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Return To Middle School In 'PEN15': Creators Say 'It's All About Survival'

TERRY GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're going to conclude our series of interviews with current Emmy nominees with the creators and stars of the Hulu series "PEN15," Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. They're nominated in the category outstanding writing in a comedy series. "PEN15" is about the middle-school years, one of the most awkward periods of life. I don't know if many people would want to go back and revisit those years, but that's kind of what Erskine and Konkle did. They're both in their early 30s. But in "PEN15," set in the year 2000, they play seventh-grade versions of themselves. The rest of the show's middle schoolers are played by actual teens.

"PEN15" explores what it's like for Maya and Anna to deal with the problems associated with the middle-school years, like puberty and mean girls. The situations are embarrassing, poignant and very funny. Many of the storylines come from Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle's own experiences. They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. They started with a clip from the show. Anna and Maya are having a sleepover after Anna has just had her first kiss with her first boyfriend, Brendan. And it was not how she fantasized it would be. Maya asks her about it.


MAYA ERSKINE: (As Maya) And then, like, were your lips close together when you guys were standing close together?

ANNA KONKLE: (As Anna) Yeah. They touched.

ERSKINE: (As Maya) They did. That's, like, romantic.

KONKLE: (As Anna) No, it wasn't. You know, it literally wasn't at all.

ERSKINE: (As Maya) Why?

KONKLE: (As Anna) He put his lips, like, all the way around mine...

ERSKINE: (As Maya) Ew.

KONKLE: (As Anna) ...And, like, sucked.

ERSKINE: (As Maya) Ew (ph) (laughter).

KONKLE: (As Anna) It's not funny.

ERSKINE: (As Maya) Wait. And then what? Was that it? Like, he just sucked?

KONKLE: (As Anna) No. And then he put his tongue in my mouth, and he, like, did, like, a torpedo cat tongue and, like, drilled my mouth.

ERSKINE: (As Maya) Like, what was it like?

KONKLE: (As Anna) It was like this.

ERSKINE: (As Maya) Like, what did he do with it? Ew, ew.

KONKLE: (As Anna) Yeah.

ERSKINE: (As Maya) Stop.

KONKLE: (As Anna) I can't. I wish I could.

ERSKINE: (As Maya) What did you do with your tongue? Did you do it back? Or did you just, like...

KONKLE: (As Anna) It was pinned back, like, it was in trouble, you know?

ERSKINE: (As Maya, laughing) That's crazy.

KONKLE: (As Anna) I know. It was awful.

ERSKINE: (As Maya) I'm sorry. Well, at least you've, like, had your first kiss, you know?

KONKLE: (As Anna) I wish that I hadn't.

ERSKINE: (As Maya) Don't say that.

KONKLE: (As Anna) I really do. Everything is just different. I don't know. I just have to break up with him, so...

ERSKINE: (As Maya) Really?

KONKLE: (As Anna) Yeah. He is not the Brendan that bought us snacks at the bowling alley, you know? He's, like, the Brendan that drilled the back of my throat with his tongue. So it's up to you to get the next boyfriend.


SAM BRIGER: That's a scene from the Hulu show "PEN15," created and co-starring my guests Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle.

Welcome to FRESH AIR.

KONKLE: Thanks.

ERSKINE: Thank you.

KONKLE: Thanks so much for having us.

BRIGER: You know, those early teen years are such a strange time. And you have these bodies that are starting to sprout into adulthood, but you have minds that are probably not ready to handle that yet. And you're having to cope with these more adult situations. And the thing that makes it so worse is that your emotions are just so intense, like everything...

ERSKINE: Oh, yeah.

BRIGER: ...Is just saturated and overwhelming, like just the way that teens respond to music. Like, it's so important. And it's, like, their theme music, so everything feels so consequential. And, you know, and then they're talking - they're thinking about romance, so, like, everything is a powder keg.

KONKLE: Yeah. And there's so many misconceptions too.

BRIGER: Right.

KONKLE: It's like in real life, Anna - me (laughter). I thought kissing was going to be the ultimate feeling of romance, and, like, that's all I wanted. Like, I was not interested in sexuality at the time. I just wanted to, like, hold someone's hand and fall in love and kiss like Zack and Kelly on "Saved By The Bell."

BRIGER: (Laughter).

KONKLE: So when the real version happened, which was just this weird tongue...


KONKLE: ...Like, just drilling me...


KONKLE: ...I - it was a shattering of expectations. But you're - and I think that's true in a lot of different ways, but you're fronting as though you either enjoy it or you get it or whatever. And there's a lot of sadness and humor that - I think, that comes with that. Yeah.

ERSKINE: Yeah. I think you create these beliefs of, you know, things lasting forever, like your friendships. I will be friends with this person till the day I die and not realizing that things will change because you might go into different classes than your best friend or you start developing different tastes than your best friend.


ERSKINE: It's...

KONKLE: Different trauma.



BRIGER: So, Anna, that scene was based on your first kiss, right?

KONKLE: Yeah, it was amazing.


KONKLE: Yeah, that - yeah. I mean - and what I found out recently - and Maya had a really similar experience - is that I went home after my real first kiss. And I had been looking forward to it for so many years. And I was one of the last girls that I knew to do it, so I remember just being like, OK, just have to do this and I have to get out of the way. And then I did. And then I went home, and I told my mom, who I didn't tell anything to. And I cried. And I was like, I never want to do that again. Yeah.

ERSKINE: Yeah. I had the same experience, where I was a late bloomer with boys. And when I had my first kiss, I had the same expectation of it going to be this romantic movie-like kiss. And, again, I don't know what's with these boys drilling their tongues into peoples' mouths.

KONKLE: Yeah. What are they watching? I don't know.

ERSKINE: I don't know what they're watching.

BRIGER: Well, I think they're watching something. I think that's where they're getting it from.

KONKLE: They're watching something.

ERSKINE: They're watching something. But I cried after as well because I thought - in my mind at the time, I thought, oh. I guess that's what kissing is like. That's how...


ERSKINE: ...Kissing will be for the rest of my life.

KONKLE: Right, yeah.

BRIGER: Could you describe what you guys were like in seventh grade? I mean, are these characters pretty similar to how you were?

KONKLE: I was the same and different. I think that the version of me in "PEN15" was more me in fourth and fifth grade. I think in real life, by seventh grade, I learned to hide the things that I realized that made me, you know, a target. In fourth and fifth grade, you know, I would tell people not to cheat. I would tell people not to swear. I don't know. I was just, like, generally annoying.


KONKLE: But it came from who I really am and always will be, which is, you know - there's a good and bad to it. And I think as I got older, yeah, I just learned that I - I'm going to keep some of those things to myself. I'm going to adjust how - where I put my paper so you don't cheat off my paper, but I'm not going to tell you not to.


KONKLE: Things like that. You just learn to cope a little bit more. But I definitely - I can be, like, delusionally (ph) optimistic, and that can be good and bad. And so that's just still with me, you know?



ERSKINE: And I think for me, I was full of contradictions. I was incredibly insecure and then brazenly confident at moments...


ERSKINE: ...Delusionally so. I was incredibly whiny as a kid, and I think that comes through a lot (laughter) as a way to get things.

And I think my fear of letting go of childhood was a huge issue for me. I wanted to be an adult, yet I was really scared of losing my innocence, especially in front of my parents because I equated innocence with love. So I thought if I maintained this childlike self or identity, then my parents would continue to love me the way they've loved me all these years. So that's a weird misconception that I created in my head.

BRIGER: Yeah...


BRIGER: ...And that's played out in the show, where Maya sort of becomes almost babyish in front of her parents.

ERSKINE: Yeah, that still exists to this day at 31.


ERSKINE: I'm sad to say that I revert really easily in front of my parents. And I'm sure there's something that they're gaining from that, too, which is something I'm exploring...


ERSKINE: ...Of - why does this happen?


ERSKINE: Not to put the blame on them - but I'm like, why do you guys enjoy this, you know?

BRIGER: It probably brings them back, too, yeah.



GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, co-creators and co-stars of the Hulu comedy series "PEN15." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, creators and stars of the Hulu comedy series "PEN15." They're in their early 30s, but in the show, they play middle school versions of themselves.


BRIGER: Did you guys feel targets of bullies at that age?

ERSKINE: I wouldn't necessarily call them outright bullies. But I had friends that would put me down a lot. And I didn't really comprehend what they were doing until years later. But yeah, I wouldn't say necessarily bullies that would...

BRIGER: Outright bullies, yeah.


KONKLE: Yeah. I had a weird thing happen where - there was kind of a cycle in my school where the older girls would harass the younger girls. And that was even more in high school. But in middle school, there was a rumor that went around about me. And that followed me for, you know, the next - well, really till I graduated high school (laughter).

ERSKINE: That's awful.

KONKLE: And with it came this kind of sexualization of me that I wasn't ready for. Like, I was very much a "prude" at the time - you know, quote, unquote - and I was labeled as a slut. And in other ways, like, I was simultaneously accepted. I mean, I had, you know, groups of friends and had found my place in high school. But that followed me.

ERSKINE: You were saying that you felt like you were accepted, too, at the same time.


ERSKINE: And in my memory, I wasn't accepted. But when I talked to people who went to my middle school, they always say, you seemed so happy. Like, you were friends with everyone, and you were doing OK - while I was going through this private misery, I guess. And I looked in my yearbook recently, and I got overflowing messages of love. But in each message, it was - you are the cutest Asian I've ever met; oh, my God, I love you so much; you're the cutest Asian, Maya.


ERSKINE: Ugh - that that was the majority of these messages in my yearbook. And I'm sure I took that in as a kid...


ERSKINE: ...In my heart of - oh, no one likes me for me.

BRIGER: Well, you address that in one of the episodes called "Posh," which has a really funny preface where you guys are doing, like, a public service announcement at your school. And there's, like, five girls. Some of them are, like, the scary, or popular girls. And you're going to be the Spice Girls, but you're, like - you're now elderly, and you're suffering from osteoporosis. And you drink milk, which makes your bones feel better. And then you can dance, right?



BRIGER: So it's very funny. But then, you know, Maya wants to be Posh Spice. And - but these three other girls - not including Anna - says, well, no, you should be Scary Spice. And for people who don't remember the Spice Girls, Scary Spice is the only black member of that group. And they're like, you should be Scary Spice 'cause you're tan and you look the most like her. And Maya's - the character Maya's like, well, OK, I guess.

And then things start getting really bad. Like, the popular girls are like, you should bring us the milk 'cause you're - should be the servant. And then they start calling you Guido the Gardener. They're sort of, like, free-associating, like, all the racist things that they can think of. And then, you know, your character doesn't know what to do because it seems like she's not totally clear what's going on. She's like, this is uncomfortable, but maybe I'll play along because the girls are laughing, so maybe I'm funny. She starts acting like how they - she thinks they want her to act, and it's really uncomfortable, and that's true, right, Maya? That came from - that's your experience, isn't it?

ERSKINE: That did happen to me a lot, and I would play into that role really easily to become the jester. And I would make characters up and imitate my mom with a thick Japanese accent, and it would cause kids to laugh. And I thought, OK, I'm doing good. I'm a funny person because they're laughing at me. But really, they were laughing at my mom's accent, the thick accent. And I didn't put that together as a kid, and it never penetrated me the way we show it in the show at the time because you're just trying to survive.


ERSKINE: So I think we were trying to show, you know, a lot in 30 minutes. But what is that like when it's kind of hitting the person? And what is it like when you first realize for the first time that you're not like your other friends? You're not white. You don't sound the same. You don't look the same, even though this whole time, you've held this belief that you are the same person, especially as your best friend. And so that moment of recognition in the mirror of - oh, I don't have eyes like Anna or those girls. Why don't I? I wish I did. And that hitting harder - that was something that I don't think I fully explored till we started writing the show.

BRIGER: Do you remember that first time when you felt that way?

ERSKINE: I think I remember when I went over to a friend's house and we were putting makeup on. And when they would put eyeliner on, they had, you know, double eyelids, and so you could see the skin above the eyeliner. But when I would put the eyeliner on, it covered my whole eyelid. And I'm getting emotional thinking about it. Anna's crying, too.

And not having it look the same was such - it made me hate myself. I hated my eyes. I hated that I didn't have thick double eyelids like my friends because that's all I saw around me, and I didn't have any ideals of beauties to look up to, really, when I was a kid growing up, of Asian beauties. Aw, Anna's so sweet.

KONKLE: No, I - don't make it...


KONKLE: Yeah. It's not fair. Watching you go through that in the scene and the girls talking to you that way was extremely moving. And, you know, it's a bunch of white girls, and I'm one of them, and I'm the best friend, and I'm not saying, everybody stop. It's a mirror of then and it's a mirror of now in the sense of - you know, I've been raised from a small girl in real life in a very liberal, progressive - you know, I went to a Unitarian Church, and the way that diversity was dealt with was, like, we should all be colorblind. We're all the same, and that's as far as it went. And I think that you can see in the episode the negative results of that, really - of Anna just going, well, we're the same. That's just funny, and that's just humor. And I - something feels off, but, like, it doesn't - it's not important.

ERSKINE: And the other thing I wanted to say was just reiterating how important it was to not vilify those girls because they weren't aware fully of what they were doing, that it was somehow ingrained in them. And I was so grateful that we got to write an ending where Anna acknowledges...


ERSKINE: ...How Maya feels. I don't think I ever received that in life, so - to have your friends say, you're right; I don't know what it's like to be like you.

KONKLE: Right.

BRIGER: Right.

ERSKINE: And I'm sorry.

BRIGER: Well, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, thanks so much for being here today.

KONKLE: Thank you for having us.

ERSKINE: Thank you so much.

GROSS: Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle spoke with FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger. Erskine and Konkle are the creators and stars of "PEN15." They're nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series. And that concludes our series of interviews with Emmy nominees. We'll find out who the winners are when the ceremony is broadcast Sunday, September 22.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be guitarist James Burton. He played with Elvis Presley from Elvis' 1969 comeback performances in Vegas until Elvis' death in 1977. A new box set has been released commemorating the 50th anniversary of that comeback. Burton not only plays on it. He assembled the band. He's played with so many rock and country performers. He plays the famous guitar line on the hit "Susie Q." He played in Ricky Nelson's band for many years, including on the show "Ozzie And Harriet." He played with Merle Haggard, Buffalo Springfield, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and did a lot of dates with Phil Spector. I hope you'll join us.


ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) We're going up. We're going down. We're going up, down, down, up, any way you want to. Let it roll. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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