‘I Think You Should Leave…’ and the cult of cringe comedy

Tim Robinson's Netflix smash owes its success to our love of watching other people in awkward situations

After 16 months alone with our thoughts, it’s a comfort to be told – however unrealistically – that there are people out there crazier than us. It’s what might have stoked anticipation for the second season of Netflix’s 2019 sketch comedy hit I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson – an ex-Saturday Night Live regular let loose on his own show alongside co-creator Zach Kanin – to fever pitch, if it wasn’t already a viral meme sensation, thanks to the unspoken modern political subtext of a guy in a hot dog suit trying to avoid the responsibility for “someone” driving a hot dog car through a clothes shop window (and other such season one highlights). The show has been lauded for its refreshing avoidance of open political goals in favour of everyday social faux pas taken to their screaming extremes, as well as its attempts to flesh out its primarily one-issue characters – they really like complicated shirt patterns, say, or hate sharing the most meat-loaded nachos – with glimpses of deeper emotional lives, the wounds behind their obsessions. But ultimately, it’s a show that nudges your rib and whispers “at least you’re not that guy…”

It’s an advisable tenet of life to be suspicious of comedy hype – I mean, have you ever actually read a novel by a comedian that actually made you laugh out loud? – and the same undoubtedly goes for the lavish praise heaped on I Think You Should Leave… Rather than the sketch comedy revolution it’s been hailed as, season one veered wildly between moments of godlike comedy genius and vaguely embarrassing scenarios hammered, drained and wrung out for any beads of comic value they might eventually offer. The genius skits were often rooted in traditional sketch comedy setpieces, outlandish scenarios and pop culture spoofs: a “Baby Of The Year” contest with one evil baby; a carnival organist hired to do funerals; Ebenezer Scrooge battling 31st century skeleton warriors; an old man exacting revenge on the grown man who kept him awake on a flight as a bawling baby. Here Robinson’s skill in sketch comedy shines – it takes a certain left-field creative brilliance to imagine a Johnny Cash-style 1950s singer having his one-shot audition ruined by a bassist improvising verses about the dead rising again with worms for money, or an intervention taking place in a Garfield-themed house.

I Think you should leave
‘I Think You Should Leave’ is streaming now. CREDIT: Netflix

It’s when Robinson indulges in cringe comedy, held up as the key innovation of I Think You Should Leave… rather than an extremist take on The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm, that the show becomes seriously hit and miss. His skits in which a seemingly normal character exposes an obsession, fear, paranoia, peccadillo, guilt or insecurity – or just doubles down on a little white lie – and then takes it to its hysterical and neurotic endpoint became a recognisable formula of season one, praised as a comedic reflection of our human instinct, particularly in the social media age, to refuse to admit when we’re wrong. In season two, the tactic has become overstretched and predictable, making scenes involving respected professors eating his students’ hamburgers, a child denied an ice-cream on false pretences and a bloke who just wants to eat his lunch feel like dialled in filler. Particularly when they’re heavy on Robinson’s trademark extended codas, where he hopes that a snippet of emotion might give depth to the scene, or it’ll get funny eventually if he just keeps talking.

They work better when Robinson himself, with his two-note climax of either shouting or crying, isn’t the focus: there’s far more convincing pathos in Paul Walter Hauser’s poker player regretting making jokes about his actually-wonderful wife than menace in Robinson’s lengthy development of an office worker obsessed with a website selling pre-piss-stained trousers into the centre of a full-blown cult. And with this blueprint making up a significant chunk of the series – the “They have a cake shop…” episode is almost entirely this – you’re left approaching each sketch cautiously, relieved when the old magic semi-regularly reappears.

When it does, it lands with a boom. An insider dealing court case descends into public humiliation for a bit-player in an unusual hat, brilliantly. A “Little Buff Boys” competition skirts closer to courting moral outrage than anything since Brass Eye’s paedophilia special. A prank show star loses the will to live mid-stunt. Even Santa Claus getting frustrated at interviewers asking him about Christmas rather than his action movie career is only slightly marred by the knowledge that Armstrong and Miller did the joke better ten years ago (PR: “Neil will only talk about the new album, not what he did in the ‘60s”; Reporter: “But he was the first man on the moon…”). I Think You Should Leave… might be held up as the latest evolution away from tired comedy clichés such as one-dimensional characterisation and punchlines (because, y’know, punchlines are hard) but, ironically, its nods to just such sketch mainstays are where it hits home hardest.

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