The Certified Fresh Interview: American Vandal Crushes It, Gets Season 2 Renewal — Creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda Tell Us How

How two young filmmakers transformed one long dick joke into a hit Netflix series.

by | October 26, 2017 | Comments

American Vandal (Netflix)

American Vandal stormed the streaming world on September 15, bringing with it more dick jokes than have probably ever appeared in one television show in the history of dick jokes. And Netflix today announced that it has renewed the series for a second season of eight episodes to run in 2018.

From creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, the show parodies the recent spate of true-crime documentary series like the streaming giant’s own Making a Murderer or the hit Serial podcast from the creators of This American Life.

It tells the story of a pair of high school students who make a documentary about a fellow student wrongly accused of spray painting giant pink penises on vehicles in the faculty parking lot. Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) take their mission very seriously, but aren’t always certain if they can believe Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), who has a reputation as a prankster. Their investigation uncovers more suspects, gets one teacher fired, and exposes some very naughty student behavior.

The series quickly became a hit and was Certified Fresh with a 96% Tomatometer score.

Perrault and Yacenda visited Rotten Tomatoes to accept their Certified Fresh trophies and to talk about how the whole series came together. The affable duo started the interview without us.

Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda, creators of Netflix series "American Vandal" stop by Rotten Tomatoes offices (Debbie Day)

Dan Perrault: The Rotten Tomatoes Certified Fresh award was one of the main goals.

Tony Yacenda: That’s why we got into it.

Perrault: That’s why we got into this business: Was the Certified Fresh trophy. Which is a very nice trophy. It’s actually exceeded my expectations.

Yacenda: It’s pretty cool.

Debbie Day for Rotten Tomatoes: It does a little slip-slide thing. It comes apart, but it’s not broken.

Yacenda: It’s like a magnet.

Perrault: Oh, it’s magnetized. Oh, cool.

RT: I don’t know the purpose of that — I guess so that you could mount it on the wall?

Yacenda: Yeah. Like this, or something. [Holds his split trophy aloft.]

Perrault: Yeah. Something like that.

Yacenda: I’m into it.

Perrault: I like it a lot.

RT: Glad to hear it! So I was thinking we could just start at the beginning: How did you guys get together for the show?

Perrault: Well Tony, and I have been working together for I don’t know probably about eight years at this point.

Yacenda: Should we say nine now? I think it’s been nine.

Perrault: Nine. I mean it really depends on —

Yacenda: You’ve been saying eight years for like three years.

Perrault: Well then maybe we should say 11 then. Anyways, we met in college and did a short together, and we’ve worked pretty consistently together since then. With this show, I was watching Making a Murderer one day, and — I always enjoyed true crime. I was never quite the super-fan that Tony was before me — but I was watching Making a Murderer, and I realized that this had become a huge trend considering that The Jinx and Serial had come out just within a year of that. I asked him, “What do you think about this? Do you think we should do something?” Within a day we had a loose concept that took place in high school, and it moved very quickly from there. Got anything else on that?

Yacenda: Yeah. The first idea was like a really low-stakes, short, sort of sketch version, and then we started getting excited about making it a real medium-stakes crime that felt like they were high stakes to people in the high school, and used the true-crime format to tell the story about a high school.

RT: How did you get hooked up with Funny or Die, Netflix, and all that? How did that go down?

Yacenda: Because we felt it was more realistic for us to make this digitally, we wanted a production services company that could do both, that could do something for Verizon go90, or YouTube Red, and also did TV stuff. Funny or Die made the most sense in that arena. We just happened to be really lucky that the people at Funny or Die, Joe Farrell, and Joe Hardesty happen to be so smart and really helped us shape the creative and make the show as good as it is. We’re very happy with Funny or Die.

Perrault: As Tony said, in the early stages of this, we thought it was a 10-minute webisode sort of thing, and Funny or Die was really the people who pushed us. They were the people who pushed us the most to make this a half hour.

Yacenda: I don’t know if we were pushed. I think for me, I always felt like the best version was the half-an-hour version, then it could feel like a real documentary. It’s not like we wanted to make the 10-minute version. It was just that, given where we were career-wise, it was the most logical. The full long-form Netflix tier of stuff is just kind of unattainable at that point.

The half-hour version always really excited us, but — realistically given the type of stuff we were doing that we were in the digital space — it made more sense for us to do something like that. So we were so excited to be able to do the real thing. It’s a much better version. It doesn’t feel like a sketch comedy as much as it feels a bit true high school, and mystery.

RT: Had you worked on longer-form productions before?

Perrault: Not really. Not to this extent. We had done a lot of mockumentary and parody before. That was our most relevant piece of experience that was a part of our pitch. When we were pitching this to Netflix, a big part of it was our experience doing mockumentaries, one of which was a series of sports mockumentaries we did. We did parody 30 for 30s that treated Rocky IV and Space Jam and Angels in the Outfield like they really happened. That was one of our bigger selling points when it came to our experience: We’d never done long form on this level before, but the fact that we knew parodies so well, and mockumentary, helped us get this sold.

Yacenda: We got to give a lot of props to Netflix for just taking a flier on guys like us. It was a risky move, and I’m so happy they did it.

RT: I think everybody’s happy they did it. I was thinking on the way over here, OK, what would our audience really want to know about these guys? And I thought, I bet there are a ton of film students out there who want to know how you put this all together.

Perrault: Well the pitch itself. It was a pretty bold, risky pitch where Tony came from a very director perspective, and I essentially acted as Peter, and treated the Netflix execs like our subjects. I had sheets of ball hairs, and all this forensic evidence. Materials about hand jobs. I essentially really wasn’t me in that pitch. I was treating this as seriously as a murder, and that, we hoped, would establish the tone. I think it was a weird pitch, but I think it was bold enough that they thought it was worth taking a flier on us.

Yacenda: One piece of advice I’ve given to people who ask about pitching — and this is coming from somebody who doesn’t have a whole lot of experience, so take it with a grain of salt — but I think people must hear so much stuff. There’s so much content being produced that if you could go in, and make them — If you’re pitching a comedy, if you can make them laugh, the same laughs they’ll be laughing watching the show, make it the most entertaining pitch possible, as opposed to talking just philosophically about the idea, or talking circles around what you’re trying to accomplish. Just make it fun. That’s what I say to people.

Perrault: Yeah, I agree with that.

Yacenda: If you’re pitching a horror movie try to make them scared in the way that they’ll be scared watching the film picture. Do something different.

Perrault: Do something different.

Yacenda: Do something they haven’t seen before in a pitch.

Perrault: And on that note, when we first pitched Netflix — we pitched them twice really: We had a 15-minute pitch, and then we had a more extensive pitch that detailed most of the episodes of the first season. The first time we went into pitch, there were people spilling out the door from pitch meetings, and we just thought, Oh, geez. We have no shot. It felt like being at the deli, and we were taking a little ticket, and it would take hours to even get to our pitch, and when we did it, we were in just the smallest room, so we kind of came in with like — we felt like we had very little to lose just because of the sheer amount of people pitching content there. It was even more encouragement for us to just kind of have fun with it, and pitch this in a way that entertained us.

Yacenda: I don’t know the number, but it was something like 400 a week, or something crazy like pitches they hear.

Perrault: Yeah.

Yacenda: Isn’t that insane?

RT: That’s crazy.

Perrault: There were people spilling into the hallways, like literally a line out the door of people pitching to Netflix at the time.

Yacenda: And they’re producing so much too.

RT: How do you get into the line? Agents or —

Perrault: Yeah, agents.

Yacenda: Yeah. I mean at that point, Funny or Die was with us, CBS was with us, 3 Arts was with us — all of these people that liked our original idea.

RT: So the other people in line didn’t necessarily have all of that backup?

Yacenda: We walked in kind of like, All right we got a real, kind of a ridiculous entourage, but we saw a handful of other entourages too, just like our doppelgangers with just a hoard of — like two creatives, and a bunch of people in suits just like us. We’re like, Welp… The stuff that’s happening in that place is pretty insane.

RT: Yeah, tell me about it — I’m trying to keep up with it all. When they dropped your show, I was like, Where’s this coming from? What just happened? Suddenly here’s a new show. It’s like they added something new to the menu.

Yacenda: The thing with the show, especially a show like ours, it was a big risk to take a flier on two guys who have never done long-form content, but their model is also: If ours didn’t take off, they have so much good content that maybe ours finds a small cult audience, and it’s not a big hit. It’s just like one season for people who like our brand of dick joke, but it’s not huge. They don’t care what you’re watching as long as you can have the material that you want, and you can keep watching. It’s really optimized to everybody’s individual experience of what they might want.

RT: When you started out with production in season 1, was the end of the season written? And if not, is it because they suddenly said, “Write this in such a way that you’ll have a season 2”?

Yacenda: We always wanted to make sure it was Dylan’s story. We always wanted it to have a very satisfying ending that it could live on its own as a single sort of eight-episode documentary, like all of these are. Making a Murderer, I guess they are doing a second season, but The Jinx or The Staircase, they all leave you feeling satisfied with that eight-episode adventure you just went on.

Perrault: Originally we did have a season 2 idea that continued the dicks story line.

Yacenda: I think we had sort of both versions, but we wanted to settle on something that felt really satisfying. What we want to do with season 2 is a new crime that Peter and Sam are investigating. They are documentarians who, based off of the success of their first documentary, have received a bunch of emails from people with different crimes, and they’re going to pick the most compelling eight-episode crime to tackle for season 2.

It’s like Serial. Aren’t they doing more American Crime Story? They did O.J. season 1 — aren’t they doing another one?

RT: So it’s like an anthology series.

Perrault: Yeah, it’s an anthology series. It’s an anthology series, but Peter and Sam will always be the ones guiding us through each season.

Yacenda: Yeah, it’s very much the same universe. Like Sarah Koenig, the success of Serial season 1 gave her more access, and kind of was a sub-plot of season 2 when she was into Bowe Bergdahl.

Perrault: I think I can say this: The fact that Netflix has purchased this documentary, the fact that Netflix has bought this documentary from Peter, is a factor by season 2. He’s a higher profile documentarian at this point. He probably has better access to relevant sources, and he’s just a more accomplished and recognizable person. That plays into his pursuit of the truth in season 2. Is that OK?

Yacenda: Yeah. I think that was good. Well said.

American Vandal season 1 is now streaming on Netflix. 

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