This interview has really taken a sh*tty turn. To be fair, that's pretty unavoidable when discussing American Vandal Season 2. The highly anticipated follow-up to Netflix's hit mockumentary spin on a true crime drama has one-upped the first season's genital graffiti with even greater fodder for intentionally unintentional comedy: poop jokes. And that's why star Travis Tope, who plays Season 2's prime suspect/supposed scapegoat Kevin "Sh*tstain" McClain, has been talking about literal sh*t for the majority of our conversation.
To be fair, we've also spoken about more serious subject matter, like bullying in the age of social media and what being an outcast can do to a teenager's self-esteem as depicted through his American Vandal character. But the most important question is the one I'm about to ask him: in the great comedy debate of all time, are dick jokes or poop jokes funnier?
Tope sighs as he ponders this extremely philosophical, highbrow debate. "Well, I love them all," he admits. "The thing is I usually don't like poop jokes, but it works for me on American Vandal Season 2. But then d*cks, you know? It's really a Sophie's Choice."
It truly is, especially when looked at through the lens of American Vandal Season 1 vs. American Vandal Season 2, both of which are now streaming in full on Netflix. The two otherwise standalone seasons are connected by their documentarians, Hanover High School students Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck), who in Season 2 are called on to determine the identity of the "Turd Burglar," a poop pranker who caused the entire student body of an elite Catholic school in Washington to poop their pants one fateful day that has now been dubbed "The Brownout."
By the time Season 2 begins, Tope's Kevin has confessed to being the Turd Burglar, but his friend claims that he's innocent and gave a false confession under suspicious circumstances. That's why Peter and Sam are on the case: to find the identity of the real Turd Burglar and potentially prove Kevin's innocence. But it's going to be hard. Kevin fits the mold for who the police believe to be the poopetrator. He's a social outcast who does things like talk in a British accent for a week, slurp tea to taste every flavor in a "vapor," wear pageboy caps to school, and post videos of himself swatting away fruit that other students throw at him, "fruit ninja" style. He's bullied constantly, and the authorities believe that means he had motive to seek revenge on those who make his life a living hell.
Because he had only seen one episode of American Vandal prior to auditioning for Season 2, Tope admits it was more Kevin's personality and oddities that drew him to the role. He loves how "complicated" Kevin is, but he can't quite put into words what it was about Kevin that pulled him in. "I don't know, I'm a loser and he's a f*cking loser and so that just makes it natural," he jokes.
By focusing this season on a social outcast instead of someone bursting with self-confidence and friends like Season 1's Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro), American Vandal Season 2 takes on a much more heartbreaking tone as viewers start to empathize with Kevin's lonely high school experience.
"When Kevin is first presented to you, something that made him so difficult to play is that he's by definition, so — what's the word, like mannered," Tope says. "He's so fake. He's at all times putting on a show. But at the same time, we're making a mockumentary, so he has to be the realest version of that. When you first meet him, all you can really see of Kevin is what he's choosing to present to you. It's really intriguing to slowly find out and watch him reveal, despite himself, who he really is and why he is that way, like what his damage is."
But once the novelty of the fecal farce wears off, American Vandal takes a turn for the serious. The more we learn about Kevin's life and discover all the bullying he's suffered from a young age both in person and online, the darker things get. Tope explains that this season is trying to show how high schoolers don't have things any easier than older generations because of the internet, technology, and social media.
"The same problems still exist, but they just look different than they used to, like the bullying that Kevin undergoes is maybe not so obviously bullying, you know?" Tope adds. "A part of that is because as a defense mechanism he tries to take ownership of it and turns himself into an obvious object of bullying. He is so purposefully ridiculous that he can say, 'Oh you're making fun of me? That's obviously because I was doing this thing so that you would. I was doing this on purpose so you can't make fun of me.'"
That defense mechanism is the root of all of Kevin's wonderfully odd and "ridiculous" aspects of his affected persona, from his tea obsession to even the way he speaks and dresses. But it's even more interesting to see how that applies to not just the character but also the actor who portrays him. Every time Tope's answers get into a deeper territory than poop, he follows them up with a self-deprecating remark to bring back some levity. Or because he's worried he'll sound "annoying" or, heaven forbid, something even worse than that: dumb. "You're like, waiting for me to say something better and I'm not sure I can," he says at one point with a laugh. A few minutes later he asks me to change anything he says to "make everything sound better."
"Just make it more interesting and funnier, like more or less stupid, whichever one works, you know?" he adds with another laugh. "Charisma, that's what I want." But there's no need for editing or revisions despite Tope's worries — the Boardwalk Empire alum is clearly smart and charming enough on his own to field all my questions — booth poop-related and otherwise — and come out the other side of this literal sh*t interview squeaky clean.
Inevitably, the questions do take a turn back towards poop. Because honestly, how can they not? Season 2 is definitely not for the squeamish, because there are scatological scenes in nearly every episode. The Brownout scenes in particular are some of the most horrifying images you'll ever see, trust.
"I was only in one scene in the cafeteria when the Brownout first happened," Tope says of filming that crucial event. "That's the only time I had to shoot anything and I was in a scene where there was actual, literal, fake poop. There were a lot of extras who were very young, like 14, and they ran to urinals where they had to have fake poop splattered all around them, so it was the best and also the worst."
That's when I gear up for another monumentally important question, and Tope prepares himself. "Oh boy, my bowels are clenched in anticipation," he says with his soon-to-be-trademarked deadpan. And so I ask: what was the fake deuce made of on set?
"Wow," he replies in wonder, taking a pause to think. "I have no idea. I'm not convinced it wasn't real poop. Movie magic can go a long way but … only so far." I start to get worried that maybe American Vandal used actual poop during filming. "No, it didn't smell so it was for sure not real poop," Tope assures me. "Let that be known: it was not real poop."
As he looks ahead to the future of his career, Tope is still admittedly in good-natured shock that his biggest role to date is thanks to literal sh*t. "Oh my god, my mom was like, 'Of course this big thing you have coming out has to do with poop,'" Tope says. "My mom is very disappointed. She's going to try and watch it anyway. She's probably going to have to look away a lot. She wishes that I could just be in like, teen rom-coms or like network sitcoms. If I could just do those things she would be very happy."
But he's proud of himself for being a true professional and hardly ever breaking character during filming — a huge accomplishment when having to deliver lines about poop so seriously in almost every scene. "For the most part I feel like I did pretty well," Tope says. "There were some times when Dan Perrault, one of our writers ... he's the funniest f*cking person. So many of these lines that he would throw at me, I could hardly get through."
Clearly, he can dish out punchlines as deftly as he can deliver them. As I tell him that I hope the rest of his day isn't full of sh*t like this interview, he quickly responds, "Me too. Well, the appropriate amount, I hope." Here's to that.