How Nick Kroll and Co. Wrote the Hilarious Musical Numbers in 'Big Mouth'
Big Mouth is a trip. For Netflix's new 'toon, Nick Kroll and his friends essentially hopped in a time machine to relive puberty and its accompanying pains. The format allowed the creators to "talk about and do things you can't do in live action," Kroll says -- including, of course, the surreal musical numbers.
The songs "are such a big part of the show," confirms co-creator Andrew Goldberg, because they signal pivotal emotional moments or instances when characters are converging on similar feelings. Leaning heavily on songwriter Mark Rivers (Mr. Show, Parks and Recreation, Kroll Show), the Big Mouth team tackled a variety of styles -- including rock, flamenco, jazz, and pop -- to honor the nuance of buying bras and wrestling with your sexuality. With the show now on Netflix for bingeing, Goldberg and Rivers shared their process with us.
"Everybody Bleeds"Season 1, Episode 2
Mark Rivers: I think this is the only song I sing of the bunch -- that's me doing Michael Stipe! Everybody, of course, is familiar with "Everybody Hurts," -- definitely one of my favorite R.E.M. songs. I think [our version] works comedically because it's not trying to make a joke out of periods as much as it is just earnestly singing about something so clinical. The writers gave me this book [The Care and Keeping of You] that's written like a cutely illustrated guide for 12-year-olds, describing, Hey, what's going on with my body? I thought, Yeah, I won't be needing this, but sure enough, I was like, Wait, what does happen? I would've totally fucked this up. So I'm glad they gave me the book.
Andrew Goldberg: I don't doubt we sent Mark a whole bunch of information about menstruation, because we wanted the songs to be informative as well -- this one at least. Very early on we had the idea to have the second episode be about Jessi, the main girl in the show, getting her first period at the Statue of the Liberty -- that happened to a very close friend Nick and I grew up with. We thought it was so funny because it's the biggest woman in the world, and that's where you get your first period? I think it was Nick who had the idea to have a singing tampon that looked like Michael Stipe. And then at the end of the song, it's like, "What are you? Out of your minds? Get back on the bus!" That's how I always felt about the R.E.M. video: "Everybody, get in your cars! This isn't safe!"
"Totally Gay"Season 1, Episode 3
Goldberg: Nick and I grew up loving Queen. There's even, like, an old video that we keep closely guarded of us lip-syncing "Don't Stop Me Now" at summer camp. So we wanted to do this song that starts with Freddie Mercury, but then during it, Andrew's convinced he's gay, and Mark took that and really ran with it.
Rivers: When they first told me they wanted a Queen song, I thought, Oh, shit! Queen, huh? I'm a huge Queen fan, so I didn't want to blow it, but I think we came pretty close. The scary thing was trying to figure out who I was going to get to sound like Freddie Mercury. But I remembered a friend of mine, Brendon Small, did this show on Adult Swim called Metalocalypse, and a couple years ago, they put out a tribute to Queen. So through my friend Brendon I was able to track down this other guy, Brendan McCreary, and he nailed it.
Goldberg: We thought since [the ghost of Duke Ellington] could conjure people, he would conjure some dead gay men for Andrew. We put Antonin Scalia in that category, and apparently, according to the lawyers and Netflix, because he's dead, that was kind of OK [laughs]. The artwork in this song is so fun and big. We used a few different Queen videos as inspiration -- the more trippy ones. My favorite shot is the sad vaginas saying goodbye.
Rivers: And then John Mulaney comes charging through in the second verse with, "I'm gay! Totally gay!" -- it's so heartbreakingly sweet and awesome. He's one of those guys who's like, I can't really sing, but it's like, Yeah, but you're the perfect amount of can't sing. It's this beautiful thing that you don't want to polish too much. I find that a lot with comedy vocals: My instinct as a musician is to make it as musically perfect as I can, but sometimes you gotta let the rawness and the warts shine through. It's a fine line, though. You don't want the joke to be: This guy's a terrible singer. That's a different joke.
"Sexy Red Bra"Season 1, Episode 5
Goldberg: We had sort of a Spanish theme going through this episode with the romance novel, so we thought it would be fun to do like a flamenco guitar type thing.
Rivers: We actually performed this the other night at [Kroll's monthly Largo show]. This is the one where the Hormone Monstress is convincing Jessi to buy the age-inappropriate red bra and wear it to school, with all the Spanish music and stuff throughout. The song turned out awesome because Maya Rudolph is such a fantastic singer -- she's got it in her DNA!
"Never Lost in New York City"Season 1, Episode 6
Rivers: This one was fun, because Jordan Peele can just sing. He nailed it. The song was a little tricky to write because I never lived in New York -- I grew up in Atlanta, and then I lived in Boston for 14 years -- so I don't know what the fuck goes on in Little Odessa. I did my version, which was more like the outsider's take on New York, and then I'd ask the writers to throw me ideas. I can hear it in other comedy songs when a songwriter has inherited the lyrics of the writers' room and they're not supposed to change anything. You can hear it. There are rigid couplets, there's no freedom to play around. But we had the freedom to move lyrics around and play with them, which just makes for a better, more musical song.
Goldberg: We might have gone back and forth a few times, but Mark very quickly got what we wanted. This is an animation highlight, but I love the line, "In Williamsburg, all the old-time Jews have rented their buildings to hipster dudes" -- one of those hipsters is actually drawn to look exactly like Chris Prynoski, who runs our animation house, Titmouse. He'll probably be in many shows now, because once you're drawn as an extra you keep coming back.
"I Feel Like Shit (This Must Be Love)"Season 1, Episode 7
Rivers: I think one of the songs they were using as a template was one of those big, cheesy '90s Aerosmith ballads -- guitar and strings. I feel like shit (this must be love) -- I love titles with parentheticals, like, "Maybe you know it better as…" This is actually the second version of the song, because they changed its initial direction.
Goldberg: Originally, the song was more equating love to natural disasters. Andrew and Missy were doing the science fair about the Yellowstone Caldera, but I think as we were working with it, we were like, Eh, the natural disaster stuff is overwhelming the emotional feelings that we're trying to convey. When they go into the sky and dance around the stars, it contributes more to that feeling of how enormous it feels when you have your first boyfriend or girlfriend -- and for these characters, nerve-wracking.
Rivers: The first version was likening love to a natural disaster -- Hurricane Me and You, or something like that. It had the same feel, but it was a different song. The song that's in the show is much more immediately funny, because it's about how awful love makes you feel, rather than the cleverness of all the natural disaster analogies. I think I'm gonna shit my pants, this must be love -- sometimes you just gotta go there to get the laugh. This one's another shining squeaky-voice John Mulaney-as-Andrew moment. Again, perfectly out of tune in the most lovable way. He sings with Jenny Slate, who's a really great singer. With her character, it was like, Should we just let her sing this? But we had to find the line between the Missy character and Jenny's actual ability to sing. I think we dialed it in OK. She maintains that level of sweetness that Mulaney does.
Goldberg: Yeah, if we had let Jenny loose, it wouldn't have felt quite like Missy.
"Life is a Fucked Up Mess"Season 1, Episode 9
Goldberg: This one was so fun to make, because "The Electric Slide" was the jumping-off point -- you can't do a bat mitzvah episode and not do something like "The Electric Slide." It's another fun example of somebody like Maya Rudolph (Hormone Monstress), who just has the most insane voice, versus someone like Jason Mantzoukas (Jay), who will say he can't sing, but he's super game.
Rivers: I wasn't super familiar with "The Electric Slide" from the '80s, but it's somehow lived on for a long time in the bat mitzvah world. So this is sort of a parody of that song. The number does a nice little thing in the story, where it just brings you up to speed on where everybody is in their individual misery. When they told me what moment this was in the script, those are the lines that jumped out: "Life is a fucked-up mess! O-o-oh, it's a shit show!"
Goldberg: Yeah, the song comes at a really good time in the episode, when you need a little bit of a release, a funny, weird pop song. Everybody's emotional journeys are converging at the same time. I love the juxtaposition of how cheerful the music is as opposed to the actual content of the song.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.