Earlier this year, comedian Tim Robinson guest-starred in an episode of the Hulu animated series Solar Opposites, which is about a family of aliens marooned in an unnamed ‘Middle America’ town. As a cultural label, the term refers to the bulk of the country’s small towns. As a geographic label, however, it is used most often to describe the Midwest, the Corn Belt: Iowa, Illinois, the Dakotas and several others including Robinson’s native Michigan. In the Solar Opposites episode, Robinson played Peter, a disgruntled and possibly psychotic Apple Store employee who out of nowhere accuses the protagonists of torturing him.
Peter is a representative Tim Robinson character in many ways: a lower-to-mid-level corporate employee, an unexceptional worker bee overwhelmed by the drone era. His manias and outbursts are provoked, in part, by the claustrophobic sameness of his existence. Robinson’s Netflix sketch comedy series I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson, whose second season premiered earlier this week, is basically an array of variations on this theme.
These middling white men are drowning not only because of their own traits (juvenile behavior, can’t read social cues, bit of a slob) but also because of the ‘double down’, the cultural and behavioral engine that drives Robinson’s comedy. A Robinson character will, instead of admitting his failure or ignorance, double down on whatever deeply embarrassing course of action he has set out on.
A classic example from the second season’s first episode is the stupidly good ‘hot dog meeting’ skit, where a hungry Robinson tries (with laughably little effort at covertness) to eat a hot dog during a meeting that his boss has convened. Events escalate rapidly, as they must in a show with a 16-minute runtime, and Robinson nearly chokes on the hot dog, even as his colleagues try desperately to help him. In the corporate dystopia of I Think You Should Leave, the solution to every problem is a new product so ridiculous it could have come from the Acme Corporation. On cue, later in the season we get a sketch where Robinson appears in a deadpan 1-800 advert for a “hot dog vacuum” to suck errant wieners right out of your pipes.
The sketch comedy game is quite risky, especially when you are as invested in surrealism as Robinson is. Even shows as obviously accomplished as Key and Peele or Mr Show with Bob and David did not get it right a lot of the time. What those two shows were very good at, however, was their commitment to weirdness, especially if the weirdness did not always translate into concrete narrative strands. I Think You Should Leave takes this commitment to new heights with its second season and fittingly, Bob Odenkirk from Mr Show (perhaps Robinson’s principal stylistic influence) guest-stars in one of its best sketches.
A Robinson character will, instead of admitting his failure or ignorance, double down on whatever deeply embarrassing course of action he has set out on.
In this masterpiece-in-miniature, Robinson plays a cloyingly sweet Dad who’s lying to his young daughter about ice cream stores being shut “due to the cold”, a typically bone-headed Robinson double down. Odenkirk, the amused stranger on the next table, decides to play along, spinning escalating lies of his own. I have every single classic car, he says, before adding he has a spare for every one of them (“If I scratch one, I don’t care!”). I have a supermodel wife who proposed to me one day when I was least expecting it. As the lies keep getting more and more aspirational, they become a strange, morose autobiography of sorts, revealing the Odenkirk character’s morbid sense of humour and pathetic attempts at chest-puffing.
The lies begin as a kind of protective cover for a child’s innocence and end up as a dirge for the two grown men’s own quashed hopes and dreams. By any standards, that’s a lot to go through within the confines of a 4-5 minute sketch. Odenkirk and Robinson’s brilliant performances sell it, of course, but this is primarily a writing triumph (indeed, Robinson remains the only ex-SNL cast member who was hired as a recurrent player but later given a writing-only role).
Other sequences that will stay with you include an unrelenting sketch where Tim Heidecker (himself an accomplished sketch comedian and part of the ‘Tim and Eric’ comedy duo with Eric Wareheim) plays a patron at an alien-themed bar—complete with a stand-up comedian in an alien mask who starts to pick on Heidecker in the name of crowd work. Heidecker turns the tables on his tormentor in a scene that’s not even written as comedy, strictly speaking. The writing is so confident here that they basically play straight pathos in a certain key and trust the audience to join the comedic dots.
I Think You Should Leave proves that Robinson’s audacious style was probably never a good fit for the avowedly conventional, middle-of-the-road SNL. This is a challenging and impressively unpredictable show from a seriously talented comedian coming into his own.
Feature image courtesy Netflix