In 2019, Tim Robinson entered the conversation through a door that opened the wrong way.
In the very first sketch of his show “I Think You Should Leave,” he plays a job candidate finishing a seemingly successful interview in a cafe. He walks to the front door and pulls. It doesn’t budge. It’s a push door.
There is a split-second pause in which he could laugh off his mistake and move on. Instead, as Robinson’s characters must, he doubles down. “It goes both ways,” he insists, and he pulls. And pulls. His face boils red as he strains, the wood creaks and splinters, the hinges groan and finally pop off. Success!
“I Think You Should Leave,” whose second season arrived Tuesday on Netflix, is blisteringly funny. But it’s more than that. The most resonant TV comedies identify types of conflicts and characters that we may not even have realized existed. This was practically why “Seinfeld” was created; it seems there’s a “Simpsons” reference for just about every human foible.
And Robinson, who created the series with Zach Kanin, has given us That One Weird Guy served up dozens of ways.
The characters populating his sketches are midlevel drones in chinos and novelty shirts who haven’t completely grown up. They have unrealistic ideas of their abilities and how the world works. (Many sketches have the rambling momentum of a preschooler’s story, such as an injury-lawyer commercial that spins into a tale about a man bullied by exterminators who install a novelty toilet in his bathroom.) They have the childlike belief that if they deny reality, they can change it.
They don’t read social cues well. They try too hard to be liked. They nurse weirdly specific grievances. They feel pressure to be confident and tough, and it scares them. They break rules, yet are obsessed with what is and isn’t “allowed.” They get mad. They get really mad!
Occasionally they’re played by guest stars, including John Early and Tim Heidecker. Most often it’s Robinson, a Michigan native, who channels a recognizable brand of Midwestern ticked-off-ness: a freak-out that bursts through his mild exterior like a volcano erupting out of a lake of mayonnaise. His malleable, boyish face suits characters who don’t quite have control of their emotions; he’s mastered the effect of a frustrated 6-year-old trying to will himself not to cry.
The quintessential Season 1 sketch opens with a hot-dog-shaped car crashing through the wall of a clothing store. A man in a hot-dog costume (Robinson) suddenly appears among the customers, trying to pin the blame on someone else, including an unfortunate bystander in a red shirt and mustard-yellow tie.
A still from the sketch, with Hot Dog Guy declaring, “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this,” has become a go-to political metaphor used to spoof Covid-19 minimizers, enablers of the election Big Lie or anyone else who’s tried implausibly to detach their actions from the consequences of those actions.
One reason Robinson’s sketches feel so fit to the political moment is that so many of them are about the violation of norms: What happens if you just decide to brazen your way out of situations by lying and counterattacking and daring people to point out your hot-dog suit? Why admit defeat when you can declare victory? (That this usually turns out badly for Robinson’s characters may be the show’s most optimistic aspect.)
Season 2, another six short episodes, has its share of repetitions: a “Little Buff Boys” competition for muscular children, for instance, echoes Season 1’s “Baby of the Year” pageant, also hosted by series regular Sam Richardson.
But the new episodes don’t feel tired, because there is no shortage of ways to overstep social boundaries. The premiere kicks off with Robinson as an office worker, outraged that his manager rescheduled a meeting for lunchtime (“I don’t know if you’re allowed to do that”), who smuggles an oversized frankfurter in his jacket sleeve. (The hot dog, that most comedically shaped and unglamorous of foods, may be the official comestible of “I Think You Should Leave.”)
Next comes an ad for the fake Corncob TV, warning that your local cable provider is about to drop the channel, including its hit “Coffin Flops,” which consists entirely of videos of corpses falling through caskets at funerals. It’s a textbook Robinson blend of slapstick — clip after clip of tumbling bodies and screaming mourners — and character portrait: Robinson’s pitchman grows increasingly incensed that the uptight suits are killing his dream. (“We’re allowed to show ’em nude ’cause they ain’t got no souls!”) I have laughed harder every time I have rewatched it, and I have rewatched it an embarrassing number of times.
As bizarre and gross as the show’s comedy can be — in an inspired new bit, Santa Claus (Biff Wiff) finds a second career as an actor in a “John Wick”–style spatter flick — it also has an underdog heart. Its boorish schlubs are just trying to hang on to tiny bits of power, pride and lunch in a world of bosses and cartoon bullies.
Even when they have success, it’s limited, like an investor (a brilliantly deranged Patti Harrison) on a “Shark Tank” parody who made her fortune suing the city: “I was accidentally sewed into the pants of the big Charlie Brown at the Thanksgiving Day parade,” she says.
The new season is as bizarrely funny as the first, but it can also shade bittersweet, even poignant. Over and over, the sketches find a twisted path to pathos, whether the subject is a man on an “adult” haunted house tour, confused and hurt that his obscene questions about ghosts’ habits are ruled out of line, or a sad-sack community-theater actor tormented by a scene partner who steals his lines.
In a season high point, Bob Odenkirk — once of “Mr. Show,” that wellspring of absurdist character comedy — helps a stranger (Robinson) tell a wink-wink white lie to his daughter. Odenkirk’s character runs with the story, stretching it out and making it uncomfortably personal until it turns into an oddball confession of loneliness.
I wouldn’t spoil the details of his tall tale if I could; it runs on a free-associative logic that description doesn’t do justice, yet it makes perfect emotional sense. That’s “I Think You Should Leave” for you — its comedy pulls and pulls in the wrong direction, and somehow, the door busts open.