They say that ‘woke culture’ is killing comedy. Ricky Gervais says it. Jerry Seinfeld says it. Dave Chappelle says it too. Most recently, director Todd Phillips has said it. “Go try to be funny nowadays with this woke culture,” said the man behind The Hangover. “There were articles written about why comedies don’t work anymore – I’ll tell you why, because all the fucking funny guys are like, ‘Fuck this shit, because I don’t want to offend you.’ It’s hard to argue with 30 million people on Twitter. You just can’t do it, right? So you just go, ‘I’m out…’”
There’s a lot broke with woke. It’s hard to see how the hounding of a previously unknown teenager on prom night for wearing a nice dress contributes to a kinder, fairer world. There’s a lot broken with the hellscape of social media too. And yet, what these comedians really mean when they talk about ‘the death of comedy’ is that they have to try harder to compensate. Now minorities and marginalised people have amplified voices, comics have to think harder about what they say and do. They have to be cleverer. Question whether they’re punching up or down. They can’t just spew stereotypes, clichés and well-worn tropes into the ether like they’ve done for so long.
Well, they can. But there are reprisals now.
After two excellent seasons of frequently scatological, dick joke-heavy content to date, coming-of-age comedy Big Mouth renders the lazy jesters’ arguments null and void with the Netflix cartoon’s superb third outing. This is a comedy – created by Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett – that features discombobulated penises re-enacting the events of World War I. A Jewish teenager is accidentally radicalised by meninist Neo-Nazis. A variety of ‘hormone monsters’ – one assigned to each child – say the worst things you’ve ever heard said out loud. A life-size model of Sylvester Stallone as Rocky is sculpted out of semen. Then there’s Kristen Wiig voicing an anthropomorphic vagina.
The comedy in Big Mouth isn’t safe. Its jokes are blunt. This isn’t tea and scones with the vicar. The difference is that the gags the show makes aren’t at the expense of anyone other than the characters voicing them. And, if there are, there are narrative consequences. Big Mouth is essentially the story of four teenagers navigating their teenage years, those being Nick (Kroll), Andrew (John Mulaney), Jessi (Jessi Klein) and Missy (Jenny Slate). Other characters, like handsome-and-out Matthew (Andrew Rannells), pillow-fucking magician Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) and human foghorn Lola (Kroll, again) get far more focus this series. Over time, Kroll’s super-rude animation sees all of its characters go through journeys of growth, regret and rehabilitation.
This season is especially effective thanks to some restructuring of the show. There are more characters and more voices, meaning some much-loved characters take time out. Of course, sex is a central topic – or at least a lot of obsessing about it – but there’s also other pressing teenage concerns. An ADHD diagnosis takes center-stage, a crash course in ‘dick pic’ etiquette is undertaken and in one episode, ’90s erotic thriller Disclosure is held to account for its dated sexual politics.
Big Mouth season three doesn’t get everything right. It takes a few episodes to get going – and the songs aren’t as good as they have been (with an exception made for Maury and Connie’s soon-to-be-hair-metal-classic ‘Anything Goes In Florida’). Plus there’s an uncharacteristically clumsy scene in which a new pansexual character voiced by Netflix stalwart Ali Wong attempts to explain pansexuality and bisexuality and most likely offends anyone who identifies as either. For the most part though, Big Mouth is still the best TV programme made about the teenage experience currently on television. It’s important, useful, funny – and timely proof that this new iteration of woke comedy doesn’t hinder humour, but refine it.
Big Mouth season three is streaming on Netflix now