Getting Deep and Dark on Sketch Comedy with Tim Robinson
We talk with Tim Robinson about his absurdist brand of humor and what goes into his new Netflix sketch comedy show, I Think You Should Leave
Sketch comedy is often at its best when it comes from an uncomfortable place that scrambles our perception of reality. Tim Robinson is a writer and comedian who is able to hold up a mirror to the world that reflects a universe that’s both darker and innocent.
Robinson’s sketch and character work, whether it’s on Saturday Night Live, Detroiters, or his episode of The Characters, often presents humanity at its most unhinged and desperate. This is perhaps best on display in Robinson’s latest vehicle, an extreme new sketch series on Netflix that features a murderer’s row of talent.
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I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson hits like a comedic tidal wave and it’s a refreshing alternative to the more traditional sketch series that are out there. Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave shines a light on the most bizarre corners of society, but we got the opportunity to chat with Robinson about his new series and how his outrageous style of comedy comes together.
DEN OF GEEK: Something that really stood out to me is that the episodes are on the shorter side. Do you think that it was helpful to not be set to a certain quota of content per episode?
TIM ROBINSON: I think with a lot of things, especially sketch comedy, shorter is a lot easier to digest. Sketch can be loud and throw a lot of information at you, so shorter works better for that.
You’ve got a relatively small writers’ room for this show. What’s the writing style between you, Zach Kanin, and John Solomon? Would you write stuff together? Tackle your own ideas?
It’s not really a writers’ room. Zach and I do the majority of it. We sit in an office at Party Over Here, The Lonely Island production company, and we have this work ethic that we’ve had since SNL where we just sit around and talk all day. Then at the last minute we’re like, “Oh my God, we can’t leave until we get something done!” Then John came in—who’s one of the funniest people I know—once we got kind of burnt out towards the end. John came in and helped finish things off.
Did you have any sort of rules for the type of sketches that you wanted people to generate with this kind of comedy?
I don’t think we necessarily set out to make a certain kind of comedy, but we just wanted to make sure that everything was funny to us. That’s all you can do, in my opinion. To us, that was our standard.
Did you all just write a whole bunch of sketches and then figure out how they’d be grouped together at the end, or was there more structure than that?
We wrote each episode one by one knowing full well that once we shot them we’d be cutting them down and maybe moving them around based on what popped or didn’t. So we did put them in order, but we also knew that it was all going to be compiled in post.
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Our editors were fundamental and on a sketch series an editor is basically a writer. They help construct the show. So a lot did change up in post. Good editors will have ideas like that when we mix things up. They’re helping elevate our material.
There are a few sketches, like “Bozo Dubbed Over,” where you break the sketch up into halves. Was that just a result of editing, was it scripted that way, or what?
We only do it with the “TC Tuggers” skettch and “Bozo.” With “Bozo” it was a bit of a conversation if it was too long as one piece and if splitting it up helped it or hurt it. We went back and forth on it, but ultimately it’s kind of a long sketch so we put a break in it. Then with “TC Tuggers” it was just a way to bring back the ad sponsor in an increasingly big way. But again, that commercial at the end is all the editors. They built that crazy piece. It’s just so true of those companies.
Were there any sketches that you ultimately didn’t use or did you work everything into the show?
We kind of overwrote everything and then cut it down from there. So there were a lot of sketches that were originally more pages. We basically worked with everything that we had, but things went from really long sketches to minute-and-a-half sketches.
You have such a sketch history, but are there any sketches in this that you had been trying to put into something for a while, whether it was Saturday Night Live or your episode of The Characters, that you could finally find a home for here?
With Zach and I, we’ve been working together for so long and we always return to reoccurring themes. Basically the idea of embarrassment or making a small mistake and not admitting it and things get out of control. These are themes that make us laugh and even in Detroiters we touched on that stuff. So it was all fresh stuff, but from themes that go way back for us.
Did you at any point consider having a through line or narrative for episodes, or did you just want to focus on the sketches?
I never wanted that kind of through line. I think if I had tried it, it would have felt forced. It would have been like I was just shooting something for the purpose of connecting material, which is not what I want. I just wanted the sketches, which made it a little harder to put together because you don’t have the luxury of that stuff, but we have that little interstitial music and color bar stuff to give people a little break between sketches.
All the performances in this series are so great. Will Forte gives one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen in his sketch. Everyone is so committed and perfectly fits in with this weird, exaggerated universe. Talk a little on the directing style for the show.
Yeah, Forte’s performance is fantastic. So Akiva [Schaffer] and Alice [Mathias] were directing them all and we did a good job of finding actors to appear that we were friends with or fans of their work. People pretty much came in and were game to dig in and understood the sensibility that we were going for. Everybody did a great job and just blending in with the show.
You mentioned that Alice and Akiva direct all of the sketches. Did they split up the material or co-direct it all together?
It was split up for time. Akiva did the first chunk and then Alice came in at the end.
You’re kind of unleashed in each of these sketches. Do you prefer to be that wild kind of character more than you do a straight one?
It really depends on what the sketch is. It was nice to have people come in and carry the sketch in some cases. That was the best part of this for me. I laughed a lot and I think we got some great performances. So it depends, but obviously I enjoy playing a big yelling man.
Do you have a favorite sketch of the lot?
It would probably change from time to time, but I really like the Tim Heidecker jazz charades ones.
Yeah, that one and the skeleton song one were definitely my favorites. That Garfield house sketch is also such an extreme visual to end the show on.
Yeah, Kate Berlant does such a good job with that stuff. She plays it so real and you’re really in there with her.
Was there a draft of that where it was something other than Garfield?
No, it was always Garfield. But did you hear about that Flintstones house in the news recently?
Yeah, there’s a Flintstones house and the neighbors are so mad because someone made a Flintstones house.
That’s a sketch in itself. I love that. Were there any sketches that you kept breaking during or couldn’t hold it together while filming?
I laughed a lot through the Kate Berlant and Heidecker stuff. I laughed through the Forte stuff for sure because he was right in my face and doing that super intense performance while dressed like a scary old man. He also has somuch dialogue, so it was a pain to laugh there because then he’d half to restart, but I couldn’t help it sometimes.
Finally, did you look at this as a fun one-off project, or would you ideally like to make more episodes?
I’d definitely like to make more. It was really fun and hard. It was a fast shoot, but I’d love to put more out there.
I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson is now streaming on Netflix.
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.