Nobody tells you that the best part of It is the cursing. That’s an odd takeaway from a Stephen King adaptation that features a spectacular haunted-house sequence and what’s surely one of cinema’s five scariest scenes set in a flooded basement, but take it from me, someone who was traumatized by seeing all of five seconds of Tim Curry’s Pennywise on Entertainment Tonight in 1990: The gutter mouths of the Losers’ Club are essential to the new It’s success. The swearing is amusing, but it’s also a savvy piece of world-building, the characters tentatively testing the waters of maturity (looming adulthood being It’s most frightening form) while also reflecting the way real kids talk when adults aren’t paying attention.
That last part is anecdotal: Slowly demolishing my own vocabulary with a sledgehammer made of “fuck” and “shit” was as much rebellion as I could stomach during my youth, so the parts of It that acknowledge teenage filthiness really resonated with me. And I felt that resonance all over again while slamming through American Vandal and Big Mouth, a pair of complementary, NSFW Netflix comedies advancing the profane in particularly graphic fashion—by scrawling a bunch of dicks all over the experiences of their adolescent characters, and making it mean something.
American television has a proud tradition of humor that skirts private-part taboo—just look at two of the most infamous moments from Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show tenure—but looser broadcast standards and a wider variety of TV platforms have ushered in a golden age of dick jokes. “Taking something that’s primitive and lame and turning it into a beautiful piece of art will always be captivating,” Mark Titus writes in The Ringer, ahead of a laundry list of great moments in recent dick-joke history that includes The Office’s long and gratifying relationship with “That’s what she said,” the penis cake on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Silicon Valley’s “optimal tip-to-tip efficiency.” Titus’ piece inducts American Vandal into that giggling fraternity, and while I was all too ready to dismiss the true-crime parody a few weeks back, I have to agree with him: You’d never guess how funny and how compelling 27 spray-painted phalluses can be until you’ve seen them referenced—either verbally or visually—upwards of 1,000 times in eight episodes of American Vandal.
That repetition is key to American Vandal, which settles on its “Who killed Laura Palmer?” refrain—“Who drew the dicks?”—early, and just keeps on asking it with the same straight-faced resolve. But there’s also the audacity of asking the question and drawing the dicks in the first place, a literally immature sense of humor Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda’s mockumentary shares with the animated series Big Mouth, in which anthropomorphic cocks-and-balls shoot hoops, a middle-schooler gets an anatomy lesson from her talking vagina, and the behavior of the pubescent protagonists is dictated by hairy, horny, monstrous manifestations of hormones. Comic exaggerations aside, it’s a coming-of-age tale that’s honest to an almost uncomfortable degree, though that discomfort is the type felt on behalf, not because, of the young characters.
It’s an approach that helps de-sanitize TV’s approach to growing up, something that Canadian and British series have been doing for years—though it never seems to stick when it’s translated to the States. (It’s an indication of how far we still have to go that Big Mouth feels revolutionary for devoting its second episode to a first period.) Primetime animation has been one of the main avenues for mussing up American adolescence, and the full Simpsons-to-South Park-to-Family Guy-to-Bob’s Burgers lineage is on display in Big Mouth. Touchy subjects get less touchy when they have big, googly cartoon eyes; American Vandal takes the opposite approach, its documentary framework creating the illusion that we’re seeing these characters exactly as they are, even as the series pushes its faux-documentarian to question the validity of the social media posts he’s stitching together or the reputed handjobs he’s restaging in computer-generated simulations.
Because juvenilia and depth aren’t mutually exclusive properties; the surprise of these shows is in how deep they’re willing to go. “Who drew the dicks?” belies American Vandal’s attention to getting its genre right, to crafting a full high-school ecosystem that just happens to be inordinately hung up on penis graffiti. Big Mouth’s hormone monsters are one device in a tool belt full of colorful metaphors that are interfering with the way friends Nick, Andrew, Jessi, and Missy see themselves and one another. It’s backed by emotional consequence, in the way American Vandal is pushed along by the consequences the 27 dicks—and the documentary attempting to uncover who drew the 27 dicks—could have on the kids’ futures.
Like the profane insult comedy of It’s puny, bespectacled Richie Tozier, it’s funny because of the juxtaposition. When a midseason escape to the big city goes horribly awry on Big Mouth, Nick has a bracing epiphany: “Oh my god, we’re children.” Their bodies and their bat mitzvahs are telling them otherwise, but they’re acting more adult than they actually are. (I mean, they’re played by adults, but you get the picture.) That type of reality check—not a cuss or a kiss or a fedora or a nocturnal emission or a documentary exonerating a wrongfully accused classmate—is the true step toward maturity.
The shows are connected by dicks, but the bond runs deeper, as they’re each telling a story about how the things we experience as kids inform, but don’t necessarily define, our lives. Unless you happen to be one of the seven kids who helps defend their hometown from an immortal, shapeshifting representation of evil. That shit tends to stick with you.