The new season of Netflix’s “Big Mouth,” the subversive-in-the-extreme sex-ed show about middle schoolers’ animated adventures in puberty, features the following: The ghost of Harry Houdini; a mist of vape smoke blown into the shape of a Magen David; Neo-Nazis and falsely philo-Semitic Evangelicals; a Passover episode involving incest; a bachelorette party game where you pin Lenny Kravitz’s manhood onto his thigh; a discussion of Liev Schreiber’s net worth; a distinction drawn between Fox News Jews and NPR Jews; Carol Kane as a spirit called “The Menopause Banshee”; a Michael Douglas wig used in a musical adaptation of Barry Levinson’s 1994 film “Disclosure.”
All this to say, this season, like the seasons before, has a lot of Jewish content. And this consistency is, make no mistake, an act of defiance on the part of the showrunners.
Like a long line of Jews before them, creators Nick Kroll, Andrew Goldberg — who both, no surprise, developed their comedic sensibilities at a Solomon Schechter school in Westchester County, New York — Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, have been smeared for speaking about sex in all its grody glory. Alt-Right corners of the internet see “Big Mouth,” with its frank libidinal charge, forward-thinking ideas and sexual situations involving pubescent characters (all voiced by adults) as a sign of social decay brought to you by the usual cabal of Hollywood Heebs. Right-wing conspiracy website The Goldwater ran the headline “Jewish Netflix Series ‘Big Mouth’ Promotes Pedophilia, Homosexuality, Child Masturbation.” A YouTube video took pains to connect Kroll, his show and Harvey Weinstein in a web of degeneracy. (YouTube comments are best avoided for one’s mental health.)
The response to these charges is unequivocal. In Episode 2, one of the protagonists, Andrew Glouberman (John Mulaney), attends a men’s rights activist meeting that he soon learns is also a neo-Nazi event. The speaker there claims that women’s brains are smaller than men’s and goes on to allege that his wife’s Jew lawyer said she left him for a black doctor because he beat up his gay neighbor.
When this gentleman calls for a “Patriarchal ethnostate of pure, European blood,” Andrew’s fascist sense starts tingling: “Okay, I get it now. They’re Nazis.”
Next thing you know, Maury the hormone monster (Kroll), Andrew’s Satyr-like guardian angel, appears dressed like Shoshana from “Inglorious Basterds,” ready to blow up the hotel convention space that the white supremacists had booked for the night.
In another, later, rebuttal to the Proud Boy set, Andrew’s father, Marty (Richard Kind), can be heard objecting to the sperm and menarche-themed opening credits saying, “The neo-Nazi trolls on YouTube are right — this show is disgusting!” But, the subject of that episode, a trip to Florida where Nick Birch (also Kroll) and Andrew observe a Seder, thumbs its nose at the haters, framing the Passover story as, in Marty’s words, “the one time our people did the screwing.”
Spun throughout the episodes, in between themes of toxic masculinity, male allyship, the vivid spectrum of human sexuality and the addictive nature of smartphones, is a thread of disquiet thrumming explicitly for American Jews.
When Jessi Glaser (Jessi Klein), goes to the home of her best friend, Matthew (Andrew Rannels), for the first time, she meets his naval officer father, who picks up on her Jewish last name. He asks if her mother is also Jewish, and when Jessi confirms this, he says he and his wife love “all those traditional Jewish sitcoms,” including “The Nanny,” “Seinfeld,” “Mad About You,” and, controversially, “Friends.”
It’s a tense moment for a cartoon about pubic hair, unwanted erections and learning how to pleasure yourself with the aid of a “Price is Right”-style Alpine Climber shaped like a vulva. It goes deeper, though.
In the middle of the season, Jessi confides in Matthew that his father loves her, noting, “He said the rapture can’t happen without me and my people.” The joke is a one-off line, but speaks to the hidden engine of the show.
Under-girding all of “Big Mouth,” and making its onslaught of gross-out humor and taboo predicaments endurable, is an empathy for kids forced to grow up too fast. Teens are terrors, it acknowledges, but ones who are finding their footing in spite of an insanity-inducing hormonal cocktail brewing inside them. Add being Jewish to the mix, and things don’t get any easier. Surrounded by Christian classmates, teachers and neighbors, they may feel like even more of a freak or geek - especially now.
The creators are aware of the online hate they’re getting. They are also surely aware that the always-online middle-schoolers of today are seeing the same thing. Internet trolls, white nationalists and the American president are giving all of Gen Z an education in dog whistle politics and anti-Semitic tropes that recall the youth of their great-grandparents.
And so, the show’s approach is blunt, yet reassuring. Whether or not kids are watching — the black box of viewer information hoarded by Netflix gives us no daylight there — the message is for them and for their guardians. It tells adolescents that their elders know about the state of the world, and are unafraid to it broach with humor. At the same time it tells Jews who have passed the gauntlet of puberty to give kids a break, and to let them know that the comedy offensive is sometimes the best one.
But this tactic carries a tertiary lesson for those who hate us. It lets them know we see them, and they won’t stop us from laughing.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.