clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘I Think You Should Leave’ Is the TV Show of the Year Because It Has Good Show Ideas

After an abbreviated stint at ‘Saturday Night Live’ and a little-seen Comedy Central series, Tim Robinson could have faded into obscurity. Instead, he created the best sketch comedy show in years, and it exploded on Netflix. Here’s how.

Efi Chalikopoulou

A few years ago, Tim Robinson had an odd run-in with a man in an Easter Bunny costume. This was in rural Pennsylvania, where Robinson had taken his wife and their two young children on a family vacation. “We stopped at an outlet mall, and there was an Easter Bunny walking around, and he got surrounded by kids,” Robinson says. “He was looking at my wife and I, and we were like, ‘What’s going on?’ And then we heard a muffled voice say, ‘I’m just trying to go to my car.’ The guy was done for the day, and he didn’t want to take his head off, and he was pleading with the parents for help.”

Robinson tells me this story over breakfast one October morning in Burbank, California, and as he imitates the escalating desperation in the Easter Bunny’s voice—I’m just trying to go to my car—it’s hard not to imagine it’s actually Robinson trapped within the suit, searching in vain for a dignified escape. On his endlessly loopable hit sketch series I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson, he often plays hapless schmoes who get stuck in unwinnable situations. But unlike that Easter Bunny, Robinson’s characters usually react by doubling down, or even tripling down, on their own bad instincts.

In the series’ very first sketch, a nice-enough fella tries to exit a job interview by pulling a door clearly meant to be pushed; instead of admitting his mistake, he just keeps on stubbornly pulling anyway, splintering the door and the frame, and making the veins in his forehead pop out. “Which is so true in life,” Robinson says. “People say in their brain, ‘If I keep talking, or keep doing this, maybe this goes away.’ And it never does. It just makes things worse.”

I Think You Should Leave premiered on Netflix this spring, in the form of six brisk episodes, around 15 minutes each; it was possible to watch the entire first season in roughly the same amount of time it takes to view a single episode of SNL. Yet no comedy this year has embedded itself as deeply within viewers’ imaginations, not to mention their social feeds, as I Think You Should Leave, a show beloved by everyone from Conan O’Brien to Lin-Manuel Miranda to vocal mega-fan Wale (“funniest shyt ever”).

The response is in no small part due to Robinson’s performance—the more he contorts his blank-slate face to match his characters’ plight, the deeper and weirder the sketches become. Even if you’ve never watched Robinson’s show, you’ve seen his apoplectic creations—their eyes bulging with rage, or squinting in disbelief—being GIF’d, screenshotted, and memed online, where they’ve become stand-ins for our own perpetual exasperation. There are entire Twitter feeds that insert I Think You Should Leave into the worlds of, say, modern emo, or wrestling, or the Toronto Maple Leafs. Halfway through our breakfast, Robinson excitedly shows me I Think You Should League Pass, an all-NBA account he’d just learned about that morning (and which has since grown to more than 20,000 followers).

It’s been a while since an upstart comedy show earned this much pop-cultural momentum—the kind that inspires fans to create avatars and action figures, and prompts critics to rank every individual sketch. Then again, it’s been years since we’ve had sketch characters as absurd and surprising as the ones found on I Think You Should Leave, like the guy who crashes his hot-dog-shaped car through a storefront window, and then angrily tries to deflect blame, all the while dressed in a hot dog costume. Then there’s Chunky, a large, lumbering game-show mascot who’s unsure of what to do with himself on stage, and reacts by breaking things and mauling a contestant (you can occasionally hear Chunky voicing his muffled frustrations from beneath a fuzzy red costume—a detail partly inspired, Robinson says, by his encounter with the Easter Bunny).

The “Chunky” sketch could have been yet another snoozy game-show parody. Instead, it’s the most delightfully stupid four minutes of TV you’ll see all year. Like many of the segments on I Think You Should Leave, it’s the sort of clip you show to everyone you know, partly as an excuse to watch it again. “Everybody thinks the format of [writing] a sketch is ‘A to B to C,’” says Veep’s Sam Richardson, a longtime friend and collaborator. “What I Think You Should Leave does is ‘A to B to F.’ It’s a little off, but it’s not weird for the sake of being weird. And there was an open space in the sketch world for something to really explode.”

But another reason for the breakthrough success of I Think You Should Leave, which has lately received year-end accolades and awards recognition, might just be Robinson’s #ItMe relatability. We’ve all responded to public humiliation with sheer, stupid self-defeating rage: What is Twitter, after all, but the hot-dog-shaped car we willingly climb into every day? “There’s a lot of doubling down going on in a widespread way,” notes codirector Alice Mathias. “It’s a show that’s grounded in the human experience. And even when Tim plays people that are really frustrating, and passionate about all the wrong things, you somehow can still get behind him.”

Many of Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave subjects are anonymous, testy white-collar squares; in reality, he’s a fairly chill 38-year-old suburban dad who blasts Misfits tunes for his kids around Halloween, and watches old episodes of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and Alfred Hitchcock Presents to unwind. When we meet at a diner in Burbank, not far from where he lives with his family, there’s a few days’ stubble on his face, and he’s dressed like the gracefully aging ex-skateboarder he is: white sneakers, brown checked pants, and a green sweater over a T-shirt that reads “Fucking Awesome.” As a young comedy fan, Robinson would skate with his buddies all afternoon, then return home to rewatch his copy of Saturday Night Live: The Best of Chris Farley.

More than a decade later, after making his way through multiple comedy scenes, Robinson found his way to SNL, as a featured player. It was a mostly miserable experience, one that found him fighting for stage time and doubting whether he was actually funny. Within a year, Robinson was pulled from the cast, and friends advised him to quit the show and leave New York for good.

Instead, he stayed on as a writer, and for the next three seasons began fine-tuning the comedic ideas that would eventually lead to I Think You Should Leave. “Tim likes to prove himself,” notes Zach Kanin, the show’s cocreator, who’s known him since their SNL days. “And when someone says, ‘Bad job,’ it gets his fire going.” And unlike the characters he plays on I Think You Should Leave, Robinson knows how to endure a very public, potentially humiliating ordeal without turning into a Chunky.

Robinson grew up in the suburbs outside of Detroit, where his father was a construction worker and his mother worked in the training division at Chrysler. As a teenager, he had his obsessions—punk rock, skating, his Best of Chris Farley collection—but no plans for the future. College didn’t feel like an option: “I don’t think I would have been able to get in,” he says. In the late ’90s, his mother took Robinson and his future wife, Heather, to Chicago, where they caught a show at the city’s famed Second City theater. He’d never seen a live sketch show. “I didn’t know how you got into it,” Robinson says. “But I remember leaving there and being like, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do.’”

When he returned to Detroit, Robinson realized there was a local Second City affiliate theater close to his parents’ home. “I was lucky it was there,” he says, “because I would have been scared to say, ‘OK, I’m moving somewhere else to do this.’ And I definitely wouldn’t have had the money.” He started taking classes, and in his early 20s, he began teaching improv—which is how he met the teenaged Richardson, one of his earliest students. “It was a very fast friendship,” Richardson says. “During our lunch breaks, we’d always be talking and hanging out. And he’d help me sneak into a bar around the corner from the theater—which wasn’t very hard to do in Detroit at the time.” (The two also bonded over their love for Christmas and old crooners; they still get together every December to watch Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby’s 1957 holiday special.)

Over the next several years, the two pals would perform together in local stage productions like Jerks at Warp Speed, in which Richardson played the bumbling captain of an Enterprise-like spaceship, and Robinson starred as a malevolent supercomputer. “Based on the way we would play together in those things,” Richardson says, “we kind of knew early on: ‘Oh, this is something we’ll have fun doing forever.’”

Both men eventually relocated to Chicago, where Robinson would join the Second City theater he’d visited just a few years before. But it was a one-off, one-man sketch appearance at Montreal’s Just for Laughs festival in 2011 that finally pushed him toward SNL. According to Robinson, John Mulaney caught his set and alerted the show’s producers, resulting in a series of tryouts. For one of them, Robinson played a teacher who’s been bullied by his students, and shows up for class in a leather jacket and sunglasses—“I know you’ve been saying I don’t know what’s what. But what if I told you that math was cool?”—and then promptly falls while trying to sit on his desk.

Robinson was hired as a featured player, relocating his family—which by then included his young son and daughter—to New York City for the show’s 2012-13 season. He managed a few solid on-screen turns in that first year, whether it was starring as John Tesh’s destructive, jingle-writing brother, or making Kevin Hart break mid-sketch. He also became close with fellow newcomers Aidy Bryant and Cecily Strong, and quickly won over the writers’ room: “Even at the first table read, he had really funny pieces,” Kanin says.

But Robinson had never appeared on television before, much less live television. Nor had he dealt with the politics of a network show, especially one so famously hard to decipher, much less navigate: “That year was bad,” he says. “Even if I felt good on a Tuesday, the depression was back again by Saturday.” One night, Robinson was acting in a sketch he’d helped write, about a husband-and-wife real estate team whose ads were getting covered with dong drawings. Halfway through, the stage went dark, and the show cut to commercial. “All of a sudden, the cameras and the people started to move,” he says, laughing. “I had no clue.”

It was Robinson’s second episode, and he was already running out of time. Not long afterward, he and Richardson met up backstage during a taping. “Tim was dressed as Santa Claus for a sketch, and was so excited for it,” Richardson says. “Then we heard [an announcement] saying it was cut. The disappointment for him was heartbreaking.”

Before the next season began, Robinson got a call informing him he’d been dropped from the cast, but that he could stay on as a writer. “Everybody told me, ‘Just come out to L.A., and do your own thing,’” he says. “But I wanted to stay. I would have been so damaged and shell-shocked from [leaving]. I would still be hung up on it.”

During his second season, Robinson began working more regularly with Kanin, a writer and cartoonist who’d arrived at SNL around the same time. They’d first collaborated on a Weekend Update segment about an eccentric Southern billionaire who wanted to construct a new Titanic. The bit never aired, but proved to Kanin how closely their sensibilities aligned: “We thought, ‘This [is a] kind of person we can write a lot of—a guy who was so enthusiastic about such a clearly bad idea.’”

Over the course of the next three seasons, Robinson and Kanin became a two-person creative team, eventually sharing an office at SNL. Some of their sketches never made it past the writers’ room, and those that did were often relegated to the broadcast’s final minutes, a hot zone for more out-there ideas. But just getting them on the air felt like a victory. In one of their bits, Mike O’Brien plays an overzealous TV news investigator who hurls questions at bugs crawling on the sidewalk (“Where are you headed? What’s the rush?”). In another, Peter Dinklage plays an uptight suit who’s jokingly accused of soiling his underwear at a corporate magic show, and simply can’t let it go.

Working in the writers’ room eased the strain of SNL. “I had the best time,” he says of those years. “I didn’t have the pressure of the live show. When you’re writing stuff, it goes on, or it doesn’t. And your grandma’s not like, ‘How come you weren’t on the show last night?’”

As Robinson’s time on SNL was winding down, cast member Jason Sudeikis—who was moving into TV production—asked whether he and Richardson would be interested in starring in a new show together. Robinson’s wobbly first season at SNL hadn’t scared him away from performing—he just didn’t want to have to do it on live TV. And, as it turned out, he and Richardson already knew the kind of series they’d want to make. “The first thing we said,” recalls Richardson, “was that it had to be about Detroit, and it had to be about us being best friends.”

Detroiters premiered on Comedy Central in early 2017, starring Robinson and Richardson as Tim and Sam, a pair of Motor City admen who dream up chintzy local commercials (many of which were based upon the homegrown spots the actors had seen as kids). The show, which the actors cocreated with Kanin and Joe Kelly, included a few of the recurring comedy fixations that would later materialize on I Think You Should Leave: poop jokes, law-firm commercials, the occasional guy in a gorilla costume. One episode followed an eccentric, Elon Musk–like inventor who bulds an eco-friendly car that reprocesses its waste into turd-shaped logs it then drops on the streets (“brilliantly stupid,” noted Detroiters fan Seth Meyers). Another plotline stars Keegan-Michael Key as a furniture salesman whose billboards are being graffiti’d by giant phalluses—a chance for Robinson to revive the SNL joke that had been interrupted just a few years before.

But for all the on-the-surface silliness of Detroiters, the show focused on the affection between its two on-screen pals. Tim and Sam’s careers and families are cozily enmeshed: Tim’s even married to Sam’s sister, Chrissy, an autoworker played by Shawntay Dalon. Detroiters might have been the kind of show that would devote an episode to “sexy jingles,” but it was also the rare prime-time comedy depicting the shared lives of black and white Americans with genial grace. “The whole interracial thing wasn’t a huge deal,” Dalon says. “There was never an episode that was, ‘He’s white, and she’s black.’ Detroiters just wasn’t about that. Even with Tim and Sam’s friendship, the most important thing was the fact that they loved each other.”

Comedy Central seemed to love Tim and Sam, too—at least at first. According to Robinson, the network supported the show during its initial run, despite just-OK ratings. “Everybody was happy with it, and it was all good vibes,” he says. “Then something happened with the second season. It felt like there was a turn.” Richardson blames a change in management: “They became more hands-on-y, and we had to fight for stuff.”

Detroiters’ second season was originally scheduled to air in early 2018, only to be pushed into the summer (“They were like, ‘We don’t want to compete with sports,’” says Richardson. “When is there not sports?”) And once the new episodes arrived, the cast members say, the network put very little marketing behind it. Even people who lived in Detroit didn’t know about Detroiters. “People would be like, ‘What show are you on?’” says Dalon, a Detroit native who still has close ties to the city. “That’s kind of unheard of when you’re on national television.”

Detroiters was finally canceled late last year, after just 20 episodes. “Comedy Central screwed us,” says Richardson, who believes the show could have thrived had it been licensed to a streaming platform, where it could have nurtured an audience over time (even now, Detroiters isn’t available on Hulu or Netflix). A spokesperson for Comedy Central notes: “We love Detroiters and we’re proud that it aired on Comedy Central for two seasons. We wish, Tim, Sam, and everyone who had a part in making that show nothing but future success.”

In the wake of I Think You Should Leave’s success, Detroiters now feels like one of Peak TV’s most curiously blown opportunities. Robinson is diplomatic about the network’s handling of the series (“I don’t want to talk crap on anybody or be negative,” he says). But the occasional creative battles with the network would “kick Tim up a notch,” says Richardson. “He’d be like, ‘Oh yeah? Then we’ll just do the funniest thing you’ve ever seen.’”

Toward the end of our breakfast in Burbank, the restaurant’s floppy-haired host—who appears to be a good 10 years younger than everyone else in the diner—approaches the table. “Are you Tim Robinson?” he asks. “I just wanted to come by and say your Netflix show is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.”

No one involved with I Think You Should Leave expected this kind of speedy, near-unanimous response. “It’s hard to break a sketch show,” says I Think You Should Leave codirector and executive producer Akiva Schaffer. “A lot of times, they have to be on two or three years before the audience catches on and it starts to feel successful.”

It was Schaffer, a founding member of the Lonely Island, who came up with the idea of handing Robinson his own show. He’d met the actor a few times through their shared SNL connections, and had seen Robinson’s installment of The Characters, a Netflix series that gave different comedians one episode. In retrospect, his showcase feels like an unofficial pilot for I Think You Can Leave, with Robinson playing such mouthy louts as Sammy Paradise, a ring-a-ding-dong-ing casino hotshot whose life radically unravels at the craps table. “I was like, ‘That’s the funniest 20 minutes of sketch I’ve seen in years,’” Schaffer says of The Characters. “It didn’t waste any time, and there wasn’t a pandering bone in its body. I started telling everybody I knew to watch it.”

After working with Robinson on a Lonely Island–produced Michael Bolton comedy special, Schaffer took a lunch with Netflix exec Robbie Praw in early 2018. The streamer has spent the past few years rewiring the world of stand-up comedy, paying big money for specials from the likes of Dave Chappelle and Amy Schumer, and introducing millions of viewers to such comics as Ali Wong. But with a few exceptions—like a 2015 reteaming of Mr. Show’s Bob Odenkirk and David Cross—the company had little experience with sketch comedy. “We talked about how a lot of sketch shows find a new group out of Upright Citizens Brigade, or the Groundlings, or the internet,” Schaffer recalls. “They’re young and funny, but then they don’t have a lot of experience putting together a show.”

Thanks to Robinson and Kanin’s stints on SNL and Detroiters, they knew the rigors of writing and producing a comedy series—skills they’d need for I Think You Should Leave, which was made with few production luxuries. The budget was extremely low, and the production schedule was tight. One especially elaborate segment begins with a sexually frustrated driver (played by Conner O’Malley) beeping at another car’s “Honk If You’re Horny” bumper sticker while driving around town, and ends with Robinson’s character in a cemetery, performing an inspirational ballad dedicated to his mother (it’s a long story). “That was very ambitious, given our resources,” says codirector Mathias, who’s produced such shows as Portlandia and Documentary Now!. “Lots of driving, lots of locations, and lots of tonal shifts—all encompassed in one sketch.” (Also complicating matters: “There was actually a funeral going on [nearby] when Tim was singing, so we had to make sure we were being respectful.”)

Once filming on I Think You Should Leave was finished, it took months to figure out what each episode would look like, as the editors experimented to see how long each sketch could last, and where it could fit, Tetris-style, within the series as a whole. A few segments were dramatically altered, like a whoopee-cushion bit that was chopped down by almost five minutes. The resulting episodes don’t look or move like sketch shows of the past. There are no hosted intros or interstitials on I Think You Should Leave; every bit moves immediately into the next. It’s a new and likely tough-to-crib comedy formula, one that combines the brevity of Adult Swim with the diligent sketch-structuring of Mr. Show. And because each installment is less than 20 minutes long, they could be absorbed slowly over time, or all at once, “like a sketch movie,” says Richardson.

I Think You Should Leave premiered in April, arriving at a strange time for non-SNL sketch: Just a few years ago, you could still mainline new episodes of Key & Peele, Portlandia, Inside Amy Schumer, Kroll Show, and The Birthday Boys. But the hits of that 2010s-born boom are now gone, and the networks have struggled to replace them (though HBO’s Black Lady Sketch Show and Netflix’s Astronomy Club: The Sketch Show both enjoyed well-received launches this year). Many of those earlier hits had a recognizable star or two; Robinson was still mostly known by hardcore comedy fans. And while it was being released via Netflix—which promised a far wider potential audience than the one for Detroiters—the show could very well have been swallowed up by the platform’s countless other offerings, buried by its cryptic algorithm.

In its first few days of release, Robinson did his best to stay away from the feedback fray: “Any time anything comes out, I get stressed out, and shut everything off.” But friends began sending him screenshots of the reaction online, where soon enough, fans were glomming on to characters like Ruben, the catty senior who hijacks a Ford focus group by proposing such no-good car ideas as “a good steering wheel that doesn’t fly off your hand while you’re driving.”

Exactly how many viewers are watching Robinson’s show is unclear, as Netflix usually doesn’t release ratings figures. But the network announced a second season not long after I Think You Should Leave’s premiere. And the imperfect (but still-telling) anecdotal metrics of the internet—where endless GIFs of Ruben and Chunky thrive, and where everyone knows that Bart Harley Jarvis doesn’t deserve to be named “Baby of the Year”—at least hint at just how essential the show has become for comedy fans, not to mention anyone who wants to understand what the hell people are talking about on Twitter.

For Robinson, whose work had been so underseen for so long, there’s only one logical response to everything that’s happened these past few months: To just keep going. After our meal concludes, he’ll head to the Hollywood production space where he and Kanin have been mapping out Season 2. As of now, they don’t have a firm deadline or game plan—they’re simply throwing ideas around a dark, windowless screening room. And it’s not clear whether the same anguished, put-upon characters who helped made I Think You Should Leave one of the year’s best shows will be returning. “There’s obviously going to be similar themes and similar people,” Robinson says, “because that’s in the realm of what we find funny: embarrassment.”

It’s a sensation with which he’s still deeply familiar. Robinson recently began skateboarding again for the first time in decades, cruising around the suburbs of L.A. with friends. “The falls hurt harder,” he says, laughing. “And I’m an old man out there, trying to do some trick.” The humiliation doesn’t end there: A few weeks after our breakfast, Robinson would wind up getting kicked out of a school parking lot while skating with his son over Thanksgiving. It’s a hilarious scenario for a 38-year-old guy with two kids and an ostensibly grown-up lifestyle. And Robinson can no doubt guess what the cops are going to tell him before they can even say the words: I think you should leave.

Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.

The Ringer Reality TV Podcast

‘The Great British Bake Off’ Season 9, Episode 1: “Cake Week”

Tea Time

September Streaming Recommendations, Adele’s New Boyfriend, and Yet Another Britney Spears Documentary

The Press Box

Gabby Petito Coverage, ESPN and Gambling, and a Terrible Emmys Question

View all stories in TV