I Think You Should Leave, or: How I Learned to Sate My Existential Dread with The Absurd

I Think You Should Leave | Netflix
Netflix

On the floor of the Village East Cinema, I typed “climate change news” into Google’s search engine. I was four days into my first tenure at the Tribeca Film Festival, and had some free time between one film and the next. I found the nearest outlet to charge my phone in the quiet lobby and suddenly became overwhelmed with trepidation over the future of the planet. I’m sure I was scrolling through Twitter—as I am wont to do—and saw a particular tweet that intensified my already growing fear of humanity’s indifference towards the Earth’s crumbling climate stability and, with a masochistic urge, wanted to plunge right into it, regardless of my location or circumstances. Face my fears. Understand the impending doom. Look death in the face and find a way to move on nonetheless.

“I just Googled ‘climate change news’ for 20 minutes and I’m feeling miserable,” I texted my friend shortly after, to which they replied, “Oh geez…” And yes, “oh geez” was right—I didn’t know how I was going to recover from this. I still had five more days to have fun watching films in New York and all I wanted to do was curl up in the bed at my atrocious Airbnb and let the weight of the blankets crushing my body push the thought of Earth’s human-induced heat death from my fragile mind. I had never felt such existential fear in my life. I think of death often, but more as a friend I have yet to meet; its presence exists, but it has yet to truly influence me. In that moment, though, the end of my life—the end of everything I know—suddenly felt quite tangible. I felt fear for people I will never meet, and for parts of the world I will never see. I’d heard the phrase “global warming” tossed around since I was a child, but it was always so abstract, a problem for someone else, somewhere else, to deal with sometime long after my bones had turned to dust. 

The world has felt more absurd than ever lately. Though it’s highly unlikely that humanity will end in 2050 (and those of us who indulge in the comforts of the first world should remember that we are privileged to have far less to fear than others in certain parts of the globe), the modern news cycle feels like an unending stream of irrationality and horror. The United States has a reality show president who can’t speak in complete sentences, and fascism is resurrecting itself in countries all over the world; there’s no sign of moving forward on much-needed gun control in our country, and the Amazon rainforest burned for over two weeks; Joker discourse began months before the movie was even released, and the fact that it’s finally ended comes as an unexpected relief. Breaking news bulletins have started to feel like violations of reality. It would be comforting to learn that all of this is a simulation. 

Tim Robinson | Netflix

Tim Robinson understands this. He understands the unspeakable horrors of the everyday world and so he created another one, a world in which the absurdity is far stranger, but makes far more sense. Described by some as “cringe comedy,” I Think You Should Leave, the sketch series Robinson co-created with his longtime writing partner Zach Kanin, takes a joke and pushes it too far, and then pushes it even farther than that, reflecting our world back to us as the uncanny. Through harmless, unsettling humor that captures simple moments of specific, uniting fears, bending accepted social norms and testing our acceptance of discomfort, we experience a world that is similar to ours, but whose absurdity feels…right. A world unburdened by our existential troubles, hyper-focused on the surreality of the mundane. 

Ironically, I discovered I Think You Should Leave shortly after my moment of climate change dread at Tribeca. I watched it at my Airbnb, then again with a friend a few days later, and then came home and watched it for a third time. At this point, the show had permeated all annals of the internet. “You have no good car ideas,” spoken by a stubbornly steadfast old man in a Ford focus group, was recycled into a meme to fit the needs of the topic at hand. Or perhaps you’d see a GIF of the same old man dabbing. The Baby of the Year sketch—in which three baby finalists are ranked in terms of personality and portliness and the studio audience becomes passionately united in wishing death upon one of the babies, dressed like a motorcyclist, named Bart Harley Jarvis—was another usual suspect. 

It was harmless and overwhelmingly unifying. We gravitated towards I Think You Should Leave in a way that young people of the internet had already been clinging to the gibberish nonsense of absurdist memes and Tim and Eric-inspired humor (“It’s free real estate!”). Often times, the humor we drift towards is a direct reflection of how we feel about the world. Stephanie Tikkanen, an assistant professor in communication studies at Ohio University, reflected, “I feel like when the world is that bleak and there’s so little hope, I think millennials are really suffering a lot from that. Why not escape to this absurdist viewpoint of the world?” It’s been labeled by some as a form of “neo-Dadaism,” a reference to the “defiantly anti-art” art movement that arose post-World War I. “Fed up with the world and disillusioned by what it had to offer,” writes author Megan Hoins, “the new generation of artists after World War I essentially said, ‘screw this,’ and began making art that juxtaposed all that came before it.” Traditional art was viewed as bourgeois, and new artists sought to disrupt that traditionality. 

Hoins goes on to write, “Absurdist humor is a means to express the core disillusionment that lies at the heart of the millennial generation, just as Dada art was a way to express the frustration toward the state of the world after World War I.” Indeed, there is much to be frustrated with and terrified by in 2019—to escape into absurdist humor is to find sense in the nonsensical, where absurdity is supposed to be at home rather than saturating reality. Millennials, more than any generation in recent memory, find themselves silenced by the generations before them, left in the lurch by the unchecked prosperity and double-edged economic growth of Baby Boomers, whose thriving heydey gave rise to their children’s financially unsustainable future. These Baby Boomers now don’t want to listen to their children—and write them off as ignorant, when they do—for simply objecting to the uncertainty of a world tainted before they ever had the agency to try and stop it.

And thus, the absurd is born. Where else is there to go?

Old man dabbing | Netflix

In the world of I Think You Should Leave, the biggest problems facing characters are the minute inanities of everyday life. Marriages and livelihoods are destroyed at the expense of soiled receipt paper, magic acts, and whoopee cushion pranks. Safety can be found in a universe that negates the horrible truths of our own. If we must be silenced, then we find our voice in that which denounces the normalcy that seemingly abandoned us. Absurdity brings us in and acts as the panacea to reality, as well as the harmless alternative. Is there life on Mars? Well, I think we found it.

The first episode opens with one simple gag: a job interview at a coffee shop, which is going perfectly well until the interviewee (played by Robinson) goes to exit the shop and accidentally pushes the door instead of pulling. A straightforward and universal mistake, and the interviewer points this out with a smile. However, Robinson is clearly embarrassed, and becomes intent on proving that the door can be both pushed and pulled. “I was here yesterday,” he tells the interviewer stiffly, eyes wide and wild but assuming a persona of self-assuredness, “it actually goes both ways.” The interviewer, unperturbed, seems to believe him, and the remainder of the sketch entails Robinson comically struggling to force the door entirely off its hinges to prove once and for all that it really does go both ways, drool dribbling down his chin.

And that’s what I Think You Should Leave centers on: forcing us to live through heinous but otherwise minor embarrassments, anxieties, and worries that we often end up overthinking into oblivion, stretching them out to unbearable lengths and feeding them into even more ridiculous, implausible scenarios. Robinson immerses us in a world where those are the only things that truly matter. One sketch focuses on the stress of coming up with the perfect Instagram caption—something that correctly balances attractive aesthetics with self-deprecation—but takes it to the extreme. One of the three women (Vanessa Bayer) doesn’t understand that she shouldn’t lean too heavily into total deprecation, composing captions that describe her wanting her “frickin’ lard carcass” loaded into the mud. “No coffin please! Just wet, wet mud.”

I Think You Should Leave | Netflix

The sketch highlights the absurdity of hyper-focusing on something so trivial but completely normalized, exaggerating the very real emotions of stressing out over this inane but otherwise commonplace practice. In another sketch, the anxiety of giving someone a gift you’re not sure they’ll like, and wondering whether they’ll utilize that gift receipt, is played out to truly illogical lengths. A man (Robinson) believes he’s been poisoned by his friend (Steven Yeun) not washing his hands after taking a shit. Robinson forces Yeun’s character to say he won’t return the gift and therefore won’t be needing his gift receipt, but once the receipt is returned and Robinson touches it, the episode devolves into a test of whether Yeun did or did not wash his hands after shitting (the poisoning of that receipt, which he then eats, somehow ends up killing Robinson’s character).

Other scenarios include a crazed elderly gentleman tracking down a baby—now a man—who screamed on a flight years ago, to scream at him during his own flight as revenge; a middle-aged hipster doofus upending his much younger girlfriends’ game night with his knowledge of obscure jazz artists; a woman utilizing her “fully furnished” Garfield house as a place for her coworkers’ intervention; and a man taking a “honk if you’re horny” bumper sticker too literally, trailing the sticker’s owner for solutions to his out-of-control libido. All of these sketches, when stripped to their core, sow themselves with the seed of one simple anxiety (or the potential for it) and bloom out into utter irreverence, twisting and contorting themselves until the original idea is, often, warped into near-unrecognizability. It’s as if the show itself is commenting on both our very human proclivity for overthinking ourselves into neurosis, and the absurd, horrible nature of being alive in our current culture.

And despite this, the show feels quite safe because these frivolous human worries are posited as the biggest potentials for disaster and chaos. At the same time, the otherwise minor anxieties that accompany our human existence are validated, creating this universe where the way things feel internally becomes visually articulated and submitted as rational. Modern Millennial woes are both the only thing and the most important thing. The unreasonable silence of our world does not exist in I Think You Should Leave—in its world, absolutely nothing should be silenced. We should be screaming about anything, and everything, at all times.

In an interview with Vulture, Robinson discussed the humanity and humor in making a social faux-pas and being too stubborn to accept it, like when an office worker (played by Patti Harrison) attempts to make a joke about Santa bringing a new copier early to her office as a gift, and refuses to let it go when the joke doesn’t land with her coworkers, or when a man (again played by Robinson) falls victim to a work whoopee-cushion prank and becomes intent on winning the room. “People can refuse to admit fault to the point that it becomes super embarrassing for them,” Robinson explains, “but in their mind, they still feel like they’re saving face.”

I Think You Should Leave | Netflix

Robinson’s focus on our tendency to deny defeat in vulnerable social scenarios further highlights his ability to validate uncomfortable human flaws through absurdist exaggeration. Ian Crouch of The New Yorker writes that the show provides a comfort by acknowledging social mores, that Robinson’s often nasty violation of agreed-upon behaviors simply reinforces the solace of their existence. I would argue, though, that the show’s reassurance comes from falling face-first into a world where social mores are unbelievably violated and thus done away with, making it seem reasonable that chaos should reign in the most minor of ways. 

It’s nearly impossible to venture through the Twitter timeline and not see at least one tweet from a young person that mentions looking forward to our inevitable demise—be it climate change-induced or otherwise. Millennials—and Gen Z, as well—find themselves particularly fixated on their own deaths. The disillusionment that has given way to an embrace of absurdism finds itself twisting down nihilistic paths as well; we cope with our fear of the end—despite living in a world of seemingly unending suffering—by finding our own weird way to both wrestle and make peace with death. I Think You Should Leave provides us with a means to grapple with our delicate humanity, with the things that shouldn’t really matter, in a time where the worldwide political and social landscapes seem to be closing in on us at a rate we cannot keep up with, and when our voices often feel utterly useless. 

I’ve watched I Think You Should Leave four or five times now; it’s hard to keep track at this point. The six fleeting, 18-minute-long episodes fly by like nonstop overload, an assault on my senses that washes over me like pure catharsis. When I turn on I Think You Should Leave its bedlam feels like a weighted blanket—a brief and soothing respite from the horrible truths of the outside world. The rainforest is burning, the ice caps are melting, the people we’ve voted into positions of power are doing all that they can to abuse it. Instead of poignant political satire or commentary, the most resonant relief from our relentless proximity to tragedy is jokes about farts and shits (referred to multiple times in the show as “mud pies”), and a man in a hot dog costume refusing to admit that he just crashed his hot dog car into a clothing store.

Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin have created a resounding antidote to reality. Whenever I watch I Think You Should Leave, I momentarily forget that there are more important things to concern myself with than being embarrassed by a magician or figuring out how to sell props from a failed mob movie. I try to be as informed as one can about the terrible goings-on of our modern times, but sometimes I just need a fucking break. My death will come—be it sooner or later—but until then, I have I Think You Should Leave. It makes me laugh and feel at home in the simplistic faults of my own humanity, in the horrible nature of being alive, and finding comfort in fallible, universal mistakes alongside other people just as scared of the world as I am. I Think You Should Leave might posit itself as an uncanny, inverted hell, where minor gaffes give way to tragedy, but for some of us, at this point, that feels like a goddamn paradise.