Through the years, Comedy Central has done an impressive job at carefully curating a diverse slate of both animated and live-action comedic programming. Sometimes it’s difficult for the new shows to stand-out and make a name for themselves, and yet the network’s latest, Jeff & Some Aliens, crash lands onto the scene taking a wide berth of casualties with it in the process.
Spinning off from a recurring segment out of Comedy Central’s TripTank, on the surface, Jeff & Some Aliens might seem like an extreme take on your typical fish out of water story. Everyman Jeff (Brett Gelman) must live with three aliens who are basing the survival of the human race on his behavior—but the ideas executed in this series are some of the most creative, audacious stories I’ve seen in some time.
I got the opportunity to talk to Sean Donnelly and Alessandro Minoli, the creators of the series, about fighting against being formulaic, the sort of comedy they’re interested in exploring, and expanding the world and premise that they’ve built.
DEN OF GEEK: What were the first steps you took for preparing to expand this into a full series?
SEAN DONNELLY: Well one cool thing is that we’ve kind of been living with this show for a long time because we started it thinking of it as a whole show—like thought of some characters, thought of some potential story points—and then we got the chance to make them as shorts for TripTank.
So over the course of that show’s two seasons we had about eight million ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor, and then we made a show bible. So by the time we started season one, we had already been thinking about this show for like years.
ALESSANDRO MINOLI: Like we had developed the thing as a full show from the beginning. It’s not like it was developed to just be a short. So like we already knew things like where Jeff would be working even though it hadn’t come up in the shorts.
SEAN DONNELLY: We had this world developed, we just didn’t have the time or space to show it.
ALESSANDRO MINOLI: Things like Richard Kind as Jeff’s dad had already been going on in the shorts.
SEAN DONNELLY: The real truth is that developing the show is just talking it through, because it’s endless! When you think about a show like The Simpsons—when they started they knew Ned Flanders, but then later you meet Comic Book Guy and Professor Frink.
You meet all of these people that become a part of the world and so I think it’s been fun for our world to slowly grow. It’s certainly in the earlier stages, but we’re getting there.
The whole “everyman dealing with craziness” sort of vehicle has been done a bunch before. At this point, how do you go about trying to rejuvenate that idea?
SEAN DONNELLY: I think if you break it down, every idea has kind of been done. Like “aliens” has been done. “Random guy” has been done. But I think if you put enough of those elements together, don’t worry about that, and think of what’s a cool, new story for you, then I think your work eventually takes on its own form. Hopefully it rises above the other things that came before it in the process.
ALESSANDRO MINOLI: Yeah, and we try really hard to like not reference a bunch of things that already exist. Like a lot of time with an episode as a starting point we’ll be like, “Hmm, what’s a thing about life?” We’ll weigh in and try to create something that doesn’t feel like anything else.
SEAN DONNELLY: You just take more from experiences and your own life, so if that happens to be something that has overlap, that doesn’t necessarily matter as much. You just don’t want to be life referencing movies and copying them. We’re lucky to have a show that allows us to approach things in such a new way.
One of my favorite things about the show is that you’ll go on these lengthy tangents or flashbacks all to make a joke a little more disturbing or layered. Talk a little on the show finding its voice and embracing those sorts of joke telling choices.
SEAN DONNELLY: Yeah, I mean I love that we’re free to go into those loose areas. I think a lot of the times though our script setups will use these sorts of jokes to come back later in the episode so they do serve some purpose. I think later in the season we do have some fun with some sorts of detours. I mean if it’s fun for us, we would hope that it’s also fun for other people. You have to use those gags sparingly though as you need to build momentum in the story to keep moving forward. There’s a right time to take those little breaks.
I genuinely feel bad for Jeff as I watch this show. Do you ever worry about taking things too far with him, or is that kind of the point? How do you feel about how he gets so mercilessly knocked down by the universe?
SEAN DONNELLY: I mean hopefully we can take you right to the edge where you’re going, “Oh God, Oh God,” but the thing is, Jeff is a hopeful guy. I think he deals reasonably well with all of his insanity, so perhaps his optimism will translate over to the audience. It’s just fun to go to places that you normally don’t get to go with characters, but I don’t think we’re ever trying to make things feel hopeless for him.
ALESSANDRO MINOLI: And hopefully we’ll also get to go in the opposite direction too, where we let Jeff taste the fruits of joy that he’d never get to otherwise. But it’s just fun to see someone living the stress of human experience, even though most of his time is spent in his apartment.
The plotting in this show is really impressive to me. Was it a conscious effort to have a faster-paced show that crams so much into it, or just sort of something you fell into when breaking the stories of episodes?
ALESSANDRO MINOLI: A lot of the time I think we like to keep a certain pace going because there is just a feeling of seeing a story ready and then just leap off with momentum. But if you try to keep momentum going, you realize quickly that you need something else. That’s why when we hit Act 3 I’m always like, “What are we going to have happen here?” For the story to still feel like something new is happening you do need to re-discover things or go back to the beginning. It just seemed to feel like the right pace for the show.
SEAN DONNELLY: But also we hopefully slow down so it’s not a relentless pace the whole time. That’s something that I like about a lot of the episodes. That it is so manic and crazed, but then Jeff will also stop and have a moment. Hopefully it goes faster than other shows at times, but slower than other shows at times, too.
I suppose just off of that, I like how this show will introduce some sort of new alien technology in each episode, and then double down on it in such a way that leads to some unexpected, clever solution. Is it fun creating new ridiculous forms of science and technology, and then writing ridiculous rules that allow you to subvert these concepts even further?
SEAN DONNELLY: Yeah, it’s fun, but there’s also the risk of using too much of that stuff, too. Like we have a bunch of episodes that aren’t about alien technology at all and i think we’re trying to look for a little more of that. We want to break any patterns that we might inherently fall into.
Episodes such as “Jeff & Some Pre-Teen Girls” deal with much more cerebral topics such as the inevitability of life or accepting the lot that you’ve been dealt. It acts as a nice contrast to some of the more absurd stuff. You’re more interested in creating these “fuller” sort of stories then?
SEAN DONNELLY: I wouldn’t say “more” necessarily, but just that as soon as you go too far in one direction you want to balance it out.
ALESSANDRO MINOLI: For example, the threat of the aliens blowing up the planet is a really great way to motivate Jeff to do something. So we use that directly a bunch of times in the season when it made sense to, but then we were like, “Well, we probably shouldn’t use this again for a while.” Audiences are smart and they’ll very quickly figure things out.
SEAN DONNELLY: We’re also the audience though and we want to keep ourselves entertained, so obviously we don’t just want to keep telling the same sorts of stories every week. What’s interesting to us is that these aliens have all of this cool technology, but they also have different perceptions of reality than we do. They have different types of relationships than we do. They have different government structures on their planet…There’s a lot of options that we can dig into.
Could you see an episode entirely with the aliens and without Jeff? Or some episode taking place before they landed on Earth?
SEAN DONNELLY: In our first season I think our goal is to really ground this world, and we do that, but we also get to explore the aliens and their planet a little bit. But yes, that whole area is certainly bursting at the seams to be explored. It’s such a magic power to be able to take Jeff to outer space, but you know, with great power comes great responsibility. Then it becomes an issue of what are you going to do with that. I think we had so much to explore with just Jeff’s life and his town that we’re looking forward to the responsibility of going beyond that. To make it so a human cares about what aliens care about you have to find something that resonates with you. Issues for Jeff are easy for us to care about, but alien issues can certainly go off the rails.
On the topic of keeping things fresh, do you see Jeff’s relationship with the Galactic Council and the very premise of the series eventually changing or evolving over time?
SEAN DONNELLY: You know we do talk about getting into the dynamics of what’s really going on up there. Like why do they care? Where’s the money for this mission coming from? I think there’s a lot of fun stuff to explore there. Since we’ve got a great cast for the Galactic Council—When Malcolm McDowell is voicing head of your Council you kind of want to go up there and see what’s setting him off. But yes, we do also want to tweak the rules of the show as it goes on and hopefully we’ll get a few seasons to show how things can evolve.
ALESSANDRO MINOLI: I mean, just in this season alone, Jeff certainly ends up in a very different place than when he started the season.
Lastly guys, do you have a favorite trial that Jeff has gone through so far, or one that you’re particularly excited for people to see?
ALESSANDRO MINOLI: For me it’s got to be Jeff going through love. Because love is hard!
SEAN DONNELLY: Yeah, I think with all the trials—I think the ones that work the best are probably the ones where he’s the most invested in doing something good. Then he usually ends up doing something terrible, and when those two things come together it’s a lot of fun. But you still want to be on his side and rooting for him.
Jeff & Some Aliens’ first season airs on Wednesdays at 10:30pm on Comedy Central.