PEN15 is not what you expect from a female puberty show.
Very much set in the early 2000s, co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star as versions of themselves at 13 alongside a cast made up of actual tweens. Thanks to their styling and mannerisms, their age difference is, surprisingly, almost ignorable — until you snap out of your nostalgia-induced trance and see that one of those 31-year-olds is taunting an actual 13-year-old about wedgies.
It’s a hilarious visual, but the physical appearance of the show actually isn’t where most of its humor comes from. That’s found in the swinging emotions and exaggerated exasperation of Erskine’s and Konkle’s portrayals of young Maya and Anna as they navigate things that most pubescent teens, at some point, do. Take, for example, the below clip, when a dead-serious moment practicing kissing on bed posts abruptly turns into peak-terror screaming at Anna’s dad to “Get out!!!”
With all of its overdramatic honesty, PEN15 — which was produced by AwesomenessTV and The Lonely Island and premieres all of its episodes on Hulu Friday, February 8 — lets you look back on puberty as a really funny time, reframing the life-or-death memories you have so you can see yourself for the irrational, and totally normal, young teen you were. Erskine and Konkle spoke with MTV News about making puberty funny. Check out the conversation below.
MTV News: Why did you want to set the story in this time period?
Erskine: There were a couple reasons, but for one it was when we were in middle school so it felt appropriate to start there if we're mining from our own experiences. And then I think the other reason was it was a time with rarely any cell phones. If anything, maybe one kid had one, and so when you're telling these stories, it's nice to not have the social media aspect part of it or cell phones or technology. We wanted it to feel like everyone was dropped into a memory of that time and that was really important to us.
Konkle: This is gonna sound like a convoluted story, but when I was little in Boston, somehow, I would audition for commercials. I did that for maybe ten years and — by the way, never got one but kept going and was like, "It'll happen today" — and I remember the casting director was so nice. She lived in my town in Scituate, Massachusetts and when I turned 13, I stopped getting auditions and I was like, "Laura, why? I'm not really going in anymore and why is that and what is it about me," and whatever, and she's like, "Oh, no. It's age." That's the age that companies stop putting in their commercials because they want to see kids or they want to see well-adjusted teens. They don't want to see people going through puberty. It's a really awkward, weird time. And so, I think for a very long time — I mean, I'm guessing, but it felt that way — that media was kind of skipping this weird, "ugly" time, so it kind of was a mine for it.
MTV News: So many shows will cast older teens to play young teens or they'll cast 20-year-olds to play older teens or whatever it is. So was that why you wanted to cast young teens in this show?
Konkle: Yeah, really the most authentic as we could.
Erskine: I think they're all 12 and 13 at the time — most of them.
Konkle: It was really hard, but we got really lucky. Casting took a long time. We had trouble finding kids that felt like someone in a memory. You know, someone that you're not seeing on TV, someone that you sat next to in school … And we talked a lot about like, ‘What is the usual pop person like on TV?’ and trying to go away from that. Because that's the instinct towards what you see a lot, and really continuing to remind each other of what the real person was like in that school.
MTV News: It's like you didn't want social media in the show and also you didn't want that social media shine.
Konkle: Yeah, and I don't even know how we would write it, honestly. Because the reality is we don't know what it's like to be in middle school now, with social media. And I think we're always trying to tell an authentic story and that's what we knew. So I guess that's kind of the cliché thing, write what you know. But yeah, I don't know where we would've begun if it was middle school now.
MTV News: What was it like working with teens? Did they give you any insights on what their experiences are like now?
Erskine: I mean, this is another tangent, but when we were filming one of the episodes, all of us were supposed to be dressed as Spice Girls doing this routine and the popular girls come over. I hadn't met the kid actors yet who were playing them — I was filming and Anna had a break because she was teaching them the routine, but she was in her normal clothes, no braces on — and they loved her. So then, when they came to meet me, I was in my bowl cut and a mustache and low-rider jeans and they were like, "Hey…" And I felt instantly like I had to prove myself to them. I was like, "I wear high-waisted jeans. I've worn them for many years. I've worn them since high school, like you guys. Trust me, I'm f’ing cool." It's just even being around 13-year-olds, you revert.
Konkle: It's definitely the same. The element of computers, the way they interact now and the phones and social media — I don't know what the implications of that are, honestly. But one of the theories of the show was the idea that something hopefully would resonate, even if you went back to medieval times in middle school, that hopefully there'd be a thread. There's something about that age, between a kid and teenager-dom that's like very strange. And I think we saw that with the kids on our show.
Erskine: Totally. It feels like, even my parents, who are from a different generation were like, "I felt that same way." It's a weird time where you just are transferring into an adult with your body but then your mind is still forming and still wanting to hold on to childhood.
MTV News: Yeah, you touch upon these universal themes of that age. At the same time, it’s set in a very specific generation. How did you guys balance those references with making sure that you were staying true to these overall themes?
Erskine: I think we started with, first, our own personal stories, like seeing what we could mine from that and how that could become an arc throughout the season between my and Anna's characters and what story we could tell with that. And I think the references to the time period, we always didn't wanna put too much of an emphasis on it, we wanted it to just feel like it was part of the background of it and not pointing it out as much.
Konkle: Not leaning on it … The joke isn't the nostalgia.
Erskine: Exactly. So I think, you know, it was so fun to have that be a part of the world, but not use it for story.
Konkle: Not take advantage of it, kind of.
Erskine: Exactly. Except for AIM, AIM is definitely… It's an ode to it. We do a whole episode on it, but other than that, I feel like that's not what sparked story ideas. It was just our experiences.
Konkle: Right. And AIM was such a massive part of our vibe at that point that's just gone now, that it's like, OK to go back there for a while.
Erskine: A time capsule.
Konkle: It's like, "I wanna go back there, I wanna get those little dings."
Erskine: It, like, made me horny just hearing those dings. That's what we said all the time, we're like, "I'm horny."
MTV News: OK so, on being horny — there's something very cool about seeing teenage girls explore their sexuality on a TV show. There's usually so much shame surrounding things like masturbation. What was your goal with your portrayal?
Erskine: I think you just said it perfectly, but it was, you know, I am sharing a very personal story because I, for so long, felt so ashamed and I still to this day struggle with it because I hadn't seen or heard anyone do it so I felt like I was a monster, like I was a pervert. There just was… no one talked about it. And girls either lied or didn't do it, and any time there was a rumor about a girl masturbating, it was, "Ew! That's disgusting!" And so it just shut me up for so long. I think there's a couple goals with it. Hopefully other girls who are exploring in the same way won't feel alone.
Konkle: Best friends talking about it felt wrong — in the beginning. You know, now it's like we’re talking about it all the time, but it's still like you're breaking through a feeling that we have for some reason that it feels wrong. And on the other side of things, like, I wasn't masturbating but there was a rumor that I masturbated and for about five years I was harassed that I was a slut. Like, hadn’t had my first kiss, but even the idea that I was masturbating was enough for me to be slut-shamed … It was very depressing and it felt like such an important story to share and I was so grateful to Maya that she was willing to share it.
Erskine: I'm grateful too. And then the other side of it, to make it lighter, is just that in TV and film, you either see a woman masturbating as, like, bad or sexual. It's never funny. Or maybe there is an example, but we haven't seen it. So that was exciting to us too, of like, always in movies like American Pie, there's jokes made out of a guy having a boner and jerking off. Like where's the humor for the girl side of it? Like how do you show that on a girl?
Konkle: Because it's funny.
Erskine: It is funny! It's funny. It's gross. It's weird. It's real. So that was an exciting thing and risky and definitely so scary to perform with, like, literally a crew just standing and not aware of what kind of show they were getting themselves into. But you know, here you go.
MTV News: It's part of this rise of gross female comedy that's really exciting and interesting to see. Like Broad City does it.
Konkle: You're right. Broad City does do it. We've been talking about this a lot — we started making things maybe six years ago or so and at the time you know, we hadn’t done very much, but we were able to get meetings and in those meetings everyone was like, "Lena Dunham. Amy Poehler. Bridesmaids." There are all these women that came before us that have paved the way for us to be able to make something like that. Like we got to make what we wanted to make with Hulu because of them!
MTV News: And let's just end on what you hope people get out of this series.
Konkle: People that have made things where it kind of feels like they're sharing secrets has always made me feel less alone, and I think that would be an amazing result. We also have kind of a dark sense of humor and can laugh at things that maybe you don't usually laugh at. And for people to just enjoy and watch it.
Erskine: Just to enjoy it and hopefully not be too traumatized by remembering their own memories!
This interview has been edited and condensed.