Nick Kroll is a very funny man. Whether it’s voicing his younger self in Netflix’s hilarious coming-of-age animation Big Mouth or his guest appearances in beloved sitcom staples like Parks & Recreation, New Girl and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the 41-year-old New Yorker is one of the most dynamic and creative voices in contemporary entertainment. He’s a guy who can access the unfathomable intricacies of human interaction and tell a great dick joke. This week, Kroll heads to the UK to perform stand-up for the very first time. What better time than now, then, to have a chat with the luscious-lipped one…
What can we expect from your stand-up debut in London?
“Well, I’ve never played in London before so I’m really excited about it. I’ve been told that the Leicester Square Theatre is a great place for comedy and while I’ve never played in the UK before I’ve been absorbing UK comedy since I first started out. I’ve never really toured extensively. I’ve spent the last 10 years making TV shows or acting and, while I wouldn’t call it a hobby, stand-up has been more of a facet of my creative process than something I’ve ever really focused on.”
What’s changed to make you want to get up there?
“I just thought it was time. Around this time last year my girlfriend asked me if I’d ever done a special or a proper tour and I just realised it was something that was missing from my life. I spent the first half of this year really leaning into it – going out and doing clubs while writing Big Mouth, trying to build an hour. And then I started touring and that hour started to take more shape. And then I thought, ‘well, I’ve always wanted to go to London…’ So now I’m bringing it to you!”
It’s good timing. The UK is utterly miserable right now. What are you gonna do to sort us out?
“Oh don’t worry. It’s all Brexit material. Very pro-Boris Johnson. I really hope I’ve read the [mood] of the nation correctly… You know, America and the UK are two very different countries, but I think we’re both in similar places. Polarised. Divided. They’re two places where the people who live there have every right to ask, ‘what the fuck is going on?’”
Let’s talk Big Mouth. It’s such a great show – and yet you’d think the last thing that mega-woke-2019 needed was a sex comedy…
“Well, I think the longer the show has been running the more new territory the show breaks into. At the beginning it was pitched as an account of me and my best friend Andrew Goldberg’s middle-school years, but the subject matter is expanding all the time. Me and Andrew have known each other since we were six years old and been friends ever since. He went on to write for Family Guy and I’ve done what I’ve done, but at some point, we, along with my writing partners Mark [Levin] and Jen [Flackett], had this idea for a show about the two of us going through puberty. Andrew was very advanced – he could grow a full beard by seventh grade – and I was more of a late bloomer, and that was the show we pitched. I think we started to really crack what the show was going to be when we got to the idea of the hormone monsters…”
Big Mouth has such a unique tone – was it hard not to drift into gross-out American Pie territory?
“On paper it’s a tough thing to pitch, a show that is in essence about a bunch of kids jerking off and getting their period. But really, beyond any of that, we’re trying to tell these quite emotional stories about what goes on inside the heads of kids. I think it’s that which weights the show. The more emotional we are the more licence the show has to be dirty. And the dirtier we are the more heartfelt we’re allowed to be. I think we live in an era where for good or bad – but largely good I think – comedy is being asked to be accountable for the things it says. That can be tricky, but I think it also forces you to take a more nuanced and deeper dive into the subject matter than: ‘kids are horny, they want to fuck a pie’.”
It’s a surprisingly empathetic show too. Take Jay, he’s supposed to be a dick. But you don’t want him to fail…
“I think empathy is really core to Big Mouth. As you get older you look back on school years and think, ‘that guy was a bully’ or ‘that person was out of control’ and it’s only when you’re older that you start to realise what was going on with them. I wanted to create a show where we tried to understand why people are how they are. It’s like, that kid was playing up because his parents were never at home or that girl was shoplifting because her parents were getting divorced. It’s funny you mention Jay; everyone in our writer’s room said they either were Jay or that they took that kid in. Jay spends the start of the show saying this and that is ‘gay’, and that begs the question, ‘well maybe Jay is struggling with his sexuality’. That wasn’t the plan for the character going in, but I think it’s important for your characters to tell you who they are and then for the writer to explore the themes that arise from them.”
Big Mouth took some criticism for its explanation of pansexuality in season three – what did you learn from that experience?
“That was tough. The last thing we wanted was for people to feel not seen. We’re trying to make a show that is incredibly inclusive and that explores sexuality and the human experience so the idea that people felt like we didn’t tell their story felt pretty shitty. When the criticism came in we had to take a hard look at what we said and how we said it and I think what we came out of that with was a feeling that we could have said what we were trying to say better. Your immediate reaction is to be defensive, but we’re going to listen to what our audience says and we’re going to try to be better. Did we get it right? No we didn’t get it exactly right. But at the same time we’re commenting on a conversation that is ongoing in those communities. There aren’t black and white definitions. But as we continue to break stories, we’re certainly going to make sure we’ve done our research properly and think about who is saying stuff and how they’re saying it.”
Is there anything you’ve wanted Big Mouth to comment on, but haven’t felt qualified to do so?
“What’s crazy is, because of how long the process of animation takes, we’re basically an entire season ahead of what we’re releasing. We get people being, like, ‘what are you going to talk about…” and we’re, like, “we are… but you’ve got to wait.” At the same time there are stories we’re only just getting to now that are very basic puberty stories that you would have thought would have been amongst the first stories we’d told. Like, we haven’t even done an acne story yet!”
The music in Big Mouth is wonderful and we’re big fans of the Duke Ellington’s ghost character! Have you had any contact with Duke Ellington’s estate?
“You know what, we haven’t. Um… That’s a really interesting question! We had to get permission for the end of the Duke Ellington episode we did in season three because we used ‘Sophisticated Lady’ as the outro song. But no, there’s been no contact beyond that! I mean, I’m a huge Duke Ellington fan. I’m hugely into jazz and we used Duke’s own autobiography to write the episode about Duke’s own puberty. The character obviously isn’t Duke Ellington, it’s kinda of a bohemian ghost… so, um, I hope they don’t come after us… But hey, we got to tell the story of Duke Ellington’s life before we got to acne!”
As a Jewish American, was it important to you to reflect that experience in the show?
“Well, it’s sort of like, ‘write what you know…’ y’know? But that’s how me and Andrew grew up and was an incredibly informative part of our development. I think we both wanted to talk about Judaism in a way that isn’t always talked about in popular culture. The specifics of it. It’s such a weird time to be Jewish right now, mainly because of Trump. The tie to Israel has kind of become a Republican cause and simultaneously in certain circles on the left, the way the Palestinians have been treated. And then throw in Trump’s relationships with white nationalists, who are inherently antisemitic. It’s a really weird time in Jewish identity. I’ve never in all my life felt any sort of discrimination as a white, Jewish man – but that is changing…”
Okay, now for a really important question. We’ll make it our last. When did you realise that you, Nick Kroll, had a big mouth?
“Oh I always knew. I remember being at camp once and another boy saying I had ‘DSL’, which stands for ‘dick-sucking lips’. I was like, ‘copy that…’”
Nick Kroll performs ‘Middle-Aged Boy’ between December 17-20 at the Leicester Square Theatre in London