Netflix’s latest hit series, American Vandal, is basically a thoughtfully presented four-hour joke about the male member. So, naturally, it came from a Philly guy.
“I do think [they are] just funny,” cocreator and director Tony Yacenda, 29, of Exton, says. “That’s the base level.”
A parody of true-crime series like Making a Murderer, American Vandal is the latest project from Yacenda and collaborator Dan Perrault. Previously, the duo focused on sports mockumentary projects, like 30 for 30: Space Jam and 30 for 30: Rocky IV for College Humor, but now the two have turned their attention to something a little more juvenile but no less hilarious.
Released last month, American Vandal centers on what Yacenda calls a “medium-stakes” crime at the fictional Hanover High School in Oceanside, Calif. The crime: spray-painting phalluses on 27 cars in the faculty parking lot.
Caught in the middle is student Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), a stoned ne’er-do-well who everyone thinks is the derelict artist, aside from student journalist Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez). Using evidence like discrepancies in the scrotal hairs, Maldonado sets out to find who the true culprit is. Ultimately, though, we get a deeper look at Dylan’s story, and a unique commentary on both the justice system and the high school experience.
“The satire works because it’s not a murder, and the goal is to get you to really care about the crime even though it’s essentially an elaborate … joke,” Yacenda says. “If you can get an audience to care about [graffiti of male genitalia], I think that is a satire worth making.”
For a show in which the entire basis is a juvenile joke, it’s been received exceedingly well by critics and has a 96 percent rating on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.
Yacenda and Perrault drew on their love of true-crime shows, as well as high school-centered series like Freaks and Geeks. Yacenda’s time at Downingtown High School East also provided inspiration, although not when it came to the crime in question. Rather than protagonist Dylan, Yacenda says, he sees himself in Maldonado. He was an “AV nerd” like Peter, working on the video yearbook and recording school plays.
The pair also hoped to show the “melting pot” aspect of modern high schools. Old factions — like jocks vs. geeks — are teen-movie tropes that have mostly gone by the wayside in real life. After speaking to today’s high school students, Yacenda found that social groups are even more mixed, which he wanted to show in American Vandal for authenticity’s sake.
“We didn’t think we were that old, or that far out of high school, so we thought we could draw from it,” Yacenda says. “But it was a little sobering talking to kids who are 17 or 18. That version of high school isn’t often told.”
Although they initially conceived American Vandal as a web series consisting of 10-minute episodes, Yacenda and Perrault decided to recalibrate to pitch it to Netflix. The streaming behemoth ordered a season of the series, and Yacenda said Netflix “never pushed back on the juvenile humor at the core of the whole thing” after pitch meetings, in which Yacenda and Perrault presented their story like a real documentary. “It was just presenting it to them the same way we would have presented Making a Murderer,” Yacenda says.
Despite the phallic humor, the joke never overshadows the structure of the mystery. For Yacenda, that is by design, with the show’s writing process being “mystery first” to hook viewers who might not find crudely drawn penises all that funny.
“There are people, particularly older audiences, who watch the show and think it is so stupid and they don’t know why they’re watching it, but by episode three they have to know,” Yacenda says.
Whether Yacenda and Perrault will get to make another season of American Vandal has not been decided. “We hope we get the opportunity to do it,” Yacenda says. “There are still so many tropes of true-crime documentaries and so many other high school stories that we haven’t told. We’re pretty confident we can make a second season much stronger than the first.” He won’t reveal whether a second season would continue Dylan’s story.
Regardless, fans can still look forward to some phallic humor from Yacenda. A frequent collaborator of the Cheltenham-born parody rapper Lil Dicky, Yacenda has directed several music videos for the emcee, including the hit “Save Dat Money” in 2015. Last week, Yacenda wrapped another video for the rapper, though he couldn’t say what song the video was for. Fans, however, can look out for the video soon.
“It’s going to be epic,” Yacenda says. “The new stuff is even better.”