The Total Package

American Vandal creators Tony Yacenda & Dan Perrault pay homage to true crime and the dick joke.



Interview voiceovers. Witness testimonies and alibis. Character defamation, reenactments, cover-ups, and conspiracies.

And, of course, a crime.

The elements are all there: the perfect formula for a binge-worthy docuseries à la The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, or Making a Murderer, or the Serial podcast. All that’s missing: sexual assault, murder, blood planted in cars, identity theft, dismembered bodies thrown into the bay…and a violent crime.

There is only a single mystery to solve: Who drew the dicks?

At first glance, American Vandal seems like a tough docuseries chronicling crime in a high school—and the trailer takes itself as seriously, complete with red splatter, though with Vandal it’s not blood but paint. The crime in the Writers Guild Award- and Critics Choice Award-nominated satire is vandalism rather than violence—penises spray-painted on teachers’ cars in a high school parking lot—with one hapless class clown, Dylan Maxwell, at the center of suspicion.

Season 1 of the Netflix show is a love letter to the true crime genre. Sometimes crushing, and even surprisingly heartwarming, Vandal is completely faithful to the genre and respectfully uses the tools of all good true crime docs to tell a ridiculous, hilarious story. For creators Tony Yacenda & Dan Perrault, finding authenticity within the mystery of “who drew the dicks” was essential to the show’s tone. More of an homage to the genre than a parody, the show balances dry humor with the very real intrigue of a whodunit. The thirty-something co-writers, both from the East Coast and friends since their college days at Emerson in Boston, took time out from their Season 2 production schedule to speak with Written By about the show’s popularity, its built-in intrigue, and what comes next.

Tony Yacenda, Tyler Alvaraz, Dan Perrault, and Griffin Gluck at the premiere of <i>American Vandal</i>.

How did you guys first meet, and what drew you to the true crime documentary genre?

Dan Perrault: Tony and I go back a while. We met at Emerson College and had a few common friends, so we knew each other through socializing. But there was this short film competition in college, and we decided to collaborate together. We did that for three years straight, and then moved out to L.A. at about the same time and started doing sketch videos. We developed a tone where the laughs weren’t coming from an overtly silly place. It was a real commitment to whatever genre we were parodying. In the past, we had done a lot of genre parody and mockumentary, so we were always on the lookout for new tropes and new sub-genres, especially with documentary.

The humor comes primarily from the crime itself: dicks on cars, and the alleged offender, a class clown with a good heart who feels misunderstood. Whose idea was the high school dick joke as a framework for a true crime docuseries?

Dan Perrault: Dicks was specifically Tony’s idea. We saw [true crime] becoming a big trend, and we were lucky enough to have three very big and well-done, award-winning true crime documentaries to serve as inspiration: the Serial podcast, HBO’s The Jinx, and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. It became clear this genre was not only something we liked, but something that would resonate with other people.

Tony Yacenda: I’ve always been fascinated by injustice. To Dan’s point, it was Making a Murderer coming out, and it being the third docuseries in a very short period of time that took over the water cooler conversations in America, that I realized I’m not alone in being fascinated by injustice.

We also knew American Vandal would function much better as binge-able television. We never had any delusions that it would be Game of Thrones with a get-together every weekend to watch the next episode. We felt that, like with Making a Murderer, you could be like, “Yeah man, I just lost a day figuring out who drew the dicks.”

Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda celebrate <i>American Vandal</i>’s critical success.

Season 1 becomes so intricate as the mystery unravels. Nobody is ultimately who you thought they were in the beginning, and you begin to question everything you’re hearing. No witness is exempt from suspicion. The characters talk, think, and act like real teenagers. But you also allowed the actors to improvise sometimes. How did you balance improv with script? What was the writing process like?

Tony Yacenda: We did it kind of backwards, all the facts of the case and the players. We fleshed out the world before we had any real discussion of what’s happening in what episode or where the turning points would happen. When it comes down to episodes, you figure out the setup first, but then you’re writing the last two or three episodes before you get into the first episode because you want to see where everything shakes out. You just have to figure out all the facts first, and then you approach it like a documentary. So, the mapping is hugely important. We didn’t get into actual episode writing until pretty late in the process.

Dan Perrault: We didn’t want to create a jokey parody, and we knew we’d need a writers’ room full of diverse skillsets to make something more complex. We tried to bring in writers from a variety of backgrounds. Some had multi-cam comedy experience, another primarily wrote comedy features. But others specialized in dramas and procedurals and one writer had experience producing documentary shorts.

But the first thing we ever shot was improvised. I had Tyler [Alvarez], who plays Peter Maldonado, one of the students investigating the crime and making a documentary of his own, write some of his questions. Alvarez was perfect for that because he came in every day with his own questions. He read every script front to back a dozen times over before he came to set.

We also talked to Jimmy Tatro [Dylan Maxwell] about his character for a long time. We allowed Tyler to conduct a half-hour interview [in character], completely unscripted. When you can see the gears turning where there’s an actual teenager asking a question that he actually wrote, it’s not going to be as polished as a room of 30-year-olds trying to seem like a kid. And then you have a real actor searching for an answer, like in a real interview. Those moments of authenticity sprinkle into all of the scripted stuff to keep the audience on their toes. You blur the line between what’s written and what’s not and just build on that.


While the show is certainly a comedy, as a viewer you really do become wrapped up in the mystery and want to know what happens next. How did you guys work to strike such a sincere tone while also keeping in the humor?

Tony Yacenda: We always knew the funniest version of the show was the one where the engine wasn’t waiting for the jokes. We wanted to make sure there wasn’t a punch line on every page that led us into the next scene. All those conventional comedy rules were thrown out. As soon as the audience is watching and waiting for the next joke, you can’t ask them to pay attention during a sequence where they’re breaking down the Way Back Boys’ prank call records or something stupid like that. We wanted them to really be looking at the ball hair discrepancy, like case data, and get them to forget they’re watching a comedy. We had a lot of rules, and we threw away a lot of jokes, both in the writers’ room and ultimately in the edit.

Dan Perrault: The comedy of the show, whether we’re talking about ball hairs or handjobs, or the amount of beer someone drank at a party, all comes from a place of taking stupid things very seriously. And in high school we tend to treat a lot of little things like they’re extremely important. So comedically, high school was a good fit. It’s also a place where people are often unfairly labeled. It allowed us to draw comparisons to the justice system.

I don’t think people came to this off the trailer expecting anything more than some goofy dick jokes and sheer parody. So that actually helped us because the front half of the season is more comedic than the back half, and we’re laughing at Dylan along the way, but then we think about it in the same way the school eventually had to think about it. We’ve unfairly labeled him ourselves, and we’ve been laughing at him. You surprisingly empathize with him at the end, and you especially aren’t expecting it coming into this thinking it would be a simple, stupid dick joke.

“We knew it would function much better as binge-able television. We never had any delusions that it would be Game of Thrones with a get-together every weekend to watch the next episode of American Vandal. We felt that, like with Making a Murderer, you could be like, ‘Yeah man, I just lost a day figuring out who drew the dicks.’” — Tony Yacenda


What has the reaction to Season 1 been like, and has it at all influenced how you guys approached Season 2?

Tony Yacenda: We never knew how people were going to respond to Season 1. We knew we were doing something really different and we had an approach and a set of rules that had never been used in a comedy space before. We were always excited about it, but we didn’t know if people would laugh. It’s been hugely exciting to see how many people have watched it and how many people have their own theories and have talked about it. For Season 2, we had our idea, and we were so excited about how much better the second season was going to be before the show even came out. And then when people started really responding to the first season, there’s a part of you that wants to make sure you’re checking all the same boxes. Right now we are just trying to ignore all that noise and go into it the same way we went into Season 1, which is just, “Hey, let’s do something completely different and hope the world also thinks it’s fun.”

How did you guys challenge yourselves to keep the show fresh and original?

Tony Yacenda, Jimmy Tatro, and Tyler Alvarez on the set of <i>American Vandal</i>.

Dan Perrault: Well, we’re lucky. I was just thinking about this the other day, how in the early stages of Season 1, we were slightly concerned and very focused on getting the first season out while the true crime genre was still ahead. And thankfully, the genre didn’t go anywhere—it got bigger as we progressed. We actually have so many more references to work from in the time between when we wrote Season 1 and now. We have a whole bunch of new inspirations and a different toolkit this year inspired by some new docs, and some older ones, that will make Season 2 feel totally different. It will have a very unique vibe and look that separates it from Season 1. And that’s partially thanks to how many great new documentaries have come out since we wrote the first season.

Tony Yacenda: Even with the documentaries that were already out, you had to pick a lane for Season 1. We wanted the first season to feel structurally like Serial and visually like Making a Murderer. This season we can pull more from Errol Morris or some other stuff in The Jinx and really mix it up both visually and creatively.

And from the Season 2 teaser, we can see Peter is back exploring a crime at a different high school.

Tony Yacenda: Yeah, it’s within the same universe where Season 1 happened. And it was somewhat a success for student documentarians/investigators Peter and Sam [Griffin Gluck], so they’ve heard about a bunch of other crimes. Much like what Sarah Koenig did for Season 2 of Serial, where she hears about a bunch of different stories for her to tackle, ours is picking a different place in the country. Peter and Sam go into this completely new world, and they have to figure out this new crime and new potential victims.

As you’re in production now, is there anything you’ve learned on set from Season 1 you’re bringing to Season 2?

Dan Perrault: It’s pretty cool working with a team. Now that we have a template, everybody gets the show so much. They’re emboldened to take bigger risks, and they know the type of jokes they can’t make. They know the goal is to keep it as unflinchingly real as possible so we’ll never be winking at the camera while we create this new world. Now that everybody’s really subscribing to that philosophy, it’s just so cool to see how everything in every department is moving so perfectly. Now on set everyone is really hitting their stride.

Tony Yacenda: This is a fun show to work on. We’ve talked so much about how we approach it philosophically, but I want to make it really clear how collaborative the process is. With documentaries, so much of the story is made in the end. You just have hours and hours of footage, and you’re really figuring out the story in the bay. We approach the writers room and production in a way that will allow us that flexibility to make big decisions in the bay. When you have that flexibility, that’s what makes it feel like a true documentary.

Dan Perrault: Post-production is also a massive part of the process. With the amount of improv, outtakes, and looser runs we have, we just end up with a ton of footage to sort through, much like you would with a real documentary.

Tony Yacenda: Lots of people really bought into our dick joke as something that was more than a dick joke. We’re super grateful they did.