Tim Robinson looks like any old generic, middle-aged American white guy you might see shopping the aisles of Walmart or chugging bottled beer in a sports bar,while cheering on the Cincinnati Bearcats. That’s a kind of superpower for a sketch comedian. In fact, he’s the aberrant talent behind I Think You Should Leave, the breakout sketch comedy hit of 2019, now back on Netflix for a second season.
Robinson also honed his craft the American way – as a performer, then as a writer, on Saturday Night Live, from late 2012 to the 2015-16 season. This relatively short stint suggests he never quite found his niche within the late-night institution, however. Is I Think You Should Leave the wastepaper bin where all his rejected SNL ideas ended up? If so, it can’t have been that the ideas weren’t good enough. They must have been too good, or too weird anyway – which in absurdist comedy terms is the same thing.
SNL alumni continue to dominate the credits list in season two, but there is clearly no “jobs for the boys” mentality behind this show’s imaginative casting. Up-and-comers of diverse provenance (Shrill’s Patti Harrison, Veep’s Sam Richardson) are the stars of several sketches, while the most meme-worthy roles are often given to faces only a close relative would recognise. A lack of global celebrity didn’t stop 83-year-old actor Ruben Rabasa from turning the first season’s Car Focus Group sketch into a sensation, for instance – New York magazine even published an oral history of its creation.
This season’s contenders for comparable cult status include Bob McDuff Wilson as a kindly business school professor with terrible table manners. Or Biff Wiff as Santa Claus, if he was also a self-regarding actor promoting his latest ultra-violent vigilante thriller.
I Think You Should Leave is among the freshest and funniest TV comedies of recent years, but it isn’t that the premises are particularly innovative – pop culture parodies, office etiquette and bad dinner dates are all mainstays of sketch comedy. Its style of humour, while frequently labelled “wacky” or “out there”, also isn’t so far out that its lineage can’t be traced – indeed, Mr Show’s Bob Odenkirk and Tim & Eric’s Tim Heidecker both guest star. Yet most comedy that dares to stray from the beaten track does so at the risk of getting lost in the weeds. Fans learn to accept a certain hit-to-miss ratio. What is so mindblowingly delightful about I Think You Should Leave is how it takes frequent turns down the lesser-travelled route to hilarity, and unerringly reaches its destination. In good time, too: most episodes come in around the 16-minute mark.
Typically, the characters will make some error of judgment, get called out on it and then – instead of simply admitting fault and apologising – double down ad infinitum. There is no sign yet that Robinson and co-creator Zach Kanin are running short of complicating factors for this basic formula, and the difficulty of summarising each increasingly ridiculous situation is testament to that. But get ready for such wonders as “the guy on the adults-only ghost tour who falls foul of the guide’s anything-goes policy”. Or “the road-raging driver who doesn’t actually know how to drive”, and is indignant that anyone would assume otherwise.
There are no catchphrases per se, just plenty of catchy, non-sequitur phrasings, which find their way into the episode titles. Callbacks to other favourite themes (novelty menswear, close shouting, doing oversized poos in other people’s toilets) are dotted throughout with a diligence that is in itself hilarious.
On one level, this show is a celebration of that kamikaze streak in all great improv performers (Robinson, like Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert before him, came up in Chicago’s Second City troupe). If these guys think a bit is funny, they’ll commit to it and keep going until the audience agrees. You could also read into it a broader satire of our social-media-skewed psyches. In deference to our ruined attention spans, nothing here lasts longer than a YouTube Vine compilation.
What all the standout characters have in common is their absurdly entrenched positions. Even when confronted with logic or treated with compassion, they are incapable of backing down. Instead, they panic, become defensive, and distract with an onslaught of outrage. Ever wondered what would happen if people behaved in real-world interactions like they do online? I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson isn’t just a very funny TV show, it’s a cautionary vision of society’s near future.