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Cuma, Nisan 23, 2021

How Nick Kroll Became the Picasso of Puberty

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Vanessa Kroll walked into a writers’ room in Los Angeles on a Wednesday afternoon last year and smiled at the 14 people sprawled and seated and wedged inside it. One writer looked up and smiled back at her. “Oh, hi!” the writer said. “We were just talking about your brother’s dick.”

Vanessa, who was stopping by to say hello while in town, made herself comfortable in a chair. Her younger brother, Nick Kroll, was seated at the far end of the room. Nick waved to his sister. The conversation continued. The room was not in fact talking about Kroll’s genitals, but about the genitals of a cartoon character codeveloped by him and named after him and based on a younger version of him who appears on the Netflix show “Big Mouth,” which has had three seasons and will have at least three more. It was a thin distinction but an important one, at least H.R.-wise. The discussion veered from individual penis specs to more abstract questioning and back again:

And so on, all day. If it was surreal to listen to 14 people talk in detail about the intimate anatomy of someone named Nick who was based on a real person named Nick who was sitting at the table and contributing to the discussion, surely it was weirder to be Nick himself. The more you thought about it, the more layers of peculiarity accrued. Here was a room of well-compensated and well-credentialed and — judging by the graveyard of Spindrift seltzer cans on the table — well-hydrated people going on for hours about the penises and vaginas and nipples of televised cartoon preteens with the focus and clarity of, I don’t know, Paul Volcker testifying before Congress. Some of them were doing it for the fifth year in a row. All of them would be coming back tomorrow to do it again, and from these conversations — and from animation, voicing and editing — would emerge another season of what I’m pretty sure is the greatest work of puberty-themed art ever created.

It’s true that this is not a high bar to clear. Of all the traumas afflicting humans — betrayal, illness, death, war — puberty is the one that gets shortest shrift in representational form. There are countless books and films and graphic novels about coming of age, but it’s rare that they have such a singular focus on the biological mechanisms of the transformation. Maybe artists tend to avoid it because the experience is so grim that they can’t bear to revisit it or because much of it is about minors becoming sexual, which is (justifiably) difficult to depict in a palatable or legal form.

And yet puberty is a worthy topic, rich in pathos and discovery and plot twists. Compared with aging, which happens over a long enough period that a person can become resigned to it, puberty is a drone strike of outrageous terror. I still remember the day I started sweating under my arms. (1998, seventh grade, Mr. Trapasso’s class.) The idea that I would spend the rest of my life attached to my own armpits — these moist and endlessly productive sites of pollution — seemed intolerable. Puberty is body horror in its purest form. It’s the menace that can’t be fled or destroyed; it’s the realization that your own self is the enemy at the gate. I am amazed that anyone gets through it. All of which is to say, it’s smart but also possibly inevitable that Kroll and his co-creators picked “animated series” as the format for “Big Mouth,” their puberty opus about a group of seventh graders in Westchester County.

If puberty is eternal, ideas of what it means to enter young adulthood have changed. The new season of “Big Mouth,” which will be released Friday, introduces the character of Natalie, a transgender kid. When Natalie arrives at summer camp, she is met by a chorus of boys — bunkmates from before her transition — who pelt her with questions like “What does your crotch look like?” and “Do you pee standing up or lying down?” The girl campers offer an alternative reaction: “Yaas, queen! Go off, girlboss. Pussy hat. Slay.” The boys act like crude morons, which is dehumanizing to Natalie. The girls perform a well-intentioned but shallow cheerleading, which is also dehumanizing to Natalie. The joke, however fraught — however easy to simply not make — isn’t at her expense. Built into the scene is the touchy argument that contemporary life’s most sensitive issues deserve to be taken seriously but also joked about; that, in fact, license to do the second is contingent upon the first.

Kroll grew up in Rye, N.Y., with three older siblings. In 1972 his father founded Kroll Inc., a lucrative corporate-intelligence firm that provided “risk solutions” to the financial sector (translation: a detective agency, but for businesses). Kroll didn’t lack much growing up, either materially or emotionally. He was close with his family. He had friends; his closest was Andrew Goldberg (one of the creators of “Big Mouth” and the basis of a character named, unsurprisingly, Andrew). He played sports. Everything was fine until high school, which he entered at barely five feet tall. By junior year he shot up about 10 inches and is now exactly the height of the average American man, but the chapter of time spent undersized among larger males affected Kroll’s psyche the way a can of Raid affects an ant.

The problem wasn’t only that he was little for a freshman. The problem was also that by the time Kroll hit puberty, most of his peers had progressed through the initial stages of the disease and were in remission. “When you hit puberty in seventh or eighth grade and you’re superhorny all of a sudden, it’s not expected that you have an outlet for it,” Kroll told me. “But when you’re superhorny in high school, there’s the possibility that there’s an outcome with another person.” The possibility, but not the guarantee, or even the likelihood. “I spent a lot of high school having crushes on pretty girls who were my friends. Being like, ‘I really like you,’ and them being like: ‘That’s very sweet. I’m gonna go give that lacrosse player with multiple concussions a hand job.’” Kroll’s response took the form of repression: The next time he got a crush on someone, he rolled his feelings into a ball and buried it.

Like many men who were rejected by girls in high school, Kroll turned to improv comedy, which he discovered while attending Georgetown. He moved to New York City in 2002 after graduating and got a job at a Gramercy public school, where he taught comedy to middle-school kids in an afternoon program. The job left his mornings and evenings free to do open mics and Upright Citizens Brigade classes and get an agent and start auditioning for voice-over work. In 2011 he released the comedy special on Comedy Central called “Thank You Very Cool,” which offers a useful data point for measuring the distance between Kroll’s Old Comedy (roughly, everything before “Big Mouth”) and his New Comedy (everything after).

Credit…Jeff Minton for The New York Times

The Old Comedy was more abrasive and more childish, though not in an unfunny way. He played characters that could have plausibly been drawn from his own life, like a rich imbecile named Aspen Bruckenheimer who considers himself a martyr for having flown coach one time. But he also played a growling Mexican radio D.J. named El Chupacabra and a Pitbull-style pop star with a raspy Cuban accent. Then there’s the part in “Thank You Very Cool” in which Kroll plays Fabrice Fabrice, a seemingly gay and “possibly Blatino” craft-services worker. As Fabrice, he tells the following joke:

“I’m not allowed to say ‘retarded’ on TV, so what I’m gonna say is ‘a frittata person.’ There’s not a big difference between celebrities and frittatas. They both get driven everywhere, people are always asking who dressed them, and if you make eye contact with them, they [expletive] flip out at you.”

Now, this is not a joke Kroll would perform in 2020. It is almost a textbook example of a bit that would get a person in hot water today, not merely because it mocks three minority groups but also because many people just … don’t find jokes of this kind funny anymore. Like it or not, the political and the aesthetic have become inseparable in comedy these days. It would be understandable — not necessarily sympathetic, but understandable — if Kroll reacted with a sense of bitterness at being forced to rethink his comedy. But he hasn’t done that. His comedy is still his comedy, and he’s not aggrieved at the process of, as he calls it, “gaining perspective.”

Take, for example, the first time the creators of “Big Mouth” really came under fire on Twitter. This was last fall. The outcry was against a scene that some viewers perceived as insensitive. It’s too long to summarize here, but basically, a character on the show differentiated pansexuality from bisexuality by implying that bisexuality was not inclusive of nonbinary people. There was a narrow but loud outcry. Perhaps surprising, it was the first time Kroll had gotten significant pushback on “Big Mouth,” and I was curious to know a few things about the incident. Starting with: How does a person in his position become aware of such things? Does a Netflix executive leave a menacing “We need to talk” voice mail message?

“All of a sudden there was an email saying something like — not ‘The pansexuality crisis,’ but an email heading that was between us and Netflix and P.R. that was like, ‘Pansexuality controversy,’” Kroll said. He delved into the email and the tweets that sparked it. There were calls and meetings. The show’s co-creators drafted a letter of apology. Their respective teams weighed in on the letter, and the letter was posted to Twitter. This is how P.R. blunders are handled in the 21st century.

As Kroll saw it, the bigger issue wasn’t about a vocal minority on Twitter policing comedy but about ego management. “The question is, Can you take the note?” he said. Can you unwind your defensive stance? Can you question your own judgment? And that of your best friend? In the pansexual case, yes.

But, I asked him, what if you get a bad note? Not all notes are good notes, even if they go viral on Twitter. What do you do then?

“Well,” he said, “you have to look at the note. And take an honest look at yourself. And when we honestly took a look at that scene, we can say we didn’t do it as well as we wanted to.” He shrugged. Naturally, the response to the response to the pansexual scene caused its own hand-wringing on Twitter; in this case, about the imposition of a very specific brand of progressive identity politics on comedy. But Kroll didn’t see it that way. The freedom to transgress had not been revoked; you just had to think a second longer about what you were transgressing. Also, comic talent has always encompassed an ability to self-adjust at lightning speed. It’s called reading the room. (“Big Mouth” adjusted again to the tenor of conversation this summer, when the actor Jenny Slate, who is white, resigned from her voice role as Missy, a half-Black character.)

Kroll told a story by way of explanation. Last year, he and his extended family went on a trip to the Galápagos. As they traveled from island to island, observing the archipelago’s famously rich diversity of flora and fauna, he became especially interested in a species of marine iguana that can survive even if its tail is bitten off by a bird. The marine iguana was a metaphor, he felt: We all need to be the iguana. “The landscape is changing,” he said. “I can either dig my feet in and be like, ‘This isn’t fair!’ or I can be like: ‘OK! How do I adapt?’”

Kroll suggested an uphill climb for our next interview. On the trail at Griffith Park, he explained his reasoning: Hiking put you in a situation where you weren’t using your phone, it prevented you from getting sleepy (which he often does) and it provided a scenic visual experience. Also, he added, “You’re walking straight forward and you don’t have to look at each other, and for guys that can be helpful.” For a winter outing in Los Angeles he wore an olive fleece vest, high-traction shoes and pants that looked antimicrobial. It was 8:15 a.m.

The surrounding vegetation retained the rare smell of rain, which had come down the night before and subdued the path’s dust. This was where he’d come up with a lot of the ideas for “Big Mouth” — on strolls with collaborators, where they would work out beats and then carry the beats back to the writers’ room and merge them with ideas from the rest of the team, in a system that Kroll and the show’s co-creators had refined over time. The writers’ room had Rules. No phones or screens allowed. The hours — 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.-ish — were fairly consistent. “There are a lot of writers’ rooms that are there until 2 in the morning, and I’m like, ‘How is that possible?’” Kroll said. “And they’re like, ‘Well, we watched eight videos of people we hate.’ We don’t do that at all.”

Left to right: Maya Rudolph as Connie the Hormone Monstress, Nick Kroll as Nick Birch and John Mulaney as Andrew Glouberman in “Big Mouth.”Credit…Netflix

Keeping up an aerobic pace, we reached the summit quickly and looked out over Los Angeles. It was ravishing. He greeted a dog that reminded him of Freddie Mercury and remarked on the ubiquity of coyotes in the area. “I’m gonna be a real basic fella and take a panoramic,” Kroll said. As he panned, a faint smell of smoke arrived on the breeze.

“Have you ever cooked or baked in a wood-fire oven?” he asked.

Yes, I said, but it activates my rosacea.

Kroll nodded. “I have that too.” Not rosacea, he clarified, but eczema — a similarly demonic skin condition. “From what I can tell, the Jews get eczema and the Irish get rosacea. Maybe if you did a 23andMe, you’d find out that you’re Irish.”

Kroll covers skin problems extensively in his stand-up. He has had eczema since he was a kid, and it has gotten worse over time. “It sucks, it sucks,” he said. Before embarking on his most recent stand-up tour, Kroll went hiking with his friend and collaborator Jason Mantzoukas, running material past him — including the skin stuff — and Mantzoukas kept delivering the same note: “Dig deeper. You’re on the cusp of something interesting, but what was actually going on?”

Kroll tracked the eczema thread back to puberty. It was maddening, he said, to be in your 40s and not know how to handle your skin. If not now, when? The eczema was a wormhole back into adolescence. On “Big Mouth,” this sense of helpless mortification is personified in the form of Hormone Monsters, which are literal monsters that are only visible to children in the throes of puberty. Maya Rudolph voices Connie, a confusingly sexy monster with cloven hooves and ripe thighs. Kroll voices Maury, the smuttiest monster, who does stuff like burst from a desk during Sex Ed class and hover behind a student as the kid struggles to suppress an erection. “Fallopian, what a savory word,” Maury murmurs into the boy’s ear. “Let’s go to the bathroom and climax into that thin toilet paper.” The personification of glandular secretions as chaotic beasts is so crystalline a metaphor that it’s almost not a metaphor.

What had become clear in creating “Big Mouth” with a diverse roomful of writers, Kroll said, was that every version of personhood came with its own set of problems — its own Hormone Monster — and that nobody had it easy. Puberty was the mighty leveler. It spared no girl or boy or gender-nonconforming child. If Kroll could mine his own adolescence for laughs, imagine the possibilities lurking in the histories of comedy writers whose lives looked vastly different from his! For every eczema-riddled short guy, there was an acne-smothered wet-dreaming giant, or an asexual unwieldy-breasted loner, or a wispily-mustached smelly jock. Every adult on earth has a puberty story. The trick was to construct a room where those stories could be told.

When I visited the writers’ room on a second afternoon, Kroll was eating a Sweetgreen salad and had time to give a tour of the premises, forking leaves as he walked. Here was his new office, which contained almost nothing except a computer and a view of the parking lot. Here was the kitchen, which featured a fridge crammed with alternative milks. Here was the wall filled with pictures of fans’ “Big Mouth” tattoos. One person had gotten a pubic hair inked on his foot. Someone else (I hope) had a line drawing of a unicorn having sex with Mr. Clean. And here, again, was the writer’s room, a too-small rectangle cluttered with water bottles, colored pencils and limp backpacks. Pinned to the wall were index cards scribbled with things like SOCIETAL BREAKDOWN and YOU ARE ALONE and POO-POO.

The writers filtered back in after lunch and got to work. A few days earlier they had been dispatched on research assignments, each tackling a different topic — cystic acne, female friendship, revenge porn — to see whether it might qualify as a theme for Season 5. They had taken turns presenting their findings to the group; the research was now absorbed and being transformed into story lines. The numbers one through 10, for the season’s 10 episodes, were written on a whiteboard, and under the numbers were plot points on colored index cards. It looked like Tetris. As they shifted cards around, an assistant kept notes on a running doc projected onto a screen. Conversation veered from Large Questions (Why does trauma affect people differently? How do you know if your father loves you?) to minor tangents (meatball subs; something called Big Nipple Energy).

The environment seemed terrifyingly unstructured. There were no assigned seats or hourly schedules, but people seemed to intuit their lanes. If you took the governing laws of the room and made them visible, it would look like one of those museum laser-security systems in a heist movie. In these ways it was like all writers’ rooms, but in other ways it was different. Kroll was constantly interrupted but did not himself interrupt, and there was no sneeze within five meters that did not receive his blessing — both minor, but detectable inversions of the customary alpha-male dynamic. The word “nut” was used as a verb 19 times. And the air seemed pumped with a kind of atomized truth serum, as writers spoke freely about their childhood weight problems, their family histories of abuse, their masturbation habits and the porn they watched. This, Goldberg later explained, was a reason they banned phones from the room. “We talk about vulnerable things,” he said, “and it would feel [expletive] to share something personal and have someone be checking their email.” The pandemic, of course, evaporated this and all the other rules. Ever since what Kroll called “the Tom Hanks Moment” — when the actor revealed that he and his wife had Covid-19 — the team has convened and written over Zoom.

There’s one episode in particular that distills the show’s essence into a single story line. It’s about the day a girl named Jessi gets her first period. Jessi wakes up and pulls on a pair of white shorts for a class trip to the Statue of Liberty. (White shorts are the Chekhov’s gun of menstrual narratives.) On her way up the interior staircase, Jessi starts bleeding. She runs to the bathroom and looks for something to MacGyver a pad out of, but there’s no toilet paper or seat covers or other wadding material. Then she’s kidnapped by the Statue of Liberty, who has come alive as a cigarette-smoking Frenchwoman. In a heavy accent the statue conveys to Jessi that her period is a kind of synechdochal feminine hex. “Being a woman is misery,” the statue sighs, exhaling smoke.

The Liberty Island gift shop sells 9/11 memorial beach towels, one of which Jessi obtains and fashions into an improvised diaper. When I watched the scene, I was flummoxed. It was the only time I’d seen a first period depicted onscreen as simultaneously gruesome, funny and heart-pinching. In other words, realistically. At some point in her life, every woman has fashioned a metaphorical 9/11 towel into a diaper. How could Nick Kroll — a compassionate human, sure, but a male one — grasp the psychedelic torment of this milestone? How could he know that menstruating can feel like a near-death experience for a kid? Maybe he could or maybe he couldn’t. But he knew people who did, and he got them to talk about it.

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