Inside ‘Big Mouth’ and the Dark Secrets of Puberty with Nick Kroll

Looking at animated versions of middle schoolers’ penises and vaginas would typically get someone put on a watch list, but prepare for it to be the talk of the TV comedy world pretty soon.

Netflix’s Big Mouth, starring, co-created, and executive produced by Nick Kroll (The League, Kroll Show), centers around a group of middle school friends who are either going – or not going – through puberty. It’s a topic that of course has always been broached in a hilarious sitcom-y way on television, but never this boldly. The freedom of the animated format, not to mention the freedom of a writer’s room full of longtime comedy friends who won’t shy away from acknowledging the dark secrets of puberty that in fact bind us all, undoubtedly is what has pushed Big Mouth into territory that is indeed shocking. But also extremely truthful.

“I got to work with all my friends, who I think are the funniest people on the planet,” says Kroll, who re-teams with Oh, Hello co-star John Mulaney in the show. “And we made this show, which is really about friendship.”  

Friendship, and change, and puberty, and the things that we all went through but never talk about. Until now, if you soon find yourself talking to friends about Big Mouth.

How and when did Big Mouth first come together and eventually become a Netflix show around the awkward changes we go through during puberty?

I’ve known Andrew Goldberg since sixth grade and we became best buddies around middle school. He went on to become a writer/producer for Family Guy and I shot right to the middle of the comedy scene. His first bosses when he came out here for grad school were Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, who are a writer/director team that has done a lot of great work. One day the three of them came to me and said, “What about a show about two guys in middle school and we’ll make it animated?” and it sounded like a great idea. We started to riff and realized what a wealth of material there was about two boys who are best friends but one of them has not hit puberty yet and the other one is being just ravaged by it – how these two guys could be so close and yet have this very big difference between them, no pun intended.

So we built out from there and started to think about stories that our friends had told us. One of our best friends, Liz, who we used as inspiration for Jessi [Klein]’s character, told us that she got her period for the first time at the Statue of Liberty. And another friend who said he used to have sex with his pillow. We just sort of went from there, and then started to build out the world and use our friends and our own stories, and as we started to bring in writers, started to use everybody’s stories of that specific time of life as inspiration for the show.

Did any of the stories ever go too far and couldn’t be used?

There were a few jokes that went a little far, but we still managed to get some pretty wild stuff in there. Storywise, every episode really focuses on a specific theme that deals with coming of age. Figuring out getting your period for the first time, if you’re gay, realizing that girls are horny too, the nightmare and harrowing adventures of a big sleepover, a first love, breakups, porn – every episode really centers on a specific part of a coming of age story. As long as a joke or storyline follows something that feels real and truthful, then nothing is off limits. We did our damnedest to really tell the most honest version of these stories, and the most honest version of those stories is awkward and graphic and jizzy and everything in between.

You’re back at it with your Oh, Hello buddy John Mulaney in Big Mouth. Did you find out new stuff about him through this process?

It wasn’t like we came into the show saying, “John will of course be Andrew.” It was really Mark, Jen, and Andrew who said, “Well what about John for Andrew?” Obviously John and I have worked together a lot and it felt like a great combination. On paper you don’t think that John is gonna be the perfect substitute for Andrew but 1, he was great because I think he was quietly a pretty horny little guy, and 2, we get to write and move towards John’s skills. He’s a really sharp, funny guy who is also very polite and proper, but underneath that is this whole other thing that is just a riled-up horndog.

Can we expect more Oh, Hello in the future?

George and Gil keep trying to fax us pages for a new play, but we keep telling them we don’t have a fax machine, so then they say they want their daughters to email us something. But it’s just JibJab videos. At some point, if we can get in the same room as George and Gil, we will definitely try to help them make another thing, but they have their process. Which involves a lot of cah-caine, and they keep trying to prank us with tuna, but we know that it’s coming. But they insist on it! The hope is that if we can get Gil and George focused, there will be more Oh, Hello to come.

As far as Big Mouth, it seems like a very adult show for a variety of reasons, but what would you say for young viewers who are maybe pre-puberty or mid-puberty?

This is a show written by adults remembering back on that time, but it’s a current show, it’s not like Freaks and Geeks or Wonder Years. Those shows, and Superbad, were all influences on what we were trying to do. I can’t publicly – I’ll say it in an interview so I guess it’s public – I’m not gonna say that kids should watch this show. I don’t know, it’s up to every family what is appropriate for their kids to watch, but I think that it’s a show that would be amazing for kids and parents to watch together. I think there’s a lot of topics that would be really useful for conversations for kids to have with their parents or with each other. I hope things like the hormone monster are a tool for people to talk about something that is in all of us, and the more that you talk about these kinds of things, the more that they become something that’s part of you that you can control and learn to love and embrace and not be scared of or shut off or be ignorant to. Because all of these emotions, feelings, and desires live in us, and the more that we talk about them the more that we can make them work for us and not against us.

Did you find yourself saying things and writing emails that you thought you’d never say before, like talking about boys’ penises and girls’ vaginas and how they’ll look when animated?

There are a ton of weird conversations about, “Yeah I’ve been getting the model for Jessi’s vagina,” which Kristen Wiig voices, and that was interesting but super exciting. We show Andrew’s penis in the first episode, so we damn well better see Jessi’s vagina too. A lot of animated shows are geared towards boys and men, which is great, but we want equal parts for boys and girls – a male and female perspective of puberty. It’s reflected in that first episode where Jessi is talking about sex ed videos being about boys’ ejaculation and that women are a yarn ball of aching tubes, and I think our goal was to tell both sides of that story. That means showing girls’ vaginas and boys’ penises, and giving bizarre notes about nipple size and butts and all that stuff. We’re all just humans, we all have bodies, we can cover them up and there’s a time and place for everything. But we all have penises and vaginas, and it only becomes something weird and gross and sexual if we make it that way.

You have some of the best improvisers in the world in the main cast or guest starring, like Jason Mantzoukas, Jenny Slate, Fred Armisen, Maya Rudolph, Jordan Peele, John Gemberling, Jessi Klein, and so on. How does that work in an animated format?

We worked very hard on our scripts, and I think that Andrew worked tirelessly to make the scripts as funny as possible. Then you get this whole other section of writers where you’ve got some of the funniest comedians – people that I knew and came up with for my whole career – to come in and give you an extra little something on every take that can be useful. Obviously a lot of those people came out of the Upright Citizens Brigade like Mantzoukas, Neil Casey, Gemberling, Joe Wengert, who does a bunch of voices, Gil Ozeri, who wrote episodes and does voices. Then you’ve got the main cast with Jenny and Jessi, who I’ve known since I started doing standup basically, who are just incredibly funny, talented, smart people who infused their characters not only with a lot of humor and their own voices added to it but this real pathos and humanity, which hopefully makes these characters funny but also well-rounded with real emotions and feelings.

Most animated characters go years, if not decades, without ever growing up on the show. They’re stuck in the same age. Big Mouth specifically deals with growing up and changing, so how does that work in an animated format?

It’s something that we talk about a lot, and there are definitely many more stories to tell just about that period of time. Change occurs, and you will see that hopefully reflected in the characters. It’s not a fresh restart – everything that’s happened to our kids we remember and use. I think puberty is literally a constant state of change and flux but we also think there are great stories to continue telling about that exact period of time. If and when we get to do more seasons and stories, change will be reflected eventually in that.

Photo by Brandon Hickman.

Big Mouth premieres on Netflix today.

Inside ‘Big Mouth’ and the Dark Secrets of Puberty […]