first season, it’s no surprise that many more have come onto the second season.

Luciano explained that “when we write the scripts, we’re careful to give each scene a safety net of bullet points, which are really just specific character motivations or confrontations between characters. We go into each session with that and it gives us the confidence to encourage as much as improvisation as possible.” The eagerly jubilant Matarese added “if we bring in someone like Jon Lovitz, we could never write some of the shit that he says or comes up with. Even some of the great improvisers like Ben Schwartz or Nicole Byer–they are fantastic at coming up with their own dialogue a lot of the time.” Thankfully that sense of freedom that the showrunners have afforded their guests has not gone unnoticed.

Catch the new season of  “Animals.” on Friday’s at 11:30pm on HBO.

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