Being in the writer's room for Big Mouth sounds like an insanely personal experience.
"We had all of our writers on day one bring a picture of themselves as an awkward-ass adolescent," Mark Levin, one of the show's creators and executive producers, told GameSpot.
"And if you looked too good, it's like, nah. You're not playing this game right," Andrew Goldberg, another EP/creator, added, laughing.
Big Mouth stars comedians Nick Kroll as his prepubescent self, and John Mulaney as a stand-in for a more-pubescent Goldberg. The two wrestle with their hormones--literally, in the case of Mulaney's character Andrew, who's haunted by a sex-obsessed Hormone Monster who encourages him to touch himself and constantly inserts inappropriate thoughts into his brain.
It's basically a Seinfeld situation; Kroll and Goldberg created the show, Kroll is himself, and Mulaney plays Goldberg. That makes Kroll, who ended his eponymous Kroll Show in 2015 after three critically acclaimed seasons on Comedy Central, Jerry Seinfeld; Mulaney, who appeared regularly on Kroll Show, is Jason Alexander; and Goldberg, who grew up with Kroll in real life, is pretty much Larry David.
That's a comparison Big Mouth itself acknowledges in a couple of gags throughout its 10-episode season. But it's not a perfect analogy, because on Seinfeld, you never watched George Costanza masturbate or saw Elaine use a handheld mirror to chat with her own vagina.
"I think the whole show, it was a question of, 'This is funny to us, but is it going to be funny to more than us?'" Levin said.
Bar Mitzvah Boys
We'd met during New York Comic Con at the NYC headquarters of Titmouse, the animation house that helped create Big Mouth. Titmouse co-founder Chris Prynoski, who sat in on the interview, said he was surprised how much heart the series has, in addition to all its dick and period jokes.
"We got away with a lot, really because we were with Netflix," Levin said. "Because they give you the creative freedom that you hear about, and in our whole careers we've never really experienced."
In Levin and Goldberg's original conception, the show would have been called "Bar Mitzvah Boys." But the idea morphed as Kroll became more involved and Levin was inspired by his own son's journey through puberty.
"Mark really empathized with [his son]," Goldberg said. "He was like, 'Is there some way to use animation to create some sort of physical manifestation of the angst of puberty? And I said, 'Like a hormone monster or something?'"
"Later that day I was on the phone with Nick and as soon as I said the words 'hormone monster' Nick instantly had the voice," Goldberg recalled. "And the first thing he said was 'Touch yourself Andrew.' I was like, 'Yes! That's it! Exactly! That's the guy!'"
The ultimate title, "Big Mouth," comes from Kroll's famously large mouth, which Goldberg said is drawn in the show to more or less realistic proportions for 12-year-old Nick Kroll. Much of the show's conflict arises from Nick's envy over Andrew's faster development. Nick gets jealous when he sees Andrew's pubes, for example, and he wonders when he's going to get his own Hormone Monster pal.
"Like 6th, 7th, 8th grade was when the two of us really spent every single moment together, like every night sleeping over at each other's houses, kind of becoming members of each other's families," Goldberg said. "Where the two kids are developmentally at that age is very much based on where Nick and I were. Puberty smashed me over the head like a two-by-four when I was about 12 years old, and Nick was a much later bloomer. At the time I didn't realize how much that affected him."
That's the kind of thing that came out in this writers room. "When we were interviewing writers to join this and sit at the table, we would ask them masturbation questions, and period questions, right in the interview," Levin said. "And then if they weren't comfortable there, they weren't going to be able to really feel comfortable in the room. So by the time we were in the room together it was a really safe environment."
"I think Nick and I would set the tone by being very honest," Goldberg added. "And it's one of those things where, like, when somebody says, 'Yeah, I came in my pants slow-dancing with a girl,' Nick says like, 'I got pantsed and had no pubic hair and a little penis and I was humiliated.' Everyone else is like, 'Oh yeah? Well I have to keep up, so I will tell you that what happened to me is this!'"
Those personal pre-teen embarrassments are where they mined most of the material for Big Mouth, from Andrew getting too excited while slow-dancing to their friend Jessi, voiced by comedian Jessi Klein, having her period for the first time while wearing white shorts on a school trip inside the Statue of Liberty--one of the biggest women in the world.
Levin's wife, Jennifer Flackett, worked on the show as executive producer and writer, and her experience was crucial for the episodes that focus on female characters like Jessi and Kroll Show alum Jenny Slate's Missy. Big Mouth goes way past periods while exploring female puberty, including an episode where the boys discover that "girls get horny too" when all the female characters--pre-teens, moms, and teachers alike--start obsessing over a made-up romance novel called The Rock of Gibraltar. The women even have their own Hormone Monstress, voiced by Maya Rudolph.
Goldberg and Levin said they were able to capture those often very personal things so effectively because of the women involved at every step of Big Mouth's creation. "You, as a man, don't totally relate, but you can tell that it resonates amongst them, and you trust them," Goldberg said.
The big question
When the show's first trailer debuted, some online commentators wondered at the legality--never mind the good taste--of showing animated pre-teens' genitals. Obviously, that came up during creation.
"The question was asked, I think by John Mulaney, on day one," Goldberg said. "He's like, 'Are we sure we're not doing child pornography?' And we really thought about it."
"I feel like the people who have those objections for the most part have not seen the show, and if they have, and they're looking at these images and finding them sexy or titillating, to me that says a lot more about them than the show," he continued. "What we've experienced a lot more is people watching the show and saying, 'Wow, that's just what it was like, or what it is like, going through this, and I feel better and not alone,' which is what our goal is."
Goldberg's parents, at least, approve--although to varying degrees. They aren't portrayed in the most flattering light in the show, and it just so happened that his mother, who was in town to watch their New York Comic Con panel, was also in the room for our interview.
Goldberg said he felt awkward showing Big Mouth to her and his dad, and their tepid reaction to the first episode caused a row between them and his wife.
Since then, "I think at least my mother has genuinely come around," Goldberg said. She confirmed that she'd watched the whole season after all, but she felt more comfortable watching it without her husband present.
"My father didn't appreciate the extended description of Marty's balls," Goldberg admitted.
"Well, I'm glad they got that far," Levin quipped. "That's good!"
Big Mouth Season 1 is available on Netflix now.