The Big Heart of Big Mouth
As a latchkey kid, it’s cliché (and not entirely accurate) to say that TV raised me; I did not want for human interaction. Even though Mom had to work multiple jobs to keep a dilapidated roof over our heads, she still made time for me and my siblings. And while Dad no longer lived with us, he visited frequently and took me (an elementary school student and the youngest by 7 years) to spend the night with him at my grandparents’ house. That being said, I did spend countless hours of my formative years in front of a television screen, and I don’t think that box turned me into an idiot. The programming inside that magical cube nurtured my imagination and cultivated a creativity that no matter how much I neglect, willfully or otherwise, simply refuses to die.
Throughout my adulthood, family and friends have knelt beside me to nurse the many emotional and psychological wounds I have brought on myself. In discovering what quality solitude means to me, I have taken out my aggression in weight rooms and literally run from my problems all the way to a marathon. But devotion to a rigorous physical regimen has not always proved easy to maintain, and well-intentioned as they are, family and friends are still unpredictable humans with their own issues to resolve. You know what’s consistent? Re-runs of your favorite show.
Since my begrudging adoption of streaming services about a decade ago (I must have been one of Blockbuster’s last customers in DFW), I have re-watched a handful of my favorite comedy series start to finish. At times it was for the enjoyment of sharing it with a loved one who had never seen it before, which brought back the excitement of my first viewing. On other occasions that familiar programming served as background noise for household chores or working from home. I had trouble sleeping alone until I was 12 and my mother bought me my first TV that was all mine in my room. To this day, I have difficulty falling asleep without a TV on unless I’m sharing my bed with a woman. More than any other reason, though, I have continued to seek the calm waters of a second or seventh swim through a beloved show to save myself from drowning in another depressive episode.
After the hell that 2020 (and the beginning of 2021) wrought, I needed some TV therapy, but I wanted something new. I had heard rave reviews of Big Mouth from many people whose opinions about such matters I hold in high regard, but so much content, so little time and all that. My brother extolled the virtues of the raunchy cartoon on many occasions, and so I asked him if he would recommend it for someone seeking something satisfyingly silly (call back to Jessie’s snake dream. By the way, one doesn’t have to be an expert in Freudian dreams analysis or a major pervert – by the way to my by the way: I’d love to see THAT Venn diagram – to interpret the snake as a very unsubtle phallic symbol, right?).
“It’s the perfect show for that,” he said before adding the disclaimer/warning, “If you’re not worried about it opening the old wounds of your teen angst.”
If anything, that made me want to watch it more. I usually need at least a little bitter with my sweet, but with Big Mouth, it’s honestly hard for me to tell which is the more dominant flavor. I knew I would laugh, but I never could have imagined that a cartoon prominently featuring hormone monsters encouraging 13-year-olds to masturbate would lift my spirits and remind me why it’s good to be alive. For anyone who hasn’t seen the show (or who has and still thinks that last statement was a bit much even for a fan), the easiest way for me to support that position is to talk about those lovably unlovable teenagers who make the series.
The mark of many great shows lies in the difficulty to identify a best or favorite character. It might vary season to season, episode to episode, or even scene to scene. Big Mouth so perfectly captures the rollercoaster of adolescence that it serves as a combination time machine/mirror, allowing us to see our younger selves in the struggles of cartoon children and somehow feel less alone as real-life adults. Not knowing with whom to begin, I’ll start with the young man who serves as an unlikely leader: Caleb.
While direct references to his condition remain absent, anyone with even cursory knowledge of autism spectrum disorders knows that Caleb is a proud member of the neurodiverse community. I use the word “proud” intentionally here because even though one could choose to focus on the social deficits that accompany his neurodiversity, no one on that show is more comfortable with themselves nor does anyone care less what others think than our favorite truth teller. The truth Caleb tells as well as the personal truth he lives is written with kindness and voiced with love by the uber-talented Joe Wengert.
It’s easy for comedy about disabilities to offend, and I have no doubt that someone out there would not appreciate how Caleb is portrayed. (I’m speaking in hypotheticals because I would imagine anyone who has a problem with his character would have bailed on the show before they got a chance to see him – somewhere between around the initial cum jokes and the animated menstruation in the opening credits, both of which occur in the opening two minutes. I mean, the first episode is entitled “Ejaculation.”) I’m not trying to play the woke card here, but I’m incredibly mindful of ist language of any kind. Here’s how much fun I am at a dinner party: a couple years ago, I realized that using “lame” as a synonym for uncool could be construed as ableism, so I found an article online to confirm that supposition and have since continued to avoid using that word in that context.
That kind of sensitivity does not preclude me from enjoying comedy. In fact, I would argue that it makes me more discerning of what type of humor is hateful and what kind of comical depictions serve as loving examples of representation. Not only does Caleb represent neurodiverse kids everywhere, he serves as their role model. He is a hero walking the halls of Bridgeton Middle School, not in spite of his inability to conform to polite society’s social norms, but indeed because of it. In real life, I find myself sounding like Caleb when trying to be more direct with people without being ugly because I can think of no better role model as a communicator.
Many of us neurotypicals (using that term loosely when describing yours truly) have very strong views of right and wrong regarding social issues. Some are better equipped than others to make an attempt at civil discourse. I will only talk about myself (while assuming/hoping that I am not alone in this) when admitting that I get so upset about topics like race relations, gay rights, and the freedom to choose, that my fight or flight response activates. My heart rate elevates, my palms sweat, my mouth dries, and when I choose to engage with an individual with a viewpoint antagonistic to my own, I need time to decompress after the confrontation. Some people get off on that; I shut down. I get stressed watching people argue on TV, so I want to avoid it in my personal life as much as possible.
You can tell by the lack of expression on Caleb’s face and in his voice that he harbors no such anxieties. In his disability lies his greatest strength. His challenges reading social cues and responding appropriately make him abnormal, divergent, atypical. All those fancy clinical terms mean different, and in Caleb’s case, different means better. Not only does he have a stronger sense of self than any of his friends and classmates, but I will admit that in many ways, Caleb navigates the world better than I do. I need to take a page out of the book of Caleb.
His best friend on the show appears to be Matthew, the only openly gay student at Bridgeton. The two complete each other. Caleb possesses an affinity for documenting the lives around him, whether through hard-hitting camera work as a member of the audio visual club, insightful assignment of super powers to his classmates in his own comic book universe, or clinical retention of penis size amongst his peers. And despite what the iconic Harvey Fierstein said in his first appearance on the show as Jerome, Matthew is not just “young, gay, and mean.” Matthew, brought to life by the undeniable Andrew Rannells, has a song in his heart for the whole world to hear, and one day he might sing on it on Broadway, in front of a live studio audience as the host of his own show (he would be much more fun than that money zombie Nick Starr), or in a concert overseas. He has the talent to one day join the likes of Rita Moreno and Jennifer Hudson as an EGOT winner, and you have the feeling that Caleb will be around to capture it all.
In one instance, Caleb serves as a champion not only for Matthew, but for the whole LGBTQIA+ community. In a night ripe for awkwardness and shame, the 8th-graders have a sleepover in the school gym chaperoned by Coach Steve and Ms. Benitez. Matthew, perhaps the most self-conscious boy in a setting with quite a high bar for that social malady, tries to ease his peer’s tension (and more likely his own), by making a joke that falls as flat as everyone’s sleeping bags spread out across the hardwood. After making his bed near Lump, Matthew says, “Don’t worry. I’m not gonna, like, gay you in your sleep or anything.”
An incredulous Lump, a boy who lives up to his name more than anyone in the history of names, oozes out the question, “Why would you even say that?”
Who comes to the rescue of the most self-conscious boy?
The least self-conscious one.
Caleb executes a precision walk-by truthing. Emotionless, like a stone-cold killer of bullshit, he appears on the scene immediately following Lump’s question, and without a verbal pause, a hitch in his gait, or even so much as a glance in any direction other than straightforward, he declares,
“It is physically impossible to turn another human being into a homosexual,”
and marches on with no regard for whose erroneous beliefs might lie in his wake.
In another setting, completely above reproach in his uncompromising ethics, Caleb has no qualms about calling out even Matthew when his best friend takes up the wrong side of an issue. On a trip to New York City on the anniversary of 9/11, Matthew learns that Coach Steve, the gym teacher who just lost his virginity at age 47 and lives in a shipping container on a diaper barge, was born on September 11th. Upon discovering that Coach Steve has no idea what happened on that infamous day in 2001, Matthew gives in to his malicious instincts and has fun at his teacher’s expense.
Caleb, ever the moral compass of Bridgeton, identifies what we’re all thinking: it’s bad to play a prank on a person with a developmental disability; it’s bad to gain cheap laughs from a national tragedy (on it’s anniversary at the literal Ground Zero, no less); and it’s very, very, very bad to combine all that badness. So, does he worry about stepping on his best friend’s toes?
Caleb attempts to inform Coach Steve of the true nature of their visit to the 9/11 museum, and Matthew quickly lets his friend know about his intentions to torment a tragic human being.
“In light of the tragedy that occurred here, that seems insensitive at best,” Caleb says with all the pep of Ben Stein on Trazadone.
Matthew makes what he thinks to be a cogent point: 9/11 happened before they were born. Was he also supposed to care about Hurricane Katrina or Columbine?
“Yes,” Caleb responds before his buddy can place the question mark after the “e” in Columbine.
Matthew tells Caleb to relax; he’s just being funny.
“No one is laughing,” retorts Caleb with all the vim and vigor of DMV employee with 5 minutes to go in their shift on the Friday of a three-day weekend.
These are examples of why I want to be like Caleb when I grow up, and why Big Mouth, this disgusting, insane, ridiculous show about kids jacking off with all kinds of objects and foodstuffs, renews my faith in humanity and reminds me of the beauty that awaits us each day. The misadventures of two boys, one gay, one neurodiverse, both possessing awesome superpowers born from their differences with the majority of the world, makes me happy to be alive. I could write a whole book about this show and what it means to me (if I can find a way to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly doing that kind of writing for a living, I probably won’t need antidepressants).
I haven’t even mentioned the many other storylines that warm my heart so much. John Mulaney, a Catholic man, so perfectly captures a nebbish-y 13-year-old Jewish boy that I feel like I went to Hebrew school with Andrew Glouberman. Jay Bilzerian (voiced with all the mania Jason Mantzoukas has to offer), the dirty, scary kid with no need for a hormone monster because he is one, somehow transforms into one of the most sympathetic characters. In his ability to elicit terror and pity, he is rivaled only by his love interest Lola Skumpy, brought to us courtesy of the versatility in crassness of show co-creator Nick Kroll. Jay and Lola find kindred spirits in one another (two broken kids from broken homes who just want to be loved) and together serve as one of many interracial couples through the show’s run. We’ve also had a front-row seat to the journey of self-discovery of the child of one such union.
Missy Foreman-Greenwald, an overachieving half-Black, half-Jewish dork dear to all our hearts, works hard to find her identity as a young woman, and specifically as a young woman of color. Her personal celebration of her Blackness mirrored the real-life voice actor change from Jenny Slate, a Jewish woman, to Ayo Edebiri, a Black woman, in light of 2020’s racial reckoning in America. Seldom before, if ever, has one show represented so many different groups of individuals with so much good-natured humor and love. Even those responsible for such a vehicle learned about their own blind spots.
In a magic trick that would make Jay, a 13-year-old pretending to be a 40-year-old magician turned Ultimate Fuck Machine turned chieftain of a post-apocalyptic sex tribe, proud, four minds melded to create something beautiful out of something awful. Jennifer Flackett, Andrew Goldberg, Mark Levin, and Nick Kroll took the topic of puberty, a time when many of us never felt more alone, and produced something that made us all feel more connected. For me, dating as an adult has not necessarily been less perilous than navigating that minefield as an adolescent. I’d imagine that’s the universal appeal of a show featuring very “mature” situations made by a bunch of immature adults (intended as a compliment) about that time when we were all stuck between childhood and adulthood.
Big Thanks to all involved.