Tim Robinson’s Proverbial Fool

Aarik Danielsen

Tim Robinson plays the kind of guys Proverbs warned you about.

On his Netflix sketch show, I Think You Should Leave, the Saturday Night Live alum guides viewers through a rogues’ gallery of the shiftless, oblivious, and self-destructive. Robinson’s characters convert minor mistakes and grievances into major trouble; their propensity to spiral makes them immensely meme-able and inconveniently relatable. No doubt, each of the characters he plays hears the show’s title phrase enough to know its weight.

The speed and frequency at which these characters create unnatural disasters will leave viewers breathless one way or another—either waiting for resolution or wheezing with laughter. Thankfully, Robinson offers room to exhale in the form of charming animated interludes, in which wavy bands of color move across the screen (think early PBS animations) to soul and girl-group music evoking his beloved Detroit.

Building off a berserk debut, the recently released second season introduces a new band of misfits. Eager for lunch, an employee chokes on a hot dog during a surprise meeting; a patron unleashes a depraved line of questioning during an “adult” ghost tour; a company man is hypnotized by mind-bending patterns in a line of men’s shirts; the head of a third-rate television station defends his only hit—Coffin Flop—from cancellation.

These characters and their cohorts blow up, double down, and bend even the simplest situations beyond their shape. After a boardroom table-surfing accident ends with injury and accusation, Robinson utters what might be the show’s creed: “It went too far—just like it always does.”

We don’t have to squint terribly hard to see Robinson’s characters as the walking, talking antonyms of wisdom within wisdom literature, particularly Proverbs. They live out the don’ts, not the do’s. They stick to their own plans, even as they crumble; they can’t let a slight go unacknowledged, lashing out in self-defense; they just keep talking; and they make the same mistakes over and again, each instance a little worse than the previous one.

After finishing an episode we pray loudly, like 21st-century Pharisees, thanking God we’re not like those fools. Our politeness and self-control will save us from the social fringe Robinson depicts. But I Think You Should Leave keeps us laughing all the way to the mirror. Because we usually stop two clicks shy of the impropriety we see, we might miss the resemblance.

At our most honest, we know our appetites threaten to overtake us; we take an inch of freedom and try to run a six-minute mile; we covet material goods with single-mindedness; we willfully ignore the flaws in logic of our own making. Robinson offers his viewers a rare mercy. Answering us according to our own folly, he tears down the artifice of wisdom, demonstrating the worst possible ends of means we all pursue. These sketches know that foolishness just beneath the surface threatens to bubble over at any time. Teaching us to know folly when we see it, he reveals it in the hidden places.

I Think You Should Leave keeps us laughing all the way to the mirror.

But I Think You Should Leave never merely works at the level of cautionary tale or curious trainwreck. Robinson seasons all the absurdity with even stranger moments of undistilled connection and vulnerability. Season 2 disarms us through the likes of Karl Havoc, a prank-show host (Robinson again) disguised under layers of latex and a ghoulish mask. Unleashed in a mall food court with the childish intent of making unsuspecting shoppers uncomfortable on camera, the host (as Karl) barely takes a few steps before becoming paralyzed by the literal heat and heaviness of the moment. Something shifts inside us, as viewers, and we sympathize when the futility of his prank makes him question the point of living at all.

In another sketch, undone by the perceived judgement of a crying infant, one Robinson character wonders aloud if redemption is possible. Can he fully relinquish a past of wild nights and sloppy steaks (an idea which must be seen to be appreciated)? We sit in the moment with him, silently mouthing prayers for our own pardon.

And, in one of the season’s signature moments, Robinson—playing the straight man for once—enlists a stranger’s help while telling his daughter a harmless lie. When it becomes clear that the stranger (a pitch-perfect Bob Odenkirk) actually needs the lie more than he does, Robinson telegraphs several emotions on his expressive face, then chooses kindness.

The late Catholic writer Brennan Manning said Christians should be on the side of life—not just in abstraction, but actual lives—“to the extent that no human flesh is strange to us.” Robinson acutely understands this. Wielding a red pen and circling the humanity within each of his fools, he does more than teach us how to steer away from madness. He shows us that loving our neighbor as ourselves, especially our foolish neighbor, requires a long, hard look at both parties. And it asks us to laugh at ourselves as a precondition to change.

Only then can the space between two fools shrink, overcome by something like true understanding. Only then will we ask one another to stay.

Topics: TV