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‘American Vandal’ Returns: Why the So-Serious-It’s-Funny Fake Docuseries Is Different This Season

New high school, grosser premise, new suspects. Netflix’s surprise hit—born out of the online comedy boom of the mid-’00s—returns for a scatological second run, drawing from the work of Errol Morris and Andrew Jarecki.

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In February 2016, Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda came to the Hollywood offices of Funny or Die for a meeting. The duo got to know each other at Boston’s Emerson College, where they went to school in the late aughts. After moving to Los Angeles, they had some success making digital shorts together for companies like CollegeHumor, and the music videos Yacenda directed for the rapper Lil Dicky were racking up millions of views, but this was the first time the pair had enough confidence in one of their ideas to pitch it as a half-hour TV show. Or maybe it was just a web series with 10-minute episodes. They weren’t sure yet. Either way, it was going to be about dicks.

Like all upstanding members of the pop-culture-devouring community, the pair had recently binged Making a Murderer. The Netflix series turned into the latest true-crime phenomenon in a wave started by the Serial podcast. Working from these inspirations, they devised a story that became the first season of American Vandal—a faux docuseries about two high schoolers in Oceanside, California, trying to figure out whether a burnout prankster named Dylan Maxwell really spray-painted 27 schlongs on 27 cars in the faculty parking lot. In Perrault and Yacenda’s approach, American Vandal would fully commit to the bit, using both the language and look of the true-crime tales that were captivating audiences, despite their own story’s sophomoric foundation. “Once we started doing shorts right out of school, we realized pretty quickly that our style was going to be taking the dumbest things possible as seriously as possible,” Perrault says.

The two had already teamed with producing partners CBS Television Studios and 3 Arts Entertainment, then they went to Funny or Die because the company both built itself on short-form internet videos and had shepherded projects like Drunk History and Billy on the Street to TV. Whichever way the project potentially went, they’d be covered. “We were pragmatic about it,” Yacenda says. “We thought at the end of the day, it was a really cool, fresh idea, but that nobody’s going to hand us the reins of a full TV show and that we would be super happy making 10-minute webisodes.”

They had meetings with Joe Farrell, senior vice president of FoD’s longform program, and Mike Farah, the company’s CEO. During their eight-to-10-minute pitch, Perrault would take on the voice of a documentarian, describing the case as though it were real, then Yacenda would add color. Farrell and Farah loved the concept and were also impressed with the pair’s unsmirking parodies of 30 for 30 documentaries, which covered the events in Space Jam and Rocky IV as if they were critical moments in global history. “Knowing that they could parody a style but take it very seriously, it didn’t feel like a spoof,” says Farrell. “I think that’s what really sparked our interest when they brought us the American Vandal idea.”

For the FoD executives it was pretty clear that it should be a half-hour TV show, though Farrell admits that they have no foolproof way of knowing whether an idea warrants that treatment. “There is always that question of, ‘Should this have stayed a sketch? Was this a funny trailer and should not have gone to, in essence, four hours of content?’” he says. “The short answer is: I don’t think you ever really know. If we always guessed right, that would be unbelievable.”

Funny or Die itself has come a long way since it was founded 11 years ago by Will Ferrell and frequent collaborators writer-director Adam McKay and writer-producer Chris Henchy. The internet is littered with failed sites that once featured comedic shorts, from NBC’s DotComedy, to HBO and AOL’s This Just In, to Jash, which has recently gone dormant. It unexpectedly became an immediate smash with the “The Landlord” video and has continued to be a spot where celebrities could come to do weird shit, like a make a disturbing live-action version of Captain Planet. Along with CollegeHumor, FoD became a reliable balm for the sad desk lunch before there was Vine, or Twitter, or YouTube overload.

Though FoD experienced a new round of layoffs earlier this year, it continues to make its own internet shorts, but they’re also increasingly pushing toward TV programming with shows I Love You, America with Sarah Silverman and Brockmire. (Though Billy on the Street returned as an online-only short this week.) They’ve also begun developing film projects, including a movie version of the long-running prank TV show Impractical Jokers and a basketball comedy called The Last Shot.

As for how this embrace of traditional mediums affects creators, Perrault admits, “My bank account taught me that I couldn’t continue to do internet videos.” Still Farrell says that the FoD web videos serve as a lab, not just for possible shows to bring to networks, but also as a resource to pull writers, directors, or editors from for TV projects.

”The landscape’s changing a lot right now, especially with all the streamers and how much content is being made for film and TV. I do think Funny or Die is an amazing training ground,” says Jake Szymanski, who was one of FoD’s first employees on the creative side. He estimates that in his years at the site, he made hundreds videos, including notorious bits like Paris Hilton’s response to John McCain and the Marion Cotillard–featuring “Forehead Tittaes.” Szymanski has since gone on to direct projects including the feature Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, two Andy Samberg–starring sports doc parodies for HBO, and the recent Netflix movie The Package.

Yacenda and Perrault developed a longer, more in-depth pitch for American Vandal and a case file that they’d leave behind after meetings with potential buyers. After hearing the initial pitch, Netflix asked them to make an hour-long presentation, breaking down what would occur in each of the eight episodes. It happened on a Friday afternoon, and by Monday morning they got the green light to make the entire season. “The premise is funny and they did a great job with the jokes in the pitch, but I think as you saw in the series and what some people have picked up on, the dimensions and complexities that they’re able to kind of explore within the dick jokes is what’s so surprising and ultimately gratifying,” says Farah.

Perrault and Yacenda brought on Dan Lagana, who had been a showrunner on Hulu’s Deadbeat and MTV’s Bo Burnham vehicle Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous. Yacenda, who directs every episode of American Vandal, pushed to hire a cinematographer with experience in prestige documentaries, so they got Adam Bricker, who’d worked on Netflix’s Chef’s Table series and Amanda Knox documentary. Then they had him take the skill level down a notch, since he’d usually be pretending to be a high schooler behind the camera.

The creators of American Vandal try to stay away from the term “mockumentary” when talking about the show, partially out of respect for the medium that they’re theoretically mocking. “As a fan of documentaries, you look at those and you go: ‘How can I engage an audience the way Andrew Jarecki engaged an audience when he was making The Jinx?’” says Yacenda. “And can we do that for a dick joke, or can we do that for a poop joke?”

As Lagana says, “The more serious we take it, the funnier it gets.”

The makers of American Vandal spent two weeks constructing the mystery behind the second season before they even starting thinking about the jokes. Inside the writers’ room, most of the time they reference actual docs, staying away from anything fictional, except for maybe the British version of The Office. “As viewers we’ve become so used to certain mockumentary conventions,” Perrault says. “There’s a certain rhythm to the jokes—like every confessional you hear a piece of information and then a punch line, or an awkward moment that’s perfectly crafted. We found that the more people view it as a mockumentary, the less involved, the less invested they’d be in the mystery.”

Though Netflix’s metrics of success remain unknown to the public, American Vandal’s first season clearly found an audience, as well as critical acclaim. Five days after its premiere, critic Alan Sepinwall posted on Twitter, “Netflix’s American Vandal: starts as a very well-executed goof, turns startling in its emotional complexity.” In her best of 2017 list, Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker wrote that binging it was “the most fun I had all year.” The website you’re reading published three different articles praising it—two about its dick jokes and one on its treatment of millennials. This was a welcome development, if somewhat unexpected, given that the show devoted plenty of screentime to gags like analyzing the lack of “ball hair” on the graffitied penises and an elaborate 3D graphic of a guy getting a handjob next to a lake at Camp Miniwaka.

At first American Vandal’s creators felt an urgency to get the show out into the world as soon as possible. They didn’t want anyone else with a similar concept to beat them to it, but from their webisode experience, they also knew how long it took to make something truly good. There was also the concern that people would be burnt out on true crime by then. “You had a great year-and-a-half period between Making a Murderer, Serial, and The Jinx,” Perrault says. “Thankfully it didn’t go anywhere. It actually only got bigger.”

Documentaries as a whole, whether in theaters or on streaming services, are having a moment, capturing the public imagination and making money. “Ten years ago you weren’t hearing couples saying, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna go home and watch a documentary,’” Yacenda notes. “That was kind of like a pretentious thing to say 15 years ago. Now it’s something that couples around the country say all the time.”

As the storytelling industry realized that there was a mass audience for the often-lurid world of true crime, there’s been a proliferation of podcasts and docuseries about kidnapped children, unsolved murder cases, and vanished husbands and wives. As the material has gotten even darker, the American Vandal team decided to reflect that mood in the show’s second season. The show’s onscreen teenage documentarians, Peter Maldonado and Sam Ecklund, have left Southern California for the wealthy suburb of Bellevue, Washington. The dreary Pacific Northwest of course is not only the home of television dead girls from Twin Peaks and The Killing, but also real-life serial killers like Ted Bundy and Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer.

If Dylan Maxwell’s struggles with the school board in the first season of American Vandal were a suburban teenage take on the unfairness of the criminal justice system, then the new season is about the horrors that humans can inflict on each other. Maldonado and Ecklund have been summoned to the affluent St. Bernardine Catholic School after a mysterious figure known as the Turd Burglar has terrorized the students with a series of shit-related pranks, the first of which is a mass-dosing of the cafeteria’s lemonade with a laxative. The first episode opens with the results of that incident, known as the Brownout, shown through graphic social media videos and recreations.

“You have documentaries that give you these really visceral reactions where they show you pictures, like a brutal, bloody murder, and that just kind of makes you feel [sick]. And then you’re morbidly curious and you have to figure it out,” says Yacenda. “So we thought what’s the stupidest version of that visceral reaction? And it’s poop. Walls covered in poop is gross and it just gives you this really dark, queasy reaction that a bloody, brutal murder does. Just like a really dumb version of it.”

In this season, Maldonado and Ecklund are less explicitly involved in how the narrative unfolds. The show’s actual makers have said that this time around their approach was more indebted to HBO’s The Jinx and the documentaries of Errol Morris. (A scene of the teen creators streaming The Thin Blue Line on Netflix during their flight up to Washington probably would have been too meta.) Season 2 of American Vandal also deals more directly with contemporary political and social issues like cyberbullying, forced confessions, code-switching, and how amateur athletics have become a lucrative business for prep schools. Don’t worry, there’s also hilariously idiosyncratic digressions into what type of psychopath uses punctuation after an emoji and pivotal side characters with names like Hot Janitor.

For their part, the Funny or Die executives say that at this point, they’re mostly just trying to provide American Vandal’s creators with a space to continue their vision. “I think I gave them some impassioned speech about how special what they created was and what it could become if they continued to care about the characters,” says Farah. “I could see them doing 10 seasons of American Vandal because it’s such a rich world and there’s always true-crime or pretend-crime stories that need to be investigated if you do it with the right conviction.”

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