Uncanny Netflix sketch show explores the humor of humiliation
Tim Robinson in I Think You Should Leave
Watching Tim Robinson’s disarmingly funny new Netflix sketch comedy series, I Think You Should Leave, I found myself thinking about Jack Handey.
Jack Handey is my favorite American male humorist. This is in part because his jokes have made me laugh for a long time. (“To me, it’s a good idea to always carry two sacks of something when you walk around. That way, if anybody says, ‘Hey, can you give me a hand?’ you can say, ‘Sorry, got these sacks.’”) But also because most people don’t believe he is real.
This misunderstanding by the public is forgivable. Handey’s childlike aphorisms, Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey, first came to us in the ‘90s via Saturday Night Live, where most viewers understood him as a fiction of the show due to his silly-sounding name. Regardless, more than a million copies of his books have sold
While Handey’s Deep Thoughts and Robinson’s new show differ wildly in style, the two share a dedication to humor that is absurd, out-of-line with mainstream taste and often terribly discomforting.
The source of this discomfort in I Think You Should Leave is Robinson himself. The 37-year-old former Saturday Night Live writer and cast member is a manic performer who stammers, dissembles, stares, spits, grimaces and shouts through sketches that emasculate his characters right to their despicable cores.
Like Handey, Robinson’s comic sensibilities are of the scoundrel variety. The butts of his jokes lack awareness and shame, explode with anger, harbor dark secrets and often find themselves caught in a moment when a lie has reached critical mass. Robinson doesn’t do relatable comedy, easy punchlines or straightforward topical references.
The last point in particular signifies how hard I Think You Should Leave chafes against our modern economy of consumer comedy. Think of a typically pleasant, banal late-night monologue from James Corden or Seth Meyers. Usually there are a few jokes in there about a topic as worn as Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, whose punchline hinges on whether or not you read that day’s Kanye West or Kim Kardashian story. This is comedy for the sake of rewarding your consumption. Here’s your gold star for getting the reference. Covfefe.
“It feels so throwaway,” Handey told the New York Times Magazine about this sort of topical humor in a 2013 feature. “I’m sure there were great jokes that were very timely to 1878, but nobody wants to read ‘em now.”
Instead of gently poking your brain’s poor, overstimulated dopamine receptors, Robinson’s show delights in the sort of drawn-out tensions that unnerve audiences looking for an obvious payoff, pushing them well into the territory of humiliation.
Dinner goes fine until a man is caught conspiring with the restaurant manager to stop his date from bogarting the loaded nachos. A backup organist tests new material at a funeral. An intervention is derailed when its host reveals that she bought her home from Garfield creator Jim Davis—or did she?
In what might be the show’s funniest single bit, Robinson sanctimoniously rattles off porno titles to distract a manager as he shoplifts from a store he’d just driven a hot dog-shaped car into. He loves pulling the curtains back on dim miscreants and liars, to see the lengths they’ll go to keep up the illusion.
In less-experienced hands, I Think You Should Leave could quickly descend into atonal, mishmash anarchy. But Robinson’s background in sketch keeps things familiar, drawing on many of the genre’s everyday set pieces for consistency: the board room meeting, the commercial parody, the quiz show.
That he can do this without verging into edgelord territory—joking about controversial subjects just to delight in the shock value—is impressive. Robinson deftly dodges rage comedy as well. His performance of masculine anger comes across consistently as pitiful rather than intimidating, thanks in part due to his schlubby appearance and arsenal of dopey expressions.
Trying to pin down a theme or any other overarching rhyme or reason to the show’s humor seems like a futile exercise, but motifs emerge over its six short episodes. Grown-ups yell at babies. Badly designed products betray their consumers’ insecurities. (Brace yourself for Robinson’s line delivery in the TC Tuggers sketch.) Colleagues struggle to relate to one another. Humiliation abounds.
There are tons of solid guest spots both from familiar faces (Will Forte, Vanessa Bayer, Steven Yeun, Fred Willard) and up-and-comers (Patti Harrison and Brandon Wardell) alike, but Conner O’Malley emerges as the show’s final boss, the only comic up to the task of rivaling Robinson’s deranged presence. Those familiar with O’Malley’s work will see the parallels to his insane and visceral Twitter videos where he works up a mania shouting into his selfie-sticked smartphone camera about his deranged fixation on Democratic presidential candidates Howard Schultz and Beto O’Rourke.
I won’t spoil O’Malley’s sketch with Robinson here, but like O’Malley’s guerilla comedy, it gets at something really unsettling in our cultural moment, underscoring how our public figures can humiliate themselves left and right seemingly without repercussion. It seems like a good check on our ability to find the humor in public debasement. In this way, I Think You Should Leave feels like a relief.