If there is one question I forgot to ask Nick Kroll last month it was whether he knew what he was getting into when he co-created “Big Mouth.” Along with Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, the Emmy-nominated wonder has been Kroll’s priority for the last few years. And if you haven’t checked it out for a variety of reasons you’re truly missing out.
Set in a suburb of New York City, “Big Mouth” centers on Nick (voiced by Kroll) and Andrew (John Mulaney), two boys who are experiencing the ups and downs and almost non-stop confusion of puberty in 21st century America. Their journeys are guided by imaginary “hormone monsters” (primarily portrayed by Kroll and Maya Rudolph) who are often guardian angels of the worst kind. After three seasons the series smartly focused on the boy’s classmates such as Jay (Jason Mantzoukas), who realizes he’s bi-sexual, Missy (Jenny Slate), and Jenni (Jessi Glaser), whose personal discoveries are just as important to the show as Nick and Andrew’s.
The series has done a fantastic job of not only exploring different segments of sexuality but allowing its characters to grow from their embarrassment and awkwardness. And along the way, it throws in a ton of comedy bits, musical songs and not-so-random historic facts that you’d expect from a project both Kroll and Mulaney are involved with. The cast is also arguably the most impressive in recent memory with Jordan Peele, Andrew Rannells, Gina Rodriguez, Zachary Quinto, Kristen Wiig, Kristen Bell, Natasha Lyonne, Thandie Newton and David Thewlis playing significant roles (and seemingly having a blast while doing it). Needless to say, “Big Mouth” is just as entertaining for adults as the curious teen audience it’s reaching around the globe.
Netflix renewed “Big Mouth” for three more seasons almost a year ago and production has continued during the stay-at-home isolation over the past few months. A topic that began our conversation…
The Playlist: The show got a three-season pickup in the fall, so where are you just in terms of writing season four, season five?
Yeah, I guess we can now sort of talk. We’re well ahead of wherever it seems that we are in production. Yes, we are deep into writing season five right now. Season four, we are doing final touches on as we get, you know what I mean? But it just takes so long that we have to write well in advance.
Granted we don’t know how long coronavirus isolation will go on but has the pandemic made you reapproach anything story-wise in season four?
I’m trying to think. There’s an area that a joke or two could’ve worked, like an Andrew freak-out moment. I can’t remember where we landed, but honestly, I think we were feeling like, “You know what? We don’t know what this is.” We were rewriting that episode a couple of weeks ago and we’re like, “We don’t quite know what this is yet still. We don’t know how many people are going to lose their lives. We don’t know what people’s appetite for jokes about this will be,” and we try to keep it as evergreen as possible while addressing things that are going on for kids now. We tend to not be that topical, partly because we write jokes that are going to not come out for a year and a half.
Do you guys have a standing rule in terms of the more topical bits or jokes?
There’s really no rule, but there is the idea of keeping it evergreen and keeping things that will hopefully seem as relevant years from now as they do now. But we also reference very minor celebrities that were important 20 years ago that kids today won’t have any concept of, so it really is kind of what tickles our fancy. But a show like “South Park,” which they can produce in a week, can live so beautifully in a topical space; but anytime you try to write a joke that will feel quote-unquote “relevant,” it’s just not. You just can’t guarantee, one, that it will feel relevant a year and a half later. Yeah, I’d say that’s sort of the main thing, and also might not be funny 10 years from now.
You have recruited so many talented comedic actors to voice these roles. Are there moments where they’re recording where they come up with a line or improv something that you try to work in?
Oh, always. In assembling our cast, they’re all some of not only the funniest voice actors, but they’re just the funniest people. Whenever we can, we take advantage of their desire to tweak a line or improvise. We try to put people together in the room as often as possible. But what’s great is even if that’s not possible, like if I can’t be recording with John Mulaney or Jason Mantzoukas or anyone, Jenny Slate, Jesse Klein or Maya Rudolph, everyone on the cast is such a talented improviser. Even when they’re not improvising with someone else in the booth, they are oftentimes improvising inside of their own solo record. They can give alts [alternatives]. That’s great. But having been on the other side of that as talent where people are like, “Great, just now make it your own and make it funnier for us,” I’m conscious of not putting that responsibility on them. We try to write the best joke we can write and if they have an alt that they like, we always will take it.
Unlike other animated shows that might be either on cable or on a broadcast network, you have to deliver everything at one time. It launches all in one binge. Does that affect what you can change and what you can’t in the production process?
Yeah. It’s a weird process because we, I believe it’s a 72-weeks schedule or something like that. Netflix needs at least six weeks before their drop date to do all of the translations and all of that and also whatever the technical aspects of getting something uploaded and so on and so forth. But we still deliver each episode like a network would or on cable where we’re delivering episode one of season four and then it starts the process of color and sound editing and all the composition, all those things that we’re still delivering one every other week or whatever it is until we’re about to lock. We’re in the process of getting towards screening the final episode of season four pretty soon, which will then take time to actually finish and lock. I’m giving you sort of not a great answer, just because it’s not exactly where my specialties lie, but it’s an ongoing process.
You have had some great original songs in the series. How do you work those in creatively with the writer’s room process?
I mean, sometimes in the conception of an episode or a season, we know we’re going to hit. I’m trying to, honestly, because of all the seasons that we’re working on at any given point, I’m trying to remember. So Season Three …
There’s “Anything Goes In Florida” that’s quite popular on iTunes.
Yes. Okay, great. Something like the Florida song, for example, “Anything Goes In Florida,” we start to break the idea of Nick and Andrew go on a road trip with Andrew’s family. Then we slowly are like, “O.K., so it’s around spring break. That makes sense.” Then it’s like they’re going to visit Andrew’s grandfather in Florida. “Oh, Andrew’s got a cousin down there who he kind of wants to make out with.” Then it’s, “O.K. ‘Anything Goes In Florida,’ that feels like a real Maury song.” Mark Rivers who does all of our music, I’ve worked with for a long, long time and we knew a kind of big hair metal song is right up Mark’s alley. He did “LA Deli” on “Kroll Show” years ago and really, he can really bang one out. We usually go as we’re writing the script, around the outline, we know there’s going to be a song. It depends really, honestly episode to episode, whenever we can we like to have a cut of the song at the table read so we can sort of feel it in the middle of hearing it out loud. Then tweaks still happen. That doesn’t always happen because of just schedule and when we actually realized we need a song, but it’s usually as we’re kind of conceiving of episodes, we’ll be like, “Ooo, a song would be fun here,” because there’s something about what we need in the story, what kind of vibe, like Florida, hair metal. Convincing Andrew to hook up with his cousin? Perfect. Then we give it to Mark with [the idea], “We think it’s ‘Anything Goes In Florida’ and we think it’s sort of in a hair metal vibe like Van Halen.” Then we let him go off and do what he wants with it. Then it becomes a back-and-forth. As for Duke Ellington, for years, Mark Levin really was like, “I think an episode about Duke’s puberty would be great. We’ve never gone to another time period, so let’s do Duke back in, an episode of Duke.” We started doing research and it was like, “Oh, Duke Ellington literally would write songs called “Hugging And Rubbing,” songs when he was 13, 14 and he really did go to Atlantic City and really did discover ragtime there and it really changed the course of his musical career.” All of a sudden inside of all of that, there were obviously opportunities for Mark to write music around this experience of “Hugging And Rubbing” songs and ragtime and church hymns and all of these things that felt like they would be very funny kind of pieces. We start to build that in from the beginning.
Who came up with “Gordy’s Journey” and having Martin Short voice Gordy?
Yeah. “Gordy’s Journey” was largely a room thing. No, it was Joe Wengert, I believe. I want to double-check, but I believe it was Joe Wengert. I’ve been obsessed with Canada since we did a lot of “Kroll Show” stuff with Canada like “Wheels Ontario.”
Joe was also a writer on “Kroll Show.” We knew that we wanted to Jay to be watching a Netflix show that helped him try to understand his sexual identity. Then there’s the harbor front stuff, a lot of that is Joe’s brain. I’ve been friends with Martin Short for a number of years. We knew we wanted a Canadian in there, and Martin Short is one of the great Canadians of all time and he’s a singer. We knew that we were going to do that kind of the spectrum of sexuality and we thought a Gilbert and Sullivan-style song of da-da-da-da-da-da-da. We knew, one, that Martin is one of the funniest people of all-time and, two, that he can sing and has a real facility for sort of Broadway-style song, so it felt very natural to have a song that was about the spectrum of sexuality in that style and Martin would be perfect for it.
I was excited when Thandie Newton came on board as the new hormone monster Mona at the end of season three. Is she returning in the new season and, in a larger context, can you talk about recording actors who live outside of LA? How complex is that part of the show for such a large vocal cast?
It took a while to arrive at Thandie. Figuring out characters, hormone monsters, and what that means for them really depends on person to person. We thought there was something fun about Missy having an English party girl, kind of a hormone monstress because it would be since departure from who Missy is as a character. We’re all fans of Thandie. Obviously, she’s on “Westworld” now but has been doing such great work for so long. We reached out to her and she was totally game and then told her 15-year-old daughter about it. Thandie was like, “It’s the first time that my daughter thought I was cool,” That happens somewhat often, to be honest, where it turns out [someone’s] kid watches the show and they’re very excited about it. David Thewlis, we reached out to him to be the Shame Wizard in season two thinking he would pass and that we would find someone else and then he engaged. Sometimes people are in London. Thandie was here for a number of our recording sessions. She was shooting “Westworld,” so it actually allowed us to do that. But then she would finish and was off in New Orleans shooting something or had gone back to London. Honestly, it’s the beauty of animation that you can get actors wherever they are, New York, London, New Orleans, maybe they’re in Chicago or wherever. We set up a Skype. There in a recording studio, we have a Skype camera going and we can record them and still see them and they can see us and give them notes as they go. Then that’s the beauty of animation is that you can get some of the most sought-after, busiest, most-talented actors and actresses working to come in for an hour or two and record. Then, hopefully, it’s a fun enough process where they want to come back and enjoy it and then we can write more to them. Thandie is a perfect example of that. She came in the first time and she was so game. I think she had fun. So we have continued to write to her in that character because it really serves Missy’s story of having a hormone monstress as a real part of her decision making.
With the coronavirus isolation, I don’t know if you’re still having to have actors record. Are you getting the same audio quality you would with actors at home that you would not? I mean, is it a concern at all?
We’re not doing the same quality right now. What we’re doing is recording largely over Zoom to create scratch tracks for us to begin, have our artists begin to work off of something that we will eventually have to re-record. Depending on how long this all goes, we might have to figure out more permanent solutions to having actors record in their home: Sending microphones, headphones, sound blankets, creating spaces where we can try to get a certain level of quality. Our hope is that by the time this all, people can gather, we can get people back in a studio to properly record. But right now we’re doing scratch track. It’s going to require some extra work farther down. All of the realities of this, of COVID and the shelter in place that we have, we’re very lucky that we can keep working and making our show with everybody separated.
“Big Mouth” season three is available on Netflix