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Nick Kroll And John Mulaney Relive Raging Hormones And First Kisses In 'Big Mouth'

Nick Kroll and John Mulaney talk about comedy, puberty, and hosting the Independent Spirit awards on Saturday, honoring the year's best independent films.


Other segments from the episode on March 1, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 1, 2018: Interview with Nick Kroll & John Mulhaney; Review of film 'Red Sparrow.'


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guests are Nick Kroll and John Mulaney, two comics and actors who often work as a duo. Their latest project together is the Netflix animated comedy series, "Big Mouth," about a group of kids going through puberty figuring out how to deal with all the related body changes, sexual urges, embarrassment, confusion and frustration. Kroll and Mulaney voice the characters of two kids who are best friends. Kroll also co-created the series. Kroll and Mulaney also wrote and performed the show, "Oh, Hello" on Broadway. Mulaney was a writer on "Saturday Night Live," and co-created and co-wrote Bill Hader's character, Stefon. Kroll hosted the Comedy Central series, "The Kroll Show." In the movie "Loving," Kroll played the young ACLU lawyer. Kroll and Mulaney met in an improv group while they were in college. They're now preparing to host the Independent Spirit Awards, which are the Oscars of the independent film world. The ceremony will be shown live Saturday on the IFC Channel. Kroll and Mulaney hosted it last year, too. Here's a clip from that opening.


NICK KROLL: For us to host this is not - it's not an honor.

JOHN MULANEY: It's a lateral move.

KROLL: It's a lateral move.


KROLL: It's a - but this a great event. We like to think of these awards as the ones without Mel Gibson. All right? You know, people wondered, how long would it take Hollywood to forgive someone for anti-Semitic, racist hate speech? The answer?

MULANEY: Eight years.

KROLL: Eight years.

MULANEY: So look out for the 2024 Oscars when the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award goes to Mr. Steve Bannon.


GROSS: Nick Kroll, John Mulaney, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. So since women at award shows have been addressing sexual harassment and sexual assault in Hollywood and other places, is this an awkward time to be two guys hosting the ceremony?

MULANEY: That is an excellent question.


MULANEY: I don't find it awkward.

KROLL: No. I wouldn't say it's awkward. I think it's an incredibly interesting time to be trying to navigate how to be funny. And, ultimately, we're hosts trying to have a show that everybody has a good time at while simultaneously aware of what a wildly crazy time it is to be existing in our culture.

MULANEY: We want to be respectful of what everyone has gone through and however not avoid it and act like we're not on planet Earth.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's talk about your animated series, "Big Mouth," an animated series about a group of friends going through puberty, having a difficult time dealing with the physical and emotional changes. And, Nick, you co-created, co-wrote and star in it. And, John, you're one of the stars in it. You play best friends. Nick, you created the series with a longtime friend. How did you decide to do a series about the changes of puberty?

KROLL: Well, my friend, Andrew Goldberg, who I've known since first grade, and we became best friends in middle school, he also came out to Los Angeles and became a writer for "Family Guy." And he came to me with two friends he worked with, Mark Levin, Jennifer Flackett, and they came to me one day with an idea about an animated show about Andrew and I in that sort of middle-school period. And it immediately resonated with me as a really interesting area for a show, especially animation. And so we kept talking and built it into this thing that really became about kids going through puberty, or, in my particular case, not going through puberty because I was a...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KROLL: I was a very late bloomer, whereas Andrew hit puberty very young, very hard. He had a full mustache by, like, sixth, seventh grade, which his father made his mother wax off. And there were many years where he could grow a full beard except on his upper lip, like, a little spot right in the middle of his lip, which we eventually jokingly called the reverse Hitler 'stache. And so it was really about these two boys who could be best friends but be incredibly different places physically and the challenges of both of those things.

GROSS: So your character is based on you. John Mulaney, you play Andrew, the aforementioned friend of Nick's. You want to describe your character on the show?

MULANEY: My character, Andrew, is in rapid puberty mode...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULANEY: ...As the real and amazing writer, Andrew Goldberg, went through. There's a lot of body hair appearing. There's a lot of compulsions appearing. And what's great about "Big Mouth" is these are echoed always by the character of the Hormone Monster, voiced by Nick, who sort of lives in Andrew's brain and next to him as a creature just kind of symbolizing all of the very mixed, weird feelings young Andrew is having, and a lot of the physical manifestations.

KROLL: Yeah. I think when we were discussing the show, Andrew and Mark and Jen were originally talking, like, about the idea that, you know, there's this guy who's sort of an essence that's around Andrew, you know, kind of like a hormone monster. And then they approached me about it, and they were like, we think there should be sort of, like, a hormone monster. And I immediately just said, (in Hormone Monster voice) touch yourself, Andrew.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KROLL: And that became sort of the - it was like, OK, great. And this is why you can do something like this animated, is because you can then begin to personify these feelings and emotions that are kind of destroying and helping to form all these kids.

MULANEY: You're a 13-year-old, and you're going through life looking like a 13-year-old, and inside you, you know, the Burning Man Festival is going on.

GROSS: (Laughter). And the hormone monster is personified as this, like, dragon-like creature that, Nick, you voice. (Laughter).


GROSS: And it's always kind of, like, egging everybody - you know, egging the two guys on to, like, go ahead and kiss her, or, like, go ahead, watch more porn, and do things that we can't mention on the radio. Yeah.


MULANEY: Yes. But then occasionally critiquing Andrew, which I've always liked because it's an id that has - it's an id that - I don't know enough about Freudian language. It's an id that also has a super ego? It's an id that has a conscience, I'll say.


MULANEY: Sometimes goes like, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULANEY: ...Which I think is how you feel in puberty. You're like, this is natural. I should do this. Is this natural? Should I do this?

GROSS: (Laughter). So I want to play a clip. This is from the first episode of "Big Mouth," which is, by the way, on Netflix. And so your two characters are talking about, like, who knows how to kiss, who's actually already kissing girls. So you're talking about kissing. And here's the clip.


KROLL: (As Nick Birch) Jay hasn't even kissed a girl. I guarantee it. None of us have. Not with, you know, with tongue, anyway.

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) Of course. 'Cause when you do kiss a girl, to make it official...

KROLL: (As Nick Birch) There's got to be tongue.

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) Major tongue.

KROLL: (As Nick Birch) And you want to flick your tongue around.

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) Ideally.

KROLL: (As Nick Birch) And you really want to get your tongue underneath hers, too.

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) Yeah. Yeah, you want to get it in there like a Claritin to just dissolve.

KROLL: (As Nick Birch) Yeah. (Laughter).

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) Yeah.

KROLL: (As Nick Birch) We know what we're talking about.

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) It's nice to talk like men.

KROLL: (As Nick Birch) Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter). Who had allergies as a kid? (Laughter). You did the Claritin.

MULANEY: Allergies always.

KROLL: Yeah. I think both of us. I didn't have many allergies at that age. I've always - Terry, I've always had eczema. And I've only realized in later years that I can attribute it to allergies.

MULANEY: I always had acne, and I took an antibiotic for it, and my wife was asking me recently, like, how long did you take that? And I was like, I think three years.


MULANEY: She said, every day for three years? I was like, yeah, I think so.

KROLL: Yeah.

MULANEY: Didn't work.

GROSS: Do you remember your first kiss?

KROLL: I do.


KROLL: My first kiss was a Truth Or Dare. So I don't even know if that counts. But I was on the back of a bus on a way back from a bar mitzvah, and it was with my friend, Lizzie Gould (ph), who actually, the character of Jessi, voiced by Jessi Klein, is based on loosely. And I didn't know what I was doing, and I just jammed my tongue down her throat.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KROLL: And she felt very strongly, made it very clear that I was not doing it right. And in later years, I've been like, yup. That's very fair. That's a very fair critique.

GROSS: (Laughter). And, John? Yours?

MULANEY: Yes. I kissed a girl named Mary, who I had a huge crush on. And when I had a crush it was, you know, like, stop-the-presses crush. Everyone had to know. I had to tell her, and everyone around her, and everyone in school and put billboards up about it. They were exhausting. And she was my eighth-grade crush. And I did get to kiss her once, and that was the only time.

KROLL: (Laughter) We did not, early on, have...

GROSS: Why was that the only time?

MULANEY: I did not - I was not able to ever play anything cool. So I might have been like, thank you for kissing me. I love you so much.


KROLL: But, you know, so - and I think in the first episode, I have my first kiss. And it sort of reenacts that sort of just throwing my tongue into her mouth. But we then in the second episode, is actually based on our friend Liz (ph). She told us after we had created the show. She was like, you know, I actually got my period for the first time on a class trip to the Statue of Liberty. And we thought that would make a great second episode because I think our goal was to create a show about what it's like for boys going through puberty because we were boys and we understand that but also take an equal look at what it's like for girls and women, the process of going through puberty, which I think has not been quite as explored in most, like, popular culture.

GROSS: So in this episode, where the class is on a class trip to the Statue of Liberty and Jessi gets her first period while wearing white shorts because some - her mother made her wear white shorts to school that day. It's a horrible experience for her. And on the bus ride home, the school bus ride home, it's animated so you could do this. You have a tampon walking down the aisle of the bus, singing in the manner of R.E.M., everybody bleeds to the melody of "Everybody Hurts." And I want to play a clean verse from that (laughter).

KROLL: Good luck.

GROSS: We got one. Here we go.


MARK RIVERS: (As character, singing) 'Cause everybody bleeds from time to time. So let it flow. Friendships fall apart. It'll leave a shameful stain on the white pants of your heart. And everybody bleeds like your insides are exploding. Everybody bleeds. Life's all heartache, cramps and bloating. Everybody bleeds.

FRED ARMISEN: (As character) Everybody, what are you, out of your minds? Get back on the bus.

GROSS: That last verse you heard was Nick Kroll as the clueless coach who's overseeing the bus.

KROLL: Sorry. That weird moment is actually Fred Armisen doing the bus driver in that particular moment.

GROSS: Oh, that's the bus driver. OK. I'm remembering it as the coach. OK.

KROLL: Yes. No, but I do like a couple of things. One, if someone just turned on like - was like when I get in my car and it's just on NPR and FRESH AIR comes on and I hear that song...

MULANEY: They think that's the incidental music.

KROLL: Yeah.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KROLL: But that is, by the way, the gentleman who sings that song and who wrote the music and who writes almost all the music on "Big Mouth" is Mark Rivers, who I've worked with for a long time. He did a bunch of music on "Kroll Show" and who's unbelievably talented.

GROSS: Part of this episode is about how upsetting the idea of menstruation is for boys who are just learning about it. And, John, your character is just kind of traumatized (laughter) by that.

MULANEY: And trying to be - trying to help, but yes, very shaken up Andrew is.

GROSS: Was that upsetting for you when you learned about it?

MULANEY: I wouldn't say it was upsetting to learn about menstruation. I will admit I fainted during "The Miracle Of Life" video during the actual reveal - the reveal, like that's the medical term - of when the baby came out. I was like, what is happening there? And then I hit the floor. And that didn't happen once, Terry. That happened three times.

KROLL: Three separate years.

MULANEY: Three separate years. Two in junior high...

GROSS: Did they make you watch that - did you fail the first time and they kept showing it to you subsequent years?

MULANEY: They should have because, you know, one must see and know.

KROLL: Yeah.

MULANEY: But I was not prepared at that moment. We were happily watching this video that was, I think, made in 1972 with era-appropriate clothing. And the first time, I was like, what's that? And I hit the floor. The second time was like, I think they're going to show that video again, got to play it cool. Don't faint. And then I fainted. And then the third year, everyone was looking at me, being like, he's going to faint as soon as the baby comes out. And the pressure of all of that, I think, gave me a panic attack, and I collapsed.

GROSS: My guests are comics and actors John Mulaney and Nick Kroll. They voice the characters of two best friends in the Netflix animated comedy series "Big Mouth," which Kroll co-created. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with comics and actors Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. They voice the characters of two best friends in the Netflix animated comedy series "Big Mouth" about a group of kids going through puberty. Kroll co-created the series.

So John told us a little bit about his experience learning the facts of life in school and fainting (laughter).


GROSS: What was your experience? Like, who taught you, Nick?

KROLL: Well, I had two older sisters and an older brother. And so I definitely got some really good information from my sisters. I mean, I remember seeing one of my older sisters getting her period - I mean, not seeing it, but I remember her crying in the bathroom. And I was probably like 7 or 8 at the time. But I remember - I have weird flashes of - you know how you have like screengrabs of moments?

And so I remember that. I definitely learned I would feel very grateful for having older sisters because I feel like they were very helpful to - older sisters are incredibly helpful to younger brothers in explaining how things are happening and what women are thinking. And I was very grateful for that.

In school, I don't remember a ton of information from school. I mean, I remember - Andrew and I remember watching a video called like "Am I Normal?" and there was a - I remember a couple boys walking along. And then they see I think like a janitor at their school. And there's two animals having sex. And the janitor points out the animals having sex, which now seems like a sex crime in some way, but at the time was - I think was supposed to sort of explain what was happening in a very indirect way.

GROSS: So, Nick, since you had older sisters, did they kind of warn you about being crude or condescending or harassing to girls?

KROLL: Yeah. And I think, you know, as much as they - older sisters can help younger brothers in that way and then younger brothers have to figure out their way through it. And we actually - there's another - I'll point to another episode in the season. I think it's Episode 7 called "The Head Pusher." And it was - it's all about the idea of like - of truly about consent. And my older sister in the show, Leah, played by Kat Dennings, has a boy that she likes. And they start making out. And then he pushes her head down to do something that she doesn't want to do. And she sort of says, I don't want to do that. And he tries it again. And then she ends it.

And then there's a discussion amongst all of the kids about, you know, how do you get someone to do that thing you want to do? And Leah says, well, you ask. And the younger boys are in this conversation too, and they're like, that seems very uncomfortable. And it's like, well, then you don't get that. And it's like, well, fair enough. I'd rather just not have that conversation, you know.

MULANEY: And I think in that episode, that conversation happens in a "Seinfeld" diner.

KROLL: Yes. It then turns into a "Seinfeld" thing about the head push, you know. Not a fan of the head push.


KROLL: But it was - I think it was emblematic of a bunch of stuff. And this was before everything that sort of happened in recent or all the revelations of the last year. But we wrote it before that. And I'm incredibly grateful that I had older sisters to help me navigate that stuff.

GROSS: John, did you have older sisters?

MULANEY: I have an older sister and an older brother and a younger sister. And I think while we didn't talk about sex much at home ever, except during like if we were watching "Working Girl" and our parents were like get out of the room right now, that would come up. But as my - in my development as a human, they were absolutely essential, even if we might have been a little uptight.

GROSS: John, how much was your idea of manhood or, you know, like teenagehood based on, like, gross-out teen movies that were so popular when you were coming of age?

MULANEY: Oh, not much. I didn't relate to those or the sort of outward hormone monsterness of them. Are you talking about movies in like the '70s or the '90s? I guess they were similar.

KROLL: Well, I'm just going to interrupt and help clarify John a little bit. He was less formed by the gross-out movies of like the late '80s and '90s and I think more like me and why I think we've ended up working together, we were formed more by the movies like "All That Jazz."


GROSS: By Bob Fosse?

KROLL: Yes, exactly.

MULANEY: Yeah. We bit off way more than we could chew in a sense. But it was a little more sophisticated. This sort of let's party, party, party and the...

GROSS: And force girls to have sex with us, yes. Those were - yeah.

MULANEY: Those were like, what?

KROLL: Yeah.

MULANEY: No, I did not relate to those. I think Nora Ephron movies also rang true to me from a very young age. That's what it's like is you just talk and talk and talk, and you like them and you never say it.

GROSS: Well, "All That Jazz" has some very sexy dancing in it.


MULANEY: Oh, yes it does.

KROLL: And it's - again, there's a version of Roy Scheider in that movie as Bob Fosse who's hormone monster is very much in control of his actions. And so there's stuff about that that we loved and then things looking back, we're like, oh, that's a complicated, bad dude, you know.

GROSS: My guests are Nick Kroll and John Mulaney, who voice the characters of two best friends in the Netflix animated comedy series "Big Mouth." We'll talk more after a break. And film critic David Edelstein will review the new thriller "Red Sparrow" starring Jennifer Lawrence as a ballerina-turned-spy. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with comics and actors Nick Kroll and John Mulaney, who often work together as a duo. On Saturday, they'll host the Independent Spirit Awards, which are like the Oscars of the independent film world. You can watch it live on IFC. They're also working together on the Netflix animated comedy series "Big Mouth," which Kroll co-created. And it's about a group of kids going through puberty, dealing with the related body changes, sexual urges, confusion and embarrassment. Kroll and Mulaney voice the characters of two kids who are best friends.

You know, one of the things I was thinking about - like, one of the serious things I was thinking about watching episodes of "Big Mouth" is that as we were talking about like there's the hormone monster, this dragon-like personification of the hormones running through the boys' and the girls' bodies who are telling them all these like crazy, you know, things to do. And I was thinking about how like - it's if like some of the public personalities who we now know have been sexual harassers or sexual assaulters - it's as if they had this, like, hormone monster on their shoulder, and they never stopped listening to that hormone monster.

KROLL: We - yeah, we, in the show and as we build the world out, have oftentimes talked about when do people's - people's hormone monsters, they come on at puberty. But - and do they stick around, or do they go away? And it's sort of, as we continue to build the world, we're sort of - we're constantly navigating what that means. And I think in a certain way, I think the philosophy of the show is, you have this hormone monster that comes out during puberty, and then slowly, that monster becomes a part of you. And I think depending on how you evolve, it either becomes a part of you that helps you be a sexual person and figure out who and what you like, and then sometimes that hormone monster doesn't quite get tamed, and becomes a much bigger part of you and isn't incorporated in the most, you know, equitable fashion with the rest of the person that you are becoming.

MULANEY: I think just doing Andrew week to week, I'm always like, this is just someone who's figuring out impulse control.

KROLL: Yeah.

MULANEY: And it's (laughter) a little guy wrestling with it, you know, from script to script.

GROSS: So John, there's an episode in which you think you might be gay because you've watched a video with The Rock, and you...


GROSS: You feel aroused by it, and you think like, OK...

MULANEY: I forgot it was The Rock.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah - like, OK, maybe I'm gay. So you don't know how to tell if you're gay or not. So you go to your friend from school who is gay, who's voiced by Andrew Rannells, and ask him for advice. So I want to play that scene.


MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) Hey, Matthew?

ANDREW RANNELLS: (As Matthew) Oh, look, the lost and found became a person.

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) I was wondering, if you don't mind, how did you know that you were gay? Sorry. You're the only gay person I know.

RANNELLS: (As Matthew) I'm the only gay person you know you know. Why are we talking about this? Oh, you think you're gay.

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) What? No. No. Well, yeah. I'm not sure.

RANNELLS: (As Matthew) No, I can see it. I mean, you suck at being straight.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Hi, Andrew. I just wanted to preemptively let you know that I'm not interested in you.

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) And may I say that I fully understand, and I thank you for your candor.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) You're welcome.

RANNELLS: (As Matthew) That - that too. You're weirdly formal, like the kind of gay guy who was in the Air Force and then became middle management at IBM, and you have a condo, and there's, like, a sad gym in the building.

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) Well, that sounds like a nice little life I've made for myself.

RANNELLS: (As Matthew) Let's face it, Andrew. If you're asking, you're probably gay.

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) Probably gay - well, what does that even mean?

RANNELLS: (As Matthew) Not my job. I have morning announcements. And you have, like, a pear shape.

MULANEY: (As Andrew Glouberman) Oh, God.

GROSS: It's a scene from "Big Mouth," which - you heard the voice of my guest, John Mulaney, and Andrew Rannells. Also with us is Nick Kroll, who co-created this series and plays one of the leads in it. So John, in your stand-up comedy, you've talked about how people assumed that you were gay when you were coming of age. Why did they assume that? And what was that experience like for you?

MULANEY: I think maybe due to very surface-level things that are stereotypical and not nuanced or very sophisticated - just, I wasn't athletic, maybe didn't seem as masculine as they thought. I'm not sure. But obviously, those are things that I guess maybe, as a teenager, people would pick up on and go like, you're bad at basketball, but nothing of substance. I had good self-esteem. And I would be absolutely remiss to say I was - and not bullied in any way for that. And it was, I think, a thing people would joke about occasionally. And I was weirdly formal, as Andrew...

KROLL: Yes. Yes.

MULANEY: ...Is on the show.

GROSS: Did you think, maybe I am gay?

MULANEY: Yeah, of course (laughter).

KROLL: Yeah. I think that was - yeah, yeah. I think...


KROLL: Yeah. I think that's the truth, is - a lot of people as - especially when you're all of a sudden thrust into sort of sexuality and desire, I think it would be untrue for most people to be like - at some point, be like, where am I on this sexual spectrum?

MULANEY: Yeah, where am I falling? Yeah.

KROLL: Where am I falling? Like...

MULANEY: Why am I not like him? Why am I not - yeah.

KROLL: Yeah, like, why am I not purely just going after this one thing, or what does this all mean? And I think people are - kids are struggling with that at that age. And truthfully, as you see people going through your life, like, people are figuring it out throughout the rest of their lives. And I think we wanted to sort of address that concept, that sexuality - I don't think we're trying to formally say sexuality's on a spectrum. But I think that, like, you know, it's, like - I mean, I've had those questions where I'm like, well, geez, I've been best friends with John for a long time. I love hanging out with him. I don't know if I want to sleep with him, but I really love spending time with him. What does that mean about me? And I hope John's wife is listening to this.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULANEY: And I don't get the second part. Why wouldn't - why are you unclear on whether you want to sleep with...


GROSS: How did you both meet?

MULANEY: We met my freshman year of college.

KROLL: My senior year of college.

MULANEY: I auditioned for the college improv group called the Georgetown Players Improv Group. I wanted to do comedy, but strangely, I didn't want to audition that day. My - a guy down the hall was going to audition and was like, come along to this. And I guess - I don't know, just, 18-year-old lethargy - I was like, no. And I went, and my friend did not get in, and I did get in. And I met Nick at that audition.

KROLL: Yeah. I was the - I don't want to brag, Terry, but I was the director of the Georgetown Players Improv Group when I was a senior in college. And it was - that was, I think, the first time that I held auditions for anything when I was sort of in charge of something. And there were a bunch of talented folks who came through, including our friend Jacqueline Novak, who's a really funny stand-up who was cast the same year as John. And...

MULANEY: And you'd been cast by Mike Birbiglia.

KROLL: And I'd been cast - yes.

MULANEY: ...Our dear friend in (unintelligible).

KROLL: Yeah, yes, Mike Birbiglia cast me in the group or had me do a sketch show my freshman year. And - but I saw John audition, and I just immediately was like, wow, this kid is funny. And we then did improv for that whole year in college, and we just clicked and immediately enjoyed working together and simultaneously becoming very good friends. And then I graduated and moved to New York, and John started coming to New York.

MULANEY: I started coming to visit uninvited often, and would sleep on Nick's couch and just kind of followed you around. He was doing, like, open mics, and I did not know that world at all.

KROLL: And so we started kind of doing that and started writing things together pretty soon after.

GROSS: What's one of the first bits you did together?

KROLL: We did a thing - the first thing that we wrote together - when I moved to New York and John was still in school, we wrote a piece together, a video called "Cavalcade Of Personalities."

MULANEY: It was like a newsreel that you'd see at a movie theater from the '30s about a big society gathering.

KROLL: "Cavalcade Of Personalities" - there's, you know, there's Chuckles Fine (ph), the toast of vaudeville. Watch out, ladies, he'll verbally abuse you. And...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MULANEY: There's J.P. Mortimer (ph), the worst man in America.


KROLL: Yeah. So we kind of wrote that together. And then I assembled a bunch of people from - who I had started to meet around comedy. And John was still in school and flew up for the weekend and we shot it.

MULANEY: And by flew up, I took a bus.


KROLL: Sorry - yes. I'm sorry. And then, you know, this was before YouTube and that stuff when we submitted around to festivals. And it was a very early piece for me to sort of begin to show whatever our comedic voices would be, which is things that people were deeply not interested in.


MULANEY: Yeah, yeah, slightly anachronistic things that some people like.

KROLL: Yeah.

MULANEY: And it won the ECNY, the Emerging Comics of New York Award for best short film. And I was in college, and I considered dropping out 'cause I thought that was such a big deal.


GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guests are comics and actors Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. And they are hosting the Independent Spirit Awards this Saturday. And you can see it on IFC. And these are basically, like, the indie Oscars. And then they also - you can hear them both in the animated series "Big Mouth," a series about kids going through puberty. Nick Kroll co-created the series, and John and Nick play the two leads in it. So we're going to take a short break and then be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guests are comics and actors John Mulaney and Nick Kroll. And they've been a comic duo together for many years, in addition to doing independent things. For instance, John Mulaney wrote for years for "Saturday Night Live" and co-created the character of Stefon. And, you know, Nick Kroll had his own TV series. And also Nick Kroll was in the movie "Loving" as the ACLU lawyer and is in a forthcoming movie about hunting Eichmann? Is it Eichmann?

KROLL: Yes, correct. Adolf Eichmann, yeah.

GROSS: And they're both in the animated series "Big Mouth," which is about kids going through puberty. And Nick Kroll co-created the animated series. Nick, you're Jewish and went to a Jewish day school. And, John, you're Irish and went to Catholic school. Was having gone to some form of a religious school something that was bonding or something that was really different between the two of you 'cause they were different religions?

KROLL: I think, well, one, even though John is an Irish Catholic kid from Chicago, I think he has the soul of a, like, an elderly Jewish man on the Upper West Side.

MULANEY: Thank you.


MULANEY: Truly, thank you. I - thank you. That means a lot. I take that as a huge compliment.


KROLL: But I think I guess there's something to having gone to versions of parochial schools that, you know, they're not public school, they're not a regular, like, run-of-the-mill private school that I think either give you a specificity into maybe - I'm literally formulating this as we speak. But maybe there's something to the idea that, you know, you're not only going to a regular school but you're also learning Bible studies. You're learning these old stories that aren't necessarily things that everybody knows about, but they end up being whether you take them as rote or they just become interesting stories of analogies or metaphors for life...

MULANEY: And you learn extremes.

KROLL: Yeah.

MULANEY: I feel like comedy comes from a lot of extremes - extreme behavior and extreme circumstances.

KROLL: And I think being at parochial schools too, you kind of are like, I don't know if I agree with this.


KROLL: And so you end up beginning to look at things from an outsider's point of view.

MULANEY: Like, we wore uniforms. So I never had to worry about what to wear as a kid. But it was like, how do you stand out while wearing a uniform?

KROLL: Right. And I had to...

MULANEY: Kind of a comedy question.

KROLL: And we had to wear yarmulkes to school. And if we didn't, we had to go to the office and buy them (laughter). And I was like, I don't want to be an anti-Semite so early, but I have this feeling...


KROLL: But I just was, like, this seems - I just remember getting in arguments about the Arab-Israeli conflict in, like, seventh grade and being like, I don't know if I exactly fit in this mold here.

GROSS: Did either of you practice the religion when you got out of school?


MULANEY: Yeah, a little. Like, sometimes I'd be like, maybe that would be comforting.

KROLL: Yeah.

MULANEY: I am not an active churchgoer. But it still - it made it in before the garage door closed in my brain.


MULANEY: So it's in there.

GROSS: You know, we've talked about how you were both friends in college and started working together in improv in college and have stayed friends and comedy partners ever since. If I understand correctly, you both auditioned for "Saturday Night Live" on the same day. And, John, you got a job on "Saturday Night Live" as a writer as a result of that audition.


GROSS: But, Nick, you walked away not getting anything.

KROLL: I chose not to be cast.


GROSS: Nick, I'm wondering what that was like for you to have somebody who you had been a comedy partner with, who was a dear friend and he was getting this job that every comic dreams of and you weren't. I mean, that's got to be painful.

KROLL: It was, you know, I wouldn't describe it as painful. I would describe it as hard and challenging. And it's - the truth is being incredibly close with John and being comedy partners with him on various projects, I am incredibly envious of his unbelievable talents. And yet, I simultaneously couldn't be happier for anything that happens to him because I believe he's so talented and he works so hard that he deserves everything that he's gotten.

GROSS: So, John, when you were on "Saturday Night Live," you co-created the character of Stefon that Bill Hader played...


GROSS: ...On Weekend Update. And it was a character that would always come on and talk about, like, the nightlife scene and was like, this club has everything. And you'd...

MULANEY: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: And, like, Stefon would list all these absolutely ludicrous things that the club had. Had you...

MULANEY: Yes, this was during the time in New York where Mayor Bloomberg was trying to shut down a lot of pop-up clubs and things. These were just - a party would just be at, like, a space. Do you remember that? On the West Side Highway, there'd be, like, an abandoned ship and there'd be a party in it.

KROLL: Yeah, yeah.

MULANEY: And there was a program called Silent Nights (ph) trying to stop a lot of this. And yes, it was evocative of that 2000s era.

GROSS: What were some of the more ludicrous things that you included in the Stefon character that you'd actually heard about for real?

MULANEY: I believe the only real jumping-off point was grown men dressed as babies.


MULANEY: ...I heard about. And from there - and, you know, from there, we extrapolated.

KROLL: (Laughter).

MULANEY: ...For a few years.

GROSS: Such as?

MULANEY: Such as - you've heard of Blacula, the black Dracula. Well, we have a Jewish Dracula. And then Seth asked, what's his name? And Bill said, Sidney Applebaum.


GROSS: You've also - you know, in addition to your successes, you've had failures. You both had TV shows that failed. Nick, for you it was "Caveman (ph)," which was a series based on the Geico insurance ad caveman character.

KROLL: A flawless concept, Terry.

GROSS: Honestly. Like, I confess, I never saw the serious, but I couldn't figure out, like, why would somebody create a series based on that caveman character?

KROLL: Well, Terry, I think it was the canary in the mines of network television - just, like, people being like, what are we going to do?


MULANEY: Hey, that's a thing.

GROSS: John, your experience was more personal in the sense that, like, Nick - it wasn't his concept to do the show. But your show was called "Mulaney."


GROSS: And you played a version of yourself. So that must have been, like, a real personal rejection when the show failed after - what? - it was about three months.

MULANEY: Oh, yes. From the time it aired, it was three weeks. But...

GROSS: Oh, oh, oh.

MULANEY: We'd been working on it for a while.


MULANEY: Yes, it was more personal, indeed. When your biggest fear is seeing the words, Mulaney isn't funny...


MULANEY: ...Printed in many, many publications and sometimes in stronger language, you have to confront that. So yes, it was more personal.

GROSS: How - so how do you both recover from that?

MULANEY: I - it took a little time. I mean, man, it was like just...

KROLL: Also...

MULANEY: ...Being shot out of the sky, or it was like being given a Corvette and crashing it immediately. But I found, within a few months, that - I just was like, wow, this is - failure is interesting and kind of a blessing. I mean, failure is - you can learn so much from it. And I think I did. And then I guess also just timingwise, I went on tour and did that special "The Comeback Kid," and then Nick and I were simultaneously working on "Oh, Hello" off-Broadway. Those were two things that had no other larger entities dictating, and we were doing what we liked. And so I got very lucky that that happened then.

GROSS: So when this interview ends, are you going to go and write more jokes for the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday?

MULANEY: Yes, we are.

KROLL: That's exactly what we're going to do, Terry. We're going to spend the rest of this week writing jokes and running them at night, and hopefully finding the funniest acts.

MULANEY: One of us will drive, and one of us will have the dome light on reading a sheet of jokes.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KROLL: Yeah, and there's no better way to spend a week.

MULANEY: There's not.

GROSS: It's been so much fun to talk with you both. Thank you so much.

MULANEY: Thank you, Terry.

KROLL: Terry, we love listening to FRESH AIR, both of us. And to be on it is, like, a true, true milestone for both of us. So thank you for having us.

GROSS: Nick Kroll and John Mulaney voice the characters of two best friends in the Netflix animated comedy series "Big Mouth." They'll host the Independent Spirit Awards, the Oscars of the independent film world, on Saturday. You can watch the ceremony on IFC. After we take a short break, film critic David Edelstein will review the new thriller "Red Sparrow," starring Jennifer Lawrence as a ballerina turned spy. This is FRESH AIR.



This is FRESH AIR. Film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new thriller "Red Sparrow," starring Jennifer Lawrence as a Russian prima ballerina turned spy. It's directed by Francis Lawrence, who worked with the actress in the last three films in the "Hunger Games" series.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Jennifer Lawrence is a wonderful dramatic and comic actress, but she can't pass for the star of the Bolshoi Ballet, the so-called pride of Russia, in the espionage thriller "Red Sparrow." Her general gawkiness, the kind that's bred out of Russian dancers, is central to her charm. And though it's fun to watch her stretch and hold her neck like a prima ballerina, for the first time on screen, she's a stiff. It doesn't help that her character becomes a spy, which forces Lawrence to muzzle the openness that made her a star. And it really doesn't help that the script is a bloody mess.

"Red Sparrow" is a long slog, almost 2 1/2 hours, but it is interesting as another in a line of female-centric spy thrillers that began in 1990 with Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita." The idea is that a woman's power is double-edged. As a sparrow, a spy recruited based on her attractiveness, Lawrence's Dominika is trained to use her body and feminine wiles as a weapon to entrap men. But that training, for the most part overseen by men, enslaves her, both physically and psychologically. That idea isn't just the subtext of "Red Sparrow." It's explicit in every scene. Her leering uncle, a Russian intelligence higher-up, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, essentially pimps her out after a career-ending injury. She goes along to pay her fragile mother's medical bills. Another higher-up lectures her, your body belongs to the state. Given the amount of nudity Lawrence does, it belongs to the studio, too, though she was obviously better paid than her character.

The minimal suspense comes from whether Dominika will be able to take back ownership of her body and what will happen if she falls in love with the target of her mission, as agents in these sorts of movies tend to do. He's Nate Nash, an American CIA operative played by Joel Edgerton. And Dominika's assignment is to ascertain the name of a mole way up in the ranks of Russian intelligence. She travels to Vienna, where she puts on a bathing suit to catch his eye. They meet again at a reception.


JOEL EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) Dominika Egorova.

JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) You know my name.

EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) You told me.

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) You stole my ID from the pool.

EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) That would be illegal. Were you just looking for me?

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) I'd know where to find you if I was.

EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) You see, I'm curious. Did you want me to know that you were following me, or are you just real clumsy?

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) You Americans always think the rest of us are so interested in you, don't you?

EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) So what made you want to become a translator?

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) My mother is unwell. If I work for the government, the state helps me take care of her. My uncle helped me get the job.

EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) Your uncle is a very powerful man.

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) In my country, if you don't matter to the men in power, you do not matter.

EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) Hey, I'd like to see you again.

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) Why? Are we going to become friends?

EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) Is that what you want?

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) I don't have any.

EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) There's a Russian restaurant right by the opera. Have dinner with me there.

LAWRENCE: (As Dominika Egorova) Tomorrow at 8.

EDGERTON: (As Nate Nash) OK.

EDELSTEIN: That's a fascinating scene. She's there incognito, but since he knows who her uncle is, he's been onto her from the get go, which means he knows she's a sparrow, and she knows he knows. But she goes on with the mission as if he doesn't, which means she could pretend to go over to his side to get the name of the mole, which means he might guess she's only pretending and play her, which means she might guess what he's doing and play him back. You see the problem here. Figuring out whether someone is a double or triple agent isn't a brainteaser. It's a brain irritant, especially when the script is so murky and convoluted. The novel by Jason Matthews is cleaner without so much jumping around. I don't know why there are so few sparks between Lawrence and Joel Edgerton. It feels as if scenes were cut, though I wouldn't want "Red Sparrow" to be any longer.

The movie has its good points. Lawrence's Russian accent is actually respectable. Matthias Schoenaerts makes the uncle, whose nickname is Vanya, unnervingly slippery. And as a Russian general, Jeremy Irons does his amusing impersonation of Boris Karloff after embalming. I liked the sly lesbian subtext Charlotte Rampling gives to Dominika's icy trainer. There's a graphically violent scene near the end that the director, Francis Lawrence, stages well. But the movie isn't involving, so you have nothing to do but grimace at one bad note after another and think the Russians could have devised a better plot. And maybe they have.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with psychologist and journalist Lauren Slater about drugs that treat depression and bipolar disorder and about research into the use of psychedelic drugs to treat certain problems related to anxiety, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of our interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Theo Chaloner and Seth Kelly. Our engineer today is Adam Stanichevsky (ph). I'm Terry Gross.


Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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