What Makes Netflix's 'I Think You Should Leave' Work?
In the weeks since Netflix released the new sketch series I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, you may have seen praise for the show, probably from [insert your favorite comedian who is on Twitter here]! And perhaps you agree with them! Or perhaps you didn’t enjoy it (or haven’t watched it yet), and you’re wondering what all the fuss is about.
Well, wonder no more, for I am here to provide way too many words to answer your concerns. Or, more accurately, to explore the reasons why I think this incredibly funny, incredibly weird sketch show works.
(Also, since we’re gonna be discussing some sketches, you know, spoilers, and whatnot.)
Reason 1: The show is structurally sound (which sounds boring, but is way more important than it seems).
Sketch comedy is hard. Sure, it looks easy, but that’s because when we watch sketch comedy, it usually falls into the following categories:
2. Really, really bad
When sketch comedy is brilliant, it looks effortless. Magical. A polished, finished product, a perfect distillation of comedic premise, writing, and performance, and we never have to think about the days or weeks or months of crafting and work and sweat and parental disappointment that went into making it work.
When sketch comedy is bad, it looks cheap and sloppy and it’s usually so bad your very powerful brain tells you “well I could do better than THAT.”
Your brain, by the way, is wrong, because, remember, sketch comedy is hard. At its most basic, to pull off a great sketch, all you need is to come up with a comedic premise universal enough to be understood by the audience, but off-centered enough that it feels fresh and new, and then execute that premise within no more than a few minutes, all while making sure that the factors of production (like performance, or budget, or filmmaking technique) don’t prevent you from landing the jokes. Easy, right?
This is where the structure of the show (which greatly benefits from being on Netflix) comes into play. With episodes that run between 15-18 minutes, and no commercial breaks to worry about (like, say, that aging comedy juggernaut that we love to complain about), each sketch can be as long or as short as they need to be — there’s no need to pad it for two more pages that stall the comedic premise because the sketch has to fit into a rigid format. It’s a small but significant advantage that is almost unheard of in sketch comedy (even in the sketch show put on at your local comedy theater, I promise you, the team is fretting about how to fit all of the sketches they want into their timeslot).
But despite this freedom, the show remains thoughtful and calculating about its own internal structure: like any good TV show, ITYSLWTR (which is somehow more awkward to type than the whole title) teaches you how to watch the show from the very first sketch, a quick, awkward cold open which sets the table for the rest of the series — that fundamentally, this is a show built around absurd characters who, when confronted with reality, refuse to back down on their point of view, with varying results.
Which brings us to:
Reason 2: Specific absurdity
As any good (only $450 for seven weeks!) level one improv or sketch class instructor will tell you, a lot of the comedy in your work will come from the specifics — the choices that you bring to the moment that add flavor to the premise.
After all, any idiot can play dumb. But a comedy genius (which you definitely will be after three to six more levels of classes! Don’t worry, we accept all major credit cards.) will find the weird thing about their character — the specific way they’re strange — and utilize it in fun and exciting ways.
Consider the episode one sketch “Baby of the Year,” which manages to stuff an insane amount of specificity into their comedic premises, including:
— The not-quite-hidden self-satisfaction of Sam Richardson’s low-rent host (in particular, the fist pump he gives after finishing his opening song, which sets the tone for his persona)
— One “bad boy” contestant (i.e. a baby dressed like a biker) whom the audience hates so much they curse him out and even, at one point, attempt to assassinate him
— A judge who has been threatening to kill herself if her choice doesn’t win (note: she has been threatening this, which is a tiny tweak that makes this joke a hundred times funnier. Not just that she threatens to do it, but that there’s a reference to a history here that she’s been doing this all competition, which is just so much better.)
— Another judge who is emotionally distraught after witnessing a sex scandal
— An “in memoriam” segment of past winners that includes chyrons explaining their increasingly absurd causes of death
Each character, even the ones with only one or two lines, has a specific and clear point of view, which is the only way a four-minute sketch could possibly juggle so many different comedic premises at the same time and manage to land them all.
But those aren’t the most complex moves the show pulls off. That comes next.
Reason 3: Advanced Comedic Geometry (i.e. sketches that take super weird turns)
Now here’s where it gets really good, at least for me.
The traditional straight/absurd scene has (probably) been in existence as long as comedy itself. And regardless of the subject matter, the dynamic is simple: the straight man is bound by the rules of the rational universe, and the absurd character has a seemingly nonsensical (but, and this is important, well-reasoned) point of view.
Put the two together, stir, and hilarity ensues.
But there’s a problem with this dynamic when a sketch is expanded out to include multiple characters because you’d assume that you’d like to have one absurd character, and have the others naturally calling them out, right? That seems reasonable.
It’s also (often) wrong. Because too often, this results in piling on, and it feels like the sketch is punching down. One rational character disagreeing with one absurd character is fine — it’s a fair fight. But several rational characters arguing with one absurd character is a house meeting on The Real World (which, by the way, is still on TV?).
So instead, ITYSLWTR expands on the formula by executing a feat of incredible difficulty: turning a room of seemingly rational characters against the voice of reason, flipping the dynamic of one vs. many, which is normally arrayed against a single absurd character, against the straight man.
Let’s look at an example of how they accomplish this with the “Focus Group” sketch, from episode three, which was one of my favorites, but also happens to be available on Youtube! So if you haven’t watched it yet, here’s the sketch, and then we’ll discuss:
OK, let’s go through and see how they pulled that off.
The first minute sets up the expected premise: it’s a focus group, and the old man is our absurd character. Cool.
The sketch also uses this time to hit us with the old man’s absurd POV (his strange suggestions, represented here by an insistence that they need to be told that the steering wheel should not come flying off) three times, to show that he is undeterred and is the character who is going to double down on his choices. And, as you might expect, to this point the rest of the group is wary of him, meaning that right now, the dynamic is a single absurd character versus the world.
But when the group moves on to the second beat of the premise (as noted by Tim Robinson’s moderator asking a new question), here’s where things start to turn — first by accelerating the premise (the old man’s absurdity occurs faster), and then by giving us the first pivot toward a new comedic premise, when the old man calls another member of the group (Paul) the teacher’s pet, leaving the room to stew in awkward silence.
The next beat of the original premise hits faster still, as the old man suggests the car should be stinky - at which point he is finally directly confronted about his strange suggestions, and he is forced, for the first time, to justify his absurdity.
Now, remember earlier when I said that it was important for the absurd character’s point of view to be well-reasoned? This is why! Once a point of view becomes so strange it gets called out, they have to have an explanation. And to be clear, the explanation does not have to make sense to us, as rational human beings - but it does have to make sense to the absurd character. In this case, it most certainly does, as the old man claims he can’t come up with good ideas because Paul is farting - he isn’t, but this also pushes us further down the road of our new premise, which is the strange budding rivalry between the old man and Paul.
To get us to the next beat, the moderator once again resets with a question, but this time, the old man’s answer to a feature he’d like to see (“no space for mother-in-law!”) elicits smiles from the group - and for the first time, they’re not completely against him.
This is important, as it shows instantly how the room is beginning to pivot to his side - and when Paul continues to perform his straight man duties toward the old man by suggesting that he’s not being helpful, the old man is able to get the others on his side, and it takes us through the final run of the sketch, with everyone joining in to roast/laugh at/demand Paul marry his mother-in-law, as (naturally) that’s the price you pay for flinching at a flipped water bottle.
In three minutes, this sketch takes what would have been a basic concept (a focus group with one weirdo) and played that out, all while turning into a completely different sketch, where the old man was able to win over the group and accomplish his secret agenda, which was, it turns out, to become the most popular person in the focus group. It was tightly structured, gave the characters clear specifics for us to grasp on to, and turned what could have felt like a sketch punching down at the old man into one where the absurdity won over the group and was celebrated.
And this isn’t the only sketch to do this — for me, my favorites from the show (including the “Birthday Party” sketch with Steven Yeun from the header) tended to walk this line, where the absurd character wins over (either momentarily or completely) the rest of the group, which is all the more impressive when you consider how these characters, without a good justification for their actions, would otherwise be (rightly) considered completely insane.
Well. I’ll be honest, I could sit here and ramble on about comedic theory all day, but what about you? Did you watch the show? Did it work for you? And if so, what was your favorite sketch?
Header Image Source: Netflix