We’re all plagued by our past mistakes. Actually, in case I’m generalizing to make myself feel better here, I’m plagued by my past mistakes. It’s not uncommon for me to relitigate an innocuous conversation or email, agonizing that I’d somehow exposed myself as petty or tone-deaf or self-important or any one of a thousand damning traits. Just this week, I found myself cringing in the shower thinking about how I botched an order in a fancy cocktail bar more than a year ago. I’m not saying it’s rational, I’m just saying it happens.
Yet, of all the tiny failings my brain loves to seize on, only one of them is something I wrote. And today happens to be its anniversary. In a piece about Netflix comedies on this very site exactly two years ago, I somehow found it plausible to claim that Tim Robinson’s sketch series I Think You Should Leave was not “particularly good.”
In case I haven’t made this clear yet: I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
Since I Think You Should Leave first arrived on Netflix on April 23, 2019, I’ve watched it—and this is a conservative estimate—100 times. Granted, the lone season comprises only six episodes, their 29 total sketches stretching to all of 100 minutes. That’s a shortish movie. But I’ve revisited that shortish movie, or at least the vast majority of it, every week or two. Malcolm Gladwell would say I’d mastered it, though he’d also probably wonder why I had.
Thankfully, the “why” doesn’t take a Malcolm Gladwell to figure out. That thing my brain does, where I’m unable to let go of embarrassments both real and imaginary? Whatever that is, it finds a kindred spirit in I Think You Should Leave. Of its 29 sketches, nearly every one hinges on a character who is gloriously, spectacularly wrong—yet refuses to budge, lest they be humiliated by copping to their own wrongness. The show opens with a man who tries to pull open a push-open door after a job interview, then insists that it goes both ways, drooling with the effort as he ultimately cracks the door’s frame. Its final episode features Reggie, a guy who so badly wants to be able to play “name your favorite funny YouTube clip” reindeer games with his coworkers that he goes home and creates his own, then tries to pass off the horrible result as a viral video. Both men are played by Robinson, who’s so attuned to our worst self-preservation impulses that he rarely plays the foil.
Instead, he’s the guy who attends a baby-shower-planning meeting with his girlfriend and won’t stop suggesting that the gift bags include the low-grade props from his failed mob movie. He’s the guy in a hot dog suit who crashes his wienermobile into a men’s clothing store and clings to his innocence, admonishing the clientele for watching porn on their phones while he steals an armload of suits. He’s the guy at a group dinner who chokes on a jalapeño popper but refuses to admit it in front of a pop-star guest, instead delivering a guttural, nonsensical toast. He is, in our worst ways, all of us.
Streaming has reinvigorated sitcoms like The Office and Friends, garnering them new fan bases and making them the mindless comfort-watch of multiple generations. It turned Key & Peele into a YouTube juggernaut. But it has also allowed I Think You Should Leave, with its feverish parade of awkwardness and vicarious self-flagellation, to snowball into an entirely new sort of comedy phenomenon: a cult hit that has achieved an outsized level of cultural impact, at least in terms of memes produced per minute of run time. Even if you’ve never watched the show, you’ve consumed it.
First, you probably consumed it in the form of Ruben Rabasa, an octogenarian character actor who captivated the internet by yelling “STINKY!” in a sketch about a focus group. You definitely consumed it in December, when US representative Ilhan Omar responded to an ExxonMobil tweet about climate change by tweeting a screenshot of Hot Dog Car Guy saying, “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this.” And you’ve almost certainly seen it pop onto your timeline on Fridays, when screenshots of a Robinson character singing the phrase “Fri … day … night” make their weekly rounds. (If that sounds innocuous, consider that the song—a legit anthem—happens at a funeral, after the character has been harassed for days by a stranger honking at his “HONK IF YOU’RE HORNY” bumper sticker.)
The big question you might be asking right now is … why? Why so many memes? Why does a sketch featuring weird-comedy icon Tim Heidecker as a ponytailed blowhard who sabotages a party game with his obscure jazz knowledge continue to captivate us? Why is Oscar nominee Steven Yeun forever beloved not only for his turn in Minari, but for his role as an unhygienic party host on I Think You Should Leave? Some of it, without question, is the spectacle. The show isn’t quite cringe comedy, but it’s got the same base pairs in its DNA. “It’s a sick kind of theater, watching someone go up in flames,” says Ryan Perry, a content strategist whose Twitter account I Think You Should League Pass unerringly finds a perfect ITYSL meme for every imaginable piece of NBA news. “And it’s probably why the show resonates so well online—like, what is Twitter if not an app where you sit around waiting for the next person to self-implode?” Add to that the kaleidoscope of premises and characters packed into the show’s 29 sketches, and you’ve got damn near infinite fuel for the internet’s recontextualization engine.
There’s something else at play here, too. I Think You Should Leave is remarkable for how little race and sexuality matter; it’s more broadly inclusive than any sketch show ever, yet the only difference the show ever harps on is insecurity. (That same energy was on full display in Detroiters, the brilliant but doomed Comedy Central show starring Robinson and real-life best friend Sam Richardson as hapless ad agency partners.) For John, a man in the New York City area who runs Twitter’s biggest ITYSL fan account, that moment came during a sketch when Robinson plays a married partygoer who explains his late arrival with a needlessly contorted lie. That he’s married to a man has zero bearing on what unfolds. “I’m a gay man,” John says, “and when the butt of the joke, or even a tiny fraction of the joke, wasn’t the fact that they’re gay, it made me feel differently. I can laugh at gay jokes, I can laugh at racial jokes or political jokes, but to completely pull those factors out of your show deliberately and say that this show and its insanity are going to be completely universal? That’s new.”
Seven hundred and thirty-one days later, it somehow still feels new. It better: ITYSL has finally wrapped shooting its Covid-19-delayed second season, but we’re likely months away from seeing new episodes surface. Will they manage to reach the dizzying, discomfiting heights of those first 100 minutes? It’s impossible to know. What I do know is that what’s come so far has suffused the shorthand my wife and I have, changing our inflections, even our mannerisms. We may never again say the word “random” not like Hot Dog Car Guy. When we finally go to a group dinner again, I fear I won’t be able to stop myself from sniffing my drink like something about it stinks. I Think You Should Leave isn’t just a distillation of our personal insecurities, it’s a condemnation of facade. It’s an antidote, in other words, to the internet itself.
Which maybe is exactly why the internet loves it so much. We’re all tired of the hellscape we built—and we’re all just trying to find the guy who did this.
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