By definition, sketch comedy is short-form. Sketches tend to be a few minutes long, featuring self-contained stories and characters; they’re meant to be brief, never pushing a joke past the point where it’s still funny. So sketches generally haven’t fared well when they’re transformed into feature films. Clunky sketch-derived movies like A Night at the Roxbury, Coneheads, and Superstar just prove the point; what was funny for four or five minutes feels like flogging a dead horse at feature length. Jack Henry Robbins’ VHYES beats the system by approaching the idea of a sketch movie from the opposite direction. Instead of trying to stretch out one sketch to feature length, Robbins packs his film full of sketches that seem unrelated, until they coalesce into a single story.
Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim has thrived on weird sketch comedy, with programs like Robot Chicken and Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! VHYES initially feels like an extended episode of a similar series. Young Ralph (Mason McNulty) has a new video camera, and he’s used it to tape over his parents’ wedding VHS. The film is meant to be the result: a mixture of footage from the wedding, Ralph’s recordings of life around the house, and various programs taped off TV.
Each TV-show bit parodies a familiar bit of TV lore, from Bob Ross’ painting tutorials to Antiques Roadshow. But they all come with twists: the painter in the tutorial show includes a segment meant to help viewers sleep, in which she simply stares into the camera, waiting for the audience to nod off. The shopping-channel hosts begin shilling for objects they claim are for regular use around the house, but are clearly drug paraphernalia.
The bits and pieces are perfectly strange, and they feature some of the best comedians currently working. Kerri Kenney (Reno! 911) plays the Bob Ross-esque figure, Thomas Lennon (also of Reno! 911) plays one of the shopping-channel hosts, and Mark Proksch (the What We Do in the Shadows series, Better Call Saul) plays the appraiser. They all nail the transition from standard TV programming to increasingly discomfiting chaos.
As the clips alternate with footage from Ralph’s life, hanging out with his mother (Christian Drerup) or his best friend Josh (Rahm Braslaw), it gradually becomes clear that everything is connected. VHYES is a story about a child reckoning with his parents’ divorce. The formerly neat, gentle world of late-night TV starts to blur and become cruel as Ralph realizes that his parents’ marriage is falling apart. The sketches break down as clips of the seemingly idyllic wedding still flash across the screen, emphasizing a sense of rudderlessness, as well as how confusing and inconceivable the impending break-up feels.
The slow reveal of exactly what’s happening is masterful. The bite-sized bits of late-night programming create the illusion that VHYES is a collection of discrete parts rather than a whole; it feels an experimental film, and the revelation that the film is telling a more straightforward story isn’t a disappointment as much as it is a sort of twist.
What makes VHYES even more remarkable is the fact that it’s actually entirely shot on VHS. The movie is in the nearly square VHS 4:3 aspect ratio, and it’s slightly grainy, accompanied by occasional lines of visual static. Nostalgia has hit it big in series like Stranger Things and the It movie franchise, but the commitment to VHS means VHYES actually feels like it was made in the era it’s depicting. (It’s almost jarring to see the director’s parents, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, crop up in cameo appearances, as they’re the only overt clues that the movie wasn’t actually made in the 1980s.)
Jack Henry Robbins, who co-wrote the film with Nunzio Randazzo, eventually takes the absurdity threaded throughout the film to an almost David Lynchian level, a gambit that works largely because of the sketch-y nature of the movie, and how brief it is at just 72 minutes. The strangeness of the material isn’t VHYES’ primary attraction; it’s the atypical mode of storytelling and sense of sincerity. Given that the story isn’t exactly linear — the audience pieces it together through multiple shows and stories — the amount of Ralph’s story that can explicitly be told is lessened. So Robbins focuses on conveying emotions through the footage that’s been cut together, creating an arc that’s tangible rather than literally told. He’s figured out how to make a successful sketch movie, and he’s tapped into nostalgia better than any of the Steven Spielberg or Stephen King would-bes mining the same vein.
VHYES debuts in theaters Jan. 17.