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‘American Vandal’ Creators on ‘Love’ of True Crime Docs and Going Beyond Dick Jokes

With the launch of “American Vandal” on Netflix in September, the dicks that sprang from the minds of series creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda were on the lips of America for weeks.

The eight-episode mockumentary series explores the aftermath of an act of vandalism at a California high school in which penises were spray-painted on over two dozen faculty cars. The blame eventually falls on senior Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), who is promptly expelled and faces felony charges for the crime. But a fellow student and aspiring documentarian decides to give the evidence another look, discovering deep — and often hilarious — secrets that shake the school to its core.

What might have been written off as a one-note punchline — “Who drew the dicks?” — proved detractors wrong. The show — produced by Funny or Die, 3 Arts Entertainment, and CBS Television Studios — not only developed a massive fan base but was also ranked as one of the top shows of 2017 along with major awards contenders like “Big Little Lies” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” by many major publications, including Variety.

“It’s really a dream come true,” Joe Farrell, vice president of development for Funny or Die, told Variety. “We didn’t make this with any kind of thought that it would get this sort of reaction. We really were keeping our creators in a bubble where they were making the show they wanted to make.”

It’s not hard to see why the show exploded onto the pop culture landscape. The series perfectly captured the aesthetic of the true crime documentary genre seen in hits like “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx,” but also seamlessly blended humor with an engaging mystery.

Perrault and Yacenda used those real true crime documentaries as a template for “American Vandal.” “We never wanted to go out and make fun of true crime documentaries, because we genuinely love them,” Yacenda said, who along with Perrault cut his teeth making mockumentaries about movies like “Space Jam” and “Rocky IV.” “So we thought, ‘If we use all the tools and conventions that these documentarians are using, could you get someone to care about dicks?’ That’s the genesis of this show.”

It was also crucial to both that, even though the show was based on a joke, that it play out seriously.

“A lot of funny things happened on set and the guys said, ‘This can’t veer into parody or spoof. We have to play this as straight as possible,”‘ Farrell said. “I think we all took a little convincing, but they were really firm on that.”

Both men also said they were very aware that they would have to go deeper than the obvious if the show was going to endure for eight episodes and beyond.

“We didn’t want to create a show that was just a dick joke,” Perrault said. “If you didn’t root for Dylan or love his character, it wasn’t going to be a successful show on dick jokes alone.”

Dylan did in fact prove to be incredibly sympathetic, with Tatro’s performance serving as one of the cornerstones of the show. As the evidence against him unravels, the sting of injustice becomes more and more pronounced — raising the question of whether Dylan was born a bad seed or was he made one by a system that left him behind long ago?

It is that very question that lies at the heart of the ending of “American Vandal.” Where most would have expected the show to end on a silly note, it once again defies expectations by ending with Dylan, having been cleared of any wrongdoing, being caught on camera vandalizing the driveway of a teacher — the same teacher who testified against him at his school board hearing, the same teacher he thought he was going to get revenge on when he returned to school. So he gives in.

With season two now in the works, the creators say they’re not concerning themselves with topping what they did in Season 1.

“All you can do is make stuff that makes us laugh,” Yacenda said. “It’s kind of a big ask to make people care about who drew the dicks for four episodes. And we weren’t 100 percent sure people would do it. But it made us laugh, and it seems to be a wide audience of people that it resonated with.”

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