It has all the makings of a pre-pubescent hell. The first period, the first crush, social anxiety, bullying. Only it’s happening to two adults.
Pen 15, Hulu’s latest series co-created and executive-produced by Sam Zvibleman, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, has been lauded as genius and intelligent. The show aired Feb. 8 and garnered a cult following that finds its portrayal of middle school hilarious. Erskine and Konkle, who play 13-year-old versions of themselves, Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone, have also been applauded for handling delicate subject matter with humor. At SCAD aTVfest in Atlanta two months ago, the three talked about the popularity of the show.
Zvibleman said the roles were exciting for both Erskine and Konkle.
“What we keep realizing is it’s much easier to laugh with adults playing middle schoolers and going through these experiences, than if actual 13-year-old girls went through getting [their] periods for the first time or an awkward first kiss or being picked on because of their race. … Then it might just be sad,” Zvibleman said. “And we wanted to be able to laugh at how much of a nightmare it is, so it made it much easier with grown women being able to evoke that.”
The name of the show, Pen 15, is based on a prank in which kids ask someone if they’ve heard of the Pen 15 club. If the unsuspecting person answers ‘no,’ they are inducted with the word penis written in gigantic letters on their arm or hand in ink. It’s a silly joke, but enough to capture the humiliation middle schoolers face on a daily basis, Zvibleman said.
“The show is about fitting in and surviving and having your group of friends to get by,” Zvibleman said. “It’s very immature, which is kind of the point. You would feel embarrassed because you have the word on your hand. So that idea of humiliation and prank very much sums up the theme of the show.”
Zvibleman, who grew up in St. Louis, said he can relate to not quite fitting in. As a Jew who comes from a mixed marriage (his father is Jewish and his mother, a non-Jew), Zvibleman said he straddled both worlds, especially once he hit bar mitzvah age.
“What you get is an interesting dynamic. I went to a middle school with a fairly large Jewish population. I had my bar mitzvah and I wasn’t fully accepted by the Jewish community, even though I went to Hebrew school and got bar mitzvahed, and I still was sort of an outsider with the majority population because I’m Jewish,” he said.
Though there are no characters who are explicitly Jewish on the show, Maya and Anne’s carpool friend, Sam, is a character influenced by Zvibleman’s childhood. He described Sam as “a bit neurotic.”
“Sam is based on me. He is a little more awkward and I sort of exaggerated that,” Zvibleman said.
The stage where kids are trying to figure out who they are and growing into their adult bodies is great for material, Zvibleman admitted. Pen 15 is very honest about the cruelty many young people show towards one another and he said navigating that world is a big part of each character’s journey.
“I think one of the things I went through is being in the cafeteria at school and where you sat determines your hierarchy. And these characters are at the dorky table, and in middle school your mission is to always get to the cool table, and that could mean throwing away your friends, but you never get there,” Zvibleman said. “But it’s also still being interested in toys, being a kid and trying to pretend to be a man, and that’s a big part of it.”
The three friends came up with the idea six years ago and they wrote the script together. Zvibleman said writing 10 episodes in nine months was a very intense experience when you’re going through it with close friends.
“This time last year we just started writing. We wrote it for 10 or 12 weeks. We wrote it, shot it, edited it and we were done by December. They’re my best friends, so it was kinda a magical thing, even when they were fighting like family members because there’s a lot of love,” he said.
It wasn’t an easy process and working closely proved trying, but he said the finished product was well worth the effort.
“It was a lot of long hours and a lot of staying up until 3 a.m. working on it. Now that it’s out and people are connecting to it, all the painful memories can dissipate and you can enjoy it,” Zvibleman said, laughing. “Every time we look at each other we’re like: ‘Oh that got a little hairy there.’”