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Nick Kroll can typically identify his fans as they’re approaching. If it’s a 6-year-old girl, for instance, it’s probably for his voice work as Gunter — the singing, dancing German pig in the runaway hits Sing and Sing 2. If it’s a 13- or 14-year-old, it’s usually for his autobiographical puberty comedy Big Mouth, which returns to Netflix for a sixth season Oct. 28. If he’s in an airport and an enthusiastic white dude is coming his way, it’s almost certainly for his starring role in the fantasy football sitcom The League, which ran for seven seasons on FX. The hipsters who approach Kroll are often fans of his eponymous Comedy Central show, and the “Rich Dicks” sketches in particular; and then the teenybopper girls are for Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling, in which he acted alongside Florence Pugh and Harry Styles.
As his vast fandom suggests, Kroll has established himself as a ubiquitous figure in Hollywood. At 44, the newly married dad of one moves fluidly between film and television, comedy and drama, actor and creator. In early October, he piped in from his home office in Los Angeles, where the Georgetown-educated native of New York state opened up about returning to stand-up, which came with very real reservations; his future aspirations in front of and behind the camera; and what he really thought about Don’t Worry Darling‘s public relations saga.
Let’s start with your recent stand-up special, which is your first in more than a decade — and, unlike the first, doesn’t feature a stable of characters. What made you want to do it now and this way?
I’ve always done stand-up, but it’s been somewhat of a hobby. I always had like 20 minutes of [material] but never the full hour. And in 2018, I was away with my girlfriend, Lily, who’s now my wife, and she was like, “Why haven’t you done a special in over a decade?” And I said, “That’s for my friends who are, like, the great stand-ups of our time. That’s for Ali Wong, for John Mulaney, for Bill Burr.” And to be a really good stand-up, you have to reveal stuff and have a clear narrative of who you are. I was much more comfortable, historically, doing characters. That’s where my skills lay, and it’s safer to be a character because you don’t necessarily have to reveal who you are — your feelings, your shortcomings, your vulnerabilities. But it kept eating at me. Like, “Why haven’t I done it?” And part of it was a fear of not measuring up. That I’d go do an hour, and people would be like, “Nah, he’s a character guy, not a stand-up.” Especially when I am comparing myself to my friends who happen to be the best stand-ups in the world.
How did you ultimately get yourself there?
I started thinking about Big Mouth, which is an animated show, but it’s largely autobiographical. Or it started autobiographical and continues to be a place where all of our writers are sharing these very intimate stories and details of our lives, and I’ve seen how audiences have responded to that. It encouraged me to say, “All right, I’m going to go do stand-up, and if I’m going to do it, I have to do it. I have to allow myself to be more vulnerable without hiding behind the wigs and the voices.”
In the past, you’ve referenced the loop between the Big Mouth writers room and therapy, and I suspect it’s similar with stand-up. Which outlet has felt more cathartic for you?
With animation, it’s stuff that I’ve been working through, but I’ve always hidden behind a fictitious character that is based on me — but built to be any kid who was a late bloomer, and I have incredible freedom to not make it about me at all. With stand-up, there’s no mask or veil, so it was scarier. But the therapy loop, it wasn’t just creatively, it was also dealing with how is [my work] going to be received in relation to my friends. I don’t know if every artist is this way, but I’m the youngest, as I talk about in my special, and there are a lot of incredible privileges of being the youngest: You get exposed to so much at such a young age and you get your parents to leave you alone because they’re exhausted. But it also makes you compare yourself to other people — you’re always chasing your older siblings who are better at sports or faster than you or doing well in school or have a bigger vocabulary and you’re always trying to keep up with them. So, it motivated me my whole life to try to keep up or compete with people who are ahead of me, and that also means I compare myself to my peers and oftentimes feel inadequate. It both fuels me and destroys me, and that’s a part of what I deal with in therapy. It’s like, “Oh, well, Ali’s playing 13 nights at the Wiltern, or Mulaney is doing three nights at MSG, and I’m only doing this theater.” Like, all these things that are nonsense, but we’re all working through something.
Big Mouth is a famously raunchy show. Who in the process is most likely to say, “OK, this might be too far”?
Occasionally Netflix has put its foot down, but not many times over the years. Like, there was something very disgusting that Rick, the hormone monster that I voice, did. I don’t know if you could put this in The Hollywood Reporter, but he talks about his sick little dick, and then someone pulls a thermometer out of the mouth of his penis and blood spurts out. Netflix was like, “We don’t know about that.” But we’d just seen it at the color screening, and we were like, “Yeah, we agree.” There was also stuff around the girls in the “I love My Body” episode. They go to a Korean spa and are topless as all these women around them are showing how much they love their bodies, and, frankly, Netflix had some thoughts. But I was also uncomfortable with how long we were exposing the girls. My partners, specifically Jennifer Flackett, who’s the sole female among the four EPs, was like, “Well, we show the boys topless all the time. This is not a sexual thing. This has nothing to do with sexuality.” And she was right, but it’s dealing with things like that, like how long are we showing things. And often, I end up being the most prude.
It sounds like that surprises you?
Well, sometimes it might just be my sensibility, but also I’m the face of the show, so there are certain things I have to deal with occasionally that my partners don’t have to deal with, but they aren’t the ones who have to go on talk shows and stuff. But, yeah, you’d think, “Oh, the comedian is the one who’s pushing it,” but often it’s them. And 95 percent of the time, it’s great they push it to the edge because that’s what we’re there for. There was a review season one or two that was like, “Big Mouth gives zero fucks,” and we’ve tried to maintain that ethos, not only with how far we’ll go with a dirty joke but also the things that we are endeavoring to talk about.
From transgender characters to pansexuality, and occasionally you’ve stepped in it …
We’ve gotten better about what clips go out and making sure they have the right context when they do. But also we’ve accepted that there’s a group of people in this country who think we’re Pizzagate pedophiles. That’s just the reality of it. Our intention is to have honest [adult] conversations about kids’ sexuality, but any time you talk about kids and sexuality, there are going to be people who say you’re sexualizing kids.
Context comes up often in conversations about stand-up, with comics worried about snippets of a set getting out and being misconstrued. Presumably that was less of a concern for you given that your material wasn’t as topical?
That was partly by design. I’m really not worried about cancel culture, and it might be because of the kind of comic I am, but also I felt like the safest person to make fun of in this hour was myself. That feels fair. If I’m going to get up onstage and talk shit, it should be about me.
When you were coming up in this business, getting on Saturday Night Live or landing a show on Comedy Central were the brass rings. What is that brass ring now for you and your peers?
I can only speak for myself, and honestly, it’s getting to continue to do what I’m doing — which is a number of different things with incredibly talented people. That is the goal for me. I think the movie-star thing is kind of dead for everybody. It’s just not a thing. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to be in cool, big movies, but the distinction is gone. And the market is changing with the streamers, too — the shows that run 25, 30 seasons [a la The Simpsons and South Park] or the syndication payday, those things are all gone. There are very few home runs now. Now, I would love to go host Saturday Night Live. That’s a lifelong goal. I wanted to be on that show my whole life. So there are things like that. I want to work with some of the great filmmakers, and I’d love to go make a big, cool studio film.
So, the big studio film is still an aspiration for you?
Oh, I have aspirations to do everything. (Laughs.) I love a combo platter. When I go to dinner, I want to taste everything on the menu, except shellfish, which I’m unfortunately allergic to, but even then I still want the shellfish. I want to be able to do everything, and I’m in a position now where I’m getting more access to do all kinds of things. I’m starting to direct. I directed some pieces in History of the World, Part II [his forthcoming Hulu sketch series with Mel Brooks], and I have things that I’m working on writing that I’m attaching myself as a director on, too. I also have this Good at Business production company, and we’re producing a lot of stuff for other people, and some of that stuff I will put my hand up to direct. I’d love to go write and direct some big old movies and also make some small little intimate ones. I like all of it.
I’ve heard you cite the short-lived 2007 ABC sitcom, Cavemen, as the hardest job you’ve ever had. Do you still feel that way?
Oh, yes. It was four hours of makeup every single morning, so I was working 90-plus hour weeks, and I have insanely sensitive skin and my skin was traumatized. (Laughs.) It was physically the hardest job I’ve ever had.
I was at the famously contentious Television Critics Association panel for that show, which likely gave you an early education in managing backlash. What did you learn from that experience?
By the way, what we were prepared for at that TCA was that everyone’s going to ask whether it’s Geico, whether Geico [was behind it since the show was based on the Geico commercials.] So, that’s what they prepped us for, and then we walked in and it was like, “Why is your show so racist?” (Pantomimes head exploding.) But I learned so much going through that, like how you can’t predict how something’s going to be received. You can’t predict any of it. And I was young enough then where I was like, “I’m funny, I’ll be funny about this.” But if that happened today, I would not be doing bits around it. I’d be as quiet and boring as possible.
Well, it’s a different time. I am curious if that experience prepared you for the very dramatic press tour for Don’t Worry Darling, which became about everything but the movie itself.
It prepared me to be part of something that everyone was interested in, but here’s the difference: The Don’t Worry Darling trailer came out, and people were excited about it. People have been thinking about this movie for a while. Then all of the mishegas happens, the drama around the movie started to take hold, and I was not a part of any of that. I’m not distancing myself at all, I just wasn’t doing press at that point. My first exposure to it all was literally on the red carpet in Venice, and I was like, “Ohhhh, I think people might be interested in this.” (Laughs.) And I was right.
Were you ever …
And all the insanity, so much of it was nonsense that it was like, “Yeah, I’m happy to talk about this, this is insane.” With Cavemen, people were talking about that show from the moment it got picked up because it was based on this commercial. Then it came out, and people received it for something else besides the commercial — which, again, was out of my control. What I learned from Cavemen is that all you can try to control is your experience inside of making something. And in the case of Don’t Worry Darling, we made it in the thick of COVID, pre-vaccine, when L.A. was an epicenter and it was incredibly stressful. However, when we were actually working and when I was hanging out with the other people making the movie, I had a blast.
You’re at a place in your career where your ideas have a good shot at getting greenlit because of who you are and what you’ve accomplished. Are there old ideas or scripts in a drawer that you’d love to dust off and find a place for?
I think other people are better at having things in the vault. Anything good I’ve ever done, I’ve tried to push through.
Weren’t you, John Mulaney and Tracy Morgan out pitching a movie when John got SNL?
Oh yeah! That’s in the vault. It’s the Nigerian email scam, but the one time that it’s real and Tracy Morgan shows up as the deposed dictator of a country called Lairobia. That script might be a page one rewrite, but the idea I still love, and I think John still loves, and we can remind Tracy of it and maybe he’ll still love it, too.
Among your upcoming projects is History of the World, Part II, which you’re writing, producing and starring in for Hulu. What was it like to get that call from Mel Brooks?
It was the craziest thing in my life. I mean, Mel Brooks is more important to me than anybody, so to get that call was an out-of-body experience.
And how about returning to a sketch show?
It’s been a blast, but there’s a reason people only do sketch for a little while.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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