“Accept Rejection, Not Regret.” Nick Kroll Talks Creating The Hit Netflix Animated Series ‘Big Mouth’
According to screenwriter-actor-producer Nick Kroll, animation is the key to true freedom on the small screen. “We can have things like the Hormone Monster and the Shame Wizard as outside forces that influence our kids, but they are simultaneously integrated into who the kids are…”
“Animation allows us to express a lot of the kids’ inner turmoil and emotions, feelings, desires, and urges. Also, because it’s animated, we can get away with much more graphic jokes and things that would be very hard to watch with real-life kids. Plus, having adults voice the characters, we can take more risks and chances knowing it’s adults behind the show and not kids.”
Along with co-creators Jennifer Flackett (Nim’s Island), Andrew Goldberg (Family Guy), and Mark Levin (Journey to the Center of the Earth), Kroll knew he wanted to feature a show about two children in very different physical places. Based on the young lives of Kroll and Goldberg, Big Mouth started to take shape.
“I was a very late bloomer,” joked Kroll about his childhood, which is now being expressed through the character, Nick Birch. “These two boys are best friends, but they’re physically in different places. As we started developing the idea, we realized it was about these boys, but also about other kids going through puberty. In a broader sense, it’s also about human sexuality.”
“With puberty, the stakes feel so high,” added Kroll. “It felt like a fruitful subject to explore in a show. I was exposed to a girl I liked in seventh grade. Andrew had his upper lip waxed by his parents around that age. He definitely came in his pants dancing with a girl,” he joked. All these real-life images found their way into Big Mouth.
“We had a friend who—for lack of a better term—made love to his pillow around that age. We had another friend who got her period for the first time on a class trip to the Statue of Liberty. Then, there are other little bits and pieces around me being a late bloomer—both physically and psychologically.”
Kroll said many of the plot points came from real-life stories, but then major departures added to the jokes and extended the universal ideas. In the end, of course, the point of every comedy is to make people laugh.
Creating An Animated Comedy
“Because we’re on Netflix and because of the time we’re making the show, we can really push the envelope with comedy and do some really crazy stuff because it’s simultaneously balanced with heartfelt emotional truths. I think the juxtaposition of those real emotional moments and crazy jokes allow the other to blossom.”
“Trying to find that balance between the two, allows for both sides of the show to really blossom,” added the voice actor. Personally, Kroll doesn’t feel like he has a direct genre of comedy that defines him. Known for projects like The League, Adult Beginners, and Parks and Recreation, Kroll is making a name for himself in all types of comedy.
“I like strong characters. I like flawed characters that I also try to find some humanity in—even for the grossest characters I try to find some sympathy for who they are as a person,” he added. “I also think my style follows the idea of constantly trying to do new things and not be complacent in a single style. I have the most fun when I feel like I’m breaking patterns from the past.”
For fans of Big Mouth, it certainly feels like anything goes. “We don’t have a hard-and-fast line or restriction. Netflix has given us almost no notes or limitations on what we can say and do.” So far, Netflix has only offered notes on a handful of unpolished ideas presented for the show.
One idea involved Coach’s Hormone Monster, Rick, when he “pulled a thermometer out of his sick little dick…” Kroll confirmed it was disgusting, so when Netflix mentioned losing it, they didn’t put up a fight. “When it feels right, it feels right. When it feels a little too gross, you can change it. With animation, you have so many steps where you can see where the line is…”
No Stranger to Controversy
In addition to crossing the boundaries of comedy, Kroll and company also want to bring up controversial subjects such as #MeToo and Planned Parenthood. The writers actually reached out to Planned Parenthood for stories and they decided to do a whole episode around the idea.
“We wanted to talk about the different services that Planned Parenthood offered around reproductive health. We wanted to talk about it, but ultimately to also be funny. Whatever we’re doing or saying, we are a comedy and that is our primary goal with Big Mouth.”
Kroll said the writers remain aware of how their show can influence viewers, but their main goal will always be comedy. “There are other people out there to educate,” he added. “We anticipated that there would be some controversy, especially from that particular episode. That’s the beauty of making art. People are going to take different things from what you’re making…”
“We’re not Sex Ed... We’re a comedy show that talks about major issues involving puberty and sexuality. Because of that, we get into some big societal topics. I really hesitate to say we’re a Community Service or Sex Ed,” he added. “I’m very hesitant to position us as anything other than a comedy show.”
Wearing Multiple Hats
As an actor, writer, and producer, Kroll enjoys the variety within his work. “I think I enjoy each one more as I do the other ones. Last year, we wrote and voiced Big Mouth, then I went off and made a couple of movies. I made a silly comedy called Uncle Drew and a more serious film called Operation Finale. By the time I came back, I was excited to get back in the room to work on Big Mouth.”
“I like the variety and I do think that each one informs the other. My writing helps with my acting and my acting informs my writing. Producing keeps me aware of what and how to do everything else.” Amidst the many comedies in Kroll’s life, he landed the role of Rafi Eitan in the drama film Operation Finale.
Opposite Ben Kingsley and Oscar Issac, the dark tale follows the real life, post-WWII story about a team of Jewish agents set out to track down an escaped Nazi officer named Adolph Eichmann who orchestrated the Holocaust. “With that movie, the story is something I was familiar with—as an American Jew.”
In addition to the compelling story, Kroll also wanted to work with the amazing cast and crew on the film. This way, he got to push his boundaries as an actor. But, in terms of some of his most important advice, he advises for people to consider therapy and get to know themselves. This way, one can battle fear and rejection.
“Get to know yourself. It will make you a better person and a better artist. Because I went to therapy, I learned early on to acknowledge my fear. Once I could acknowledge fear, I found that the things I was scared of held much less power over me and I think I learned that lesson very early on. It has served me as a performer and a writer.”
“Another thing that I think I’ve said in the past is that I’m much more scared of regret than rejection. Those things have gotten me to where I am. Every successful person has fallen on their face. You get back up and keep going.”
“Right now, big ideas inspire me. In Big Mouth, the idea of talking about puberty and sexuality is so universal. Everyone goes through puberty and everyone has their own connection to that. Once you find a big idea, I enjoy telling smaller specific ideas within that big idea.”
Despite being a universal idea, the show might not be for everyone (or at least not for everyone at the same time). “I’ve heard about people watching with their kids and how awkward it can be,” joked Kroll. “The safest version is everyone watching it separately, but the idea is that it gives a vocabulary platform so kids and parents can talk to each other about these big things.”
Whether kids are talking to their parents, friends, or educators at school, the writers behind Big Mouth want to start a conversation about the woes of puberty. “I don’t know what it’s like to watch the show with a kid, but I do believe that everyone can watch it separate and hopefully it appeals to both and sparks conversations.”
The Unstoppable Writer
When refilling the tank for his inspiration, Kroll enjoys hiking in the wilderness or spending time outside. He travels when he gets the chance and mainly just tries to escape the writer’s room in between jobs. This way, his experiences in life help replenish the well for creativity for projects to come.
In terms of advice, Kroll recommends improv and stand-up for any comedy writer, even if he or she doesn’t wish to perform. The most important thing is to find a supportive community. “Writing can be such a solitary activity that you really need to find a community or group of friends to read your stuff, or be in your stuff, or you be in their stuff, because there’s no substitute for a community. If you look at Big Mouth, almost every voice on the show is someone I met through doing comedy.”
“Comedy writers should also go make stuff—even if it’s just two-minute videos. Reading something off of a page is incredibly important, but I think hearing and seeing people’s vision past the writing stage can help producers, actors, and directors who are hiring. Sometimes, what’s written on the page doesn’t pop as much as seeing or hearing it.”
“It’s a frugal time in television because of the number of places we can make stuff and people can buy stuff. I think it’s given a lot of different types of people and types of comedy different platforms, which is the best. You have more people in writers’ rooms and on sets directing, editing, and everything else in between. That allows for more people to get more experience that they could in the past.”
“If you look back at the 90s, you had networks, HBO, and maybe Comedy Central. Now, the amount of places where you can make things has given a lot more people the opportunity to get experience and to create and to make even better material,” said Kroll.
As for his Netflix hit, the series is currently contained within the animation medium, but Kroll says there could be other forms of media in the future. “We think the opportunities are endless when it comes to puberty. Just like puberty, there’s no stopping Big Mouth.”
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