Creators head back to middle school for their angst-driven Hulu comedy.
Some things are pretty universal, and teen angst is one of them. Add some no-holds-barred comedy, and you've got nostalgia that's equal parts cringe and grin.
For Hulu's new PEN15, co-creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine set out to document their tragically hilarious middle-school lives as they actually happened, no rose-colored glasses or iPhone filters allowed. They star, co-creator Sam Zvibleman directs, and all three write as well as executive-produce.
"We try to find humor through real experience," Erskine says of the show whose title is a mock spelling popular among preteens. "This is an age where life feels almost operatic because there are such extreme highs and lows; everything is life or death, and that is inherently funny."
So why is this teen comedy different from other teen comedies? Erskine and Konkle play themselves as 13-year-old outcasts in the year 2000, surrounded by actual 13-year-olds.
"We thought that would make it funnier," Konkle says. "Plus an adult gives you some distance so you can really laugh at it."
In one episode, she reenacts her less-than-stellar first kiss, which ends with an extreme closeup of clashing lips and braces. "Anything that was at all explicit like that, we'd shoot with body doubles, so that tight shot was actually done with my current boyfriend," she says.
The idea took about five years to come to fruition, which both women chalk up to a combination of being first-timers and the quirky, slightly polarizing subject matter. After they created a 15-minute pitch and took many meetings, the project gained momentum through word of mouth.
"There was kind of a movement with a bunch of assistants in L.A. sharing it among themselves and convincing their bosses to watch it," Erskine recalls. "It ended up taking a lot of people to make it happen."
Indeed. Also exec-producing are Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone and Becky Sloviter of Party Over Here; Shelley Zimmerman, Brett Bouttier, Jordan Levin and Joe Davola of AwesomenessTV; Marc Provissiero and Brooke Pobjoy of Odenkirk Provissiero Entertainment; as well as Debbie Liebling and Gabe Liedman.
So, was everything smooth sailing from the minute Konkle and Erskine slipped into their Britney Spears–inspired lowrider jeans and stocked up on rainbow gel pens? "It turned out to be extremely challenging, because Anna and I insanely wrote ourselves into every scene," Erskine says. "We didn't think we'd be showrunning, producing, acting and writing."
Best friends since their college days at NYU, Konkle and Erskine worked together on a few shows, like the 2013 web series Project Reality and FXX's Man Seeking Woman. Their close connection helped make this 40-day production schedule work.
"Everything was so fast-paced, so we'd often ad lib," Erskine says. "So many times I've been on a set where I'm giving way too many of my own opinions," Konkle adds with a laugh. "So to be able to put your own point of view forward is a gift."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 1, 2019