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Arts And Culture

“You Knew It Was Something Really Nasty”: How The Art Department Brings ‘I Think You Should Leave’ To Life

11:31 AM EDT on June 13, 2023

I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson. Episode 302 of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson. Cr.
Courtesy of Netflix

Every season of I Think You Should Leave has some visual gag that goes viral. In the first it was the hot dog guy who crashes his hot dog car (“We’re all trying to find the guy who did this.”) In the second it was Karl Havoc, which I only just found out was the name of the character in that ill-fitting, melting-bodybuilder suit creator and star Tim Robinson is wearing through a mall as he says, “I don’t want to be around anymore.” In the latest season, it’s the playable pornographic egg game

I don’t know what the budget is for the art department on ITYSL (I asked), but Golden Shyne, who is head of makeup on the show and oversaw the making of Karl Havoc (and appears briefly in the sketch), says it’s “a really generous production.” That allows her and her team to bring Robinson multiple options for prosthetics and wigs, but also for subtler transformative details (I am thinking particularly of the wrinkles on Will Forte in this sketch), which work together to make everything that much funnier. Without a big enough budget you don’t get sketches like Coffin Flop (which required four coffins that each had four or five false bottoms), Dan Flashes (with a store full of horrendous custom designed shirts), Metal Motto Search (with the Metalloid Maniac in a suit that’s “way too heavy” to zip around on the magnetized wall like it’s supposed to).

But it’s not just about the money. It’s also about Robinson’s particular approach. He’s a skater (why do I find him hotter now?) and Shyne thinks that’s instrumental to the inclusivity behind ITYSL. “In skate culture, everybody’s very involved, everybody’s very celebratory, even if you fall,” she says. “It really cultivates a special sort of energy throughout the season where we all not only are getting paid, but we’re having fun making this thing happen together.” Shyne has been into makeup since she first saw Michael Jackson turned into a zombie for “Thriller” and learned how to do it by working on dancers and sex workers in her hometown of Las Vegas. After moving to Los Angeles to study special effects makeup in Koreatown, she got her first job on The Eric Andre Show—“Everything was, like, duct tape”—which is where she met an intern named Jay Patumanoan. He would later become the producer on ITYSL and send her a script (“I couldn’t get through the first page without losing it,” she says). Shyne brings a clean and sustainable approach to the makeup on set—she doesn’t overuse, and she doesn’t overspend. She also doesn’t lament the lack of time she’s given. “That’s where things like Karl Havoc come through,” she says. “There wasn’t enough time, but it ended up being more funny.”

Kevin Estrada/NETFLIX

While watching Season 3, I was most interested in whatever was happening in the Doggy Door sketch. It comes in the same episode as the egg game, but it’s a lot ... weirder. Basically, it starts out as an ad for a high-security dog door, before devolving into a meditation on one man’s dead-end life. The commercial pitch man, played by Robinson, tells the story of a “thing” that got into his house through the dog door one night. I don’t know how to explain how this “thing” looks, but I’ll try: It’s like a monster made from skin-colored papier-mâché dog food with a melted human face with huge black eyebrows and sparse gray hairs all over its body. In other words, it’s a cut-rate version of the werewolf in An American Werewolf in London. “What the fuck?!?!?!” Robinson’s character yells. “What the fuck!!!!!” And—same. Turns out he has just been slow to process that an angry neighbor has sent a pig—“It’s a piiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiig!”—through his door flap with a Nixon mask on its head. “My life is nothing I thought it should be and everything I worried it would become because for 50 seconds I thought there was monsters on the world,” he says. 

Because I was so obsessed with how the “thing” came to be, I spoke to the man behind it, Jim Ojala (the woman inside it was contortionist Devyn LaBella, who posted about it here). In the ‘90s, he created a horror-comedy cable access series (My Three Scums, about a dysfunctional mutant family) before moving from his hometown of Duluth to New York and finally to Los Angeles as a special effects guy. In 2005, he opened Ojala Productions and he recently worked on Barbarian (I geeked). Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

How did you get into special effects?

It’s spoken to me since I was a little kid. I saw ET seven times in the theater. I saw Gremlins three times. Something gross and weird that’s also a character, I always found fascinating. Once you realize that you can actually make a living at that, it’s the most incredible thing ever. From where I am in Minnesota, none of this is planet Earth. When I was growing up, there was no encouragement for any of this kind of stuff. I was filing medical record charts, and doing what I loved, shooting our show, on the weekends. I never thought I could ever be a part of this world.

The cable access show that I did in Minnesota led me to Troma in New York City. They are famous for making the horror comedies The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High, movies that I grew up loving. They really dug the show that I was doing, so they invited me to work on their next film, which was Citizen Toxie: Toxic Avenger IV. I spent my life savings to sleep on warehouse floors and work on this film as an intern, basically. This guy, Tim Considine, who ran the [special effects department], became my mentor, took me under his wing and taught me everything. That led to working on Saturday Night Live a little bit and that eventually brought me out to Los Angeles where I got on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, and everything just kind of steamrolled from there.

I understand Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but how does your work translate into comedy like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and Comedy Bang! Bang!?

I’ve done things in all genres, but I’ve always really loved horror comedy. Going back to the Troma days doing really crazy films that were provocative, and potentially offensive, all of that stuff always appealed to me. Through some of that I got an early shot on the old Tim and Eric Awesome Show. I had crows pick their eyes out. I got along great with those guys, and they kept having me back on all their shows. [Through] their production company, Absolutely Productions, I start doing Comedy Bang! Bang! and Jon Benjamin Has a Van and different shows and programs within that realm. They’re always looking for a common thing too: Does this guy get it? If something just looks like crap, it can be easily dismissed.

That’s a hard line to walk, I would assume. I kept pausing I Think You Should Leave because I was like, I can’t even wrap my head around what this disgusting thing is. It kind of has this face that’s falling off. And it kind of looks like it’s made of dog food. How do you toe that line between absurdity and it not looking like a piece of crap that a kid made?

And do it in, like, 10 days. The gag is that we eventually see that it’s a pig with the Nixon mask. It has to be something that a performer can be inside of, but we throw off the human form. It doesn’t look like a person, necessarily, but we don’t want it to look like a pig, either. So, let’s make the overall skin tone kind of pinkish, that throws back to a pig. Let’s give it kind of a human-esque face, but really weird and disgusting. Also, some kind of Nixon feature. Do we give it a long nose? No, that’s too on the nose. What if we just give it those big, pronounced eyebrows? I sent over some concept art, and they were like, Perfect. Tim saw it and he was like, Well, I’ve never seen anything like that before.

What was the actual directive?

It was a very vague description of some kind of gross humanoid type thing. You knew it was something really nasty, that would contrast with what the reveal is then later. The big thing, too, is how we could throw off the human form, as far as how Devyn LaBella is going to move and perform in it. She’s a contortionist, and she can do crazy things with her body, and she’s been in suits before, so she’s not going to get claustrophobic. We did little auditions here at the effects shop where we bound her legs and bound her arms and had her walk on her elbows and knees. We built her custom stilts, that she could strap her elbows into and walk on her elbows. And that was all awesome. But once we put it in the suit, it was so constricting that we lost the stilts altogether, and then just had her move in different ways. There was definitely some trial and error going on.

And then is it like a dress shop where you have the design and then you get a whole bunch of people to create the thing? Or are you pretty hands on about what materials to use and all that kind of stuff?

I’m completely hands on in every part of it. In most scenarios—and in this case —we’ll have a meeting and based on what I think is in their head, I’ll do a concept design and send it over. If we get a thumbs up, bam! We move into production. If we don’t, we keep tweaking until the client likes it. For this, my assistant Amber Marie made a custom spandex suit that basically sews the legs together that would fit Devyn’s body. It had pockets where her feet and her legs would go and everything, but it’s sewn in a contorted position. We put that on a dummy, constricted in the same position that Devyn would be on the day. And then we build the suit around that. All the skin is soft foam latex. It can move and flex really easily and it photographs like skin. The head’s all made out of foam latex, so it’s really soft and moves well, and then it has snaps where it attaches to the suit. There’s hair on it, and you put all kinds of slime on it when you’re on set and all of a sudden it starts to feel alive.

Is that thing heavy?

The whole thing altogether is probably less than 10 pounds. One of the trickiest things, though, for Devyn, and the creation of it was, in order to do a gag like this, the face is on the top of her head. We have to make her little, teeny eye holes and breathing holes in the neck of the creature. She can’t really see where she’s going at all. You’re directing her through it. You can’t just say, “Oh, move your head to the left,” because the way somebody would do it naturally wearing something like that, the whole creature’s head twists. So, it all gets kind of complex.

It made me think of An American Werewolf in London…

That’s high praise.

…because that was back when there wasn’t CGI, when they were doing everything physically.

Another big one, especially in the scenes where it’s kind of darker, and it comes through the doggie door and it’s in the house and you see the gleam of the skin through the darkness, it really reminded me of The Fly, when he fully turns into it. Just the way the skin photographed and how gross it looked really conjured up some of that.

How did they react when they first saw it on the set?

It was kind of a mixture of hilarity and disgust, but also, like, Oh my god, this thing is so cool, at the same time. It was a hit for sure.

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