How ‘Big Mouth’ Evolved to Reflect Current Conversations of Sexuality and Gender Identity: ‘Being Honest Is Our First Thing’

Spoiler alert: The following article discusses the entirety of “Big Mouth” Season 6.

When “Big Mouth” co-creators Jennifer Flackett, Andrew Goldberg, Nick Kroll and Mark Levin first sat down in their “little bubble” to pen what would eventually become one of Netflix’s foremost adult animated comedies in 2017, they didn’t quite realize what an stirring ride it would be.

The out-there, at times raunchy and always-riotous tale about hormone monsters and the pains of growing up is known for its meta gags, audience ribbing and pillaging of anything a WASP mom would find scandalous at best, if not completely objectionable. But over the course of half a decade and a workplace spinoff later, the slick comedy has skillfully burst open the black box of previously taboo topics like teen mental health, sex education and gender identity.

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“I don’t think when we started, we really understood how important emotion was in the show,” Flackett admitted. “I was just telling someone, if you listen to a radio play, and it’s not that funny, you can fix that. You can make it funnier. If you listen to the radio play, and you don’t care about the characters and what they’re going through, well, then we have to really roll up our sleeves. That’s what makes the show really work is that you really care about these characters. We all remember what it was to be 13 — it’s so emotional, it matters so much.”

Now in their sixth season, with another already on deck and hopefully more to come, the executive producers always return to ideas of authenticity and honesty, finding humor in the oft-traumatic experiences of their youth.

“We have three legs of the stool, which are: there’s humor, there’s grossness and there’s emotion, and each one of those allows us to do the other two,” Levin explained. “We are always finding that balance, so being very honest and emotional allows us to be a little gross, but always being honest is our first thing, trying to really tap into, ‘What are the characters really going through? What are they feeling?’ That’s our North Star and everything [follows].”

In iterations past, “Big Mouth” has zoomorphically portrayed mental illness through the Depression Kitty and Anxiety Mosquito, as well as the guilt that comes with nascent adolescent sexuality via the Shame Wizard. It’s also demystified the very things school sex ed never taught you — from periods to peer pressure and every unpleasant puberty-era experience in between.

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This season, the series unravels the psychosexual social hierarchy of junior high, with the episode titled “Rice Purity Test,” in addition to a storyline with new character Elijah (Brian Tyree Henry), who is asexual. In crafting these narratives, the EPs said they consulted frequently with real high school students about what they’re going through, leaning on Bay Area-based sex educator Shafia Zaloom, tuning into conversations on Twitter and working with nonprofit organizations like Ace Los Angeles.

“It’s listening to the audience, but then also one thing we do at least once every season is we talk to a group of actual teenagers,” Goldberg said. “Some of it is us being like, ‘We’re thinking of doing a story about this, have you ever had this kind of experience?’ But a lot of it is just like, ‘What have we not done that is a big part of your life?’ Before we wrote Season 6, there were a few students that we spoke to, who were like, ‘I’m ace, and I don’t really get to see that on TV.’”

Each installment of “Big Mouth” runs apace with emerging and rapidly evolving discussions in the spheres of sexual health and identity, which presents a challenge for the flowing stages of a television production that must commence a year-and-a-half out from airdate.

“[The conversation around sexuality and gender identity has] really accelerated in the last few years,” Levin said. “So we’re always trying to be out there and presume what might be going on, or at least try to be very honest about what we’re hearing and experiencing. And it’s coincided with a lot of the dialogue that’s in the world. But it’s interesting that we’re always chasing and saying, ‘I hope that what we’re saying is still relevant and accurate to the dialogue that’s going on when the show comes out.’”

Big Mouth (L to R) Brian Tyree Henry as Elijah, Ayo Edebiri as Missy and Jordan Peele as Cyrus in Big Mouth. Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2022
Big Mouth (L to R) Brian Tyree Henry as Elijah, Ayo Edebiri as Missy and Jordan Peele as Cyrus in Big Mouth. Cr. COURTESY OF NETFLIX © 2022

As for being part of the conversation, the creative team relishes the privilege, being consumers of other Netflix content themselves (Season 6 has extended beats in which Ayo Edebirir’s Missy fantasizes about Elijah in parody sequences of “Bridgerton”).

“We were very lucky because we wrote our first two seasons in our own little bubble,” Flackett said, “and we weren’t aware of what it would be like to be in that conversation. Now we’re in the conversation and we learn a lot. We get asked things and people say ‘What about this?’”

For Goldberg, the process of writing and creating is just as beholden to current dialogues as it is to healing his past pre-teen self.

“In terms of drawing from our childhood, as we’re writing, I had this realization recently that what we do is we take the most traumatic parts of our childhood and make them funny, which is amazingly therapeutic,” he said. “I think that that’s maybe why other people find it comforting to watch — whether they are going through it or they went through it — that you’re taking the things that in another context could be really horrifying and dramatic, but figuring out what’s funny about them in a way that makes them less scary.”

As much as “Big Mouth” focuses on the peer group each character vitally relies on (and occasionally despises), the series also dissects the family circumstances that heavily shape, inform and oftentimes harm the kids’ understanding of their self-worth, identity and sense of belonging: there’s Andrew’s (John Mulaney) domineering father, Jessi’s (Jessi Klein) parents’ divorce and Jay’s (Jason Mantzoukas) living-and-breathing CPS violation of a family.

“It also came from talking to kids and realizing that over the last two or three years, teenagers have been stuck with their families in a way that has never before happened in history,” Goldberg said, crediting Levin with the season’s focal point of family. “Especially me, as my kids start to get older and start to almost reach the age of the kids in this show, you really start to think more and more about, like you were saying, how parents, when you’re growing up, you don’t really think of them as having their own lives, but as you get older, you start to realize like, ‘Oh, my parents aren’t just mom and dad, they’re human beings beyond that,’ which is kind of an earth-shaking revelation when it occurs.”

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Flackett further characterizes the comedy as a “family show.” In Season 6 particularly, there’s a spoof of 23andMe, as well as a storyline that involves Lola (Kroll), a Hot Pocket lawsuit and Adam Levine as one-third of the treacherous boy band Bros 4 Life, all of whose members pretend to have fathered her. At the season’s conclusion, all members of the ensemble body swap with their parents “Freaky Friday”-style, allowing them to literally step into their shoes and empathize with their lives, not to mention patch up some of the mistakes they’ve made as a result of arrogance or hurt pride.

“It was always going towards figuring out a way to weave the fabric of the entire family and all the characters’ families into the story,” Levin said. “Working with the ‘Freaky Friday’ — ‘F—ed Up Friday’ — [concept] is an established storytelling convention. (‘Who doesn’t love a body switch?’ Flackett jumps in.) But to do five of them in one story, in one half-hour, with all of our characters and Nathan Fillion … so many creative opportunities for the actors.”

As established, “Big Mouth” is no-holds-barred: From talking vaginas to sexy pillows, incest subplots to self-aware pitbulls, dancing dicks to the ghost of Duke Ellington, there’s little sacred ground the show has left intact. Frequently, its raunchy elements are thrown back at the audience — Shame Wizard style — as lead hormone monster Maury (also Kroll) proclaims this season, “These people are sick! It’s ‘Big Mouth.’”

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However, the producers said they feel “lucky” to call Netflix their home — a “marriage of show and platform” — characterizing the streamer as “supportive” of their creative decisions and recalling only two instances in which they were shot down.

“Sometimes we might disagree, but it’s very rare,” Flacket said. “And I can think of one time in particular … One was like, ‘Too gross,’ and we were like, ‘OK,’ and another thing where they put the brakes on something, and we were like, ‘No! That must be that way.’ And then afterwards, we were like, ‘They were really right.’ Not this season [though].”

In addition to self-selection, the team credits their “open writers room” with creating true-to-life stories, boiling the show’s message down to what it means to be a “good human in the world.”

“We’ve done our best to foster a feeling in our writers room and amongst our crew where if somebody feels like we have gone too far or we’re sending the wrong message, they can raise their hand and be like, ‘Hold on, can we just take two steps back and look at it from this perspective?’” Goldberg said. “The litmus test to me is always honesty. If it feels honest, then I think there’s value to it.”

“Big Mouth” Season 6 is now streaming on Netflix.

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