'Big Mouth’s irreverent puberty humor is on a mission to defeat shame
In an interview with Vulture last year, comedian Nick Kroll explained that he works through the ideas for his animated show about the woes of puberty, Big Mouth, in therapy. Kroll says he talks with his therapist about the kinds of issues that stem from his experiences in middle school; how being pantsed in front of his crush when he was thirteen, for instance, affected his confidence, trust, and self-perception — then and now.
That pretty much sums up what makes Big Mouth, created by Kroll and Jennifer Flackett, so groundbreaking. The series, whose third season premiered on Netflix on Friday, is like the funny version of Degrassi we all deserve. Big Mouth premiered in 2017 and in its first season addressed periods, wet dreams, make-outs, the discovery of pornography, and more, all with a caring touch. The show is centered around Andrew Glouberman (voiced by John Mulaney), who hit puberty and horniness ahead of his best friend, Nick Birch (voiced by Kroll). A lot of Big Mouth is focused on the fact that everyone’s path through puberty, and life, is very different, and there should be no shame in that.
The Big Mouth kids’ different puberty paths are anthropomorphized by Hormone Monsters, the show’s hairy, horned, bestial scene-stealers. In the second season, we learn there’s a whole Monster World, which contains a Puberty Department from which kids are assigned their monsters. Maurice, or Maury (voiced by Kroll as well), arrives in the first episode to give Andrew an erection and won’t leave him alone until he masturbates. There's also Ricky, who’s old and incontinent and hard to understand — he’s the monster of the childlike Coach Steve (who acts partly as a critique and parody of inaccurate sexual education). Nick, with his uneven road to maturity, is assigned to Ricky before he retires, replaced by a Monster-in-Training, Tyler, before finally ending up with Connie (voiced by Maya Rudolph), who he shares with his friend Jessi Glaser (voiced by the show’s consulting producer Jessi Klein). The fact that Nick and Jessi can share a monster, and Andrew and Bridgeton Middle School's first openly gay student, Matthew, can share Maury, speaks to the amorphousness of budding desire.
In its first season, Big Mouth became one of the few television shows to devote an entire episode to menstruation, with “Everybody Bleeds,” in which Jessi gets her first visit from Aunt Flo while on a school trip to the Statue of Liberty. “There was this sound that kind of came up through the group,” Flackett told Bustle in January, "this little emotional laughter,” in reaction to that episode. The kind of inexplicable rage, shame, confusion, and loneliness that is set off in girls during puberty is rarely shown in such a revealing way. So when it is shown, finally, without kid gloves, it feels something like relief. When Jessi gets her Hormone Monstress, Connie, later that day, she screams at her mother — calling her by her first name ("Shanon!") — for absolutely no reason. I really felt that. I've watched that scene countless times, just for the thrill of recognition.
Aside from the Hormone Monsters, of which there are now a handful, there is also the Shame Wizard, a creepy, thin-nosed apparition voiced by David Thewlis, best known for playing Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films. He’s the mortal enemy of the Hormone Monsters, who just want their kids to explore all of their desires and impulses. The Shame Wizard appears first when Andrew is caught by Nick’s sister Leah, whilst masturbating to her bikini. He continues to pop up throughout season two, during the experiences society is least accepting of, like when Missy is caught masturbating in her sleep at a school slumber party in the gym.
There are no shortage of these types of moments that occur during puberty. It’s the time of your life you’re most likely still grappling with as a grown-up. As Kroll says, we “spend the rest of our lives trying to correct or embrace” those feelings. While the Shame Wizard is defeated at the end of season two, and only appears briefly in season three (at a neo-Nazi meeting, of all places), Big Mouth itself is largely about shame — the show’s mission is for us all to feel less of its burden.
Speaking of burdens, another export from Monster World is Depression Kitty, a flip on the Cheshire Cat who, in a very apt portrayal of depression, has a thing for sitting on Jessi’s chest and convincing her to stay in bed all day. There’s comfort in seeing Depression Kitty seducing Jessi into indifference, because of the scarcity of such representation. Depression Kitty returns in season three, when Jessi is feeling pressure from her mom to do well on a standardized test. I wouldn’t be surprised if Depression Kitty sank her claws into more characters in coming seasons.
It’s been especially exciting to see stories about young girls going through the changes of puberty. Jessi, Missy, and Lola all face issues of self-image and objectification. Of course, there’s no one path for girls, either. Throughout season two, Missy’s inner critic, “Mirror Missy” shows up to remind her that she’s flat-chested. And in season three, Missy grows up a little. She finally meets her Hormone Monstress, the intense and sultry Mona (voiced by Thandie Newton), after landing a lead role in the school play and realizing she might be hornier and more powerful than she ever thought. At one point, Connie, who’s become Nick’s Hormone Monstress, calls Mona “crazy”— a near-perfect representation of what it’s like when two people with two different libido speeds clash.
In Big Mouth’s third season, girls and women showing anger is a significant theme. The first episode is even called “Girls Are Angry Too,” because Missy goes into a rage when the sexist administration tries to enforce school uniforms. Season three also sees the introduction of the Menopause Banshee, a sharp-toothed witchy creature who appears to Andrew’s mom. Because menopause is almost never shown in media, and very rarely even spoken about, this is a crucial inclusion. Big Mouth is slated for at least two more seasons, and in those I’d love to see even more Menopause Banshees, because, just like puberty, no two menopauses are the same. As Flackett told Bust, "Women need to see those stories so that they can tell those stories. It's in seeing it that you can also then say, 'Wait a minute, that's not my story, let me tell you mine. Mine is this one. That's how you beget other stories."
The amazing thing about Big Mouth is that it's absolutely hilarious gross-out humor might help you, or a kid going through puberty right now, correct or embrace those middle school scars. Everyone goes through puberty, everyone has fucked up thoughts during and after, and everyone’s path to sexual maturity and adulthood is different. Especially with the dire lack of proper sexual education in this country, it’s crucial there be somewhere for this learning to take place — no matter how dirty. What makes Big Mouth (and its cousin show, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s live-action puberty-centric sleeper hit Pen15) borderline revolutionary is that middle school is such a deeply difficult time and no one really wants to talk about it, let alone show it on television. The only way to defeat shame is to address it head on.