Between seasons of Big Mouth, Netflix’s sweetly disgusting animated comedy about puberty, co-creators and executive producers Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett attended a talk by Sue Dunlap, the president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. “She said to a room full of writers and producers, your donations are very helpful, but what would really help is stories that involve Planned Parenthood in your shows and movies,” Nick Kroll, the other half of the show’s creative team (along with Andrew Goldberg) told The A.V. Club. “That can really move the dial.”
Already in the business of tackling taboos and wringing laughs out of them, the Big Mouth writers took Dunlap’s challenge, touring one of the reproductive-health organization’s L.A. facilities and devoting an entire episode to telling—through a comedic lens—the truth about a widely misunderstood nonprofit. Written by Emily Altman, “The Planned Parenthood Show” breaks from the show’s usual format for five vignettes, each told in a different style: a cancer screening depicted as a Star Trek/Fantastic Voyage mashup, or contraceptive education played like a premiere episode of The Bachelorette. It’s loaded material that could potentially turn didactic, but Big Mouth treats it with the show’s signature blend of wit, grace, and good-natured vulgarity. Vagina-shaped spacecraft, a masturbating lobster, Nick’s dad being way too open about his vasectomy—you know, Big Mouth stuff. In a phone call with The A.V. Club, Kroll discussed the episode’s origins, Googling madeup STDs, and the writers’ insistence on keeping Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” in the episode.
The A.V. Club: Were there any genres or stories that were left on the cutting room floor?
Nick Kroll: I honestly don’t remember. We went through various versions of the show. We looked at one version that was like the movie Slacker, where you went room to room and it functioned that way. We realized that we wanted to tell these very distinct stories, and as we built them we realized, like, the STD story would be fun to see as a horror story. We actually got the idea of Blue Waffle from talking with Sue and reading Planned Parenthood’s materials. We didn’t make up Blue Waffle—that is an urban legend that a lot of kids believe is a real STD. For a kid like Andrew, that would be his worst nightmare, and so a black-and-white horror piece would be the way to do that.
AVC: Blue Waffle is a very involved urban myth.
NK: It’s crazy how actively people believe it. To your readers, I would say, “Yes, go ahead and Google it.” But also be very careful when you Google it, because the images are so disturbing—but they are not real. But STDs are very real, and we tried to be aware of all these different things as we wrote the episode. Not surprisingly, the character of Nick is concerned about how this is going to be received and how we’re going to thread this needle. And the Twitter comments that are going to be threatening and specific are based on actual anxiety.
AVC: Those lines feel like the writers’ room speaking directly through their characters.
NK: The writers’ room, and specifically the writer Nick Kroll. Planned Parenthood is a real trigger for a lot of people, and that’s the reason we really wanted to talk about it. People think it’s only a place where you get abortions, and we firmly believe that it is about reproductive health across the board, with a number of different services. We felt like it was worth diving into those different services and the different conceptions about what it is.
AVC: Nick says this early in the episode: “This is a fine line we’re trying to walk.” Do you feel like that speaks to Big Mouth in general?
NK: I would say so. We wrote the first season completely in a bubble, and by the time we had put it out, we had written and voiced much of season two already. We were like, “Boy, we hope this is received the way we want it to be, because we’ve already doubled down on it.” Fortunately it was received how we wanted. Someone wrote a quote that we really liked: “Big Mouth gives zero fucks.” As we’ve continued to work on the show, we have tried to keep that in mind: We don’t want to soften or dull the hard, big, crazy jokes. But I think we’re very aware that they’re kids watching the show. We’re not trying to teach any lessons, but we are aware of the messages we’re sending and I think we’re constantly trying to navigate how to be a show that gives zero fucks and also be responsible with what we’re saying on a broader scale.
AVC: Do you get the sense the kids are watching, or are even able to watch, Big Mouth? Is it that same tight spot as Eighth Grade, where it’s being kept from the people who’d most benefit from seeing it?
NK: That’s the advantage of being on Netflix versus trying to put a movie out in theaters. I guess parents can put parental controls on Netflix—we’ve probably dealt with a little of that. I was at my nephew’s bar mitzvah right after the show came out, and my nephew’s friends were like, “We watched this show,” and then I saw their parents and the parents were like, “Our kids are watching the show, and it’s giving them a vocabulary and a platform to talk about these things.”
Yes, I believe that the show’s incredibly dirty, and if you told me your 13-year-old wasn’t allowed to watch it, I’d be like, sure, I get it. But your 13-year-old is very likely watching or has access to much more crazy, dirty, and disgusting things on the internet that are much less aware of the messages they’re putting out into the world. Selfishly—I made this show—I want as many people to see it as possible. But I’m like, “Let your kids see it and then talk about it.” And it’s going to be super awkward. The whole reason we made the show is because we believe that the more that this stuff around puberty and sexuality is talked about, the healthier people will be.
AVC: How does it feel to know that “The Planned Parenthood Show” will probably forever alter people’s associations with “Groove Is In The Heart” by Deee-Lite?
NK: I’m curious. We had to get it cleared by Deee-Lite and Lady Miss Kier, and she was enthusiastic about it. I was not in the room when that song was pitched as part of [the episode], and I came back in, and they were like, “So it’s this story about Barbara getting an abortion, and the whole thing is set to ‘Groove Is In The Heart.’” And I was like, “Cool, like that’s a great song, what if we did—” And the room was like, “No. It has to be ‘Groove Is In The Heart,’” which was very funny to me. The room was very passionate that that was the song. And now it’s also the song that the trailer for season two was built on.
AVC: Can you see this type of episode becoming a recurring thing for the show? Have you found your Treehouse Of Horror?
NK: More than anything, I think we all enjoyed breaking the format, changing the narrative feeling and structure of it. More than, let’s say, doing one every year, like Treehouse Of Horror—which we all love and I think was definitely an influence—it was more just a sign of how fun it was to break our format episode to episode and do different kinds of storytelling.
AVC: What’s it like to release an episode like this in the current political climate?
NK: We wrote the bulk of season two before the #MeToo movement really took hold last fall, and so it was very interesting for all this stuff to go down, and then for us to look at—as our material started coming back in—to see how much of it still resonated and how much we needed to address what was happening. Without tooting our own horn, I think we feel like a show about puberty—but really about human sexuality, with a frank discussion of all of the issues around it—to us feels very relevant and in certain ways cathartic to be able to talk through some of this stuff and express it through a comedic lens, which I think is what’s been so tricky. It’s so hard to figure out the funny way into some of this stuff, and an animated show about kids going through puberty is actually a weirdly helpful way because kids are truly trying to figure this stuff out. Andrew is figuring out if he can be horny and be a good guy. Jessi and Missy are figuring out how to navigate their own desires and what it means to be a woman. “Guy Town” is really an episode about the boys figuring out different versions of being a man, and seeing real toxic masculinity firsthand. That’s an episode that speaks to what’s going on a broader cultural level. At the end of the day, our show is a funny cartoon. The messages that we’re putting out there can never be at the expense of writing the funniest show that we can.