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How ‘American Vandal’ Reinvented the Dick Joke

Netflix’s new eight-part mockumentary series takes comedy’s lowest-hanging fruit and elevates it into art

‘American Vandal’ Netflix/Ringer illustration

“I’ll never understand what’s so amusing about penises.”

Less than five minutes into the first episode of American Vandal— Netflix’s new true-crime mockumentary series that was released on Friday— these words are spoken by a character named Mrs. Rothacker. I don’t want to give too much away, because as I’ll make clear below, American Vandal is phenomenal and should be seen by everyone. Here’s a spoiler-free synopsis, though: Someone has spray-painted dicks on 27 different cars (including Mrs. Rothacker’s) in a high school faculty parking lot. Everyone believes that the culprit is Dylan Maxwell, a senior student who has a reputation as both a dipshit prankster and a serial dick drawer. Most of the evidence from the incident leads back to him, as Dylan has a strong motive, a weak alibi, and the means to pull the caper off. Taking all of this into account, the school board takes little time in expelling him, a decision that nobody in the community seems to find controversial in the slightest. Nobody, that is, except for one student with a camera and a thirst for the truth, who dares to ask the question that no one else would: Are we sure Dylan did the dicks?

Mrs. Rothacker’s exasperation is a perfect starting point for American Vandal because it is the essence of what makes this show so brilliant. American Vandal is one elaborate dick joke played out over eight half-hour episodes, which is a description of a concept that could have easily gone wrong. After all, dick jokes are the lowest form of comedy, not just in the sense that their subject matter is crude, but also in the sense that dick jokes require little effort to make. You don’t have to be a great comedian to get cheap laughs from a dick joke, something that’s been proved time and again by local weathermen, The Flintstones, shitty T-shirts sold at trashy spring break destinations, the manatees that write Family Guy episodes, and Carlos Mencia. Every conversation at a family reunion that includes a reference to the size and/or firmness of something, a synonym for satisfied, or any word that could also be slang for male genitalia is like throwing a dick-joke fastball right down the heart of the plate to a hacky uncle who is eager to swing for the fences. We’ve all heard a million dick jokes in our lives, and the vast majority have been unoriginal and corny as hell. You can’t really blame Mrs. Rothacker for failing to see the appeal in them.

But then, all of this is what makes a good dick joke so damn funny. It’s like a bugle player being able to perform “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Taking something that’s primitive and lame and turning it into a beautiful piece of art will always be captivating. That’s why, even though the worst 10 million jokes ever told were probably dick jokes, some of the best comedy ever made has been dick jokes, too. And I’m not just talking about stand-up acts like 22-year-old Eddie Murphy pretending his arm was his penis or Bernie Mac’s legendary Def Comedy Jam appearance in which he said, “If I pull my shit out, this whole room will get dark.” I’m also talking about the most famous running joke from The Office (“That’s what she said!”), the best Seinfeld episode ever (“The Contest”), and the Silicon Valley scene that belongs in some sort of museum. I’m talking about the funniest scene from Superbad, Jonah Takalua’s “dick-tation” in Summer Heights High, the time Marty Funkhouser served Larry penis cake on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and the countless instances that South Park has made dick jokes. There are plenty of other examples that I left out, but the point remains: In a world in which there are an infinite number of terrible dick jokes, coming up with an original and hilarious one is like finding the comedy holy grail.

American Vandal has found that holy grail. In fact, I’m tempted to go so far as to declare that it is the greatest execution of a dick joke ever. And while I don’t want to give the show’s story away, just know that it’s a masterpiece. American Vandal is everything the trailer promises and so much more, starting with the fact that it’s absolutely hilarious.

I always hate when people who review TV shows and movies sprinkle in a handful of jokes from a comedy so the audience knows what to expect. I understand why this is done: Comedy is subjective, and while I can tell you American Vandal is hilarious, that won’t mean much unless we share the exact same sense of humor. I guess the thinking goes that the only way for readers to truly know whether they’ll find a show or movie funny is for a reviewer to remove all visual and audial cues from certain jokes, transcribe them into a write-up that takes itself too seriously, and surround them with words that nobody ever uses in real life, like zeitgeist and postmodern.

Yet I refuse to do that because spoiling jokes is never the right move, so you’re just going to have to take my word for it here. I had to pause this show a handful of times because I was laughing so hard, and it wasn’t just the juvenile jokes that did the trick. There are tons of funny subtleties throughout American Vandal, from the tone and cadence in which routine lines are delivered to to the way that certain scenes are shot. So even if you fancy yourself a postmodern humorist who ascribes to a more erudite paradigm than the gauche zeitgeist of our fractured cultural landscape (or whatever the hell any of those words mean), chances are that you’ll still find plenty of humor in this series.

And the plot is surprisingly captivating. The trailer was so well done that I initially thought American Vandal was just a two-minute comedy sketch and not a real, fully produced show. Apparently, this thought was shared by so many others that the series’s star found it necessary to repeatedly tell the public otherwise. I just couldn’t fathom how such a simple and stupid premise could be turned into four hours of content without becoming stale. But now I grasp that the key is American Vandal’s dedication to taking the story very, very seriously. By the fourth episode, I was all in on figuring out who had spray-painted the dicks on the cars. And I don’t mean that I cared in an ironic way; I was genuinely so invested in the elaborate web of evidence being presented that I’m not joking when I say that I’d love American Vandal even if all of the comedy were removed.

This is the genius of the series, and why I think it’s the best dick joke ever told. There is an endless barrage of funny moments in each episode, but weirdly, the serious parts of the show are the funniest. There were a handful of instances when I realized that I hadn’t laughed for a few minutes because I was so focused on cracking the case. I was analyzing every tiny detail as if I were watching the Zapruder film, talking myself into certain characters’ culpability or innocence. And then I’d remember that all of my theorizing revolved around a high school kid spray-painting massive dongs on a bunch of teachers’ cars, and suddenly I’d laugh my ass off.

Finally, there are the technical aspects of the show, which blew me away. This is an obvious parody of the recent explosion of true-crime shows like Making A Murderer and the Serial podcast. Unlike prior parodies such as the one on Saturday Night Live, though, there is nothing absurd about American Vandal other than the spray-painted dicks. Sure, spray-painted dicks are absurd. I don’t mean to undersell that. But every other aspect of this series mimics real true-crimes shows note for note. It has the timeline reenactments with accompanying graphics, the gratuitous shots of note cards being pinned into a corkboard, and the grainy deposition footage. There are cliffhangers at the ends of episodes, about a million “Holy shit— this is huge!” moments, and the overarching theme that it’s totally worth ruining people’s lives if it means uncovering THE TRUTH in the process. Best of all, the show is about 15 percent longer than it needs to be because the characters investigating the case insert themselves into the story, disregard what they initially set out to do, and turn the making of their documentary into their focal point instead of the incident that their documentary is supposed to explore. This is a nuance that gets funnier and funnier every time I think about it.

I should also mention that American Vandal is the most realistic portrayal of high school that I’ve ever seen in a fictional series. Every character not only feels believable; each reminded me of a specific student or teacher I went to school with. It would have been easy to exaggerate the identities of the characters by making the jock a dumb meathead, the nerd a scrawny virgin, and the class president an ass-kissing teacher’s pet. Instead, the characters are all immature high schoolers who want to be cool in their own ways, who brag about dumb stuff like drinking and their sexual conquests, and who consider “going viral” to be getting a couple hundred followers on social media. Speaking of which, American Vandal does an amazing job of incorporating social media into the plot, most notably when Snapchat videos from a party provide various angles of a piece of evidence. It’s so realistic that your grandma could watch the entire series without ever realizing it’s satire.

I know that there’s a lot of hilarious new content to be watched, including the new season of BoJack Horseman, the new season of South Park, and the new season of Indianapolis Colts football. But I implore you to make time for American Vandal, if for no other reason than we as a society should applaud great dick jokes when we see them. After all, there’s a reason why every guy in the world has stood in front of a mirror and whipped his dong around like a helicopter blade at least once in his life (right, guys???), and why someone uploaded a video in which he flicks a monkey’s penis so that his zero YouTube subscribers could watch it. That’s because, despite what Mrs. Rothacker believes, dicks are funny. And American Vandal does dicks like they’ve never been done before.

The way everything comes together is creative, fascinating, and even a little emotional. And when I say that American Vandal should win some sort of Emmy, I don’t mean it sarcastically. I give this a rating of 27 out of 27 dicks, and I seriously think that it should be considered one of the best pieces of original programming Netflix has ever done, even though it will probably just be thought of as “that penis show.” Mrs. Rothacker doesn’t understand what’s so amusing about penises, but that’s only because Mrs. Rothacker has yet to see American Vandal.