How 'American Vandal's Creators Got Away With Making an Entire Season of Poop Jokes
This story contains spoilers for American Vandal Season 2.
The second season of American Vandal can be hard to watch. Unlike the phallic graffiti in the show's first season, the high school crime in question is a particularly grisly one -- even though no one gets murdered. Someone spikes the cafeteria lemonade at St. Bernadine, igniting a literal shitstorm that sends students running for the bathroom, but many don't make it before they poop their uniforms. It's funny, yes, but also sort of tragic in its portrayal of extreme high school embarrassment.
That's the intended effect. Creator Tony Yacenda wanted to create his show's version of gruesome murder photos, a stake-raising homage to the true-crime documentaries that American Vandal parodies.
But just like the mystery of who did the dicks was about more than just penis imagery, the question of who is the turd burglar goes deeper than poop gags. This season, Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) journey to the Pacific Northwest to seek out the culprit in a series of fecal misdeeds at a prestigious Catholic school with a winning sports program and a mostly wealthy student body. They find are two main suspects: weird kid Kevin McClain (Travis Tope), who has an EDM band and sips tea, and basketball star DeMarcus Tillman (Melvin Gregg), gregarious and beloved by all. But this is more than just a tale of excrement, and all the clues build to a conclusion that exposes the loneliness that exists inside most teens.
We got on the phone with executive producer Dan Lagana, plus creators Yacenda and Dan Perrault, to talk about what unfolds. Our opening question was a very simple one.
Thrillist: Why poop?
Tony Yacenda: So here's why poop. Our show is based on a love for true-crime documentaries. We wanted to go even darker in Season 2. And one of the things that you find in some of the dark true-crime documentaries is you'll see these really brutal, tough-to-look-at images of blood spatter in these dark, terrible murders. It gives you this really visceral reaction that drives you through the whole documentary when you look at a brutal murder. And I think the stupidest version of that visceral reaction is poop. Walls and floors covered in poop. It gives you a really dark, visceral reaction.
That first episode is so disgusting. How did you accomplish that?
Yacenda: We would find ourselves while shooting -- these poor kids sitting by their lockers, having pooped their pants -- just realizing what a dark crime it is. Man, this is messed up. Just like you would for a show about a murder. To make it feel real, you have to have real stakes for the characters and not lean into the laughs. So some of those scenes are really horrific, but that sets up the mystery and it compels the audience to really want to know who is the turd burglar. This is a real crime.
What substance were you using in place of actual poop?
Yacenda: There were two types of different poop. One was kind of a clay mixture that was used in the reenactments, because in our world that wasn't actual poop that was special effects poop. And then for the cell phone footage of the brownout and stuff like that, it was a conversation with our production designer where we looked at different types of poop on the Bristol scale, some more runny than others, and we picked kind of a variety. They did a great job of mimicking the look of poop, [and] there are a bunch of nontoxic substances. I'm not sure how they created all of this, I just know it was mimicking three different types of poop on the Bristol scale.
Tony, you mentioned you wanted the crime to be darker, but I also think the season is more serious as it looks at class, race, and the makeup of this school. Can you talk about that?
Yacenda: I think that comes from analyzing two suspects this season who are at the opposite ends of the social hierarchy, and by the end of the season realizing they have a lot of the same insecurities and vulnerabilities. The idea was there's nobody I think in high school who is lauded as more of a king than a blue-chip basketball recruit, like Zion Williamson. St. Bernardine is a LeBron James-esque Catholic school that recruits and kind of tokenizes these people and treats them like kings, but potentially that has to be super isolating. LeBron talked about that in his show, The Shop.
Melvin and I had long conversations about how you can be the man and be the king but at the end of the day you're a 17-year-old kid like anybody else. So to be able to look at who is the turd burglar... we are analyzing whether or not [Kevin]'s bullied and hates the school enough to do this at the bottom, and somebody who is at the top -- finding the similarities between the two is what was at the core of this season.
Dan Lagana: And also it was important just exploring stories of isolation. Anyone that's had a high school experience can remember feeling isolated at some point. It doesn't matter who you are, you've experienced that. And to be able to tell that story from two opposite sides of the spectrum was really compelling to us.
People immediately identify with Kevin McClain. He's a type that people know in the same way Dylan Maxwell was.
Dan Perrault: One thing we often say is everyone had their own version of a Kevin. They come in many different forms, but I think that type of person existed long before we were here. That is someone [who] didn't fit in, so they intentionally created a character that appeared to desire not to fit in. Like Dylan Maxwell, I think the one similarity is they're standouts in their school where people would categorize them and laugh at them without realizing there are deeper insecurities underneath that.
Yacenda: I think it's a little more nuanced than Dylan. When we talked about our Dylan Maxwells in the writers' room -- because we all had our Dylan Maxwells -- they were all similar. But when we talked about our Kevin McClains in Season 2, they were all coming from the same place, but everyone's Kevin McClain was so different. Kevin McClain is so different than the person in my school that I was drawing from, but I think that's the honest version of it because it needs to be so specific.
Were the specificities of this Kevin -- the hats, the accent, the tea drinking -- drawn from people's own Kevins?
Lagana: Yes. Our Kevin McClain is such a collection of ideas that we thought were funny. Some were generated when Tony and Dan were doing their initial thinking on the project, and then other things were thrown into the stew in the room. We scour Reddit. We read iamverysmart. We laugh about stuff like that, and a lot of it influences decisions we make for the character.
Perrault: And it's not hard to find these kind of kids who have taken this route in their own social life. I don't want to name the kids that we drew from on social media because they probably got a ton of shit already, unfortunately. But the type of people who take this route to make themselves a commodity because they don't feel like anyone genuinely cares about them. They are the ones that tend to have videos made of them, that turn a camera in their face, that make them an anti-star that they've chosen to be because they couldn't be a genuinely liked person. So it was not hard to find these people online.
At the end it's revealed that an expelled student, Grayson, catfished students and a teacher into committing the crimes. How did you land on that ending?
Yacenda: It's kind of a tough question to answer because it happened somewhat gradually. We had the idea for the brownout, and then we had the idea that we wanted it to be a serial vandal. Then we had the idea that all of the crimes should be related to poop. Once we were introducing all these facts of the case and making the mystery really complex, it happened pretty early when we were pitching the second season to Netflix that we realized it was the strongest, most logical and thematic crime. It answers the most questions logically. It made more sense for it to be a lot of people drawn into this, and it would explain why they are all denying it too.
Thematically, as I was speaking about DeMarcus and Kevin earlier, [there's] this idea they're two people at different ends of the social hierarchy, but they are drawn into the crime because they overlap in vulnerability and insecurity. On top of that, Jenna Hawthorne -- somebody at a completely different end of the hierarchy -- uses social media and tries to curate this version of herself that is hiding the same vulnerabilities and insecurities that allowed them to be drawn into the prank. All of those elements kind of happened gradually over the course of the months between seasons, where we were kind of marinating on how we wanted to approach the second season. This was the version that clicked and checked all of those boxes.
You leave the first season on a vague note. Did you want to have direct answers this year?
Lagana: It wasn't prescriptive. It wasn't because we felt like we were too vague in Season 1. I actually personally don't feel like we were too vague. I felt like Peter Maldonado answered the question to the best of his ability and to the best of his morals. This season, it being such a different beast, it required something a little more finite toward the end. It really wasn't because of the way we handled Season 1, it was just more, This is the right end to this story.
Yacenda: If we make subsequent seasons of this show, there could be varying degrees of how concrete the conclusion is.
What was your thinking was on building Grayson?
Yacenda: I have to be delicate with this answer because obviously there are a lot of kids these days -- and I guess always have been -- who have a resentment of the people in their school. They are adolescents who let it fester in really dark ways and grow to hate the culture around them. This was his way of lashing out. It's a really dark character, and we had conversations: Is it too dark for our show and our world? I think we landed on it because our world is the real world, and there all these people with this really dark resentment of the happy people around them.
Perrault: Early conversations about Grayson really kind of started with this thesis statement, which is: We're all full of shit, we all wear masks. We found that to be an interesting challenge for Peter. The question would be: Is Grayson right in saying that? People do wear masks. As we see with our main characters, we all do this. It would be kind of an interesting challenge for our main character to analyze to see if social media is purely evil, or is there something we can evolve into from it.
You do end with Peter concluding that it's not entirely negative. Is that your perspective as well?
Lagana: Absolutely. I think that was really important to all of us that we don't just label it as bad. That's just too simple. The truth is so much more gray.
I found the ending really touching. I was almost on the verge of tears during DeMarcus' scene talking to Peter in the car. Were you ever worried about getting too sentimental?
Perrault: I think that's a scene that we were looking forward to almost more than any in this upcoming season. We do like doing big twists with this show, and we wanted the audience -- like many people in this show -- to come to the conclusion that DeMarcus has it made. He's a star. He lives a worry-free life. There are a lot of people in our lives we look up to like, That guy has it all. A huge part of our messaging is [that] these issues with social media are not exclusive to outsiders. They're not exclusive to the Kevin McClains of the world. So we really knew it was crucial to have that vulnerable scene from him to show that even this person deals with the issue of identity, even at his level.
Hot janitor. Where did he come from? That bit had me holding my sides the most this season.
Perrault: So I was a janitor. I think I was like 19 and I wasn't good at my job. My mom has worked at a Catholic high school for all my life, so a lot of the sons and daughters of the teachers at my mom's school would be janitors in the summer months and some of our spring breaks. One guy I worked with was pretty hot, and I think that became an issue. I wish the answer was, "Yeah, I was a hot janitor." But it wasn't me, it was this other dude who was just way hotter.
Yacenda: We also loved the idea of the specificity of his type of hotness. We wanted it to see a really specific Northwest type of hot guy. We were so lucky that the guy we cast -- we always had him living off the grid and growing his own kale and all of that -- came in, and he had actually been the curator of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. So a lot of stuff you see in the show is him talking off the top of his head about the actual foliage in the Pacific Northwest.
You've done dicks. You've done poop. Where do you go if you do a third season? Have you brainstormed what could be next?
Lagana: Stay tuned, stay tuned.
Perrault: We know what it is. It felt so good after a year to finally admit that it's poop, and I'm very excited to have that moment again. But that comes in 12 months.
Yacenda: We want to make sure it's all fleshed out. It's not a continuation of characters we already know. So we don't want to rush into a new season until we're sure that it's all there and it all connects.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.