Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle took their first photograph together at a house party in Amsterdam. They were there on a college study-abroad program to learn the intimidating art of experimental theater and were invited to a bash where the theme was “middle school dance party.” The photo shows them dressed like 13-year-olds (Erskine in oversize jeans and a drab sweater, Konkle sporting a questionable scarf) pretending to bicker as friends do when they’re 13.
Call it coincidence — the sign of an “unhealthy obsession with youth,” as Konkle suggests — or maybe even fate. But the irony that the two went on to create “Pen15,” a show about middle school in which they play tween versions of themselves, is not lost on either of them.
“It’s totally wild,” Konkle says. “Maya and I are best friends in real life, and ‘Pen15’ started in our living room four years before it went to series. We have this incredible creative ESP partnership.”
“Pen15” is a show about firsts, and without that partnership forged from the growing pains of performing and creating under pressure, Konkle and Erskine may never have made their first series together, let alone one that is so deeply personal to them.
Those feelings clearly resonated with many, so rather than reinvent themselves with the show’s sophomore season or negate the emotions of Season 1, teen tantrum style, the duo decided to amp them up, taking an often darker turn to reflect their characters’ feelings that every single moment of their middle school lives is monumentally significant.
Erskine and Konkle, both 33 (and born exactly one month apart), have stressed all along that Maya and Anna are not exactly akin to teen versions of themselves. But the show is rooted in their adolescent emotional lives and experiences. Erskine — whose real-life mother plays her mom in the show — used Season 1 of “Pen15” to examine her Japanese American identity. In Episode 6, “Posh,” Maya the character is racially profiled by her peers, and afterward stares at herself in the mirror and tries to make her eyes look wider in a wordless moment of self-hatred. She gives herself two middle fingers and mouths, “F— you,” as tears well up.
Central to Season 2, similarly, is the divorce of Anna’s parents, which reflects pretty closely Konkle’s own experiences. When Konkle was roughly the same age as her character, her parents ended their marriage and split the house she grew up in between the two of them for two years. She remembers that time in her life as being “very tense.”
“We learned from Season 1 that whenever there’s an honest story that feels scary to share, it’s probably going to resonate with people,” Konkle says. “For me that was a huge secret: On the outside I was doing theater and playing the French horn and trying to be as great as I could, and then my family life was a mess.”
The confusion of seeing her parents apart yet together comes to a head for Anna in Episode 3, when she and Maya run away to the forest and pretend to be witches, performing a pseudo-exorcism. “Vendy Wiccany” touches on Anna’s thoughts of suicide, and Konkle says her aim was to address the “slippery” mental health issues she didn’t know she was facing at the time.
“We grappled with including that stuff and talked about it a lot, but at the end of the day, we decided to run with it because it was real. It was the feeling of ‘If we’re going to share this, let’s share it fully,’” she says, recalling that part of her life. “It just started to all become too much for me. I think it’s so normal as a kid, and I can say this 10-years-of-therapy later, to think the things that are going wrong in my life are because of.”
Without Erskine by her side, Konkle is certain she would not have had the support or the courage to be so open on-screen. “It was raw. It’s still hard to watch parts of it; it was hard to shoot. I’m sure I was moody those days on set. I’m so sorry, Maya,” Konkle says.
“Not at all,” Erskine interjects. “It was heartbreaking to watch you, as an adult, not only talk about it, but there was that moment of realization of ‘Oh wow, little Anna went through this. I’m so sorry.’ That heartbreaking choice that she has to make of Dad versus Mom, you’re faced with it daily. I never fully understood it until I got to watch my friend actually live it out through a character.”
Their “ESP” connection is on full display when Erskine and Konkle jump on a Zoom call to talk about the upcoming second season, for which they had to finish post-production from home, like so many producers amid the pandemic chaos.
The pair’s conversation is regularly interrupted by moments of gushing praise, a smattering of “awwws” and plenty of finishing each other’s sentences. A tangent on Konkle’s recent attempts to produce the perfect bone marrow on toast threatens to permanently derail the conversation, but things get back on track when the subject of editing Season 2 comes up.
Prior to COVID-19, barely a day went by when the pair weren’t together, beavering away on the next set of episodes. But other than a socially distanced paddle at Konkle’s pool a few weeks back (Erskine’s mask got soaking wet; Konkle wore three for good measure), it’s clear the two severely miss each other, as friends and creative partners. Editing remotely has meant seven-hour Zoom sessions, and Erskine says the editing software regularly freezes, cutting them off mid-flow.
“It’s been hard having the creative process interrupted all the time,” Konkle says. “You have to restart your brain, and editing a scene is such a flow, I realize now. We didn’t get in the flow as much as we used to because we would just be finding the story, the arc of the scene, and then suddenly you’re signed out. It feels like you’re in the middle of writing something and someone just grabs your paper.”
But the two soldiered through it to produce seven episodes, which will constitute the first part of a second season that’s being split into two batches. The second set of installments was almost done shooting, Erskine says, but when they will be ready is very much up in the air — mainly because the plan was, and is, to set one half-hour at a packed bat mitzvah party.
“We got a really well-intentioned note at one point after corona that was like, ‘Could we never see the bat mitzvah? Could we just hint at the temple?’ And we’re like, ‘Hell no,’” Konkle says.
Bat mitzvah issues aside, Erskine and Konkle went back to the drawing board to see what other awkward middle school experiences they could mine for Season 2, after a raucous first outing in which Maya gets her period and the seeds are sown for the disintegration of Anna’s family.
“We did treat the first season like it was maybe our only season, so we packed it with the biggest firsts that happened to us,” Erskine says.
This season her character’s story revolves around that most dreaded, or anticipated, middle school moment: the first kiss.
At the end of Season 1, Maya and Anna have a “three-way” with a boy named Brandt, played by Jonah Beres (an adult body double performed the 10 seconds of awkward breast fondling in the supply closet, while Maya and Anna stand motionless). It comes as a shock to no one that Maya isn’t satisfied with that encounter and spends the entire season trying to convince various boys, Brandt included, to be her first kiss.
Erskine recalls her real-life debut smooch as “a huge thing for me.” She didn’t make lip-to-lip contact until ninth grade, but not for want of trying. “None of the boys in my school would ever give me my first kiss, but I had many crushes and I would write them all in a book. I was boy crazy,” she says. “There was this older high school boy whose name I’m not going to say, but I started to just develop this insane crush on him and would write his name on chalkboards. I would write, ‘I love XX,’ and then I put a big heart around it. I did it in several classrooms, and then I heard he complained to the principal, saying, ‘Someone is stalking me.’”
In the show, Erskine says she wanted to use Brandt rejecting Maya, and denying their three-way ever happened, to explore the theme of gaslighting. Brandt flip-flops from leading Maya on to saying, “I love you,” to telling her she’s ugly and gleefully joking behind her back she has a “big smelly bush.”
The leap from insults like “big smelly bush” and “UGIS” (ugliest girl in school) to the kind of locker room talk that grown men — from the president of the United States to heads of networks — engage in is hardly a large one to make.
“That didn’t just happen at that age; I feel [it] continued throughout my 20s really,” Erskine says.
The first season of “Pen15” has a conversation about how masculinity and femininity work at an early age, Erskine says, and combines it with “highbrow-lowbrow” comedy that caught the eye of Hulu. The show was brought to Beatrice Springborn, the streamer’s vice president of content development, as a presentation a couple years ago. Springborn admits that her first reaction to the premise of two grown women playing teenage versions of themselves was that it sounded “strange and hard to pull off.”
“For me it felt like this concept is very easy to get wrong,” Springborn says. “It can feel like just a hook if it’s not executed well. ”
But Erskine and Konkle have a deep empathy for their characters and an understanding of how they felt at that age. “Pen15” could approach its subject with “ironic distance,” or adopt a “pranky, self-aware vibe,” according to self-professed super-fan Bob Odenkirk (“It’s in my top five [shows] of all time”). But it doesn’t. Odenkirk says Anna and her family’s storyline takes him back to his parents’ divorce when he was in his early teens. “Those times for me were mostly ‘What the fuck is going on? I do not know what’s happening in this world. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow,’” Odenkirk says. “Watching those girls go through it has rediscovered that feeling for me and brought it to life.”
When “Pen15” was still in development at Hulu, it started gathering steam both internally and outside the company, particularly among people who are roughly the same age as the creators.
“A lot of the executives that were rallying around it were in their 20s and 30s, and a lot of assistants too,” Springborn says. “I remember an agent’s assistant connecting me on a call, and while I was waiting for the agent to get on, the assistant jumped on and said, ‘I’m sorry, I have to tell you: I’ve seen the presentation for ‘Pen15,’ and I just love that show.’ It became this tape that people were passing around and talking about, and seeing that younger millennial generation respond to it like that made it an easy yes from me.”
“Pen15” fits nicely with its Hulu comedy classmates. The streamer is building a burgeoning slate of R-rated comedies, which Springborn points out all have female friendships at their core (think “Dollface,” “Shrill” and the recently canceled “High Fidelity”). Springborn says she has yet to have conversations with Erskine and Konkle about what the end of “Pen15” looks like, but she and the other Hulu execs would “love to work with them on something else” as well.
As for the besties in question, the concern lingers that the success of “Pen15” might leave them creatively “trapped in this realm of young adult and adolescence,” not least because they have been offered a mountain of projects along similar lines, Erskine says. However, no matter what sophomore year in the entertainment business looks like for them, the two will face it together, like BFFs. That’s a pinkie promise.
“We are two separate actors, we are two separate writers, but I can’t imagine going throughout life and not making more together,” Erskine says. “We never thought of ourselves as going into comedy, but that came from each other, through pain too. I’m really lucky to have you, Anna.”
“Aw, me too, love,” Konkle replies.