Recall a moment when you saw someone do something so embarrassing, so humiliating and cringeworthy and devastating, that it was instantly clear that the only reasonable next step for that person would be to disappear from public life. Take, for example, the moment during a press conference earlier this year when Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, was ostensibly trying to manage the fallout from the release of an old photograph from his medical-school yearbook that showed two students, one in blackface and the other in Ku Klux Klan robes, with a caption indicating that one of the men was Northam. Standing at a podium, he confessed instead to once putting shoe polish on his face to look like Michael Jackson for a long-ago dance contest. “Are you still able to moonwalk?” a reporter asked from the crowd, to which Northam paused and appeared to contemplate doing so, before his wife stepped in and muttered, “Inappropriate circumstances.” After making such a brazen fool of himself, the governor must surely have had the good sense to go away. And yet he didn’t. Northam more or less shut himself in his office, and the world spun on.
Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes is planning her wedding to a hotel heir. Ja Rule, post–Fyre Festival, is thinking about hosting another music event. The now indicted lawyer and buzzing gadfly Michael Avenatti is endorsing Presidential candidates. In this shameless era, the new Netflix sketch show “I Think You Should Leave,” starring Tim Robinson, and created by Robinson and Zach Kanin (a cartoonist for The New Yorker), arrives to reinvigorate the notion that some behavior is, even now, disqualifying.
In eight absurdist episodes, Robinson and a collection of guest performers (including Will Forte, Vanessa Bayer, Tim Heidecker, Sam Richardson, and many other very funny people) ruin parties, befoul bathrooms, disgrace funerals, post inappropriately on Instagram, and make their co-workers miserable. All of this lunacy is a delight unto itself, and the show mocks higher ambitions toward moral commentary: two different characters (one dressed as a hot dog) give tone-deaf sermons about people being distracted by their cell phones. But the show also provides a surprising feeling of reassurance with its premise that social mores exist in the first place—that there is some reasonable and agreed-upon way to behave—which Robinson and his fellow-players proceed to wildly trespass, and that doing so is odd and creepy and even a little mean.
Much of the feeling of discomfort comes from Robinson, who appears in nearly every sketch. He has a great face, one that allows him to reasonably play normal thirtysomething characters but whose features—sunken, buggy eyes, a high forehead, lizard-thin lips—lend themselves best to cartoonish extremes. He’s a good shouter and freak-outer—at baseline, he’s itching at his collar, looking pained and haggard. But his blowups are more pitiful than menacing: his rage is the manifestation of self-loathing, the knowledge that he has once again failed to fit himself into the world around him. In the series’ first sketch, he plays a guy who’s just finished a job interview at a coffee shop. Reaching the exit, he attempts to pull a door that’s meant to be pushed. The interviewer genially points out the mistake, but Robinson doubles down. “I was here yesterday, and it actually goes both ways,” he says, plainly lying. The camera zooms in on his face as he pulls harder, all the while maintaining awkward eye contact with the interviewer. The doorframe splits. The hinge breaks off. And Robinson is shown with a popped vein in his forehead, spittle running down his chin, as if his brain has broken just a little. “See?” he says, having convinced no one. He’d managed to turn a push door into a pull one, but at the expense of his dignity and, from the dark look in his eyes, maybe even a piece of his soul.
Robinson appeared for a season on “Saturday Night Live” and on the two seasons of “Detroiters,” an underloved show on Comedy Central about two dim but undaunted partners in an ad agency, which he co-starred in with Richardson and created with Richardson, Kanin, and Joe Kelly. “I Think You Should Leave” borrows from “Detroiters” its long beats of awkwardness and weirdos-against-the-world ethos, and also a great deep-cut soul soundtrack. The new series is directed by Akiva Schaffer (of the Lonely Island) and Alice Mathias (“Portlandia”), both of whom bring a precise look and tone to funny genre spoofs—of “Riverdale,” David Lynch, music bio-pics—and to mad Adult Swim–style twists on familiar cultural forms. The series is perhaps a bit too enamored by its in-jokes—recurring mentions of reanimated skeletons, or of short and fat people being “tuna cans” and people leaving “mud pies” in the toilet may not delight everyone equally. But its dedication to its own insanity is infectious; I’ve not laughed as hard in a while as I did when watching Conner O’Malley spasmodically mashing his car horn in traffic, lost to a demented reverie, after pulling up behind a car with a “HONK IF YOU’RE HORNY” bumper sticker.
Often, the sketches push a joke too far, taking a funny premise and stretching it to some point of discomfort beyond comedy. A boardroom whoopee-cushion prank gets meticulously litigated by its victim; a man embellishes a white lie about his babysitter making him late for a party by saying that she just committed a hit-and-run; a guy out to dinner with a woman makes the waiter tell her to stop eating all the loaded nachos. In each of these cases, it’s Robinson who turns the screw, his hangdog face staring aggressively and uncomprehendingly as he tries to make sense of some new social faux pas. It’s a relief, at this point, to find that this kind of cringe comedy can still make us cringe—that there is some imagined world of confrontation more awkward and unsettling than our own.