“The person who doesn’t get the joke becomes a joke.
But what makes this comedy?”
– Lauren Berlant, “Humorlessness”
“You’re saying you don’t want to live anymore,” the producer asks, “because you’re wearing that suit?” Carmine Laguzio, host of the fictional prank show Upside Down, is walking around a mall in a body suit and overwrought facial prostheses, pretending to be an old man named Karl Havoc. Upside Down is itself a segment of Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s absurdist sketch comedy show I Think You Should Leave, and Karl Havoc (played by Robinson) is clearly not a believable character to any of the would-be prankees in the mall. Rather than stealing food and kicking tables in the food court, Karl/Carmine/Tim halts and breathes heavily in the middle of the mall, more reminiscent of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s stilted Leatherface than any practical joker. He complains that he’s too hot in the body suit, there’s too much stuff on him, he can’t breathe, and he’s going to rip his fake face off. He throws a tantrum and then suddenly deflates, saying, “I don’t even want to be around anymore.” The layered scene falls apart, as the prank-show premise is destroyed by the sudden presence of suicidal ideation.
I Think You Should Leave is a TV show about desperate, sad characters inhabiting moments of embarrassment, horror, and absurdity, out of which the show’s comedy arises. The show plays on situations where someone acts grossly, inappropriately, even shamefully, as everyone else tries to maintain the decorum of the scene. Many of the sketches take place in offices, restaurants, and living rooms; in others, the show frames fictional TV shows like Upside Down. The show returns viewers to the most familiar and recognizable of places before each sketch veers disastrously off course. There’s a particular thrill to watching the sheer variety of ways that things can go wrong in I Think You Should Leave, as though ordinary life could, at any moment, suddenly become something completely, unbearably different.
The oddball disruptions are part of why it’s so difficult to neatly summarize any one I Think You Should Leave sketch. When talking about the show with friends, I’ll mention the “printer sketch” or “coffin drop” or just “the one with the fedoras and the baby shower,” but these shorthands condense an intricate knot of plots, jokes, and absurd events that subvert the supposed premise of each sketch. For example, the opening to Season Two’s second episode, a Shark Tank spoof (called The Capital Room), features four seeming executive big wigs. The faux-title sequence has each executive explain how they made their fortune — growing family businesses, scaling start-ups, climbing the corporate ladder — but then the last star (Patti Harrison) says, “I sued the city because I was accidentally sewed into the pants of the big Charlie Brown at the Thanksgiving Day parade.” She’s taking her settlement on the show for a chance to turn her lump-sum payment into an investment that could actually sustain her life. “I’m not used to being rich. I can’t stop having wine,” she emphasizes her addiction while other execs characterize their business acumen: “I can buy the most delicious wine now!” She follows this with: “My fortune’s not getting any bigger. It’s just that amount of money that gets smaller till I die. Or I make a good deal with you.” Harrison’s character quickly moves between two modes — the comically ridiculous (sewn into a hot air balloon) and the tragically sad (developing alcoholism) — that are sutured by the desperate need to keep her money from slowly running out. In shows like Shark Tank, the featured investors often have fortunes so large that it’s difficult to imagine them ever emptying, but I Think You Should Leave inserts a character whose situation is more similar to show’s audience — at risk of losing the relatively meager means that sustain addictions and ordinary life.
The show is filled with characters who have the aspiration for business success but none of the know-how or resources to achieve their goals. In one sketch, a man invents a website called calicocutpants.com, a fake clothing line that sells supposedly fashionable pants that look like they have a couple small pee stains on the front. The gimmick is that men can pull up the website to hide the fact that they didn’t shake well enough at the office urinal. If you ever try to buy the pants off the website, however, they are listed as out of stock, making them seem all the more desirable. “It’s the same thing Supreme does, wouldn’t you agree?” one character named Greg (played by Robinson) says at one point. The sketch revolves around Greg trying to get his coworker Jeff (Michael Patrick O’Brien) to “give” money to keep the website going, after he interpolates him into the group of men who use calicocutpants.com. You see, the man who started the website (Conner O’Malley) can’t sustain the cost of running it and needs the men who rely on it to chip in. The sketch features bizarre male behavior as Greg follows Jeff around the office to hound him into “giving” to the site. Throughout the sketch, while other workers go about their day, Greg will repeatedly shout at full volume “Hey! Hold that door!” to people all the way across the office. After they hold the door or elevator for him, he’ll then walk calmly away. Alternating moments of inappropriate anger and inappropriate calm locate the show’s comedy in the body of the ridiculous man, constantly trying and failing and trying and failing to hold himself together.
This is a tradition of comedy that Jack Halberstam has termed “king” (as opposed to “camp”), tracing the influence of drag king performances in late-nineties comedies like Austin Powers. “We find moments of king humor in both auteur comedy (Jerry Lewis or Woody Allen) and ensemble comedy, featuring a duo or trio (Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers): in each case, male fragility or male stupidity has been tapped as a primary source of humor.” The drag king influence extends beyond lesbian and transgender subcultures, shaping the show’s public sphere of straight-man fathers, office workers, and even a Santa-Claus-turned-movie star.
In one sketch, a father (Robinson again) tries to explain to his daughter why they can’t get ice cream on the way home. He lies: “the ice cream store is closed today…when it’s too cold outside all the ice cream stores close, because the ice cream machines freeze up and they don’t work anymore.” He looks to the man at the next booth (Bob Odenkirk) in knowing corroboration. However, Odenkirk becomes a Costello and decides to seize on his Abbott, repeating the lie and then taking it a step further: “Your dad and I are old friends. That’s how come we both know about ice cream stores.” He winks and keeps building. “We’re the same age, actually…And I own every kind of classic car, actually.” The repeated actually’s form a rhythm that builds until the sketch turns sad and the lies become more ordinary: “But I do, I have a wife. He knows, you know I have a wife. Tell her about my wife.” The desperate string of pitiful lies builds and repeats throughout the sketch (he has doubles of some cars, then triples of some of those), as Robinson’s character finds himself trapped, in too deep to stop assenting to every last thing that Odenkirk’s character says. A sketch that was originally about a father telling a little white lie to his daughter ends as a sketch about a sad men telling massive lies (and sometimes doubles, even triples, of lies) to himself. It’s a big swing.
For all the show’s irreverence and ridiculousness, it’s remarkable how many of the sketches are based on characters trying to maintain propriety while somebody else acts poorly. However, it’s not entirely clear who is the butt of the joke in any given situation. Rather, I Think You Should Leave uses the ensemble sketch to mutually imbricate every character in the simultaneous humor and pathos of the situation. Even in Abbott and Costello routines, such as their famous “Who’s on First?,” nobody really acts out of line. Each sketch is a contorted misunderstanding. Abbott prefaces that sketch, “You know they give baseball players nowadays very peculiar names,” and they run through some names like Booby Barber, laughing together. But then he says, “On our team, we have: Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third.” And then grammar takes it from there, until the mutual confusion explodes into exasperation. “I’m not mixing up anybody! Now what’s the name of the guy on first base?” Costello yells. “No, What’s on second,” Abbott corrects him, as they go on and on.
However, in the world of I Think You Should Leave, Abbott and Costello’s grammatical confusion becomes a kind of quiet desperation. Odenkirk doesn’t lie to Robinson and his kid merely to mess with some strangers. He’s looking to create the kind of fantasy that could help him escape his day-to-day misery, and he conscripts the only person he can find. The distinction between interrogative pronouns and proper nouns is not especially funny; neither is a man who needs to make up a collection of classic cars and a fictional model wife in order to sustain his existence. These situations range from the boring and tedious to the ordinary and depressed. However, comedy in this show has a sort of thickening quality, suspending incongruous actions and thoughts to coexist in a sketch. In the world that I Think You Should Leave imagines, the depressing and hilarious rely on each other, trying to express a more complex vision of what makes up each character’s life.
In his persistent comic depiction of depressing moments, Robinson and Kanin sit within a coalescing generation of comedians who all use absurdist comedy to explore our present. (These techniques diverge from other comedy that takes up serious subjects, as in the shocking sincerity of someone like Hannah Gadsby in Nanette.) Some of the major recent iterations in this vein are shows like Kate Berlant, Andrew DeYoung, and John Early’s 555 or Sandy Honig, Mitra Jouhari, and Alyssa Stonoha’s Three Busy Debras and comedy specials like Whitmer Thomas’s The Golden One or Natalie Palamides’s Nate – A One Man Show. In various ways, these comedians mess with the appearance of their world — using form that range from musical comedy (Thomas) to cross-dressing (Palamides) and overwrought makeup (Three Busy Debras) to incongruous characterizations (555) — to explore grief, abuse, vulnerability, and rape culture primarily through a comic lens.
And many of these comedians have an explicit alliance with progressive politics, campaigning for candidates and critiquing contemporary capitalism, but I think their political commitments appear more subtly across the kind of comedy I’m describing. They appear through a certain tenderness and attention to the suffering that permeates our present moment, and their ability to find that suffering even in their most hilarious moments. In one song called “Partied to Death,” Thomas mourns the death of his mother, a gifted musician who suffered from lifelong alcoholism. The song details her suffering and influence on his own life and music, until he eventually breaks into a chorus, ventriloquizing what his mother might say, “This fucking life it fucking sucks, so I’mma fucking drink, go out, get fucked.” The repetition of this line is poignant, but it’s also a little funny. Comedy like this works because it doesn’t turn something like alcoholism into a joke. Instead, it cracks open the way that we now experience our awful present, understanding the range of coping mechanisms we use to get by, coping mechanisms that are not unlike the jokes these comedians tell.
In this regard, these comedies are particularly interested in the place of white men in contemporary America, in the style of Halberstam’s “king comedy.” Male incompetence has probably always been a (if not the) central focus of comedy. (Comedy historian Erich Segal points out that the “Who’s on First?” routine dates back to Plautus.) In the special Nate, Natalie Palamides appears in shirtless, hairy drag, shotgunning La Croix and shouting at audience members, until her bravado collapses into a forlorn examination of consent and sexual violence. The depressive position in contemporary American comedy might be borne out of a need to self-consciously examine the clear through-line between the bumbling, predominantly white, funny man and the revelations of widespread sexual violence by immensely influential comedians like Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld, and Bill Cosby. Shows like I Think You Should Leave and specials like Nate try to find the place where bumbling becomes violence and how the former can cover the latter. The grammatical confusion of “Who’s on First” works just like the depressive humor of I Think You Should Leave because more than anything else, comedy is a form, and a form that can be used toward multiple ends. In the examples I’m discussing here, comedians turn comedy (and the bodies that have typically inhabited it) against itself, asking, to echo this essay’s epigraph, “But what makes this comedy?”
This question extends to think through some of the historical political conditions that underly all of this. Our present is not a good one. And depressing comedy teaching something about the moment we’re trying to survive. However, this badness is hardly new. In their essay on comedy, Lauren Berlant identifies “humorlessness” as at once a structuring condition of comedy and one that became especially pronounced over the past few decades of American comedy, coalescing with rampant inequality, economic austerity, and myriad other social ills. However, comedians are now using their work to realize the contradictions of our present moment. Comedy cannot be simply funny anymore, they seem to suggest. This is because comedy’s power comes not from the way it makes us laugh but from the way that laughter lets us recognize something we otherwise wouldn’t — something that would otherwise be unbearable. Our present is not a good one, then (“I don’t even want to be around anymore,” Karl Havoc, Carmine Laguzio, and Tim Robinson say, in unison). But still we laugh.