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Tim Robinson likes spicy food.
This side fact is one of the main things I learned from my very awkward dinner interview with Robinson and Zach Kanin, creators of the cult Netflix comedy series"I think you should leave."Robinson ordered drunken spaghetti with tofu—spicy—and, almost immediately, the spaghetti made his voice hoarse. He insisted, however, that it had nothing to do with the spices—in fact, he said, his food wasn't spicy.enough.I asked our server if it could be spicier. She brought out an entire dish of special chili. Robinson enthusiastically spooned them onto his noodles.
As I watched Robinson take big red bites of his meal, I imagined a sketch comedy in which a man (played by Tim Robinson) gets out of an awkward dinner with a reporter (played by someone who looks exactly like me) by filling his food with increasingly angry pepper until he begins to lose control of his body. The skit would end with him being taken away on a stretcher, on the verge of death - twitching, covered in dirt, crying - but also smiling.
That would actually be a pretty tame premise for "I think you should leave." The series specializes in elevating mildly tricky social situations to unbearable levels of creepiness. It propels the good old vehicles of sketch comedy (corporate meetings, ad parodies, spoofs) into sickening new territory. If that sounds uncomfortable, it often is - but it's also hilarious and daring and surprisingly poetic and addictive. Most of the skits are short and therefore easy to devour, meaning that if they happen to vibrate on your comedy wavelength, you'll find yourself bingeing on them and repeating them until your favorite lines are stuck in your head for days, like music, and you end up saying almost exclusively in Tim Robinson's references ("It's interesting, ghosts") until your family asks if you can stop soon.
During the first two seasons, "I.T.Y.S.L." inspired a giddy and devoted following that spread memes and merchandise across the internet. Even if you've never watched an episode, you've probably come across stray images from the show in the daily slush of content we all drink from our screens. You may have seen Robinson on Instagram grinning in a hot dog costume, standing next to a hot dog car that crashed into a storefront, saying, "We're trying to find the guy who did this and beat him up." Or on TikTok, he squints his eyes and yells, in a weird hushed voice that sounds almost too upset to come out of his throat, "Are you SURE about that? ARE YOU SURE ABOUT THAT???"
At the Thai restaurant, during dinner, Robinson did not shout. Personally, he is shy, gentle, polite, honest. He's from Michigan and has a slight Midwestern vibe. He speaks respectfully about his family. He loves being a dad, he told me, and his kids are great kids (he has two, 12 and 13), and his wife, who was once his high school sweetheart, is an electrical engineer for Chrysler. "She issmart,"he said, with feeling.
It was strange to see this man, whose face I had studied through so many violent comic distortions, in the muted setting of real life. Robinson's face is both anonymous and unique. He has a big shiny dolphin fin on his nose; small, deep-set eyes set in little pools of shadow; a warm toothless smile. His facial expression at rest is mild, sweet, harmless - he looks, most of the time, like the absolutely standard middle-aged white guy who might be sitting next to you at the airport or at a marketing conference. Someone you'd feel perfectly comfortable asking to look after your things if you had to get up and go to the bathroom.
But when Robinson activates that face, all sorts of amazing things happen. Tiny microexpressions ripple across it at high speed. He seems to have extra muscles in his forehead, as he can weave the space between his eyebrows into gnarled little mountain ranges of confusion, skepticism or disappointment. His quiet mouth becomes very wide and loud. And his voice does things I've never heard a human voice do. It inflates, squishes down, turns upside down. He can chew his voice like a cow chews her cud.
Robinson has mentioned in interviews that he has anxiety. I asked him if he was still struggling with it.
"Yes," he said solemnly. “It's getting worse. The older I get, the worse it gets.”
I was warned that Robinson was very uncomfortable working in the media. He particularly dislikes being asked to analyze his comedy. That night he and Kanin were exhausted. It was April, and they were nearing the end of the marathon completion processseason 3,actually living in the editing room, constantly watching sketches, trying relentlessly to whittle the material down to its essence. Their deadline was uncomfortably close; a writers' strike was looming. They had no idea what day of the week it was. Netflix PR very clearly forced them to meet with me against their will. (They agreed, after many weeks of pressure, to dinner at 8pm at a restaurant that closed at 9.) They were friendly, but in the way you might be friendly to a dentist about to pull your wisdom teeth.
I tried my favorite icebreaker question: "What is your first memory?"
Robinson said he couldn't remember any. Neither could Kanin.
"How many alternative titles did you have before you settled on 'I Think You Should Go'?" I asked.
"That's a great question," Robinson said.
"We had a lot," Kanin said.
"What were some of them?" I asked.
They couldn't remember.
That's how it went the whole time. Our conversation never got going. And the topic we kept coming back to, the thing that flowed most naturally, was our small talk about spicy food.
"Hey, that's something good for an interview," Robinson said.
"That could be the title," Kanin said. "TIM ROBINSON LIKES IT HOT."
Robinson spooned more chili onto his noodles.
"It's the spice thing," he said. "It's addictive."
Soon, luckily, the restaurant closed, we said our goodbyes, and they went to do a late-night edit.
Through the pastFor 20 years, American culture ate itself almost to deathcringe comedy."The Office," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Veep," "The Rehearsal." What kind of deep hunger is this? Why, in an era of polarization, widespread humiliation, and literal rebellion—in a nation filled with so much outrage in real life—would we want to watch peoplesimulatingsocial discomfort? Just existing hurts enough these days.
I think it's actually the same reason we enjoy eating spicy food: what scientists call "benign masochism." In a harsh world, microdosed injections of controlled pain can be soothing. Comforting, to touch the scary parts of life without putting ourselves in real danger. Humor has always served this function; it allows us to express threatening things in safe ways. Kringe comedy is like social chili powder: a way to feel the heat without getting burned.
And so we enjoy watchingLarry Davidwalking around inciting petty grievances, testing the limits of our social rules like the velociraptor systematically testing the electric fences in "Jurassic Park." OrNathan Fielder, with his laptop in a case,robotically drawing flowcharts, conducting experiments to try and determine once and for all what is allowed and what is not.
Because it is difficult to be a person in society. You have your needs, your desires, your whims, your dreams, your appetites, your fantasies, your frustrations. But - unless you're a castaway or a sociopath - you have to balance those things with the needs of some larger group. More likely, more groups. Which means you have to follow the rules. What rules? So many rules! Laws, norms, customs, superstitions, sentence structures, traffic signals — vast, overlapping codes, written and unwritten, silent and spoken, logical and arbitrary, local and global, tiny and huge, ancient and new. Some rules are rigid (stop signs), while others are flexible (yield signs) — and it's your job to know the difference. Not to mention that the rules are never fixed: with every step you take, with every threshold you cross, the cloud of rules will shift around you. It can change depending on the color of your skin, the sound of your voice, your hairstyle, your accent, your passport. Sometimes even the thoughts you supposedly have in your head.
"I.T.Y.S.L." is obsessed with rules. His characters argue, lawyer-like, over everything: whether you're allowed to make a lunch date (no), whether celebrity impersonators are allowed to slap party guests (at certain prices, yes), whether you're allowed to swear during a late-night adults-only ghost tour (it's complicated ).
Robinson understands a nasty little paradox about rules: the more you believe in them - the more conscientious you are - the more time you'll spend struggling, worrying, wondering if you're doing things right.
This obsession makes "I Think You Should Go" the perfect comedy for our overheated cultural moment. The United States in the 21st century is, notoriously, a preschool classroom of public argument. Our only real national pastime has become arguing the rules, loudly, in good or neutral or very bad faith. "Norms," a concept previously confined to psychology textbooks, became a headline topic. Donald Trump's entire political existence seems like a kind of rule-breaking performance. Panic about the "cancellation culture" and the "awakened mob" — these are symptoms of a fragmented society that wonders if social rules still share meaningfully in a time of change. Every time we wander into a public square, we risk ending up screaming, or screaming at us, red-faced, in tears.
"I Think You Should Go" makes comedy, relentlessly, out of moments when social rules break down. When things stick, they grind and break.
Almost always, skits start quietly. The show lovingly reproduces our chatter, our polite banter — the way groups use humor to ease social tensions. A woman, holding her friend's new baby, tells her partner, teasingly, "Maybe we could have another one." To which he replies with a nervous grin, "Uh, let's talk about that later." Men exchange jokes about their wives at poker. ("Trust me, my wife has nothing to complain about - unless you're talking about every little thing I've ever done!")
Lots of "I.T.Y.S.L." The skits seem to start with a little thought experiment: What would happen if someone took this throwaway joke literally and seriously? How would it distort social reality if these godless little pleasures were actually brought center stage - if someone ignored all the rules we should intuitively understand?
This is the premiseone of the best sketches of the series, a sketch that I have memorized so deeply that I can hardly see it anymore. A man at a party is allowed to hold a baby that cries as soon as it nestles in his arms. "No big deal," he says good-naturedly. "I guess he just doesn't like me." It's classic, tepid wit that relieves the tension and has everyone smiling politely. But Robinson invented a guy who takes it absolutely seriously, who becomes obsessed with explaining to everyone, loudly and at length, why the baby doesn't like him — because somehow he knows he "used to be part of [expletive]." Gradually, this man hijacks the entire party with obsessive explanations of all the ways in which he was previously reprehensible - "slicked hair, white bathing suit, sloppy steaks, white couch." And he insists again and again that "people can change." The reasoning is absurd, and yet he is so sure, persistent and literal that it becomes a kind of social contagion. By the end of the party, everyone was on his side - including the baby smiling at him.
Robinson is a genius at tapping into those social spaces in between—the chatter, the encouraging smiles—and focusing on the tension at the heart of it all. Then he will isolate that tension, draw it out and inflate it like a balloon until it fills the entire room, until it fills the entire universe. He is a virtuoso of social discomfort.
Tim Robinson was growingup in the suburbs of Detroit. His mother worked for Chrysler. As a child, he did not like school. He had no idea what he was going to do with his life. But then he went to the show that changed his life: the Second City Traveling Troupe, a famous Chicago comedy group. Robinson immediately thought: Oh. This is what I want to do. So he did.
Comedian Sam Richardson, who also grew up in Detroit, told me he first saw Robinson perform at a suburban bowling alley. "I thought: This guy is the funniest guy in the world," he said. “His cadence is so specifically his. You can't teach it. It's incredibly human. It's human over human." Robinson quickly became a star on the local scene—Richardson said he was, hands down, the best improv comic he'd ever seen. "Hands down," he repeated. "Like, all hands down. . I've never seen Tim fumble in a scene. We all fumble. But he could always find the ball and dunk it. It was amazing."
Robinson's talent drove him from Detroit to Chicago, after joining Second City — and then finally to New York, where he signed on as a cast member of "Saturday Night Live." There is a video that sometimes circulates on social media of Robinson, partly on the forgotten "S.N.L." sketch, which made the host, Kevin Hart, laugh again and again. While none of Robinson's lines are particularly funny, he has an instant presence and charisma. He doesn't even have to say anything; he just embodies a kind of ridiculousness that no one else can touch. It would be easy to imagine him blossoming into the Will Ferrell or Kristen Wiig of his generation.
But it wasn't like that. Robinson's sensibility was too specific and strange. His anxiety was terrible. His sketches were constantly being cut.
"Tim would call me every Sunday morning and be so heartbroken," Richardson told me. "He would say things like, 'Maybe I'm not funny.' He was terribly unhappy." Richardson went to "S.N.L." taped once, during the holidays, and remembers Robinson standing backstage in a Santa costume, beside himself with excitement because one of his skits was about to air. Then, at the last second, it was cut. Robinson was devastated.
Robinson was fired from "S.N.L." actors after only one season. But he didn't go. Instead, he joined the writer. And then everything started to change. He found a kindred spirit in comedy writing in Zach Kanin, another writer, who was his polar opposite in terms of background (well-connected East Coast family, Harvard Lampoon, New Yorker cartoonist) but had exactly the same sense of humor. Robinson and Kanin shared an office and became a power duo. Although many of their skits never made it to the air, they were always a hit at the table readings. They were cool guys, artists. They only needed their own vehicle.
It took time to happen. Netflix allowed them to make an episode of the anthology sketch show"Characters"- and it was wild, nasty and brilliant, the best episode of the season. For Comedy Central, Kanin and Robinson created a sweet, silly sitcom called"Detroiters",along with Sam Richardson. It became iconic, but was discontinued after two seasons.
All of which eventually led to "I Think You Should Go": the full, shocking, unapologetic flowering of their strange comedic vision.
"I.T.Y.S.L." he creates, with shocking efficiency, an entire comic universe. There are so many sketches I would like to describe. The one in which athe host of the prank show has an existential breakdownin the mall because his costume is too heavy. (He pretends to be "Karl Havoc," a huge guy in a wacky vest who messes with people in a restaurant—but ends up just standing there, frozen, hulking, and dead-eyed, muttering to his producer, "I don't even want to be around anymore ."). There's a sketch where a man in a restaurant won't admit he's choking because he doesn't want to look stupid in front of the celebrity sitting at his table. But the brilliance of these sketches never comes from the premise alone. Instead, it's in the beats, in in the gymnastics of Robinson's face and - especially - in the strange poetic writing. The way the tongue comes out of everyone's mouth like soft ice cream. "I can't know how to hear about tables anymore!" aa driving instructor yells at his students, after he won't stop peppering him with questions about the bizarre central placement of the tables in his how-to videos. "And now you're in more trouble than me, unfortunately," says the man to his co-worker who has lost his temper.
"It always feels like improv when you watch the show, but it's not," Akiva Schaffer, one of the show's directors, told me. Robinson and Kanin are meticulous about their scripts - anything that feels a little "reduced" is written that way. Kanin told me that the driver's odd sentence came from something his young daughter said. In fact, many of the men in the series, when upset, speak like children: their words are thrown out by the pressure of need, on the edge of coherence. Robinson shared a childhood memory. Once, when he was a child, his family moved to a new house, and he and his brothers went to play in the yard. The boy next door stared at them, and they stared too — until finally, upset, the boy shouted: "Stop looking at me!"
Robinson's comedyis, as my wife said, "very masculine". (She is, to be clear, a fan.) There's a lot of yelling and foul language and juvenile behavior. There are colorful synonyms for poo ("mud pie", "absolute polish"). When a man's ego is threatened, the whole universe seems to hang in the balance.
But it would be a mistake to confuse Robinson's comedy with the usual "very male" comedy: the archetypal bad boy, waving his character around, insulting P.C. culture and its nagging wife, preaching that rules are stupid, that society is a fraud and a cage, that we should follow our desires and never negotiate and especially never apologize.
Robinson's comedy does something much more interesting. This is a superego comedy. He understands that every moment of human life requires negotiating the rules - and that it's hard and stressful, and there are so many ways it can go wrong. But negotiations are also vital. Rules, after all, hold back some pretty destructive forces.
One of my favorite things about “I.T.Y.S.L.” is all crying. Robinson's characters cry while driving, at parties, and in the middle of work meetings—after, say, a man chokes on a hot dog he's been secretly eating out of his sleeve, or after his boss makes him take off his funny hat. One man tries to defuse the tense situation by doing a whole wacky "Blues Brothers" dance - but it backfires, making things worse, and he takes off his sunglasses to reveal a puffy, wet red face.
When Tim Robinson's character cries, it is the result of an epic struggle for selfhood - a Greco-Roman wrestling match between the man's public persona (confident, respected, "normal") and the private, vulnerable self that only he secretly knows. These two selves collide, like plates on a fault line, and what comes out are all the molten emotions that a person has spent their whole life stuffing. His fear of vulnerability leads to an eruption of vulnerability. It's hilarious and disturbing, but also touching. You want to avoid a man, and yet you want to hug him - until you want to avoid him again. (Almost inevitably, while the tears are still flowing, Robinson's character will double down and triple down on whatever got him into trouble in the first place.)
"It's really hard for these guys," Schaffer told me. He said that Robinson and Kanin's extremely meticulous scripts did not originally contain any crying, but it came naturally during filming. "We'd do three takes and I'd be like, 'Oh, this guy should start holding back his tears,'" Schaffer said. Then, skit after skit, they'd realize, “Wait a minute, this guy looks like he might cry too. We started joking: Should every character cry at the end?”
Robinson's tears come out in various ways. Sometimes his eyes just get big and wet - like in one skit, when a man is caught after secretly complaining to a waiter that his otherwise lovely companion is eating all their best bites“fully loaded nachos.”("Just say the restaurant has a rule," he implores the waiter. "One person can't just eat all the stuffing.") Sometimes a single tear rolls down his cheek — like when an office worker can't fight back when his co-workers share viral videos. What is clear, in any case, is that the tears come from an extremely deep place, like the purest artesian water. Something is being squeezed out of these men, under tremendous pressure - some kind of sacred male juice hurts.
This is a big part of what sets "I.T.Y.S.L." apart from other cringe comedies. Despite her loudness and brashness, she's somehow intrinsically touching and vulnerable and sad. His gentleness makes him tolerable. Robinson's characters are rarely proud of their antisocial behavior. They are desperate to follow the rules. They seek, as much as they can, an unattainable balance between their own interest and the interest of the group. I just can't seem to find it. The pain from it drips from their eyes. And then, soon, the screaming starts.
Introductory illustration: original photo by Atiba Jefferson/Netflix
Sam Andersonis a magazine staff writer. He wrote about rhinos, pencils, poets, water parks, basketball, weight loss and the new Studio Ghibli theme park in Japan.Lola Dupreis a collage artist and illustrator currently living near Glasgow, Scotland. Working with paper and scissors, he references the Dadaist art movement and is influenced by modern digital image manipulation.
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