Big Mouth's Big Mouth
Perhaps the only folks nostalgic for their early adolescent days are those who can’t quite remember them. The rest of us cringe. Bodies changing — or not. Musty classrooms. Bad teachers. Bullies. Peer pressure, insidious as carbon monoxide: to smoke pot, to fail classes, to have sex, to be chaste, to be straight, to have a functional home life. Abusive parents. Negligent parents. Helicopter parents. Parents. All without the so-called glories that await (some) folks in late adolescence: driving, prom, varsity sports, marching band, going off to college. When it comes to TV, that cringe is usually a no-man’s land. Big Mouth makes its home there — and thank goodness.
Big Mouth is an animated comedy series about the misadventures of a cluster of pubescent kids at a Westchester high school. There’s Nick, our protagonist, voiced by show co-creator Nick Kroll and based on a childhood version of himself. Nick is a late-blooming white boy with exactly two pubic hairs, each of which he chats with on occasion. His best friend is Andrew, a crustache-bearing Jewish kid whose dad is obsessed with — and severely allergic to, to the chagrin of his wife — scallops and peach pits.
As the show progresses, Nick and Andrew fade into more secondary roles, and a multi-cultural array of teenagers and their families take their turn in the hot seat: Missy, a nerdy black girl obsessed with romance novels and ancient Mesopotamia; Jessi, a witty activist whose mom is cheating on her pothead husband with another woman; Jay, a neglected brown kid who has sex with his pillow(s). For the sake of time, I will leave out the rest of the crew, but I ought to say this much: they are no cheap gesture at “diversity.”
Alongside these kids and their messy home lives, we find a supernatural crew of Hormone Monsters, furry beasts who show up at the onset of puberty to ruin and save lives. Like shoulder-perched devils, Hormone Monsters act as the id. They voice the teens’ horniness and moodiness and urge them to act on these impulses. In the wee hours of the night, as he lays on the trundle beside Nick’s bed and contemplates masturbation, Andrew asks his Hormone Monster, “What the hell is wrong with me?” “Nothing,” says Maurice, “You’re a perfectly normal gross little dirtbag. Now stare at that cat clock and massage your dinger.”
But they also act as guardians who tenderly guide their subjects into adulthood. Jessi’s Hormone Monster, Connie, consoles her after her classmates and teachers undress her with their eyes. “Who cares about everyone else?” Connie says, handing Jessi a small handheld mirror and wiggling her fingers. “Maybe it’s time to get to know yourself.”
Like the Greek gods, each kind of creature — Hormone Monster, Shame Wizard, Depression Kitty — vies for influence on grounds parallel yet disparate from the human realm.
The second season brings the Shame Wizard, an old Snape-like grump who competes with the Hormone Monsters for control over the teens’ sense of self-worth. (He often bribes Maury, Andrew’s Hormone Monster, with cocaine.) Like the Greek gods, each kind of creature — Hormone Monster, Shame Wizard, Depression Kitty — vies for influence on grounds parallel yet disparate from the human realm. The teens are investors, not pawns. The Shame Wizard goes out of business when they stop believing him.
Big Mouth isn’t your typical coming-of-age comedy series. It’s made for adults (hence the TV-MA rating), but stars early teens, a character demographic often reserved for children and early teens themselves. Being a product of mid-2000s Disney and Nickelodeon live-action kids shows, I think here of Ned’s Declassified, Drake & Josh, iCarly, Everybody Hates Chris. Kids today might think of Thirteen Reasons Why and — actually that’s the only show I can think of. As a 20-year-old college student, I’m mostly unaware of the current state of TV targeted toward children and preteens. The point is, when I was a kid, a lot of shows that featured characters in my age range were meant for me. Big Mouth wouldn’t have been.
But it’s not like I grew up in a TV universe made up only of other kids. As a child, I saw a lot of grown-ups on-screen, usually in the movies and shows my parents watched. During the first few years of college, I’ve noticed that the shows my friends watch (Insecure; Jane, the Virgin; The Good Place) feature characters closer to my own age. I suppose that as I age, and the folks onscreen don’t, TV will change for me. It’ll become tinged by nostalgia, and the industry, as it does today, will play into that.
Big Mouth doesn’t. Rather than tapping into youth-worship, as other shows targeting an audience’s past might, it squarely faces the taboo and the traumatic — the stuff adults try (and succeed, sometimes to the detriment of their own teenage kids) to forget. Masturbation, puberty, romance, bullying, toxic masculinity, and desire are all approached without stepping one foot into the realms of melodrama or ridicule.
Rather than tapping into youth-worship, as other shows targeting an audience’s past might, it squarely faces the taboo and the traumatic
Maybe I’m making a mistake by comparing Big Mouth to live-action shows. After all, it’s a cartoon. An adult cartoon. For some adults, the phrase is an oxymoron. Cartoons are for kids. Or rather, kids are for cartoons. My favorite movies as a child were animated films produced by Pixar and Dreamworks. My friends and I could recite episodes of Spongebob by heart — and this is before it was meme fodder. I subsisted on Chowder, The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and other shows that freaked my mom out.
My dad introduced me to his favorite animes, especially those from his childhood (Mazinger Z, Candy Candy) imported to Panama from Japan. He also showed me animes popular in the U.S. during my own childhood: Naruto, Bleach, the films of Hayao Miyazaki. I devoured manga. I cultivated a taste for the fantastic and grotesque universes these cartoons brought me to. How else could you see a talking sponge who lives in a pineapple without it being acted out in gimmicky costumes?
Cartoons could graphically render the hyperreal in a way that live-action couldn’t. I picture here those intense vomit scenes on Family Guy which would have repulsed me in live-action but instead made me laugh. Or, more recently, how in the anime series Aggretsuko, the protagonist’s boss, a sexist pig, is a literal pig. Where else, if not in a cartoon, could Nick have conversations with his pubes — and we find it funny?
Where else, if not in a cartoon, could Nick have conversations with his pubes — and we find it funny?
Speaking of which, Nick’s pubes are most prominently featured in the first episode of the second season. It’s the middle of the night, and Nick has spent the day feeling insecure about his unchanging body. He commiserates with his pubes. Why is Andrew getting taller and he isn’t? Why doesn’t he cum when tries to masturbate? He sighs, then says, “I’ve got to take a leak.”
Little does he know that this leak of his will result in the tragic demise of one of his precious pubes, who falls loose while his owner pees. “Nooooooo,” Nick exclaims in a pitched-down wail, but it’s too late. The pube flails through the air in a blur — and then it stops. It lands on the rim of the toilet, where it begs Nick for a mercy kill: the gust of breath that will send it flying into the toilet. The camera cuts to a close up of Nick’s lips blowing the pube into the toilet bowl, and then back to a profile of Nick as he callously flushes the toilet.
After this death, the other pube urges Nick to smother his Hormone Monster, Rick, who is asleep in the bedroom. Nick refuses, but the hair insists: “So, what, you’re just gonna have a little toddler crotch? Is that what you want, you little crotch toddler?” Nick grabs the pillow and tackles Rick, who spurts a green fluid onto the carpet from a strange gland on his neck. “Eww!” Nick says, before giving up. “He’s leaking!”
I like cartoons because I haven’t been able to find this kind of fusion, at this level of intensity, anywhere else.
Such a scene captures the bizarre mixture of the fantastical, the grotesque, and the mundane that is Big Mouth. Worry about developmental “delay” meets anthropomorphized body hair meets a gross battle with an imaginary beast. I like cartoons because I haven’t been able to find this kind of fusion, at this level of intensity, anywhere else. And even in the world of cartoons, nothing has provided quite like Big Mouth.
Not too long ago, I was a Nick. I knew an Andrew, a Jessi, a Missy, a Jay. I was a small, big-headed ninth-grader, anxiously awaiting puberty. My mom, a sexual health educator for Planned Parenthood and later a community organizer based in the public health department of my hometown, did her best to make me feel like less of a freak. But I still did.
When I saw Big Mouth for the first time, I thought, “This was the show that I needed.” After watching the second season, I wonder if it would have been as funny were I still living it. I wonder if my distance from preteenhood and the knowledge that I survived it equip me to look back at a perilous time and laugh.
Whatever the case, I need the show now, and I’m convinced it’s doing the complicated work of validating and destigmatizing viewers’ experiences of early adolescence. I would put it somewhere alongside what Andrea Long Chu calls “woke TV,” that is, TV that makes one “feel” political.
The second season, particularly the episode on contraceptives, dives into this territory, parodying the educational tone of the child cartoon Magic School Bus. One day, during a class on sexual health, Jessi and Missy take the lead to explain the ins-and-outs of Planned Parenthood and consent to their completely oblivious instructor, Coach Steve, and their macho male classmates. One such journey—part Star Trek, part Magic School Bus—leads us into a woman’s ovaries, where Missy laser-blasts a malignant cyst away. But the show’s absurd cartoon raunchiness distinguishes it from those which Chu mentions: Atlanta, Black-ish, I Love Dick, Master of None, The Handmaid’s Tale, among others. All of those shows, even the comedies, take themselves more seriously.
Arielle Bernstein writes in a review for The Guardian that our moment — a moment in which “our news docket for the past two years has been overwhelmed with stories of rampant sexual assault, rape and abuse, whether in politics, entertainment or religious institutions” — may seem like a bad one for a comedy about the hardships of puberty.
Big Mouth pulls this off through its focus on equally complex female and male characters and its insistence on “demonstrating how the way that boys are socialized to be men is often incredibly destructive.” In a review of the recent Valentine’s Day special episode, Naomi Fry argues for the show’s “refreshing frankness,” praising its “straightforward expression . . . of how confusing it is to leave childhood behind and develop into a sexual adult within the family unit.” Big Mouth looks where everyone else doesn’t and describes what it sees. It won’t shut up. I hope it never does.