Inside Comedy Central’s ‘Jeff & Some Aliens’ with Creators Sean Donnelly and Alessandro Minoli

jeff_and_some_aliensBack in 2014, Comedy Central announced that it was developing an animated series based on the TripTank shorts Jeff & Some Aliens, and after a long road of development, the show makes its full series debut tonight on Comedy Central. Ordered to series in 2015, the show stars Brett Gelman as the titular Jeff alongside “three extraterrestrials sent to Earth to study him to determine whether or not humanity should be destroyed. They constantly throw Jeff’s mundane life into chaos – particularly when they make him participate in grueling intergalatic decathalons or perform Azurian honor killings to restore interstellar balance.” Ahead of tonight’s premiere, I spoke with Jeff & Some Aliens co-creators Sean Donnelly and Alessandro Minoli about how they evolved from TripTank to full series, working with Brett Gelman, and what they’ve learned from their years spent collaborating together.

Hey guys! Congrats on the show. What was it like going from TripTank shorts to a full Comedy Central show?

Alessandro Minoli: It was really cool. Thinking of shorts is very different than thinking of full episodes, so it was a very fun way to explore a bunch of little stories. We did like nine shorts, so it was a great way to expand the world for ourselves. We ended up doing a lot more thinking about the world than when we did with the shorts. There were all kinds of scenes and characters that we never ended up using that then came into play when we started writing full episodes. It was kind of the best way to get paid to develop the world, which was nice.

Sean Donnelly: At first we pitched it as a full show, and they were like “How about you make some shorts?” and we were like “All right!” “Go make four shorts!” “Okay!” “Go make five more!” I think eventually we were like “Hey, when are we gonna get the show?” But at the end of the day it all worked out really well, and when you get a show they’re usually like “Ten episodes, now!” So I think even though it was frustrating at times, it ended up being for the best.

AM: There were a couple times where we had ideas that we used in the shorts and we were like “Aw man, we could’ve made an episode on that!” One of the episodes in the series we originally were working on as a short, but I’m kind of glad that we didn’t, because it was a lot more fun to go deeper with it.

Were there any big changes that happened between the shorts and the full series?

SD: Well, I think when people normally pitch a show they put together a bible and they spend a long time on it, and they think about all the different characters and stories, so I think it was just a lot more fun to do that work by doing shorts that people actually see instead of just sitting in a room working on a bible in a dark hole that no one will ever see. The shorts were really just the development of a show — just in a more interesting way. But I think the difference is, for the long show, that we tried to make stories that had more of an emotional through-line. With the shorts it’s kind of hard to do that — they were more centered around a joke, and we tried not to center the full episodes just around a joke.

So what’s the story behind Video Lou? You present your web videos through that character, which is something you don’t see a lot.

AM: Well, we had been working together for a while, and we had been thinking of a fun way to create an avatar for the collaboration, you know what I mean? Where we both kind of serve this guy.

SD: I think the idea of it, basically, is as ourselves we’re not interesting, and if somebody writes a comment like “This sucks!” as yourself you can be like “Hey, that’s not very nice” or something. But with Video Lou you can have more fun interacting: “Whoa whoa whoa there, scumbag!” It’s just a way to have fun taking on a character and doing response videos. We had big hopes and dreams for him to make all these response videos, but the truth is, developing shows is a lot of work, and he sort of got left on the to-do list.

AM: We created him a couple years ago sort of as a YouTube persona, and when you’re flesh and blood you can just turn on the camera and be like “This is my response video!” But with that, there’s so much more work that has to go into it, so it was always a little bit bigger of a project than we wanted.

SD: We do wish we had more time to develop him more as a YouTube personality and make response videos, but I think now we more consider him as our production company — he’s our producer. The hope would be that Video Lou could develop others shows and talk on behalf of them. The future’s unknown for Video Lou, so I don’t know.

As someone who gets a lot of emails about web series, that’s just something that stands out for me: “Hey, we make videos with this weird cartoon guy who lives in a van.”

SD: [laughs] Thanks!

AM: He also kind of embodies the feeling that we both had when we both started making shorts. He’s just the essence of that, where we have a dude who’s like “I love making movies, I love making videos, and this is my thing!” He’s not gonna let anything stop him, even though he’s far outside the system.

SD: We talked about him making a cameo as one of Jeff’s friends in future Jeff & Some Aliens episodes.

AM: Keep an eye out for him.

SD: Yeah. He can act, he can write, he can direct — he can do it all.

Good to know. So Brett Gelman stars in the show as Jeff. I know you’ve made other videos with Brett in the past — do you guys go back pretty far?

AM: Yeah, pretty far. He’s a good friend in addition to being a great performer and a muse to Jeff. [laughs] It’s a pleasure to work with him.

SD: Our good friend from college, Janicza, is his wife, so we’ve known him for a while. He’s obviously very funny and a very strong presence, so it’s always exciting to get to Jeff’s lines in the booth and have Brett riff on them. I think he makes scenes a lot funnier than we expected them to be. It’s awesome.

You have a pretty impressive voice cast. I was very excited to hear Malcolm McDowell!

AS: Yeah, he was awesome. He plays the galactic council leader, and he brings such real gravitas to these situations. [laughs] We tried to do it as though we were casting a real drama, and then there’s a lot of comedic talent like Keegan-Michael Key, who just brought it his all.

AM: We tried to go outside the regular animation voice talent pool. We definitely have some of those people, and they’re very talented and do amazing voices, but we put some unusual, different types of voices in there too so it feels more like a real world.

Alessandro focuses more on the voicework, and Sean focuses more on doing the animation, correct?

SM: I wouldn’t say I do the animation, but I designed the original characters and I’m very interested in the visual side of it. I designed all the cast and the background, like Jeff’s apartment. It’s cool because I feel like I have a style I brought to the show, and then we have so many talented people here who ran with it and made it better than it was. How I always dreamed how it would look is how it looks now, so it’s become a lot better since the shorts. And Alessandro’s a very talented voice actor. He’s been doing voices on all the stuff we’ve been doing for a very long time.

AM: Back when it was just us doing stuff in our basement I would just do a lot of voices, and it’s definitely fun, but we’ve been able to get some talents that bring it to a whole other level. But yeah, I voice the three main aliens, and that’s cool because even though they have different personalities they all come from one place.

SM: I also think it’s a huge advantage that Alessandro does all these voices, because we write this stuff together and then can instantly record it and know exactly how we want it to be acted. With voice actors it can take a while because they might not know what you’re going for, so I think it makes it faster, and we can also change things at the last minute. So that’s why even I do voices — we can just be like “Okay, we’re gonna add this guy here” “All right, I’ll do that,” you know?

AM: We totally understand why on South Park they do all the voices. Especially when you get a cool design, even if the voice of one character sounds a little similar to another character, you totally go with it, because it doesn’t get in your way of enjoying the characters.

SM: Yeah, and also, we didn’t make this in the way you’re totally supposed to where you write a script and lock it and then record it and then animate it. We would say, like, “This scene could be a lot better. Let’s rewrite it,” and then we had to keep bringing actors back in to rerecord things. But the fact that Alessandro did the aliens and a lot of other characters really saved us a lot of time and effort, because we could always have him jump in there and do it really quickly instead of waiting to get someone back.

I think that also helps ground the world of an animated show. There’s something weirdly comforting about it — it makes it feel like it’s all coming from the same mind, I guess?

SM: Yeah. And we try to use a lot of the voice actors as much as we can. Jon Daly does a whole bunch of different characters, and Josh Fadem does a whole bunch of characters, and we really loved working with these people and felt like they really embodied the show. So instead of always finding new people, we try to use them as much as we can, because they really hit it out of the park every time.

AM: But it was also really cool to bring in people like Pamela Adlon, who plays…no spoilers…but a lady who enters Jeff’s life. She was so awesome to have there, and when we find someone like that of course we’re like “What else can we have her do?” Every line she turns into something fun, you know?

What has kept you two together as collaborators for this long?

AM: Well, for one thing, we’ve been friends since we were in gradeschool, so we go back a long way. We would collaborate on stuff even back then making comic books and stuff like that, and then we went to college at NYU together. In terms of the actual creative process, I think we have different instincts but similar desires. We both push each other towards a common goal and push each other further than either one of us would go on their own.

SM: Yeah. When we’re writing I’d say we have different ideas, but by the time we finalize the script I think it’s the best of both, and at that point we’re totally on the same page.

AM: A lot of times when we’re writing we’ll talk it out so we hear it as we’re writing it, so then when it comes time to record it we’ve already talked about it.

SM: We write on this thing called WriterDuet, which is this thing where you’re both writing at the exact same time in the same script. It feels very energetic, and it’s a fun way to bang through a lot of ideas. And obviously it lulls all the time where we’re sitting on the couch like “What do we do next?” until one person has an idea. It’s just two people pulling each other along.

Jeff & Some Aliens premieres on Comedy Central tonight at 10:30pm.

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