“Big Mouth” is known for taking raunchy humor to new levels. Across five seasons and the recent “Human Resources” spin-off, the show has leveraged its playful animated world of horny pre-teens goaded on by cheeky manifestations of their physical and emotional changes to explore puberty from new and often shocking directions. However, “Big Mouth” is hardly an empty provocation, as the show has taken a winning approach to exploring sexuality in personal terms.
Yet for all the successes of “Big Mouth,” nothing in its initial run could prepare viewers for “A Very Big Mouth Christmas,” the eighth episode of Season 5, which throws a whole bunch of curveballs into the mix. The anthology episode, a recent submission to the Emmys, uses a hodgepodge of adventurous animation to envision several holiday-themed stories that take the show’s subversive edge in new directions, starting with a live-action framing device that finds hormone monsters Maury (Nick Kroll) and Connie (Maya Rudolph) hosting the episode as puppets.
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The seven mini-episodes that follow juggle a wide range of approaches. Standout bits include a bittersweet story about Lola (Kroll) home alone for the holidays shown in stop-motion, a horror installment about “Father Johann” featuring the eerie Jansen twins (both Kroll), and an anime-style revenge installment starring pit bull Featuring Ludacris (Jordan Peele) attempting to avenge his owner.
Oh, there’s a whole bit in the North Pole featuring Santa Clause’s penis and an elf orgy. It wouldn’t be “Big Mouth” without some giddy attempts to push the raunchiness to new levels.
Above all, “A Very Big Mouth Christmas” stands out as a major technical triumph for a team of animators from Titmouse that tend to work on several episodes at once, and in this case were tasked with juggling an ambitious hodgepodge of approaches on a tight timeline. Here, co-creator Andrew Goldberg and several key members of the animation team recall some of the biggest challenges involved in pulling off the episode during the early days of the pandemic.
ANDREW GOLDBERG, CO-CREATOR: With our show, there’s really a calendar, because we’re following these school years. It was arriving at the holiday season for the kids in eighth grade, and we knew we wanted do a Thanksgiving episode, so we also wanted to do a Christmas episode. We were kind of thinking of all the great Christmas episodes from the past, and they’re all different: Some of them are stop-motion, some are older styles like ‘Frosty the Snowman,’ and some are live action. We wanted to figure out if there was a way to really use this episode to celebrate animation that also brings together all the great Christmas specials from the past.
ANTHONY LIOI, SUPERVISING PRODUCER: We had a meeting around the table with Brutus Pink, the animation studio started by Nick Kroll, Andrew, Mark Levin, and Jen Flackett. They proposed how they wanted to make an episode with different styles of animation. This is before COVID was on the horizon. They were like, ‘We really want to have 20 different different styles.’ And we were like, ‘We’ll see about that.’
NATE FUNARO, PRODUCER: One of the pitches that we originally had was for the end of the episode, where we would have a musical number with a huge number of puppets. We looked at the idea and said, ‘Well, there’s no way we can build that many puppets in the amount of time we have.’
LIOI: We had to steer them away from certain things that were inevitably going to be impossible. It was a learning curve.
NATHAN RICO, ART DIRECTOR: When they told us about the Christmas episode and the ideas they had for it at first, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, you want to do what in a normal season?’
FUNARO: There was a lot of cursing at first. The episode is a scaled-back version of what we originally were going to do. The original intent was all different styles, but the Mary story with Jesse is still told in the ‘Big Mouth’ style of animation, even though we put it in different place. Originally we thought we’d do like 10 styles of animation, but that’s a lot of work and it’s tough to do if you’re trying to put it into a normal schedule.
GOLDBERG: One of the things that I love about Nate and Anthony is that we as writers have these big, crazy ideas; if they’re great, then Anthony and Nate are like, ‘Okay, yes, let’s figure out a way to do it and make it amazing.’ And they always do. They always come through. We’re so appreciative.
RICO: My first job was making puppets for Henson on a short film, so to come back to that was so cool.
FUNARO: I had worked with this studio called Swazzle before doing puppets.
LIOI: I was really, really happy to actually be in weekly meetings with Swazzle to talk about turning these characters into puppets. Every day or every other day, we would get designs or work in progress from them and then Rico and I would discuss how to make it look even more so like our characters. Because they’re busy.
FUNARO: I did a pilot with them years back over at Cartoon Network. They [make puppets for productions of ‘Avenue Q’], and Titmouse had recently worked with them on a show for Amazon. So it was kind of a no-brainer for us to work with them again because their puppets are really high quality.
LIOI: My original thought was I wanted to have the puppets be live hand puppets like Cookie Monster or Ernie. Because the voice talent is so strong, in animation, we could get those eyebrow raises and head nods. But with the puppets, my fear was that their faces are static. They’re just eyebrows glued onto a foam head. My original thought was like, ‘Oh, maybe if we had live hands in there, we could get really articulate with the enunciation?’ Swazzle went away and they came back with just regular old puppets. I was like, ‘Didn’t we discuss live hand puppets?’ And they were like, ‘Oh shit. Yeah.’ But they already had a prototype of the head at a certain size, and if we went with live hand puppets, the head would need to be bigger.
FUNARO: Our characters always have what we call three-quarter heads. They’re always kind of in the same view. The audience has never really seen them in three dimensions. When you start putting a character in 3D space, it looks weird, because you’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that.’ You’ve never seen Maury look straight at the camera. It doesn’t happen. So that was a tricky thing when we were designing those characters: How do you take some of those features and sell them in a 3D space, so the characters instantly read as Maury, Connie, and Shame Wizard?
LIOI: I was like, ‘So there’s no way we could do live hand puppets with these.’ They’re like, ‘No.’ I was like, ‘You motherfuckers. What did I say in the first fucking meeting?’ But we built off that anyway. In the end, the EPs were actually more happy with just seeing the hands do Kermit the Frog stuff, because they love breaking with the fourth wall and going meta all the time.
GOLDBERG: We were in the middle of prepping this episode when we all moved back home due to COVID. There was really a moment of wonder about whether we could still do this. I’m just so proud of the crew for pulling it off.
FUNARO: I’d done lots of Zoom calls, looking at the puppets and rotating them and trying to figure stuff out, drawing over screenshots and such. But the first time I saw the puppets was at the shoot. I was the one person from the show actually there, because it was middle of COVID. It was pretty locked down. We found a cheap set.
LIOI: I didn’t get to see them when we were shooting it because we were all stuck at home, but I’ve seen them in person since then. The puppets are all very cute.
FUNARO: There’s not a whole lot of raunchiness in the puppet stuff outside of the vomit and when Connie squirts at the camera.
RICO: For the feminine juice shot, we could only do it once or twice because we were getting water all over the set, which required a lot of cleanup and fixing. We didn’t have time for all of that stuff.
FUNARO: And then there’s the penis sword, which is right here on my bookshelf.
GOLDBERG: For the stop-motion segment, we had this idea for Lola making a snow mom because she was alone on the holidays, and it was very appropriate for stop motion because of the ‘Frosty’ connection. The handmade quality lends itself to a really sweet, emotional story.
LIOI: The stop-motion was one of the smoothest parts of the operation. We were working with Acho Studios and Quique Rivera, who was the director over there. He sent me a photograph of where he was placing the camera for a scene because we had very detailed animatics. We gave him all these tools, we had special mouth shapes in the corner of the animatics so he knew exactly which mouth shape to put on Lola at that time. He 3D-printed all the Lola faces, hair and whatnot. He would send me a picture of the camera set up and then I would try to respond to him as soon as possible about lighting and camera angles. Then he would shoot it. We just could go back in there and add new drawings in the middle of the scene. You can’t do that with stop motion. So that helped us in a way because we got fewer notes when it was done.
GOLDBERG: The Father Johann sequence was something that Joe Wengert and Emily Altman, who wrote the episode, had come up with. Emily got very granular about all the details of that story. Anthony Lioi then pitched the idea of doing sort of a paper cutout style. There’s this artwork on some of the walls in ‘Midsommar’ that he kind of pulled to show us. We were like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s perfect. That’s creepy and troubling. We should do something like that.’ The Jansen twins have a very ‘Midsommar’ vibe.
LIOI: For the anime part, the writers kept talking about ‘Kill Bill.’ And I was like, ‘”Kill Bill”‘? That’s your reference? You guys have never seen any other anime?’
GOLDBERG: We had had this idea for a long time about like what Luda’s origin story is. It felt fun to us to sort of do the flip of ‘John Wick’ where instead of it being like, ‘You killed my dog, so I’m going to kill you all,’ now it’s like, ‘You killed my owner, so I’m going to kill you all.’ Jason Mantzoukas — who’s a huge ‘John Wick’ fan and has appeared in at least one of the ‘John Wick’ movies — was actually with us one of the days that we were rewriting it. It was so much fun because he has so much ‘John Wick’ knowledge and very dogmatic about the rules of the universe, which was very fun.
LIOI: We couldn’t do anything on the level of the Tarantino movie anyway with the Korean studio we were using. We discussed using a Japanese studio, but in the end we used the same studios that we work with to make the show. Rico had to do a lot of work in pre-production as far as designing.
RICO: I was trying to find a way to get the action intensity of anime and not make it too cutesy. Because there’s a stereotypical anime, but I feel like anime has such a wide range. I had done work on the backgrounds for a show called ‘Black Dynamite.’ That was a big influence because they also were inspired by a lot of anime but they were able to do a lot of action sequences in a very simple way.
LIOI: I actually brought in two other action storyboard artists who have experience in anime shows. Once we got everything else on its legs, we went back and took a look at the anime sequence, and we were just like, ‘This is not good.’ It was the same shots over and over again. So basically me and [Henrique] Jardim, the director of that episode, and his AD at the time, the three of us got on Zoom and just redid all of it. We tapped into every trope or influence we’ve ever had: A lot of drifts, a lot of moving in and out of frame. I’m really happy with it. The overall note was to be as gory as possible, so then it was just about coming up with gags.
FUNARO: Originally, the elf sequence with all these elves learning about sex was going to be stop motion, and then we realized, ‘Yeah, there’s no way we can make that many puppets.’ It would never work given the number of characters onscreen. But there’s sort of a distance with the audience as soon as you animate it, that makes it okay to approach some of these subjects. How would you ever show Santa’s dick? You can only do that in animation.
RICO: I’m working from home and I have my wife in the same office. So when I was saying on a call, ‘Can we change the color of the juice on Santa’s dick to different shades?,’ well, it definitely resulted in a lot of interesting questions later.
LIOI: We pitched a shot where the elves, when they open the door to check in on Santa — there’s Santa’s fucking Mrs. Claus. There’s one shot where we’re underneath Santa’s legs and his balls are in the foreground. I remember pitching that to Goldberg, and he just smiled, his eyebrows went up and he was like, ‘We’ll see if Nick wants to keep that shot or not.’ And then the next phase, shot’s still in there; the phase after that, the shot’s still in there. Later on I said to Andrew, ‘So, cool, we’re keeping that shot?’ and he was like, ‘Hell yeah. We’re not losing that shot.’
FUNARO: That was probably the craziest thing in that episode beyond everything else. I was like, ‘This isn’t going to make it.’ I think I still have some email saved from getting EP approval. It said something like, ‘Hey, is this the right Santa’s dick?’ And they’re like, ‘Make it less veiny!’ Those are my favorite kind of EP notes.
LIOI: That was one scene where we did get notes from Netflix. Because when Santa pulls out of Mrs. Clause, he was originally dripping with wetness. So Netflix asked us to remove the wetness. And we had to get Santa to cover up his boner 24 frames sooner because, you know, that fixed it.
GOLDBERG: As often as I work on this show, I’m still like, ‘I cannot believe this is my job.’
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