The 2018 Emmy race has begun, and Vulture will take a close look at the contenders until voting closes on June 25.
When Netflix’s true-crime mockumentary series American Vandal debuted in September, it told a wildly funny story about a devastatingly dumb crime: Who vandalized a high school’s faculty parking lot with spray-painted penises? Or, as the students of Hanover High put it: Who did the dicks? At the ATX Television Festival last weekend, I sat down with co-creators Tony Yacenda and Dan Lagana and showrunner Dan Perrault. We talked about the massive response to the series, the art of telling a joke that the audience doesn’t see coming, and how The Jinx and Errol Morris influenced American Vandal season two, which will follow teen documentarians Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) as they investigate a new crime in a Catholic high school.
The first season came out in September. Were you surprised by the response? Did you know it was going to be like this?
Tony Yacenda: We had no idea! We thought it was funny and unique, but you just never know if other people are going to laugh at it.
Dan Lagana: It’s dry enough that it is a question mark. We’re huge true-crime fans, but who knows how many people are as into true crime as us?
TY: You need to like true-crime documentaries, you need to like high-school stories, you need to like mystery, and you need to like dick jokes. We thought that maybe the Venn diagram would be really small.
What sorts of true-crime things are you into now? Have you been watching or listening to more of it?
DP: Errol Morris!
TY: Yeah. Wormwood was so cool, how they executed that.
DP: We’re huge fans of S-Town.
DL: We’re lucky that the genre just keeps going. In the early stages of season one, we worried, “Will this craze finally end?” And it totally hasn’t.
DP: No, it’s exploded!
Wormwood or S-Town or whatever it may be, do you watch and say, “Ohh, I could totally steal that”?
TY: The first step is just getting sucked into the story and loving it for the intended purpose. You’re watching, like, “Did the government really — they did all of this stuff!” And you forget. And then you circle back and go, “Okay, what did they do to make this turning point so compelling?”
What kind of detail piques your curiosity?
DL: One thing I do with a lot of true-crime documentaries is think, What is the high school version of this? When it comes to court documents or signed confessions or paper trails, the high-school version will be social media, what kids post on their Snaps and Instagram. We always think, What’s the medium-stakes crime? What’s the less mature, amateur version of this? Oftentimes, that’s how we come up with our best bits.
Are there major tropes that you really want to do?
DP: It’s so funny because you haven’t seen the second season, but it’s a completely different genre.
Can you tell me about it?
DP: We can tell you it’s a different crime in a different school.
DY: And we’re drawing from different true-crime documentaries. The first [season] was Serial structurally, and visually it was closest to Making a Murderer. This year, we’re not abandoning those references completely, but we want to create a new aesthetic.
So you can’t tell me what the crime is?
DP: No, but we can tell you it was important to us to evolve between seasons.
Can you give me list of influences we should keep in mind?
DP: In terms of real documentaries? We love The Jinx.
TY: The Jinx is a good one.
DP: What was the Israeli one we were talking about?
TY: Shadow of Truth!
DP: Yeah, we love Shadow of Truth.
TY: Errol Morris stuff. Thin Blue Line was really what got us into the genre. There were tropes we used in season one — like, I love the tape recorder, that really stuck to me — but there’s more of an Errol Morris feeling in season two.
I wonder if we could get Errol Morris to watch it? He loved Nathan for You.
TY: Oh, we love Nathan for You. It’s the shit.
TP: It’s really funny.
Are there any recurring characters in season two?
TY: Peter and Sam are the documentarians who made season one. They go to another high school, a private Catholic high school.
Do they switch schools or are they just investigating something?
DP: It’s part of a senior project.
TY: It exists in the same world, but it’s a different story.
Why does it need to be a whole different school?
DL: One of the questions we get most often is, “Is Jimmy [Tatro] back? Is Dylan back?” We want each season to be its own crime, and we thought that even a cameo would just distract from the new case too much, so we wanted to really get ourselves deep into a new world without tying ourselves to callbacks that would distract from the main story.
TY: Season one functions because you’re not watching it for the laugh, you’re watching it because you really care about who drew the dicks. In every season, that should be the engine — you should really care about this mystery. If we’re relying on, “Hey, remember your favorite characters?” then it’s a disservice to it, because you’re not caring about this huge mystery.
DP: We’re winking at the audience, but in a different way. It’s “Don’t you love documentaries as much as we do?” not “Don’t you love our season and our show?”
In an interview you did last fall, you said that if people recognize the actors, then they’re looking for the joke. And the more you’re waiting for the joke, the less funny the joke is.
DP: You wouldn’t believe how many jokes we cut. Because if the rhythm feels jokey, then it’s not functioning.
How do you make a joke that someone doesn’t see coming?
DP: Oh, we can speak to that at length.
DL: I feel like mockumentary, specifically, we’ve become accustomed to certain rhythms. Each talking head will tend to be a new piece of information, they’ll have a comedic pause, and then the character says something ridiculous and you’re out.
TY: Every scene has a button that leads you into the next scene, so we try not to end scenes too often with a punch line.
DL: We also added scenes that just wouldn’t go in a network mockumentary. Like the scene with Dylan’s mother very earnestly talking about how she believes her son is innocent. She gets emotional about it. That happens after you’ve just seen a bunch of dick jokes, and the intention is for the audience to say, “Oh wait, what am I watching here? I guess this just isn’t a dick-joke parody.” We knew we needed a scene like that early on.
DY: Because it makes everything else funnier! Now there’s real stakes to it, so we can withhold some of the punch lines and rely on the mystery to bring the audience in. And then we can blindside them with the humor.
You use delayed jokes and big emotional moments, and you avoid big-name actors. What are the other tools?
TY: Another thing that happens in mockumentaries, they shoot it hand-held with pot zooms and stuff, and often the reaction shot is the perfect zoom at the perfect time. We would not tell our camera people what the blocking was going to be, and we would do improvisation first. We would try to create those moments in the edit, but the photography was never perfect. That just has more of a documentary aesthetic than a mockumentary aesthetic.
Are you looking at shows that aren’t true-crime documentaries? What are the influential high-school stories?
DL: I always liked Freaks and Geeks.
DP: Yeah, Freaks and Geeks!
DL: I thought that was a very honest depiction of high school.
TY: We watched that one a lot. But the biggest reference we had tonally was Election. That movie really is a satire of high school and politics. You really cared about that student body election, and we wanted to have the same sort of medium stakes. That’s what we wanted to do.
Are there different reference points for a private Catholic school? Did you go to private high schools?
DL: I did one year.
DP: We hired a bunch of writers that did. We’re always picking people’s brains.
TY: We watched Lady Bird! But [season two] is not full Rushmore. We didn’t want it to be like Dead Poets Society. Because when we talked to kids who did go to these wealthy private high schools, they understood season one perfectly. It’s still a show about the kids you went to high school with.
Are the stakes different at a private school?
DP: For the second season, it’s very crime-dependent. But it’s a time in your life when the stakes are high every day! “What’s the rest of your life going to be?” It doesn’t matter if you’re born on third base, you’re asking yourself that same question, you know?
Season one felt like an indictment of the true-crime genre, as well as a great replication of it. What do you think about the idea that true crime can be exploitative?
TY: We want to explore the audience’s attraction to true crime. We still touch on the journalistic side, but I think the stuff that fascinates us is like, “The judge and the police couldn’t figure this out, but I can look at Steven Avery [from Making a Murderer] and decide whether or not he’s a sociopath or an innocent person.” Like, “All right, Sarah Koenig [from Serial], let’s figure this out together.” There’s this hubris that we all have, that we’re better judges of character than the system. Injustice is something that fascinates all of us, so that hubris is something that I think we will keep getting with every season.
DP: The genre manipulates you so masterfully. If we can replicate that, it feels like a magic trick.
TY: Yeah, it gets you to care about these high-school stories.
How do you guys manage the balance of silly and serious?
DP: We like delusional people. We gravitate toward characters that aren’t necessarily self-aware.
TY: We try to have these fundamental puzzle pieces that are going to be really funny. Making a Murderer with dicks — okay, that’s funny. Instead of Steven Avery, it’s a dumb SoCal stoner. And then, once you have this list of a dozen circumstances that we find very funny, then it’s about real, earnest execution.
DP: And the crime is funny, too. The foundation is funny.
TY: Exactly. Once we have the fundamentals, like, my conversations with the cinematographer are overwhelmingly serious. And in the writers room, it’s a lot of logically putting the mystery together.
DP: The first two weeks are just mystery. It’s silly, we laugh, but we’re mystery first.
DL: Once you have enough good, solid dramatic emotional stuff, it’s very fun to play with the audience’s expectations. The top of the season is probably more comedic than the back half. I think that surprised people. You see this kid who’s doing baby farting and moronic videos, and then at the end, hopefully if we did our job, you’re empathizing with him. It lands more effectively because we’ve laughed the whole way through leading up to that.
TY: You look at David Brent in The Office, you’re laughing at him and then your heart breaks for him in a way you didn’t expect. On the flip side of that, Tony Soprano is somebody that you develop this weird empathy with. Drama is what’s carrying it, but because you’re watching it for the drama, he can be hilarious. That show has, to me, the funniest moments of any TV show.
DP: Or Breaking Bad!
What did you learn in the first season that changed for season two?
DP: The season is structured completely differently. It’s less linear.
TY: Yeah. It was kind of tough because in the writers room, everybody knows what the show is. But then you’re like, “We’re throwing out the rules!”
DP: We also lean significantly less on voice-over. More of the talking heads tell the story.
How does a talking head manipulate the audience differently?
TY: Season one is really structured like Serial. You know all of the context right away, and it’s like, “Okay, now we’re analyzing it.” We’re using different structural storytelling tricks in season two to engage an audience, the way I was engaged during The Jinx.
DL: There’s probably triple the amount of talking-heads screen time in season two, and it gives you a better sense of the world.
What stage of production are you in?
DP: We’re in post-production!
Are you thinking that it’s going to be —
DP: [Laughs] “Are people going to be disappointed?” No, no!
But making a second season is hard, right?
DP: [Laughs again] Yeah, oh my God! There are a lot of shows where season two is not as good as the first season, and that’s not what you want!
TY: We’ve tried not to think about it too much. After the first season, we thought it was funny, we thought it was unique, and we just hoped the world would respond. And I think we like [season two] more. It’s super different.
TY: “Am I going to like it?” We don’t know!
DP: We didn’t know about the first season!
TY: But we really love it. I’m very proud.
This interview has been edited and condensed.