Hulu's "PEN15" is already the year's most-talked about comedy and it's only been streaming for a month. Set in the 2000s, 31-year-olds Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play heightened versions of their seventh grade selves trying to navigate Blockbuster-late-fee levels of chaos. Despite the preteen-pop soundtrack of B*Witched and S Club 7 — and the costume surplus of low-rise jeans — "PEN15" takes viewers on a trip beyond mere nostalgia. The show tackles body dysmorphia, masturbation guilt, divorce and racism in addition to an assortment of coming-of-age topics. Unfortunately for Erskine and Konkle's characters, Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone, Ask Jeeves doesn't have all the answers.
Created by Erskine and Konkle along with fellow co-creator Sam Zvibleman, "PEN15" is a R-rated depiction of middle school "as it really happened." The over-dramatization of every crush and trip to the mall is absurd when observed from the distance of adulthood. As the 10-episode season progresses, though, viewers will be reminded of a universal truth: that the seemingly banal trauma of childhood awkwardness never really goes away.
However corny it might sound, there is one saving grace in the tumult of dial-up woes and AIM flings: friendship. "You are my actual rainbow gel pen in the sea of blue and black writing utensils," Anna tells Maya during the pilot. The two friends stick together throughout it all, in the show and in real life.
PAPER sat down with the stars of the show to talk about their early years at NYU, their favorite moments creating the show and the everyday discomfort of being human.
PAPER: "PEN15" is really catching fire, with your characters' friendship at the center of it all. I think a lot of people want to know how you first met. What were your first impressions of each other?
AK: We met in college, our junior year. We were in this international experimental theater program. It was kind of towards the end of the program because Maya was holing up in her room.
ME: I experienced a lot of anxiety there because it was an intensive theater program and I had issues.
AK: So did I, and I have them currently.
ME: We had so many mutual friends, and I remember my first impression was, "Oh, wow she's so charming and beautiful and talented." I didn't bond with her right away because I was slightly intimidated. It wasn't until we made work together that we broke through and became best friends.
AK: I don't believe you that you were intimidated. It's taken you ten years to tell me that? There's no way.
ME: I was thinking about it today, Anna. You were so kind and open, but I felt like you were closer to these other friends. I felt like, "Oh, I'll never be that close to her." It was that kind of feeling.
AK: Aw. I actually don't believe you, but that's okay. You were friends with everybody!
ME: No I wasn't!
AK: I didn't know anybody. [Laughs] We're like, in an argument! OK, well I won't go into the whole thing. We did discover at that program that we both loved making dark, weird stuff and that we had a similar sense of humor and a lot of anxiety inside, I guess. We bonded over all of that, and found solace in making our work together.
ME: Exactly. I think we also bonded over our honesty with each other. We were very uninhibited. [Laughs] This sounds like a weird, romantic thing.
AK: It is a love story!
I guess in a way it is. So this was at New York University, in their drama program. NYU can be an intense climate. I think there's a pressure that a lot of people aren't expecting going into it, even if they have drama backgrounds. What was your experience like as a whole while you were there?
ME: I know you had an interesting experience.
AK: I originally went to school for musical theatre there. I wish there was a camera on me because that was a really sad comedy. The town that I was from didn't really celebrate the arts very much. It was very sports-centric. I didn't have a ton of experience, but I knew that I loved acting and I loved singing. I hadn't seen a lot of art or theater; I just wasn't a part of my upbringing. I went to [NYU] and I was just so in over my head. You had to re-audition once you were in, and I had to audition for dance. There were all these ballerinas and I was probably wearing soccer shorts and everybody else was in a leotard. I placed in the lowest dance class, obviously. Then, I went to audition for the singing aspect and I couldn't do what I had been doing before. I soon found out I had vocal nodules. It was this crazy time and it was really high intensity. Not only was I not experienced, but I was then dealing with a physical thing, so I realized it wasn't for me. Eventually I found my way to more experimental art, and that's how I met Maya.
ME: I started in the Experimental Theatre Wing. I love your origin story of CAP21. It's such a validating story, to see this artist who has so much to offer, but in the structure that they try to put you in, in certain studios like CAP21, they don't allow that artist to thrive. They put them down. It's such a shame, but you got to find your way to a place that celebrated that part of you, which was cool.
In many ways it's kind of like the show. It's all transferrable.
AK: Yeah, you're not surviving until you get to a certain spot. Finding Maya was a part of that, and that's definitely within the show. You need each other to stay afloat.
ME: The Experimental Theatre Wing teaches you so many different processes of acting and creating work. I'm really scattered and ADD and self doubting, and the philosophy was to create your own process in a way from whatever works for you. So for me, that was great, but I also felt that I could use some structure, so I went through classical for a year, which was Shakespeare, and then I went back to ETW. That's kind of my story, but I was always hiding in the back. I was a very scared performer in class for some reason. When I would do plays, I was not scared. It was always in class, having to go up in front of students. I would be sweating profusely, hiding, and hoping they wouldn't call on me.
AK: You're an amazing Shakespeare performer, also, which you have to do again.
ME: No, I'm not.
I don't know, the show is pretty Shakespearean. "PEN15" has those really high stakes. What made you want to talk about all of that trauma from your middle school era in the form of a comedy?
ME: I think it was natural because all that trauma happened to us at that time. That was something we hadn't seen at that time when we decided to make it. It was a while ago. Trauma is something that can be funny to us, and that's how we process it. Middle school is this ripe period where most people suffer through it and experience traumatic events that kind of stay with them until they die. It's a time where you are in between childhood and being a teenager, and your body is transforming in a way that's really confusing. Your brain is still processing like a child, but you're starting to see adult things. For me, that lends itself really to comedy because it's a freak show and it is really high stakes. If you get invited to a sleepover at the popular girl's house, that could be life or death. That's so ripe for really good comedy and drama.
AK: Agreed. It's also the first time you're processing trauma in a different way. I just know for me, at 13, it changed. I think neurological you have the ability and the brain cells, maybe, that you didn't have before to see the adult hues of something. Maybe you only saw it in two colors and now you're seeing it in ten — you don't know how to process it, but you can see it more clearly. That was exciting to us. I feel like it's the same thing that's so funny in characters from "Strangers with Candy" and "The Comeback." There are these people in somewhat complex situations that don't have the best tools for coping, but they think that they're coping really well. You get to be this person that is dealing with those ten hues of colors but doesn't have the ways to cope with them. As a kid, that was very much how I was. I thought of myself as funny and nice, but I would also tell people not to swear and not to cheat. That's really a death sentence if you're walking around and telling kids to do that. Those moments of unawareness, we get to just live in them in this show. It's so cool.
What were each of your favorite moments in the series to film, or that you like watching now?
AK: I mean there was so much stress, and it was really low budget. I think because of that some of my favorite moments were the really lighthearted, hysterical, laughing ones where I could barely get through the scene. Because it was so scary and stressful and there wasn't enough time, I look back and I'm like, "Oh my god, I wish I let myself break a lot more, those were my favorite moments," but it was just such a time crunch.
ME: Totally. They're probably not the best moments of the show, but they're moments that we have really fond memories of because they were such huge breaks from the stress. Also, we edited the show for a long time after. We sort of lost perspective from watching as a viewer. I haven't yet sat down to watch it all in one sitting, I think because I was so close to it for so long that I think I still need some time before I can do that. One of the moments was when you were pulling my thong, and it happened to be the stretchiest cotton in the world. It was like taffy and it got pulled over my head. You didn't stop pulling and were hysterically laughing. It was burning my asshole! We only had like, ten minutes to shoot that scene and we couldn't get through it. Someone showed us pictures, because you don't know when you're filming how anything's going to turn out. You looked like a banana, I looked like this bright blue dolphin. It was liberating because we both got so particular about details and the look of everything. It was just a nice break to say, "Fuck it! We'll see what happens."
AK: That whole episode was so zany. I also loved when we were sitting in that episode with all of the girls in that half-circle. Laura, who played Deb, is putting photos on the wall. In theory, it was so convoluted. In the script, we wrote: "Each girl has their Sears headshot. They all look great. Anna and Maya's are on computer paper, like shit. Tara looks like she's from the 1800s. On the other side, there are pictures of elderly people because they're being paired up." I remember describing that in our art department meeting about each scene and it being so confusing and just not knowing. It was so satisfying to see those pictures on the wall. Remember that, Maya? I just died. I was like, "It's working!"
ME: I died because she was just roasting all of us, nonstop.
AK: That was really funny. Then there's moments like in the first week. It was mostly Maya's stuff, and it was the third episode, with the masturbating. I could not contain myself. There was this writing stuff that I was trying to help finish with all of the writers, meanwhile Maya's being thrown into shooting right away, mostly by herself. She's masturbating in front of the crew in a bowl-cut and a mustache.
ME: They had no idea what they were getting themselves into.
AK: They had no idea. I'm so scared because it's the beginning of the process, and every time I come onto set Maya is humping something and the boom guy is confused. It was just the fucking best.
ME: It wasn't for me.
AK: It was so validating because I was like, "This is everything, this is right."
ME: I mean, that was a way of me processing the shame of masturbating because I had to do it in front of these men who were like, "What the fuck am I getting involved in? What is this?" It was really liberating.
AK: Also, seeing you with your mom and your mom patting your back with a lullaby in episode nine just destroyed me.
A more universal awkwardness is revealed within everyone when you play these 13 year olds. We're adults, but we might just still be masking our discomfort. Do you feel all that removed from your younger selves?
ME: No, I feel like it's very present within me. I talk about this a lot, but it would be definitely not ethical or legal to have kids do what we're doing. There would also just be no emotional awareness about what they were going through because it would be happening to them in that moment. So to see an adult live out these memories, in a way, is exactly what you said — we're making it more universal because we can all put ourselves in those positions of reliving that trauma. It also lends itself to the comedy because it's a safe enough distance . It's like Eighth Grade. I still haven't seen it, but I know it's painful because you're seeing this girl go through all of this and she's actually that age. I think when you see adults you feel a little bit safer watching it. Yes, it can be painful, but it can also be funny because we're not there anymore, even though we might still emotionally have some remnants of that time.
AK: Part of the origin story of the show was us being in some bar in our mid-20s, and the logline was like, "Women in their mid-20s play 13 year olds." Now, I'm 31. Realizing in that moment, "I feel 13 right now. I feel like I don't fit in here, I feel like the loser." It's nice to hear that it feels validating to you in a way that could be transferable to a bunch of different ages. With Instagram and all these things, it's about, "Here's my life. Here's what I want you to see. It's great!" That can leave me feeling like the only freaky one, and it's not true. We got so much validation through the show of people being like, "I feel seen. This is my story." I was also thinking about how I waited tables for a really long time. You waited tables, too. You see so many dramas play out at those tables. There could be the finance guys in New York; I could try to analyze the dynamics all night — "OK. He's the leader of the group, he's totally faking it, he's going to order the bone marrow because he thinks he's cool but he doesn't know what it is." It could go on forever.
ME: There was even a point where we were like, "Maybe one season we could just set this in a retirement community and we could just play the rejects of that." The idea is that those social dynamics and feelings of insecurity can stay in any social dynamic at any age.
I wanted to touch on the episode "Posh," because I've seen a lot of people of color on social media saying that the episode made them feel seen. The storyline for the episode follows an early 2000s, suburban American iteration of racism in middle schools. It's a very specific storyline, and there were moments for both characters where they confronted that timeline head-on.
AK: It was an episode Maya, Sam — our third co-creator — and I talked about a lot. "If we only get a first season, what can we not not say?" That episode had stories that Maya had shared with me from forever ago and my own experiences of growing up in a place that wasn't diverse. I had progressive parents who talked about discrimination with me, but maybe in retrospect it wasn't in ways that were as helpful as they thought it was. The dark reality of it wasn't talked about. Our fear was of making an after-school special. How do we talk about this without giving a solution, necessarily? I think we knew it had to be a solution about Anna and Maya, maybe Maya and her family, but more so putting up a mirror to what these experiences are.
ME: That's exactly right. We didn't set out to change history by saying, "Here's how it could end positively." I hadn't seen anything on TV or in film that reflected my experience, my confusion and me becoming complicit in racist situations. I myself became a jester, did impersonations, and also had shame about my own racial identity by saying, "I'm barely Japanese." I didn't know if it was just me who felt that way, who wanted to just look like my other friends. I didn't want to be an "other." It was tricky to show, and to also not villainize Anna and to understand that that is a difficult concept for a girl that age to grasp. When Anna said, "You're right. I don't know what it's like to be you, and I'm sorry," that acknowledgement was everything, and I didn't get that as a kid. It's almost like we did rewrite history, but it was just for our friendship. It wasn't to solve it in the world, it was just getting the acknowledgement that I didn't get, and probably a lot of girls didn't get at that time. That to me is a beautiful resolve to that episode, but not exactly reality.
AK: I remember at the time we were talking about almost vilifying everybody. In the sense of what you're saying Maya, everybody's complicit, but your character is the one that is empathized with in the most obvious way because you're participating in it and you don't have a choice.
ME: I've gotten a lot of messages from girls that have said, "I have done that exact same thing, where I have become a jester to survive." You're not even aware of what you're doing, but it's just that desperate need to be accepted. So you put down yourself, and your identity, to fit in. You hide it.
AK: In this story, your best friend is white and your brother's group isn't. So there's also that struggle: what that did for your character, in your story, to have your brother there. I guess you got closer to your identity within the story through bonding with your brother, who you've kind of been at odds with the whole series. There's a new understanding between you guys.
ME: We put a lot into one episode.
AK: We really wanted to be careful with my character in that episode because she is Maya's ally in all the other stories. She's attempting to be the hero of the story, and then in fact doing the opposite. Maya and her brother are her own hero.
ME: Not just the hero, but the victim, in a way. We were scared of that, what were saying, having Anna be victimized. In a story about race, it's a tricky thing to navigate, but Anna attempts to say something out of ignorance and then falls really hard on her face. You can empathize with her.
AK: But it's her fault.
ME: It's a testament to their friendship in the show — wanting to do something but not knowing that it's time to listen instead of talk, which is a very real thing of some allies wanting to talk and not listen. Their friendship becomes really real.
AK: I also just want to say that Gabe and Sam are really great.
ME: Without them the show wouldn't be what it is. You already hit on this too, but the extreme, passionate love between these two friends is very relatable. It's exciting to see a passionate love story where it's like, "I love you forever until we die, I will be your loyal bitch forever." How we look at each other with such admiring eyes and beauty, the trauma if we had to go through that alone.
AK: It's more like having someone you can call or talk to. It sounds so trite in those terms, but it's not. It really is the difference for most humans, I think, between war and peace.
All 10 episodes of "PEN15" are streaming now on Hulu.
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