Nick Kroll on the ‘Meta Experience’ of Making ‘Big Mouth’

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Of all the decor inside Big Mouth’s Hollywood production offices—Hormone Monster paraphernalia, plot spoilers scribbled on Post-its, and an entire wall devoted to the 2017 #PuberMe viral challenge wherein celebs like Stephen Colbert and Connie Britton bravely shared their awkward teen photos—the most eye-catching is a modest-pink framed certificate from Planned Parenthood. The health care organization anointed the series a “Champion of Choice” for a hot-button episode that took its pubescent heroes on a surreal space odyssey during which they learned about, among other things, abortion, contraceptives, and STDs.

Actor-writer-producer Nick Kroll, who created the Emmy-nominated show with his childhood friend Andrew Goldberg, plus Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, says Big Mouth’s broader cultural impact has been a nice bonus. But it hasn’t taken away from their mission of making kids feel less alone through its frank depictions of budding sexuality, physical transformation, and countless jokes about “jerking off.”

Kroll, 41, chatted with Fortune about the biggest challenges of marrying R-rated humor with emotion in the series (which has been renewed through season six), the jokes that Netflix has killed along the way, and what making Big Mouth has taught him about his own adulthood.

Nick-Kroll-Big Mouth-Netflix-05A wall lined with photos from the #PuberMe viral challenge inside the “Big Mouth” production offices in Hollywood.

Joe Toreno for Fortune

Did you have any idea that making a show about puberty would become a political act?

Our hope was to make a show for as many people as possible to enjoy. To see the show resonate on another level is wonderful, but it wasn’t our goal to do an episode about Planned Parenthood. Whether you support the organization or you don’t—it’s highly political. But so is talking about sexuality, the #MeToo movement, gender identity, and sexual fluidity. It’s all so present in the culture right now that doing a show about kids going through puberty has essentially become a proxy for what a lot of people are going through, whether they’re 13 or 35.

Season three feels like a natural evolution in that it’s more specific to what it feels like to be a kid in 2019. Was that intentional?

Yes, we wanted to tackle more current issues, like cell phone use, but also make it feel universal for adults. In the first few episodes, my character, Nick, has an obsession with his smartphone, Cellsea, who’s played by Chelsea Peretti. I can’t imagine being a kid today; going to bed at night with a phone under the covers and the world at my fingertips.

One of my favorite parts of the new season is seeing Jay, the character voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, explore his bisexuality. And I love that you chose the most obnoxious, hyper-male, hyper-perverted character to go on this journey.

At first he was like, “Is it gay if I do X?” Then it sort of revealed itself to us over time: “Oh, Jay might be bisexual!” He clearly likes girls, but he likes boys too. So we really dug into that. For kids today, there’s such a different level of desire to identify themselves. And one good thing about phones and the Internet is that they have so many places now to learn about who they might be.

Nick-Kroll-Big Mouth-02“Doing a show about kids going through puberty has essentially become a proxy for what a lot of people are going through, whether they’re 13 or 35,” Kroll tells Fortune.

Joe Toreno for Fortune

Some of the more absurd recurring scenes are those featuring the ghosts who live in Nick’s attic, including Freddie Mercury, Whitney Houston, and a very foulmouthed Duke Ellington, voiced by Jordan Peele. Are those moments reminders to the audience that, despite the heart and relatability of this show, you are in fact watching a very R-rated cartoon?

[Laughs] To a degree. We were looking for another element beyond the Hormone Monsters that felt surreal. I remember visiting [composer] Cole Porter’s house once in the Berkshires with my family. It had a room wallpapered with laminated sheet music, which stuck with me. I said, “It’d be cool if Nick’s house was haunted by the ghost of a musician, like Duke Ellington!” I’m really excited for people to see the episode this season where Duke tells the kids how he lost his virginity in 1913 Washington, D.C. Wanda Sykes plays the ghost of Harriet Tubman, who’s haunting Duke’s house. [Laughs]

Speaking of Jordan and Wanda, Big Mouth has an incredible cast and guest-star roster of A-list comedians and actors. How do you schedule all this talent? Do they do all their voice work remotely?

The beauty of animation is you can get an insane cast you never could for a live-action series. Whenever possible, we do table reads on Tuesdays here in L.A. and then record at a studio nearby on Thursdays. For someone like Jordan who’s all over the world directing movies, we write to what he’s available to do and then record a bunch of his episodes at once. With someone like [costar] John [Mulaney], if he’s recording in New York, and I’m here, I can read with him and give notes over Skype.

At what point do your animators create the visuals?

After we’ve written the script and had a table read, our art director and his team begin to design new characters and sets for the episode. The actors record the finished script and with whatever improv comes out of the booth we edit together a “radio play” which is a pure audio version of the show, without pictures. That’s when the storyboard artists and directors start drawing detailed storyboards for each scene. Those are edited together and laid on top of the radio play, creating a black-and-white “animatic,” which offers a good idea of the episode’s vibe. After a few rounds of revising that, the show is shipped to Korea where all the color and fluid movement is added. But all the design and storyboarding is all done out of our studio in Los Angeles. It’s a lot of steps, and I think one of the reasons animation is so popular right now is because you get so many chances to make it better. 

Nick-Kroll-Big Mouth-04An animator sketches Nick Birch and Maury the Hormone Monster.

Joe Toreno for Fortune

What’s been the most difficult part of that process that you didn’t anticipate?

Our show is super dirty but also incredibly emotional. So the challenge is, How do you give equal weight to both of those elements? A lot of people watch Big Mouth because they love masturbation jokes. But what makes it work on a deeper different level is its emotional depth. Dirty stuff works best when it’s balanced.

I love how the parents in Big Mouth are as flawed and confused as the kids. They’re struggling with sexuality, fidelity, and their own aging challenges.

We are the people we are because of who raised us—for better or worse, you know? So we wanted to be able to tell the parents’ stories too. For example, in episode three of the new season, Andrew [Glouberman]’s mom is starting to go through menopause, so we brought in the Menopause Banshee character.

She’s horrifying.

Yeah, and she’s coming for everyone! [Laughs] That’s Carol Kane doing the voice. By the way, in the same episode, [comedian-actor] Julie Klausner plays Andrew’s sexy cousin Cherry, and Julie went to elementary school with me and Andrew [Goldberg] too.

And in keeping with Big Mouth tradition, Andrew [Glouberman] is sexually attracted to Cherry. Has Netflix ever had to rein you in when your story lines push the “ick” factor too far?

They’ve let us do the craziest shit, but there a few things that didn’t make it. For example, showing the Hormone Monster having intercourse with the severed head of Garrison Keillor; that was one moment where they were like, “Maybe pull up the frame a bit so we don’t actually see it?”

Was this before or after Keillor’s #MeToo allegations surfaced?

We’d written it before that. Then the #MeToo stuff happened, and we were like, “Oh good! We had a feeling.” [Laughs] There was another moment when Missy has a fantasy that Andrew and [actor] Nathan Fillion are fighting over her, and the two guys kiss. Netflix was like, “This is too far.” And we’re like, “But this is Missy’s fantasy.” And they said, “We understand, but we can’t have a real-life grown man making out with a 13-year-old boy.” We were like, “Okay, fair enough!”

Nick-Kroll-Big Mouth-03For Kroll, “Big Mouth” is another platform where people can navigate a confusing part of life.

Joe Toreno for Fortune

Big Mouth has done a great job of equalizing the puberty experience for boys and girls. What has been your edict on this front?

Historically depictions of puberty have been: Boys are horny; girls get their periods. But girls get horny too! So we’re conscious about showing the parallels and the differences. A girl can get her period early but not be sexual for a long time and vice versa. We read a lot of Peggy Orenstein, who wrote books like Girls & Sex, among others. And what we’ve learned is that we all spend a lot of time teaching girls how to protect themselves from sex but never about physical pleasure; and a lot of time ignoring what boys go through emotionally and focusing instead on how much they jerk off. And our writers all had a variety of experiences on this front, from “There was nothing discussed in my house” to “There were books everywhere.” I personally had the book What’s Happening to Me?, and my sister read a lot of Judy Blume. There’s such a range in how people navigate this period of life; we’re trying to give them another platform and vocabulary to figure it out.

You voice four main characters, including Lola, Coach Steve, Maury the Hormone Monster, and your alter ego, Nick. Is the latter easier or more difficult to perform because he’s a version of yourself?

Coach Steve is a real sweetie. He goes on a real journey this year! The Queer Eye guys give him a makeover. It’s our first big celebrity-crossover moment. [Laughs] I do think Nick is hardest for me to voice because I don’t have as much to do vocally. But it’s also hard to look back on yourself as a kid and think, “Okay, what would I have said here?” It’s a very meta experience. 

What have you learned about yourself in making Big Mouth?

That the things that happen to us at 12 and 13 stick with us for the rest of our lives. They become part of our patterning. I was really small at that age, and that made me want to perform and show everybody what I was worth because I wasn’t gonna be the biggest guy in the room. I think that forced me early on to develop a sense of humor.

Are there story lines that and you and your writers pulled directly from your lives?

A friend of ours did get her period at the Statue of Liberty, like Jessi did in season one. And another guy we knew used to fuck his pillow like Jay does. He’s been really proud to see that come to life. [Laughs]

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