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How Nick Kroll Became the Picasso of Puberty

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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