Our resident comedy professor breaks down the secret sketch-comedy formula of ‘I Think You Should Leave’
Tim Robinson’s sketch comedy series I Think You Should Leave (which we reviewed in its entirety here) debuted on Netflix in 2019 and made an immediate comedic splash. It was one of the last gasps of a Netflix still finding and platforming unique oddball talents, instead of just stocking up on Korean dramas, bad anime adaptations, and reality-show knockoffs. It’s also an heir to the recent mini-“sketch renaissance” of sharp, high-production-value offerings like Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, and the criminally overlooked Birthday Boys.
But ITSYL also entered the scene with its own voice, and approach to sketch comedy. I teach comedy sketchwriting at an LA film school, and the show’s creators Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin take on many of the sketch parameters covered in my class in a different way.
Let’s start with the basis of anything scripted: character. By now, you can just say “a Tim Robinson type,” and anyone who’s seen a sketch or two can identify it: eclectic; aggrieved in some odd, unpredictable way; highly aggressive about their weird narrow goal; and bro-confidently doubling down at every turn in the pursuit of it.
It’s a perfect snapshot of our times, when white dudes are getting angrier and angrier at smaller and smaller things. Why does no one else like his “safari-flap fedora,” or “complicated shirt patterns,” or want to talk about filthy sex acts during a ghost tour?
This character type is so essential to the voice of the comedy, other actors than Robinson (like the sublimely psychotic Patti Harrison) often play that gadfly role– like actors in many Woody Allen movies who basically play “Woody Allen.”
And adding to the comic juice, these characters pour that anger into a sweaty struggle to hold onto to their diminishing, often-white-dude-identifiable privilege of violating social norms without consequence. Not to get too political, but it’s interesting that, when a Black man takes on this character (as in both this instant classic, and a Season 3 standout starring Tim Meadows), they begin from elevated positions of authority: the revered former college professor, the father of the bride – as if to give them a little extra “social permission” to act out.
From a plot perspective, this character type is also a turbo-powered sketch engine. When I teach sketch, the biggest challenge is getting students to streamline their many, many wacky ideas into a unified arc: character and world face off, things escalate quickly, and finally that essential conflict must be fought out and resolved. (in 5 minutes or less, please!)
And indeed, most ITSYL sketches start out with that conventional “fly in the ointment” approach. A typical setting (baby shower, office meeting, friends out for drinks) gets “weirded out” by one person (the “Tim” character) getting stuck on a word choice, obsessed with something besides the main point of the moment, or just in some way chafing against expectations.
But then, the unexpected happens… not to the character, to the sketch. Suddenly that character, forced to explain themselves to an uncomprehending world, reveals strange and dark skeletons that discomfit everyone further. Sometimes they’ll keep going down that newly opened path, way too far. Sometimes – in a massive break with sketch convention — the “outlier” character suddenly finds themselves with unexpected allies among the “normies,” and the whole conflict of the scene shifts on its axis.
In brief, you can literally never predict where a Tim Robinson sketch will end up. In my class, I teach a few of them in a category I’ve invented called “hijackings.” For example, the famously memed sketch about the focus group for an automobile: How does that rude, giddy long-gray-haired dabbing guy end up the master of a bullying session?
And more importantly, why does all this work — instead of being an incoherent, bad-night-at-an-improv-show mess? In part, because it goes back to character. As shrill and sometimes outright disgusting as these characters often are, Robinson & Kanin’s writers regularly unearth some sliver of “humanity” that we can all relate to, and this tiny piece of emotional ballast keeps us on board through even the stormiest plot seas.
I like to teach an iconic ITYSLer, about Will Forte (as another creepy long-gray-haired man), on an airline flight, seemingly having lived his life for this moment to exact revenge on the young adult who once ruined Forte’s flight as a baby by crying.
What an irredeemable creep, right?
The reason this guy was so distraught as to seek this very strange revenge is, he was on his lifetime dream vacation: To go to Buckingham Palace and make the famously unexpressive guards laugh. But the baby’s crying tired him out so much, he “couldn’t think of anything funny.” So trivial, so pathetic – and yet, so relatable!
These brief but powerful flashes of emotional realism help ground the sometimes unmoored plot directionality. In a sketch from the new season – about Tim getting into a water-bottle-splashing fight during a boring corporate seminar — at the heart of the chaos, a side character just laments, “Everything’s so crazy now!” and this reminds us that this wacky, unlikely scene is still happening in a world we definitely recognize.
Or to go back to that potty-mouthed ghost enthusiast, he too seems beyond the pale, and we are glad to see him kicked off the tour.., until the sketch’s final scene, when he is picked up in a dowdy old car by his elderly mother who asks, “Did you make any friends this time?” Heartbreaking, and retroactively rendering the preceding ridiculosity fully human.
Who ends a sketch on a sad beat of pathos? I Think You Should Leave does, as their approach to endings is equally unconventional. Most of them end, for lack of a better term, “just in time.” Not wearing out their welcome like the SNL fare that Robinson started out writing for. But also, not with some big, explosive twisteroo or pie-fight. They end just when the “Tim” character has pushed everyone’s exasperation buttons for the last time, or taken us to a new place that seems like it will exhaust us to push any further.
Of course, the show has also become a meme machine (as in this practical time-stamp of 2020s political discourse) with its strange but gimlet-eyed social and cultural observations, and Shakespeare-huffing-Whip-Its coinages of new phrases (“sloppy steaks,” “driving crooners,” et al.)
But as a boring comedy pedant, I would argue that what truly distinguishes I Think You Should Leave is that it takes some of the boldest structural chances with one of the most unforgivingly rigid narrative formats, and somehow pulls it off. Memes are fun, but any show that gives you such all new and unexpected “feels” is doing something really interesting under the hood. Even if there is a ponytailed jackass trapped right beneath that car, screaming at you to upload photos of diarrhea.