Comedy

Cult comedy I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson asks a simple, recurring question: how far might one go to save face? By Luke McCarthy.

I Think You Should Leave

Tim Robinson in I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.
Credit: Saeed Adyani / Netflix

In the sketch that opens the second season of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, a man sits down at his desk to eat a hotdog. He is interrupted by a co-worker who informs him that lunch will be pushed back today to ensure that another co-worker can attend their group meeting. We cut to the meeting to find that the man has smuggled the hotdog into the boardroom and is furtively attempting to eat it. 

His co-workers notice immediately, asking him deadpan: “Is that a hotdog?” Instead of owning up, he slumps to the table and proclaims that he is the most tired he has been in his life. He then goes dead quiet. His colleagues prod him to see if he is okay, only to discover he is choking on the hotdog. Chaos ensues.

As with many of the sketches in this cult comedy, the man is played by Tim Robinson, co-creator of the show with Zach Kanin. At the centre of this scenario is a simple question that recurs throughout the series: how far might one go to save face? Why does the man decide to dig in and lie? Why feign tiredness rather than concede that he has brought a hotdog into this meeting? The details here are absurd but at their core there is something very recognisable.

Robinson began his television career writing for Saturday Night Live before he made a name for himself in the alternative comedy scene, appearing in shows such as Comedy Bang! Bang!, Documentary Now! and The Characters. His first big break came in 2017 through the Comedy Central sitcom Detroiters. Set in his home city, the show follows Sam Duvet (Sam Richardson) and Tim Cramblin (Robinson) as they work together to make low-budget television commercials for local businesses in Detroit. Robinson’s bizarre humour was already apparent but forced into the confines of a traditional sitcom structure it felt dulled, almost conventional. This changed in 2019 with the release of the first season of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.

The sketch comedy series – six episodes that ran no longer than 19 minutes each – developed a dedicated fan base and some sketches are now iconic online. Executive produced by The Lonely Island and directed by Akiva Schaffer (Hot Rod, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping) and Alice Mathias (Portlandia), the show presented its audience with a surreal, unabashedly goofy vision of sketch comedy that quickly set itself apart from television’s current milieu.

The comedy in I Think You Should Leave… is rarely referential. It doesn’t wink and nudge at its audience to let them know it is in on the joke. The humour is gleeful, each sketch driven by an enveloping internal logic that gets funnier upon repeat viewings.

Arriving two years after its debut – production was halted early in 2020 due to Covid-19 – the second season of I Think You Should Leave… picks up where the first series left off. It’s clear Robinson and his collaborators have a finely tuned understanding of what works and they wisely choose not to stray too far from the formula. But what is this formula? And why is it so funny?

A wonderfully silly streak permeates the sketches. A faux movie trailer that runs for nearly two minutes before revealing that its lead actor is played by Santa Claus, for example, is later followed with an E! News-style behind-the-scenes interview with the cast in which Santa threatens to walk out if the host so much as mentions his work as Mr Claus.

It’s a humour that doesn’t aim for the crass or puerile – although the show is certainly not afraid to be crass. It is hyper-specific and detail-oriented in a way that frequently pushes towards an absurdism reminiscent of another cult comedy series, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!

Much of the comedy of I Think You Should Leave… derives from how this absurdity clashes with the suffocatingly banal world its characters inhabit. From corporate boardrooms to polite dinners to team meetings, many of the sketches take place in explicitly mundane social settings. These are locations where the unspoken rules of social conduct can be observed with an almost cruel sense of precision, and it’s hilarious and horrifying to see them broken so egregiously.

In an interview with Vulture in 2019, Robinson said there is “something about somebody being so embarrassed to admit they’ve made a small mistake and denying it [that] is really human … How far someone will take it is funny to me. People can refuse to admit fault to the point that it becomes super embarrassing for them, but in their mind, they still feel like they’re saving face.”

When confronted by the abject terror of being deemed an outsider by your peers, what else can one do?

Though taken to its extreme in the series, this terror is something which, in some small way, is present in all of us. In a world that values competition over compassion, where status and standing are emphasised as moral goods, we survive by attempting to follow often inscrutable social conventions.

As the man in the opening sketch attempts to eat his hotdog mid-meeting, much of the humour is wrung not only from the act itself but from his colleagues’ deadpan insistence on pointing out how poorly he is hiding it. For them, he has strayed from the unspoken social conventions of the corporate boardroom and must now be punished.

To double-down and feign tiredness in response is patently ridiculous – an aspect that Robinson’s performance leans into to great comedic effect – but it is also understandable.

The attention paid to this very human instinct makes the show endlessly rewatchable. Each sketch is rich with nuances of gesture and reaction that suggest entire interior worlds, revealing a deeply felt and profound sense of pathos beneath the comedy. After all, is it really so absurd to want to sit down and enjoy a hotdog during your lunchbreak?

I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson is now playing on Netflix.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 17, 2021 as "Human terror".

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Luke McCarthy is a filmmaker, writer and critic based in Naarm/Melbourne.