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If you didn’t already know how the story turned out, you might assume Nick Kroll’s upbringing (conservative Jewish), schooling (Rye County Day, Georgetown University), and degrees (history major, Spanish and art minors) would one day lead to a cardigan-clad professorship. We’d argue it actually did. He became Professor Poopypants, the most gloriously nefarious science teacher to ever steal a hit animated movie. That would be Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie, with an epic box office of $104 million to date. If handed out grades, he’d have gotten an A. “The way Kroll savors every syllable of his alternately peevish, self-pitying and nonsensical dialogue transforms the ridiculous into the sublime.”

All along, Kroll’s real field of study has been comedy, first in high school skits and talent shows, and then sketch and improv in college, which is where he realized it would become his life. “Nothing beats doing comedy. I eat it, breathe it, sleep it. It’s the first and only thing I’ve ever loved doing. There’s never been a backup plan for me.” He moved to New York, put in time with UCB, taught improv to pay the rent and did standup before moving to L.A. to chase pilot seasons.

Not many people would equate comedy with job security, but Kroll does. “There’s so many ways to make a living,” he wrote in Georgetown Alumni Online. “There’s podcasts, web stuff, writing, standup…” And, as it turned out, acting. He’s since used every one of them to create art, content and a career that’s left him at the whim of no one but himself.

He got work doing various characters on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, but his break came on the 2007 sitcom Cavemen, based on the Geico commercial characters. It wasn’t the stuff of Emmys awards, but it got the ball rolling. Gigs on Best Week Ever, Reno 911!, Sit Down, Shut Up and Adult Swim’s Children’s Hospital further sharpened his comedy chops. In 2009 he landed a starring role as Rodney Ruxin, the over-anxious, over-sexed, insecure Jewish fantasy football fan on The League, for which he also wrote.

All the time, he was working on more ideas and characters, most of whom we met in 2013 on his own Comedy Central sketch series Kroll Show. It was the best and most meta use to date of his gift for sharply observed satire, sending up reality shows and the people that populate them. If you wanted to celebrate everything gloriously awful about the genre, it was your one-stop shop. Kroll led the parade, playing most of the inmates. There was straight-outta-Jersey Bobby Bottleservice, craft-services worker Fabrice Fabrice, Latino shock jock El Chupacabra, Liz G. of PubLIZity and Aspen Bruckenheimer of Rich Dicks — all hyper-performative and hyper-self-involved, if not hyper self-aware.

Kroll Show ended in 2015, but its residents are living long and extended lives on Funny Or Die, Comedy Bang! Bang! and in his live comedy special Nick Kroll: Thank You, Very Cool, which said, “figured out the very best way to incorporate characters into a show without it feeling forced. Kroll has devised a way to make each person a different part of the live show-going experience. Each one of Kroll’s alter egos is incredibly funny and his sincere knack for improvisation can’t help but shine through. There are no ‘fast-forward this one’ characters in the bunch; each one has their own distinct quirks and idiosyncrasies that distinguish them from each other and makes them all uniquely hilarious for very specific and different reasons.”

But the best-known characters to emerge from Kroll Show yet are Gil Faizon (Kroll) and George St. Geegland (comedy partner John Mulaney). They’re cranky, elderly divorcees from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, known for their turtlenecks, misinformed beliefs, and tendency to say “Oh, hello” in unison. What started as a sketch became a hot-ticket play (Oh, Hello on Broadway) known for surprise celebrity guests, who are invariably treated to too much tuna (we won’t explain, as it’s now a special on Netflix, bless the comedy gods). Ben Brantley’s review in The New York Times notably compared it to Mamet’s septuagenarian-stocked China Doll, which ran concurrently. “Oh, Hello is a hoot. Even Pulitzer Prize-winning pros like Mr. Mamet might pick up some tips from Mr. Faizon and Mr. St. Geegland’s hilariously self-aware — and silkily clumsy — use of classic theatrical devices. Though they are summoned into being with blatantly artificial silver wigs and wrinkles that appear to have been drawn with felt-tip pens, Gil and George have their own undeniable and autonomous reality. They are angry, insular, out-of-touch, egregious cultural stereotypes who perceive the rest of the world in similarly stereotypical terms. It turns out that these sour, crotchety guys are best savored in large doses. Mr. Kroll and Mr. Mulaney don’t so much portray Gil and George as allow themselves to be taken over by them…What’s more, they think they’re really funny, which they’re not. Which is exactly what makes them really, really funny.”

So Kroll’s not officially a professor, but he is a sharp, cerebral, artist. And one who also understands that intellect only gets you so far. You don’t inhabit Professor Poopypants or any of his other inventions with such intense glee if you don’t love and understand who they are. He’ll do that next in Big Mouth, a Netflix cartoon series about the ravages of puberty, based on Kroll’s 13-year-old life with best friend Andrew Goldberg. It’s a jump back in time from celebrity codgerhood, but as Kroll points out, while we do change between 13 and 70, it’s the stuff that doesn’t change that’s the funny part. No doubt Kroll will continue to study the funny part, probably until he actually is 70. And why not? A lot of guys do their best work in turtlenecks and cardigans.