November 28, 2021, 17:53

    Nick Kroll and Jason Mantzoukas Have All Kinds of Chemistry

    Nick Kroll and Jason Mantzoukas Have All Kinds of Chemistry

    The comedians Nick Kroll and Jason Mantzoukas have been friends for nearly two decades—they met after orbiting each other in the fizzy New York comedy scene of the early two-thousands, and cemented their bond over sandwiches at an old-school diner in Manhattan. Kroll is best known as a co-creator, writer, and star of the adult animated series “Big Mouth,” in which he voices Nick Birch, a protagonist loosely based on his teen-age self, as well as a smorgasbord of tertiary characters, including a foul-mouthed ladybug, a box of tampons, and a chain-smoking Statue of Liberty. If Kroll is distinguished by his formidable vocal skills and talent for mimicry, Mantzoukas is striking for his physicality: onscreen, he nearly vibrates with pent-up energy, eyes wide and hair corkscrewing in all directions. He has carved out a niche for himself playing chaotic, borderline unsettling eccentrics like the ex-detective Adrian Pimento on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” and the glitch-ridden Derek on “The Good Place.” (As he put it to me, and to the creators of one sitcom in which he was vying for a part, “I happen to play a great maniac.”)

    Outside of their rollicking, often ribald humor, Kroll and Mantzoukas are keen and generous conversationalists with a tight rapport: Mantzoukas will jump in quickly to add some forgotten detail, then back off, giving Kroll room to run. Since their early years in New York, the two have appeared together on numerous television shows, including “The League,” a comedy about the members of a fantasy-football league; “Kroll Show”; and, most recently, “Big Mouth,” which follows a group of middle-schoolers whose struggles with puberty are embodied (and exacerbated) by the crass, satyr-like “hormone monsters” that give voice to their basest thoughts and feelings. Even as the show pushes the boundaries of crudeness, it doesn’t shy away from depicting teen-agers’ most vulnerable moments. It’s also set itself apart from other animated series by allowing its characters to age, their bodies and relationships changing over time. In the latest season, which was released on Netflix earlier this month, Kroll and Mantzoukas play opposite each other as young lovers: Kroll as the brash yet insecure Lola Skumpy, and Mantzoukas as Jay Bilzerian, an aspiring magician who throws himself into sexual situations with abandon.

    I spoke with Kroll and Mantzoukas via Zoom from their respective homes. In a bay window behind Mantzoukas, an enormous snake plant meandered toward the ceiling. “My plants have all gotten enormous,” he said. “If you were to watch all the various kitchen-based interviews I’ve done over the past two years, you’d watch my hair and beard and these plants grow exponentially. And it’s weird, I use the same fertilizer for all of it.” Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, touched on formative improv experiences, how actors help shape their characters’ arcs on “Big Mouth,” and the symbiosis between raunchiness and candor.

    I know you crossed paths in the New York comedy scene, but I don’t know the details. How did you two meet? What are your early memories of each other?

    NICK KROLL: Well, I came to New York in 2002, and started performing at Upright Citizens Brigade. I remember the first time I saw Jason, he was doing a show called “Cartoon Chaos.” And for some reason he was doing Ricky Martin’s voice—is that right?

    JASON MANTZOUKAS: Yeah, everyone in the show was playing a character from pop culture at that time.

    N.K.: I distinctly remember thinking, Boy, this guy is so funny and electric to watch—but he has the worst accent I’ve ever heard. Like, truly embarrassing. Truly terrible.

    J.M.: To be clear, that character was assigned to me. Unlike Nick, I have no faculty for mimicry or impressions or voices or accents. So when I was assigned Ricky Martin I was, like, “Oh, no.” I tried my best, but it was largely terrible.

    That was a great example of early U.C.B.: great cast, flawed show. But we did it for over a year. And almost every week we did a bad show. But the fact that we were able to workshop and improve, even within the confines of a show that wasn’t working—that was really impactful in my growth as an improviser. Going out onstage and eating shit every Saturday night was kind of amazing. It really gave me something, even though, to Nick’s point, it was a real poor showing in my accent work.

    I’m so grateful that, many years later, Nick would cast me to be a voice on his animated show knowing full well this is the totality of what I can offer.

    N.K.: He is a one-voice pony. That said, in “Big Mouth” he also plays Jay’s father, Guy Bilzerian.

    J.M.: That’s my voice but a little deeper.

    N.K.: . . . and then we pitch it down slightly in post.

    So, your first meeting?

    N.K.: Yes, so I remember seeing Jason around town. Back in the early two-thousands, you would go audition everywhere and you’d see the same group of funny people. I have a very clear memory of getting lunch after an audition. I think we went to Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop.

    J.M.: Right across from the Flatiron Building. Eisenberg’s was one of my favorite lunch spots in New York—it had one of those old-school long counters.

    N.K.: I remember that first lunch was when I learned that Jason is allergic to eggs. This is the thing: Jason has to have a first conversation with everyone where they find out that he’s allergic to eggs, and then they run through all of the foods that he can or cannot eat.

    J.M.: It’s a very telling thing. It’s interesting what people will reveal about themselves and about the thing they’d miss the most. For some people, it’s, like, “Oh, you can’t have cake!” But then sometimes people will be, like, “Oh, no, you can’t have gefilte fish.” Wow. O.K., I guess not.

    N.K.: That’s a win for you, that you can’t have gefilte fish. For me, it would’ve been fried chicken.

    Did the comedy scene in New York feel small at that time?

    J.M.: There was quite a bit of overlap between improv and the standup scene. We spent a lot of years in each other’s orbit, and then we just kept getting closer and closer. Nick was a part of both U.C.B. and the scene around Rififi [the legendary underground comedy club, in the East Village, that closed in 2008]. Jessi Klein and Jenny Slate were a part of that scene, and so was Bobby Tisdale. I was more in the U.C.B. scene of that Venn diagram.

    N.K.: Paul Scheer, [John] Mulaney, Chelsea Peretti—so many people. Most of them have ended up on “Big Mouth” in some capacity.

    J.M.: It was a particularly vibrant time in New York. It was a scene that included both the comedy scene we’re talking about and the Williamsburg music scene that included the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio. New York at that time felt particularly alive.

    N.K.: I’ll say—and it was before the Internet really exploded. When we started, there was no YouTube, there was no social media, no virality, so you really were still just slogging away at it.

    J.M.: Oh, yeah. I didn’t have a cell phone, and nobody was taking videos. Nobody was shooting a sketch to put it on YouTube. It felt like the end of analog comedy.

    Speaking of improv, I know you worked together on the television show “The League,” which is a partly improvised program. How did you get involved?

    N.K.: Have we ever told this origin story?

    J.M.: I haven’t, have you? It always felt like your story to tell.

    N.K.: So, the creators of “The League” really wanted improvisers.

    J.M.: They came to U.C.B. to watch shows, and then we had auditions. I was supposed to play one of the main characters—not Rafi, the character that I ended up playing.

    N.K.: I didn’t really know what was going on, but I heard they were interested in Paul Scheer. I also heard that Paul had just passed on the show. So I called him to see what was going on, and he said, “I don’t know anything about fantasy football or football in general.” And I said, “Well, that doesn’t matter. I don’t think George Clooney knew a ton about emergency-room medicine.” Although maybe he did. George is a Renaissance man. Who’s to say? Anyway, they ended up casting Paul, and I was very happy to have Paul involved, but I unwittingly took a series-regular job away from Jason, because he had been in the running for that role.

    J.M.: But then the series creators ended up creating this other character, Rafi, and I joined in Season 2. I was also very lucky, in a way, because they came to me and said, “The story is this. How do you want to play it?” And I said, “Well, the archetype that you don’t have in your show is a maniac. And I happen to play a great maniac.” I was, like, “I want to be a bomb that goes off on your show.”

    N.K.: He isn’t in every scene, because that character is like drinking a bowl of heavy cream. You just can’t do that every day, or you’ll become violently ill.

    Do any of the patterns that you developed while improvising together in “The League” make their way into the booth while you’re recording “Big Mouth”?

    J.M.: “The League” was primarily an improvised show—they wrote outlines, not a script, and we would improvise in long takes. And so having previous experience with Nick, with Scheer, and some of the other people made it so we could almost instantly lock into finding games, building scenes, exploring characters.

    Last night, I watched part of a gag reel from Season 4 of “The League”—you’re trying to deliver a line where your character expresses shock that Whitney Houston died (he’s many months late to the news), but Nick can’t stop laughing.

    J.M.: That Whitney Houston moment is a completely improvised bit of dialogue that we kept making longer and longer take after take. Each time, I would introduce a new specific, like, “Oh, no! How is Michael Jackson taking it?” And Nick would just come undone. I have to say, one of my favorite things is to make Nick break. There are scenes in “The League” where I'm talking, and you can actively watch Nick laughing. His shoulders will be shaking.

    N.K.: Very, very, very few people can make me laugh as hard as Jason. In that show, we had such leeway and ability to discover new things and then try them over and over again. We would slowly hone it down from a seven- or eight-minute take into a two-and-a-half-minute take.

    One of the reasons it’s so fun to work with Jason is that we’re both pretty good editors. So we can have a very long take where we will pick the same three selects for the next take. It’s rare to have that shorthand with someone, and it’s rare to find someone who can improvise while tracking the story. That’s a weirdly hard skill to find. People can improvise all they want, but if it doesn’t ultimately serve the story then it’s useless.

    And how did that experience translate to your scenes together on “Big Mouth”?

    J.M.: Last season, when Jay and Lola were dating, Nick and I would be in the booth together. And, yes, there would be a script and we would do that script, but we would also take flights of fancy off of that script, because luckily we were able to look at each other in the booth. And at this point, having done this for so long and having known each other for so long, I can tell just through subtle body language when Nick has an idea or when he wants to branch off, so it’s easy for me to lay back and give him a bit of a ramp.

    N.K.: If I knew Jason was going to be in the booth, I would make sure to be available to be there with him, especially when we were building Jay and Lola together. And, honestly, it’s always been a dream of mine to get fingered by Jason.

    J.M.: I think we called it “finger-blasted.”

    N.K.: Will that get through fact checking at The New Yorker?

    Time will tell. But, speaking of, part of what I appreciate about “Big Mouth” is the depth of emotion—often painful emotion—underlying the show’s crassness.

    N.K.: This is going to sound so cheesy, but I really do believe in letting the characters tell you where they want to go. In the show’s fourth season, all the other main kids are going off to summer camp, and we were, like, “Well, there’s no way Jay and Lola are going to summer camp, because they both have been abandoned by their parents and have no family to speak of. And, hey, that means they probably would have a lot in common, and also they’re hyper-volatile, hyper-vocal, and hypersexual for their ages.” So all of a sudden it became, like, “Oh, Jay and Lola.” And then, on top of that, it meant that Jason and I got to play off each other directly. It clicked immediately and felt so clear.

    Sometimes productions keep their writers and actors separate, which makes sense because sometimes actors are idiots. But, in our case, our actors are some of the brightest comedic minds working, so we want to hear what they think about their characters.

    Jason, did you offer any specific thoughts on Jay’s character?

    J.M.: Jay is kind of this unbridled id—a feral child. What I love is that the show is constantly engaging with his emotions as an engine to drive him forward. His dynamic with Lola is hilarious, but it’s driven by this profound sense of loss and loneliness and all of the emotional stuff that I feel is so paramount in portraying these characters. Even when we’re saying and doing preposterous things, it’s important to play them with a degree of nuance and empathy.

    Emotionally, I’m very protective of Jay, because my heart breaks for him. He’s a foundationally broken young boy.

    N.K.: He is simultaneously unapologetically who he is and also discovering who he is. It’s like he’s got nothing to lose.

    J.M.: And he does it without anybody’s help—you know, in many ways, he evolves alone. Jay’s growth is driven by Jay.

    Just now, listening to you, I thought, If someone was eavesdropping on this conversation and had never seen the show, they would have no idea that this program is a very explicit animated program with, like, talking vulvas.

    J.M.: If this was a show just about Jay, it would be a harrowing tale of child neglect.

    N.K.: I think that gets at something which myself and the other co-creators of the show believe: the show can only be this dirty if it’s also this emotional. The more emotional we are, the dirtier we get to be, and the dirtier we are, the more emotional we can then also be. They’re not separate. They’re actually very entwined.

    J.M.: The emotionality and the overtly funny, heightened jokes—they have to occur in tandem.

    There’s a lot of volatility in all of the characters, which feels very real to me—middle school is a volatile time. I was definitely an angry teen. I felt annoyed at my mutability. What were you both like at that age?

    J.M.: I was still trying to figure out friends, quite frankly. I grew up quite lonely, quite isolated, so it was about how to have real, meaningful friendships, not just, “Oh, I play soccer with that kid.” Communication. The things you have to put into a friendship to get out of a friendship, things like that.

    N.K.: I wasn’t in love, but I had crushes on lots of girls that I was friends with. It’s a big story line in this season with my character, Nick, and Jessi Klein’s character, Jessi. I would profess my love for a friend, and then she’d be, like, “I don’t really like you that way.” And then I would be heartbroken and angry. I spent a lot of middle and high school repeating that behavior over and over again.

    J.M.: That’s something I think “Big Mouth” does really well: it gets at the overwhelming complexity of the super-heightened emotions that are happening to people at that age.

    I read some reviews of the show written by young teens—twelve- and thirteen-year-olds—online, and it’s clear that “Big Mouth” resonates with a lot of people that age. Have you talked to any kids about the show in the past few years?

    N.K.: That’s been a really gratifying part of this whole thing.

    J.M.: When we were recording Season 1, I wouldn’t have anticipated how many of my friends would come up to me and say, “The show is so great, I love it—and it’s also given me a way to talk to my kid, because my kid also watches it. And so now my daughter and I are having conversations that we never would’ve started before. The show was a catalyst for having more thoughtful and funny conversations around topics that I otherwise would’ve been nervous to bring up.”

    N.K.: On the other side, I just got a text from one of my dear friends from college whose kids are in eighth grade. They just finished watching the new season. And the quote from their kids was: “It was a very good season. Thanks for making all the episodes jam-packed with exciting and inappropriately funny stuff. Excited to know that Santa is well-hung. We learned a lot.” So everybody’s taking something different from the show.

    Jason, a lot of the characters you’ve played on TV are very intense and vocal—borderline deranged. And Nick, I rewatched an old episode of “Parks and Recreation” where you play Howard (the Douche) Tuttleman, a secretly introspective shock jock who has built a career out of coarse jokes. So I’m wondering how much you both think about playing to and against people’s expectations—spoofing on outside perceptions, et cetera.

    J.M.: You’re right. I’ve played a lot of unhinged maniac characters, like Jay, or Dennis Feinstein on “Parks and Rec,” or Adrian Pimento on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” and Rafi, obviously. But there’s a way in which I feel like something that’s important to all of these characters is finding a way to imbue these people with an interior emotional life, so they aren’t just joke machines. Rafi from “The League” is desperate to be best friends with everybody else on “The League.” That’s why he’s there. He thinks they’re his best friends, and they hate him. And that juxtaposition, that tension, is interesting to me.

    The same is true of Jay. In Season 1, he’s hypersexual, but then as you start to get to know him you see the person that he is inside, and it’s heartbreaking.

    What I like about “Big Mouth” is that it’s serialized storytelling for all of the characters. So even though they might be aging slowly they’re nonetheless aging forward.

    N.K.: The kids are learning things, for better or for worse, and moving forward based on the experiences they’ve had. And they don’t always learn the right lesson, but they are learning and growing from these things. We can tell the most fucked-up, crazy, and true-to-life stories that happen to kids, but they also feel emotionally honest. And that’s the most gratifying version of the story for us. And I hope that’s what’s made the show gratifying to watch.

    Also, just to bookend this piece for you, like I said: Jason is terrible at accents. However, I will say that in “Big Mouth” ’s new Christmas episode, Jason also voices a Russian mobster.

    J.M.: Oh, yes.

    N.K.: So we can all evolve. We can all grow.

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