As the writer’s strike enters its fifth week, a topic of discussion gaining recent traction is artificial intelligence’s role in future writer’s rooms. The articles devoted to AI’s continued creative encroachment are predictably alarmist; to paraphrase Mencken, no newspaper ever lost money underestimating the American public’s fear of robots. But to anyone with even a passing familiarity with what it takes to write a movie or a TV show—to take an original thought and put it onscreen—the notion that AI might replace writers, or take any significant part in the creative process, seems absurd. “If you’re derivative, then yeah, you might be in for trouble,” Danny McBride said when asked about Chat GPT’s threat to writers. “But if you’re making something that’s your point of view, like… I dare it, I challenge it. I’ll be fuckin’ Casey Jones, I’ll go head to head with this goddamn thing.”
I think he means John Henry, but his point stands. No movies or series of any real merit are generated by AI. The funniest show on TV, Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave, has a style and sense of humor that feels impossible to replicate with technology, as it’s so indebted to the strange, singular imagination of its creator, Tim Robinson. Could an algorithm come up with something as high-concept as TC Tuggers—a long-winded bit of product placement for t-shirts with round knobs on the front (“so you can just pull it out when it gets trapped in your belly”) that’s embedded within a CW-style high school drama? Or “Brian’s Hat,” in which a phone transcript read aloud during an insider trading trial exposes the defendants’ private ridicule of a co-worker’s fedora? Could a computer have possibly written the show’s most famous sketch, so memed that it became online shorthand for powerful people deflecting responsibility in messes they helped create? As McBride would say, I dare it.
Which isn’t to say that I Think You Should Leave has no formula. The series’ very first sketch—a beautifully simple piece of comedy in which Robinson tries to pull a cafe door instead of push, then to avoid embarrassment, continues pulling (“I was here yesterday, it actually goes both ways”) until the door is both visibly and audibly broken—was a sort of thesis statement for the rest of the series. This was going to be a show largely about embarrassing social situations, and the comedy was all about the ways in which a given sketch’s protagonist (usually Robinson, but occasionally other comic actors like Will Forte or Tim Heidecker) reacts to a given scenario, inevitably making things worse in ways that no predictive model could foresee.
There are roughly seven different templates for I Think You Should Leave sketches:
—The Lie: The protagonist (again, often Robinson) will tell a lie, usually a fairly small one. He’ll try to bolster the lie with additional lies, which are always bigger and more ridiculous (i.e. Bob Odenkirk’s escalation of self-aggrandizing lies in “Diner Wink”), and/or get caught and react with wounded confusion and incredulity, as is the case in “Fully Loaded Nachos” (my mom’s favorite I Think You Should Leave sketch).
—The Convoluted TV Show/Commercial: More or less self-explanatory. Aside from the aforementioned TC Tuggers skit, examples include season one’s “Has This Ever Happened To You?”, season two’s “Hot Dog Vacuum,” and more recently, a sketch about a game show called Metal Motto Search in which a magnetized robot mascot (in reality, an older man in a very heavy metal suit) has to slowly scale a large wall of aluminum tiles, constantly slipping while the contestants wait awkwardly and the host (Sam Richardson) berates him.
—The Convoluted Scheme: A lunatic (sometimes Robinson, sometimes one of his equally unhinged contemporaries like Forte or Connor O’Malley) will bully an easy-going person into cooperating with some convoluted scheme or business venture, like the special, donor-funded website that pretends to sell pants with stains on the crotch for men who need to explain their pee stains.
—The Misread Social Cue: Someone receives a social cue—a tepid laugh at their joke, an invitation to swear during a ghost tour, a “Honk If You’re Horny” bumper sticker—and responds in the most inappropriate way possible (respectively: making the joke into a t-shirt; asking the tour guide about ghosts ejaculating and taking a “big messy shit”; stalking the owner of the bumper sticker until he offers him porn magazines from his trunk).
—The Overreaction: The sketch will begin with some light ribbing (a magician roasting his volunteer) or minor faux pas (an interviewer asking Santa Claus about Christmas while he promotes his starring role in a violent action movie, a very funny send-up of an infamous Billy Bob Thornton radio interview) that inspires an absurdly overblown response.
—The Failure of Logic: In these sketches, people either forget or pretend to forget how to do things, like drive, walk around cars on the sidewalk, or breathe.
—The Catharsis: This is probably the weirdest of all of them, and the one that cross-pollinates the most with the other six templates. A character will experience some sort of catharsis or emotional breakthrough that’s equal parts funny and touching. Patti Harrison has a couple of different Catharsis sketches throughout the series.
There are sketches that don’t quite fit any of the above templates, like “Brian’s Hat,” “Biker Guy,” or season three’s funniest sketch, “Summer Loving,” a Bachelorette-style dating show in which Robinson plays a contestant whose intense preoccupation with the swimming pool zipline gets him voted off. But most adhere to at least the basic formulae. But however formulaic I Think You Should Leave can be, these aren’t the kind of processes that AI is particularly handy with, and no algorithm could hope to recreate the series’ many oddball details: the fedoras that Robinson insists on including in a bridal shower gift bag aren’t just any fedoras but “Stanzo brand” fedoras; the bizarre, macabre mythos that Robinson’s country singer conjures during a studio improvisation (“the bones were their dollars, and so were the worms”); the fictional jazz musicians that Tim Heidecker writes down during a game of charades (Roy Donk, Thaddeus Finx, Mookie Kramer, Paul Bufano, Tiny Boop Squig Shorterly); and not least of all, the inexplicably hilarious phrasing that Robinson sprinkles into each episode (“they said that to me at a dinner”).
On the latter subject, in three seasons Robinson has perfected his delivery of lines like “It’s just that when I slammed my two hands down I squoze and I farted.” Robinson’s comedy isn’t too far from the irreverent jackassery of Jon Glaser (Delocated, Jon Glaser Loves Gear) or even the more basic stylings of Curb Your Enthusiasm and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—all shows whose comedy is also largely built around its characters exacerbating already embarrassing situations. There are also elements of sketch classics like Mr. Show (which pioneered the Convoluted Commercial) and Kids in the Hall. But to reduce I Think You Should Leave to its influences is to ignore the strange magic of Robinson’s unique sensibility, right down to his average Joe crew cut, his outrageous vocal fry that’s always threatening to turn into a growl, and the smash cut edits that define the show’s clipped montage and abridged structure.
The short length of episodes makes it more rewatchable than most shows, so it doesn’t feel weird re-watching a season (a little over an hour in running time) a few times in quick succession. As is true of the best sketch shows, the skits often have the quality of pop earworms, those songs that you don’t necessarily notice or care for much at first but then grow on you. There are sketches in the newest season that didn’t really make me laugh—a bit about “shirt brothers,” a Patti Harrison sketch about an office Christmas party—but part of the fun of I Think You Should Leave is seeing which sketches get better with time.
For example, I didn’t think much of “Dylan’s Burger” at first; now I find it impossible to say the words “just joking” without following them with “I’m just jokin’!” I’m not proud of that. It takes considerable hubris to believe we can program AI to write TV when, if anything, TV programs us.