‘Big Mouth’: Nick Kroll’s ‘Perverted’ Take on ‘The Wonder Years’
Nick Kroll is worried he might ‘get in trouble’ for telling kids to watch his new Netflix animated series.
When Nick Kroll decided to end his Comedy Central sketch series Kroll Show after just three seasons in 2014, the outcry wasn’t quite as loud as when Dave Chappelle walked away from Chappelle’s Show a decade earlier. But there was a loyal fanbase who would miss characters like Ref Jeff, Bobby Bottleservice and the PR reps of “pubLIZity.”
Since The League wrapped up its seventh and final season the following year, Kroll has appeared on the big screen in comedies like My Blind Brother and The House. He has also taken on more serious roles like civil rights lawyer Bernie Cohen in Jeff Nichols’ Loving. Perhaps most notably, he and John Mulaney transferred their acclaimed and uproarious live show Oh, Hello to Broadway.
But even Oh, Hello, and the characters Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland, whom Kroll and Mulaney had spent years perfecting, does not carry as much emotional weight as Big Mouth, Kroll’s new animated series for Netflix about horny middle schoolers that he says has been “30 years in the making.”
Kroll created the show with Family Guy writer Andrew Goldberg, his real-life best friend since the first grade. Along with Mark Levin, who began his career as a writer for The Wonder Years, and Jennifer Flackett, who spent time on Beverly Hills, 90210, they have produced a show that so filthy Stephen Colbert could not find a clip that CBS would allow him to play uncensored when Kroll appeared on The Late Show this week.
“I was a very late bloomer, Andrew was a very early bloomer,” Kroll says of Goldberg, whose character is voiced on the show by Mulaney. In addition to playing the Nick character, Kroll also voices the Hormone Monster who helps guide Andrew through puberty and the lonely gym teacher Coach Steve, along with several other characters.
The rest of the pitch-perfect cast is made up of Kroll’s longtime collaborators like Kroll Show’s Jenny Slate, The League’s Jason Mantzoukas and former Inside Amy Schumer head writer Jessi Klein. SNL alums Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph play his parents and Jordan Peele plays the ghost of Duke Ellington who lives in his attic and gives him late-night advice.
Like Seth Rogen’s Sausage Party, in which Kroll voiced a literal douche, Big Mouth on the surface looks like it might be for children. “I don’t know if I’m going to get in trouble for telling kids to watch this show, because it’s super dirty,” Kroll tells us. But at the same time, he recognizes that they will likely get a lot out of it if they do happen to stumble upon it on Netflix.
And like the boys in Big Mouth who get their hands on a VHS copy of Sylvester Stallone’s Italian Stallion porno, they won’t be able to look away.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
Your friendship with Andrew Goldberg is so central to the show and really adds heart to what is a very filthy comedy. How did you land on that balance?
Yeah, it’s very dirty, but it’s also I think a really a very sweet show, with a lot of heart. And I think the two complement each other. If it was just an onslaught of filthiness and dirtiness, it would be great, but I also think you could tire of it. And if it was just a saccharine, sweet show about two best friends, you might lose some interest. But because it’s kind of doing both simultaneously, I think it gives both of them more weight. And when you have something really gross happen and then a very sweet moment, or vice versa, I think it makes them both much more impactful. And it always comes from a place first of these boys’ friendship with each other and their other friends and their families and all the complications that ensue.
The idea for the Hormone Monster must have been a major breakthrough in the development of the story. Can you talk about how that character became part of the show?
We were talking and Andrew was like, [the character] Andrew should have this thing, like a hormone monster. And then I just immediately said [he switches into the Hormone Monster voice], “Touch yourself, Andrew.” It was like, I know what he sounds like and what he says. And that was for sure a breakthrough of like, yes, that makes sense in general for the show and also makes sense for why we should do this show animated.
And then of course you have the Hormone Monstress, played by Maya Rudolph, who I think is particularly brilliant in that role. What did she bring to that part that was different or unexpected?
Well, we sold the show with the Hormone Monster as a character. And then when we started actually writing the season, we realized the girl characters, Jessi particularly, should have her own Hormone Monster. And then it took a while to figure it out but we realized that it should be Maya Rudolph, who plays my mom on the show and is probably the most talented person I’ve ever met. So, we were like, “Would you be interested in playing a Hormone Monstress?” She was immediately like, “Yes, that sounds great, totally.” And then we wrote some stuff for it and tried to record her doing it and within 20 minutes she had found the voice. Then it was off to the races. Our cast is such a crazy, talented group of people. And to specifically have someone like Maya, who so beautifully embodies my mother, a very sweet, loving woman. And then it’s like, “Can you do a Hormone Monstress?” And she’s like, sure. “How about the ghost of Elizabeth Taylor?” Yeah, I can do that. And then it’s like, “What about a disgusting bathmat that a boy wants to have sex with?” And she’s like, yeah, I can do that.
The combination of people you have on the show is pretty amazing. It seems like this culmination of people you’ve worked with on other projects, including John Mulaney, Jason Mantzoukas and Jenny Slate. Do you think the fact that these are your real-life friends adds something special to the show?
Yeah, I think because it’s a show about friends and family, and most importantly the relationships you have at that age, having the show be comprised of all my truly closest friends and collaborators, I think for sure it infuses the show with a lot of love in a real way. And not only the people who are voicing the show, but also a bunch of the writers on the show are people that I’ve known [for a long time]. I’ve known Andrew since first grade, John and I became friends doing improv in college. Jason, Jenny and Jessi Klein I met in my first years in New York doing stand-up and improv. There’s a personal connection to almost everyone on the show. And I happen to be very lucky that my friends are the most talented, funny people. I hope that the show is infused with that feeling of friendship, because it’s such an important part of that time in your life, you know?
Yeah. And Jessi Klein, who you mentioned, is really great on the show. She’s mostly known as a writer and hasn’t done a ton of acting that I’m aware of. So what was it like getting to see her blossom, so to speak, into this part?
Amazing. I met Jessi probably on the second or third open mic I did in New York. We hosted a show together at a place called Rififi. She’s mainly known as a writer, obviously she was the head writer for Amy Schumer’s show and her book You’ll Grow Out of It is amazing. We were trying to figure out who would play this girl part, our friend, based on a friend of ours from that age, and I don’t know which one of us came up with it, but she’s got such a great, specific voice. Both literally she has a great-sounding voice and her voice as a really funny, smart, complicated woman, it was like, yes, her! While she has not done a ton of acting, she’s just great on the show and a lot of the stuff in season one that happens to her is the idea of what happens to girls at that age. She gets her period in the second episode, she discovers her vagina and that she has feelings of being horny, her parents start to go through a divorce. She has a lot of emotional ground to cover and she just does it beautifully.
The other interesting thing about this show is that it’s adults doing the voices and it’s definitely for adults in a lot of ways, but do you also think that it’s something kids who are the age of the characters could get a lot out of?
Yeah, I mean, I don’t know if I’m going to get in trouble for telling kids to watch this show, because it’s super dirty. But I do think, you know, people have asked me, what would you tell your 13-year-old self now? And what I would say is, you’re not alone. And so I think there are kids who could watch this show and be like, yeah, I’m not alone. People are going through this stuff. People are getting boners, people are getting their period. I have a crush, I don’t know how to talk to that person. I have these urges, these feelings inside of me and that’s what it is. It’s a hormone monster. I hope it gives kids and parents some version of tools to talk about these things. Because I think the more you demystify them, the less power they have over you. And the less likely you are to write YouTube comments on the trailer for Big Mouth that this is a show about pedophilia.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but there is a great meta joke at the end of the season where you acknowledge how weird it is that we’ve been watching so much pre-teen masturbation. Does that joke come from a real concern on your part that you pushed things too far or that things could be taken the wrong way?
I mean, yes, for sure. We made the joke so I’m conscious of the possibility that it could be taken that way. But I so strongly believe in what we’re doing. I just believe that, yes, it’s very dirty, but I’m also aware that we’re doing stuff that’s probably never been done before. South Park can be dirty, but it’s not necessarily this version of it. Sausage Party, which I’m a part of, is a hard R movie that looks like it should be for kids and it’s so not, but it’s not kids, it’s supermarket items. So, yes, I think we’ve all been acutely aware of that element of it and I think that while it’s very filthy and graphic, it’s always — the filthy and graphicness is often times for a reason. And also towards a greater good of trying to express very honestly about what kids are going through.
Yeah, it occurred to me that if Freaks and Geeks had been animated, they may have done some of the stuff that you guys are doing.
That’s kind of the show that, when we pitched it around, it was like, it’s a perverted Wonder Years, it sort of has elements of Freaks and Geeks and Superbad. But I do think because it’s animated, we were able to say and do things that would have been very tough to do otherwise.