The Uniquely Midwestern Appeal of Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave

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The Uniquely Midwestern Appeal of Tim Robinson’s I Think You Should Leave

One blustery night in Chicago a few years ago, I found myself sitting in the front row of a frigid black box theater staring at a half-naked man—and not the good kind of half naked, the Winnie the Pooh kind. He was squatting with his back turned toward the audience so that we could see every square centimeter of his pale, fleshy butt and trembling, hairy thighs. Wincing, I watched as he wobbled back and forth, attempting to release the hotdog clenched between his buttcheeks into the bucket below. The show had been advertised as a “night of stand-up comedy.” I paid ten dollars to be one of the lucky girls in the audience.

Sadly, this wasn’t the first time I’d paid legal tender to attend a “night of comedy” only to be bombarded with really aggressive takes on toilet humor. At a friend’s sketch show earlier that year, I writhed in my seat while ten minutes of grainy, close-up footage of dogs pooping unspooled on the giant projector screen in front of me. And how can I forget the 90 minutes of my life I lost to a livestream of a guy in nothing but tighty-whities waiting in line outside a Green Bay Packers bar. It was February. With the wind chill, it was probably 7 degrees. “It’s funny, cause he’s a Bears fan,” explained the show’s host. Oh, Ok! To this day, I do not know if that man lived or died.

I resurfaced these buried memories the other day while bingeing episodes of the bizarre and hilarious new season of Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave. The show was co-created by Tim Robinson, a native midwesterner and luminary of Chicago’s improv comedy community. Like many other sketch comedy greats, Robinson spent a few years refining his comedic instincts on the main stage of the legendary comedy theater Second City. Before that, he traveled across his home state of Michigan, doing improv for corporate company retreats and whoever else hired the Second City Detroit Touring Company.

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Much has been written about how outrageously funny the cringey characters of I Think You Should Leave Are and how, perhaps accidentally, the doubling-down nimrods Robinson is so adept at playing actually reveal something meaningful about the fragility of the male ego. That might be true, but what strikes me most about I Think You Should Leave is how midwestern it is. All that yelling! Not since Chris Farley warned Christina Applegate and David Spade about the dangers of smoking doobies, has a midwestern comedian shouted so effectively.

Random outbursts of anger triggered by embarrassment is textbook midwestern, Dad behavior. That’s why comedians like John Belushi (from Chicago), Chris Farley (from Wisconsin), and now Tim Robinson are so adept at playing them. I swear I have met some of the I Think You Should Leave characters in dive bars in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (the part above the mitten). Yoopers are a notoriously gruff and finicky bunch, and in the ragtag group of comedy bro-hemians I hung out with in Chicago, they were an endless source of inspiration.

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Beyond Robinson’s hilarious characters, what makes I Think You Should Leave so appealing is its uncensored silliness. This too relates back to the midwest. The soft, forgiving “yes, and” environment of Chicago’s improv scene encourages comedians to experiment with the horrifying humor that Tim Robinson performs with scientific precision in every sketch on I Think You Should Leave .

Can you imagine pitching season one’s hot dog sketch to a room of New York producers? We all might recognize its genius now, but that’s partly because it’s streaming on a platform we trust. Plus, we’ll never know what was edited out. Consider being a part of the small audience that first witnessed a guy in a hot dog suit demand someone pull his pants down and spank his “bare butt, balls, and back.” Having been in an eerily similar situation, I can tell you from experience, these sketches often require some workshopping.

And that’s exactly what Chicago gives to its comedians—a place to experiment, to fail, to do disgusting stuff that isn’t necessarily funny in the moment, but might be, eventually.

Abigail Covington is a journalist and cultural critic based in Brooklyn, New York but originally from North Carolina, whose work has appeared in Slate, The Nation, Oxford American, and Pitchfork

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