It feels like hack writing to say Nick Kroll: Big Little Boy is the most emotional you’ll get hearing about someone shitting themselves, but after Kroll’s third story of uncontrolled diarrhea (remember the comedy rule of threes), it becomes clear what his Netflix special is about. Vulnerability is both the goal and fear of any comedian, and while every comic wants the ephemeral reward of catharsis from relaying their insecurities (usually, they access it a little less graphically), humiliation can prove a much more gratifying payoff. Kroll, who’s world-class in making an ass out of himself, has a Terminator-like efficacy for weaponizing humiliation, showing how a relentless code of cutting yourself down proves a worthy method for understanding what makes a person tick.
Kroll’s relationship with streaming giant Netflix was pretty extensive before this stand-up debut; he’s appeared as a tortured, hormonal kid in Big Mouth, as well as a haunted, crusty old man in the filmed version of Oh, Hello on Br’dway. It makes sense he’d structure his special with a similar projection both forwards and backwards, giving a multi-faceted look into the myriad of ways childhood has defined his adult life, as well as how his parents have conditioned his own parenthood. Confidence is clearly Kroll’s greatest asset; his 20 year history with performing comedy has given him a well-earned onstage authority, reeling the audience in with his strained yelps and piercing, unique observations. His scripted and improv performing background is evident, making his well-crafted bits feel breezily offhand- there’s a craft to Kroll’s brand of casual buffoonery.
Performing at the Warner Theatre in DC, Little Big Boy feels like a comfortable mix of a resoundingly assured comedian with a noticeably odd crowd. The bane of most comedy hours these days seems to be how often a set is engineered to elicit completely disruptive and gratuitous applause or whooping for very tame social observations, but Little Big Boy proves that even if a set doesn’t seek to provoke such reactions, audiences are happy to supply them anyway. Other than that, the crowd’s occasional silence is probably the blame of Netflix’s flattening sound-mixing, yet none of this stops Kroll from completely debasing himself in heightened fashion.
Having your first love and heartbreak back-to-back in your early thirties would be a lot for anyone, let alone a perennially insecure, self-confessed manchild; it’s clear that Kroll’s state of arrested development has affected a lot of his adult life. The past 10 years for Kroll have been part endless spiral, part ticking clock—all in service of figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing with your life. Self-deprecation is at the bedrock of all Kroll’s reflections, never afraid to point a finger at him even in his most privately vulnerable moments. But the confidence of his performing persona and the sharpness of his observations makes his confessions, both hilarious and wounded, feel lightweight, rarely deflating the silly mood.
With every voice-breaking howl, every caricature of his own insufferability, every cutting remark against his pitiable character, Kroll lobbies devastating attacks at his own attempts to be seen as a serious adult. But his real knack is taking everyone else down with him; thanks to the depths of vulnerability, it’s incredibly easy to find his pathetic behavior relatable, transforming his self-deprecation into a quicksand pit of self-reflection you soon find yourself trapped in. (Kroll is responsible for my mind being plagued by the ways I confessed my affections for people in high school for days now.) It’s a great vein of comedy to tap into. Observations can’t restrict themselves to quirky superficial commentary—you ought to feel like the most shameful parts of yourself are on display through a Nick Kroll medium. One man’s ill-timed shuffle out from the front row makes him an instant target for accusations of involuntary defecation. It’s like a warm, mean-spirited hug; if he is all of these things, so are you.
Were it not for a few too many asides referencing internet-speak and meme culture that nearly always fall flat, Kroll’s special would have a near-flawless hit rate. Even the appearances of multiple players in the Fast & Furious franchise manage to draw laughs, largely thanks to Kroll’s riotous impressions. His skills at mimicry stretch further than bald heavymen: overconfident fuckbois, Catholic fireman, and inconspicuous farters make appearances to liven up the set. As the hour rolls on, other examples of Little Big Boy’s technical prowess make themselves visible; the last act is 90% callbacks to every major gag, and director Bill Benz steps up the camerawork as Kroll performs an imaginary sentimental Lowe’s commercial that would make him cry. And yet, these structural and visual flares feel less refined than Kroll’s performing abilities; they’re undeniably effective, but tangibly less inspired.
Little Big Boy has a clear line of attack, a compelling persona to guide us through the journey, and a performer more than capable of eliciting laughter. On the one hand, it’s a remarkably solid hour of comedy, but on the other, you get the sense that Kroll was aiming at something distinctly profound by the end stretch as he shares details on his new family. It’s not that there are big monologues that fall flat, there’s just a lingering feeling of… Am I meant to feel something more?
But vulnerability that doesn’t feel manipulative is no mean feat. Kroll’s Netflix debut is another strong entry from him to the streaming service’s canon, and proves after a lively career of personas and characters, he’s just as willing to look within.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.