“A Comedic Core Executed As A True Crime Documentary.” Writers Dan Perroult & Tony Yacenda On ‘American Vandal’
American Vandal is a distinctive blend of a whodunnit TV show and infantile humor. It’s currently streaming on Netflix to rave reviews and audience buzz. Creative Screenwriting Magazine visited Dan Perroult and Tony Yacenda, the creators of the hit TV show, to discuss their love of true crime, documentaries, and vandalism.
It all began in 2016. Dan and Tony were making short films and documentaries. They were looking for their next project. Finally, they hatched the idea for American Vandal with the aim of “taking on tropes of documentaries and crime mysteries and combining them with elements of comedy spoof shows like 30 Rock and Space Jam.” Not the most likely of marriages, but the duo made it work.
By rolling these elements into the true crime genre, American Vandal was born. Making Of A Murderer and The Jinx had just been released, so the TV landscape was already set for another crime TV show. The conceit of American Vandal was whether the crime was true or not.
Inspiration for American Vandal
When questioned about the inspiration of American Vandal, the TV show creators declared “we wanted to make a TV show set in a high school and what it meant to be an adolescent in the age of social media.” First and foremost, they made sure not to create a parody of other documentaries (mockumentary,) but rather a believable crime story. As such, they kept their show on a tight comedic leash.
Dan and Tony ensured American Vandal didn’t fall off the rails into laugh out loud spoof comedy. “Every joke related to the investigation and had to be in service of the crime Peter and Stan wanted to get to the bottom of,” confirmed Dan. “At times we cut out jokes we felt they wouldn’t exist outside a documentary,” he added.
Everything had to pertain to the central theme of upholding justice. The entire premise of Season 1 of American Vandal was to solve the mystery of who drew the penises on cars around the school. Queue immature giggles. After that it was down the line, straight up, true to life, crime-solving mystery. “Our approach became very serious. The writers’ room ran more like a mystery TV show than a comedy one,” asserted Dan. “There was very little joke pitching in the room. American Vandal is a comedic concept at its core, but it’s executed like a documentary.”
Tony maintains that the initial concept of immature acts of vandalism is global in its form. “Everyone can relate to the idiocy and immaturity of drawing penises on school property.” Dan joked. “Then we gave the idea a certain amount of space to develop. There are high school documentarians who consider this [vandalism] the most heinous crime that could ever happen at their high school.” Getting expelled from school is tantamount to capital punishment, as was experienced by Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro,)
Pitching American Vandal
According to Dan “there is a general template for pitching TV shows.“
“First you pitch the overall documentary idea, a more fleshed out concept, the main characters, the pilot episode and the arc for Season and 1 and 2.” After all, how else do you know if your TV show has legs? Dan and Tony disregarded this generic advice and took on the roles of Chief Investigators during their pitch.
Tony initially pitched the show to Netflix as a true crime format in the vein of existing shows like Making Of A Murderer. Then Dan would pitch the actual “crimes” that needed to be solved. The executives were stunned. As the pitch session continued, Dan “presented the exhibits of the case such as testicle hairs and mushrooms as if it was a mass murder investigation.“
In order to maintain the crime authenticity of the show, Dan and Tony consulted legal advisors who specialize in school expulsion. During Season 2, they also consulted a criminal psychologist and a forensic expert for the show. No story aspect was left to chance. “We conducted real interviews with real experts to keep the audience on their toes… to bridge the gap between what’s real and what’s not,” added Tony.
Dan and Tony clearly didn’t get expelled from the offices of Netflix’s executives with their unique approach to pitching.
Inside The Writers’ Room
The American Vandal writers’ room comprises nine people, none of which have a comedy background. Dan and Tony took care to diversify their writing staff by hiring TV writers based on drama and mystery spec scripts. “We wanted to have these essential skills sets in the room because the biggest thing the writers need is to crack a mystery.” This philosophy trickled down to their production staff such as cinematographers and editors who worked on documentaries and crime dramas.
When asked about the tone of the show, Dan and Tony define it as “documentary.” Just the cold, hard facts. They would only define the show in those terms in the writers’ room; never as a mockumentary. They ignored the comedic aspects most of the time. “We fully committed to the documentary aesthetic to pull the audience into our dick jokes,” they reiterated.
Tony said “the best jokes are earned humor because they best serve the character at large. I’m not a fan of jokes without any further contribution to the story other than making the audience laugh. Jokes must further establish character rather than simply acting as gags.“
Breaking Vandal Stories
“We chart everything out in the writers’ room episode by episode,” said Dan. “We introduce our crime in the beginning and figure out the resolution at the end, before we even consider an outline for a script.” Tony interjected, “the middle of each episode [and the whole season] is the last thing we figure out.” Dan adds “we start at the premise, the crime, then we figure out how they got there.” This is typical practice in breaking stories on regular procedural TV shows.
The writers’ room was a well-oiled machine. All nine TV writers broke stories and outlines together. “It was truly writing by committee.” Tony came up with the series name and the episode titles “were a group activity.“
Developing The Series Arc
Dan and Tony didn’t look at other fictional documentaries in shaping their stories. “There wasn’t a single mystery TV show reference in the writers’ room,” asserts Tony. In terms of referencing other TV procedurals, “they examined the evidence from multiple points of view like other cop shows.”
The show creators always had a clear and defined vision of the show they wanted to produce. They never deviated in terms of tone, structure or content. During the development phase they acknowledged the “documentary bias of Making Of A Murderer, The Jinx, The Staircase. These have a selective presentation of the facts.”
A Deeper Meaning
American Vandal is more than a smart TV show. It mines adolescent themes of injustice and the helplessness. School kids are feeling vulnerable and exposed. Rather than follow the “biased hubris of traditional documentaries,” they became the architects of the solution to the crimes being committed on today’s youth. They believe that high school kids do a better job of solving crimes than a traditional judge and jury.
Then there are the characters. “Dylan is the kid who is teased in every high school. By introducing empathy, the characters become more relatable. You watch Dylan go through a journey of being a dick and empathize with him because he endures the grave injustice of expulsion,” said Tony. “There’s lots of character growth.”
Dan continued “despite how much people misjudged Dylan, they [Dan and Tony] were surprised by how much they empathized with him. They didn’t expect much from him beyond his dick pranks, but were pleasantly surprised.” Subsequently, Dan and Tony could further explore Dylan’s characters in Season 2.
Dan and Tony believe the barriers to filmmaking are coming down. Their advice is simple. “Create your own sshort-formconcept as a “proof of concept” for a TV series. Don’t be afraid to offend, Be bold, Don’t be boring. Be true to yourselves. Be unique and don’t do what others are doing.“
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