If you snuck a whoopee cushion onto a male co-worker’s chair before he arrived for a group conference, the crux of the joke, of course, is banking on his embarrassment and surprise. What you wouldn’t see coming is for him not to know what a whoopee cushion is. Or for him to be convinced he actually did fart. Or for him to be genuinely alarmed because the fart is so much milder than his normal farts, which are longer, louder and smellier.
Nor would you expect him to confront his entire team, perplexed: “So what’s the joke, exactly? That nobody’s puking from my fart? Is that the joke? What’s the next joke? Meatball down my leg to make it look like my ballsack ripped open?”
I don’t want to spoil it any further, but in comedian and Saturday Night Live writer Tim Robinson’s world, created in his new Netflix series I Think You Should Leave, this scenario and most of the others go so far past already unexpected premises or twists that the pleasure is less in hitting punchlines and more in observational humor and the bizarre, often dark or twisted way things spiral out of control.
The six episodes, which feature scads of SNL alums and comedians — Andy Samberg, Tim Heidecker, Sam Richardson, Vanessa Bayer and Cecily Strong are standouts — are a master class in surreal and offbeat comedic twists that seem perennially near collapse only to reassemble themselves out of thin air. They also offer a gentle spoof (and sometimes a rebuke, intentionally or not) of modern masculinity.
More specifically, the fragile, insecure and weirdly stubborn way men can get in their own way, fuck everything up and then “aggressively double down” until things have gone irrevocably bonkers, only to never admit they fucked up. Watching these men not get away with it, shifting from humiliation to rage and then back to humiliation again, is unexpectedly satisfying, an inadvertent cautionary tale about the perils of thickheaded loutishness.
Consider these premises that explore the male inability to just back down:
- A job interview where it’s gone exceptionally well until the interviewee tries to leave and realizes he’s pulled the door the wrong way and needs to save face
- A man who hires repairmen to fix termite damage and ends up with a toilet with a hole too small to take a dump in — one only farts can go through
- A date at a magic show where the husband becomes a magician’s unwitting pawn in front of his embarrassed wife
- A guy who sees a “Honk if You’re Horny” bumper sticker and takes it literally, beyond all comprehension
- A date where a man watches helplessly as his female companion eats all the good nachos off a shared appetizer, the ones loaded with the primo toppings on them, but can’t bring himself to confront her
- Many, many more:
All of these are either awkward social scenarios or gendered embarrassments where a certain alpha command of the controls would wrap it up — but not here. None of the sketches resolve predictably; often they end in utter mania. Some of them just lightly lampoon male insecurity, like one about a horse farm where the penises are reassuringly bred to be the same size as human men’s.
On the occasion when his characters are as confrontational as prescribed masculinity would dictate, it’s the comedic equivalent of bringing an Uzi to a thumb war. When his characters choose conflict avoidance out of ratcheting up insecurity, it’s wincingly, willfully masochistic or absurd. Just when it all reaches what appears to be peak absurdity, it catapults over the line.
But there’s still a strangely sympathetic vulnerability at the core of each male character, even those you see for only a few seconds. These are ultimately tales of beta men pushing back against their undesirable status as prank victims and cucks, horny prowlers or emasculated professionals. And many sketches offer an almost paranoid treatise on social-etiquette faux pas that play out anyone’s worst anxious fears.
Women offer up some of the best performances in I Think You Should Leave, with equally obtuse characters. SNL‘s Bayer stars in an uproarious skit about how to caption a group selfie with her female friends.
But taken together, Robinson’s comedic psyche offers up an earthquake map of masculine fault lines: insecurities about being smacked down by other men, penis size, being outwitted by repairmen — the list goes on. It’s a funhouse mirror revealing where men are at these days: insecure about their dick size, insecure about their sex lives, insecure about their inability to fix things anymore, insecure about their legs, insecure about their income, insecure about their attractiveness, insecure about admitting fault.
In a recent interview with Vulture, Robinson was asked why doubling down on mistakes rather than simply fessing up is such fertile ground for him comedically, and he responded:
I don’t have a really articulate answer, but something about somebody being so embarrassed to admit they’ve made a small mistake and denying it is really human. And how far someone will take it is funny to me. People can refuse to admit fault to the point that it becomes super embarrassing for them, but in their mind, they still feel like they’re saving face.
It is human. We’ve certainly all found ourselves reacting defensively or deflecting in a situation to avoid embarrassment. But if there’s one thing men tend to have the monopoly on struggling with, it’s simply saying “I was wrong” — and extending this to a comical degree is the beauty of I Think You Should Leave.
Which might be why it’s so satisfying to watch things fall apart over and over again in Robinson’s comedy. Note to dudes: Watch with company. And if you’re going to remain stubbornly committed to doubling down, at least, perhaps, try to make us laugh while doing it.