How Nick Kroll Turned His Most Embarrassing Puberty Stories into a New Animated Series

9 minute read

For most people, puberty is an embarrassing experience that they would never willingly revisit. But that’s precisely why comedian Nick Kroll wanted to address it in his new animated comedy series, Big Mouth, which hits Netflix Sept. 29. “As open as society is, there are still certain things that we feel like are too awkward to talk about,” he tells TIME. “And those are the things that we wanted to zero in on specifically.”

Big Mouth follows pals Nick (voiced by Kroll) and Andrew (voiced by John Mulaney) as they navigate the awkwardness and uncertainty of puberty. It does so in a way that’s explicit and unfiltered, with a star-studded cast that includes Maya Rudolph, Fred Armisen, Kat Dennings, Jessi Klein, Jordan Peele and frequent Kroll collaborators Jenny Slate and Jason Mantzoukas. Kroll co-created the series with real-life best friend and Family Guy writer Andrew Goldberg, drawing inspiration from their childhoods.

Anyone who has followed Kroll’s career knows that his roles have run the gamut: He and Mulaney have turned their bit as the tuna-loving, New York City old-timers Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland into a Broadway hit. He spent six years playing the smug trash-talker Rodney Ruxin on FX’s The League. In his own sketch comedy series Kroll Show, he played at least a dozen different characters ranging from the expressionless pet plastic surgeon Dr. Armond to a Degrassi-inspired Canadian high school misfit.

But in Big Mouth, Kroll plays himself, which he says has been a revealing experience. “[I] realized I’m still dealing with stuff I was going through when I was 13,” he says. “And I think a lot of the stuff that people deal with as adults, a lot of that formative stuff happens during those puberty years.” Kroll recently spoke with TIME about revisiting his childhood, why Big Mouth is about much more than just making people laugh and how his previous work influenced the show.

TIME: Big Mouth is based on your own experiences in middle school. But how many of the events that take place in the show are based on things that actually happened to you?

Nick Kroll: I created the show with Andrew Goldberg and Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett. Andrew Goldberg and I have known each other since the first grade. We became really best friends throughout middle school. They came to me with the idea for this show, and it immediately just made so much sense because of the experiences Andrew and I shared as kids. And a lot of the plot lines come from our lives, or experiences that our friends or people that we knew had.

There’s an episode where a girl gets her period for the first time in the Statue of Liberty on a class trip. That’s happened to a very good friend of ours. I was a very late bloomer. I don’t think I had my first pubic hair until I got to high school. Meanwhile, puberty hit Andrew hard and fast, and he could grow, like, a full beard by seventh or eighth grade. And there are a couple of other things that might not be appropriate for

You’ve known Andrew for most of your life, but this is the first time you’ve worked together, right?

We did a lip synching to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now,” probably about 24 years ago.

What did you learn from him?

I’ve learned so much from him. I think we’ve always complemented each other’s skill sets from when we were 13 years old hosting talent shows as Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World. But now as adults, we both have built very different skill sets. I had never made or produced animation before. And Andrew had been at Family Guy as a writer and producer for years. His knowledge and skills in producing and writing for animation are unbelievable. And I think it’s reflected in how good the show looks. The show looks like a Fox Sunday night lineup show. It doesn’t look like a lot of shows now.

What was it like to play a pre-teen version of yourself?

I’m in therapy, and there’s a lot of stuff that I will talk about in therapy and then go into my writer’s room the next day and realize that I’m still dealing with stuff I was going through when I was 13. And I think a lot of the stuff that people deal with as adults, a lot of that formative stuff happens during those puberty years. It sits with us. It was a very cathartic show to make, and I think it’s a cathartic show to watch. Puberty is something that people associate with awkwardness. Which it is, but once you can look back on it, there’s a great sort of weird nostalgia with it. And if you’re a kid that’s going through it, or has just gone through it, we’ve made a very awkward painful time in your life hopefully very funny and cathartic.

There are parts of the show that address tough personal situations that teens face, like questioning your sexual orientation and being pressured into sexual acts you don’t feel comfortable with. What was it like to think through these issues and how teenagers are experiencing them today?

As open as society is, there are still certain things that we feel like are too awkward to talk about. And those are the things that we wanted to zero in on specifically. Every episode has a theme of something that is really intrinsic to puberty and adolescence — and the things that we went through. The last episode is all about porn. When I was a kid maybe you could find a dirty magazine in the woods, but now kids have access to pornography on their phones. That’s a crazy thing that we’ve given kids access to. Our goal was to address the real things that kids are feeling, but do it in a way that would ultimately feel funny. So maybe there’s a lesson in there, but hopefully you’re going to enjoy yourself and laugh through the pain and awkwardness.

Parts of certain episodes are really graphic and raunchy. How did you decide where to draw the line?

Netflix gave us incredible latitude in going for it. In fact, [they] encouraged us at almost every stage to just go for it. In that first episode, Nick sees Andrew’s penis. Now there aren’t probably a ton of animated shows where you’d see a 13-year-old boy’s penis. But it’s incredibly important to the story that you see this other boy’s penis and how it makes him feel because his penis doesn’t look like that yet.

There [was] one moment in [a different episode] where Netflix was like, “Hey this is too far.” I won’t even explain it because it was too graphic. And we agreed, we were on the same page. We knew we had an opportunity to show and talk about stuff that really has never been discussed as directly as we hoped to do. So we leaned into it.

It seems like a few of the characters on Big Mouth are influenced by your characters from Kroll Show. I think the most obvious one is Coach Steve, who is a lot like Ref Jeff. Did you create these characters based on personalities from Kroll Show?

It’s a complicated sort of system of figuring it out. Coach Steve, who sounds like Ref Jeff and has some of the same wants and needs [as Ref Jeff], is based on people that I experienced when I was a kid. Lola, who I voice as well, sounds like Liz from “Publizity.” So yeah, there were characters that I’ve been playing and playing with for a long time even before Kroll Show that still had a place in this show.

There are certain vocal things that are fun to do that I was able to channel for this. Coach Steve takes on a life of his own from what you saw on Kroll Show to this character. And that’s the beauty of being able to do 10 episodes. You get to watch them evolve and become entirely their own creations. People have been asking for a while, “I miss Kroll Show, when is Kroll Show coming back?” And obviously it’s not. We finished it. But I do think Big Mouth will scratch that itch for them.

This is the first cartoon you’ve worked on in this capacity. How did you prepare for that? Did you watch more animation than usual?

Leading up to it I’ll [watch] some stuff just to be like, “How did they do this?” But at some point, I stopped watching other animation so that it doesn’t affect the work that we’re doing. I grew up watching The Simpsons, and it was a major influence on me. Other shows like F is for Family and BoJack Horseman, they were able to push things, being on Netflix. Loren Bouchard from Bob’s Burgers was really kind to sit down with Mark, Jen, Andrew and I, and just talk about the process by which their show works, about getting the actors together to improvise — which is something that we were going to do just because it’s all my friends and that’s how we’ve always worked.

How many seasons do you have in mind for Big Mouth? Is this a show you can see yourself doing for a long time?

I hope so. It’s truly a joy to make because I made it with my friends. Literally, I met Andrew in the first grade. John Mulaney, I met in college. Jason [Mantzoukas], Jessi [Klein] and Jenny [Slate] I met in New York when I was just starting out doing comedy. To be able to make a show with your friends about a group of friends and family is a gift and a blessing. There are so many more stories of adolescence and puberty to tell. So hopefully we’ll keep making more and sharing the beautiful nightmare that is adolescence is with the world.

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