Interviewing Tim Robinson, the star of Netflix’s sketch comedy show I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson, can almost feel like talking to one of his characters. At one point during our call he cuts himself off mid-sentence. “That’s a bad answer. I’m doing a bad job,” he says, which he was totally wrong about.
It wasn’t a bad answer, and if anybody did a bad job in this interview it’s me, the guy who was asking the questions. The sheepish way in which he said it sounded exactly like Tim Cramblin from Detroiters, though, or one of the many embarrassments trying hard to hide their shame that he brings to life throughout I Think You Should Leave. Robinson’s a poet of awkwardness, and it seems at least somewhat rooted in his real life.
“I think most of us have it on some level,” Robinson says about the kind of painful and specific social discomfort his sketch show specializes in. “Some worse than others. It’s just this protection of your pride. Everybody in the room knows that a mistake happened or that they embarrassed themselves, or made one faux pas—everybody knows but then the refusal to admit it is funny to me.”
I Think You Should Leave explores the uncomfortable holes people dig for themselves when they refuse to admit that they made a mistake or are wrong about something. Instead of acknowledging that they messed up, the characters that Robinson creates (some of whom are portrayed by Vanessa Bayer, Patti Harrison, Will Forte and other comedians) keep digging, trying to turn that embarrassment into a victory but only making everything worse.
It’s a general theme that Robinson has explored with his comedy since before his time on Saturday Night Live earlier this decade, when he was still living and working in Chicago. “The themes are always quite similar,” he says. “People not wanting to be publicly embarrassed but also not wanting to admit that they’ve made a small mistake, and then taking it so far that it becomes a much bigger problem for them. As long as they can win on the small one, or at least in their mind win on the small one.”
If you don’t like cringe comedy, don’t worry. Robinson’s show is never quite as uncomfortable as, say, Curb Your Enthusiasm or Ricky Gervais’s original The Office. Robinson’s sketches are too fundamentally absurd for them to feel too painful. Either the sketch will carry its concept beyond the point of realism, or else the central character is too much of a cartoon to empathize with. Also each episode is short, only about 18 minutes, making I Think You Should Leave one of the most easily bingeable shows on Netflix (the whole season takes under two hours to watch).
The closest the show gets to Larry David-style discomfort is a sketch that stars Tim Heidecker. He plays a perfect Tim Heidecker role, a surly middle-aged hipster who works at a tobacco shop and ruins the game of celebrity charades he plays with his younger girlfriend’s millennial friends by exclusively picking fictional jazz “legends” like Roy Donk and Tiny Boops Squig Shorterly. In his first line he tells his host that she has a “meat and potatoes” record collection. That’s something that came straight from Robinson’s real life, an insult a record store employee lobbed his way when Robinson was buying some ‘70s soul and rock records. “There may have been a Chicago record in there,” Robinson admits. “This guy’s been a way bigger music fan than I’ve been my whole life so my hits I want to play on a Saturday morning are just pedestrian to him, I guess.” That kind of snobbish assholism is just another version of the shame and embarrassment that Robinson builds his comedy on, only with a character who’s so pretentious and arrogant that he never even realizes that he should be embarrassed.
It’s telling that Robinson picked Heidecker for that role. Robinson has played unapologetic assholes before, but he’s far better suited for the kind of roles he plays throughout I Think You Should Leave. Despite being the funniest yeller since Bob Odenkirk, Robinson’s eyes look like they’re always eager to please, and desperate to be accepted. His characters go to extreme lengths to deny being wrong or foolish because they’re afraid of looking weak, and Robinson knows how to act cartoonishly tough on the outside while still projecting that inner fear and weakness. That’s the heart of I Think You Should Leave and Robinson’s approach to comedy so far, and it’s a more relatable—and sometimes sympathetic—alternative to the cringe comedy canon that you might want to compare it to.
See for yourself, though. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson is now streaming on Netflix.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.