I Think You Should Leave and America’s dark heart

Tim implores you to give

I Think You Should Leave is the comedy vehicle of Tim Robinson, a former SNL alumnus, formed of a series of short, sharp absurd sketches set in everyday America, which burst through accepted social norms, as the characters engage in increasingly outlandish behaviour. Although some begin in strange circumstances, and get stranger from there, many start in mundane, quotidian settings: a meeting in an office, dinner at a restaurant, a school, or perhaps a baby shower. They quickly descend into farce as one, or more, of the characters enter into a cycle of ever-increasing insanity, dragging other characters into their vortex.

These seemingly random, irrational, or exaggerated reactions create fissures in the edifice of the everyday realism of the settings, through which we can observe the inner workings of modern American society, the dark heart of American capitalism, and the contradictions underneath its façade.

And it is uniquely and unmistakably American in tone, setting and content — the settings represent established elements of Americana; talent shows, malls, baby showers, birthday parties, game shows, cable TV, American restaurants, as well as features of the corporate American engine which facilitate those pastimes — boardrooms, with a particular focus on meetings about mergers and restructuring (“The Dreaded ‘Re-Org’”), focus groups, corporate retreats. American-style colloquialisms pepper the speech of the characters, and often form part of the central narrative (‘mudpies’, ‘beet red’, ‘blue ass’, ‘sloppy steaks’); familiar, but different.

The sketches also use familiar forms from American television, perhaps the purest reflection of the American psyche and how Americans view themselves. Classic forms are utilised to offset the bizarre behaviour of the characters; game shows (‘Chunky’), infomercials (‘Has This Ever Happened to You?’, ‘Coffin Flop’), high school dramas (‘TC Tuggers’), prank shows (‘Carl Havoc’). Familiar forms, but with a constant contrast between tone, structure and content that drives much of its interest and dynamism, but also its powerful satire and critique.

I didn’t fucking do this

The structures of American society seem on the surface to be reasonable and civilised, but they often mask its horror. This sincerity in madness is the embodiment of the American dream, and modern American society; this dream fundamentally relies on a collective delusion, one which temporarily obscures the unseen, illogical, threating morass that lurks behind everyday phenomena, and which these sketches make manifest through their absurdity.

The very first sketch sets the scene, a mundane work-based scenario: the job interview. It quickly descends into an unsettling, chaotic situation when a basic norm of society, namely not breaking a door by pulling it the wrong way at your job interview, is contravened. It emphasises how tentative and contingent ‘normal’ acts and processes of society are, and how basic feelings of embarrassment can lead to the unhinging, literally, of its fundamental structures and appearance of sanity. Society, and specifically in this instance, the corporate American work culture expects certain behaviours from their participants, and this sketch like many others in this programme, use these strict codes of conduct and social norms as lenses through which we can view the contradictions that underpin them.

Other sketches take place in office, or corporate environments like this, banal and filled with stereotypical dialogue (“Can I get an update on the Mid-West division?”); this set dressing helps to instantly situate the observer firmly in the tradition of American corporate capitalism, with the characters acting as synecdoche for the average, run-of-the-mill American worker. The absurdity of the farces that follow is heightened because of the juxtaposition with the familiarity of the setting, the characters, and the quotidian dialogue.

An air of menace envelops these sketches; invisible or unknown rules and codes of conduct leave characters on edge. ‘The Photocopier’, ‘The Whoopee cushion’, ‘Surfs Up’, ‘But It’s Lunch?’, ‘Youtube Bozo’ all use an office setting to offset the absurdity and are all driven by the anxiety that one feels when one doesn’t know the rules, and that without knowing them one opens oneself up to ridicule, or susceptible to social coercion. The ‘Calico Cut Pants’ sketch makes manifest this menacing, all-encompassing conspiracy, its central plot involves imploring the central character to do as they’re told, give, or else face the consequences — all because of an everyday social faux pas, namely pissing your pants. These sketches are telling us that these seemingly soft and safe, everyday settings which we cannot avoid, harbour an often unseen, but omnipresent threat, one we try not to think about, but which underpins the society we live in.

But it’s lunch

This sketch also reflects another theme within the series, a broad hinterland and life beyond the sketch that confirms their own absurdity (“I eat paper all the time!”), revealing that their seemingly strange and unexplainable actions in the narrative are not without precedent or rationale outside of it, but part of a broader pattern of behaviour, and the sketch is merely a brief window into the potential peril or uncertainty that lurks just below the surface of a seemingly sane and civilised America.

It is the threat of what lies below — the unseen tendrils, spreading wide and beneath one’s frantically kicking legs, barely keeping you afloat — that drive many of the sketches. Something you know is there, but don’t know what it is, how it got there or how it really works, but that you know controls your existence; the arbitrary rules and social norms that exist all around you, and often melt into the background, latent, waiting to actualise, take hold and drag you down into the dark black morass inside the American psyche. ITYSL highlights these dark forces, manifesting them in the cold light of day, subjecting them to examination, revealing the contradictory and irrational concepts that haunt us.

‘Motorcycle Guy’ shows us how society is formed of arbitrary categories and distinctions that seem on the outside, and to outsiders, as something that does not have to by the way it is. Why can’t a car simply be a ‘motorcycle with a little house in the middle’? There is no good answer to this apart from: that is just how it is. ITYSL continually questions these concepts. A ‘Honk if you’re Horny’ bumper sticker is taken at face value; we as viewers know that doing this is obviously insane, but why shouldn’t you? Social convention and history demand that you don’t and that it’s a joke. Society is based on this kind of acquired knowledge of norms and conventions and relies on people knowing and adhering to them. If they don’t then chaos and confusion quickly occur.

Tables

When combined with power or authority, the threat of these arbitrary concepts becomes clear. In ‘Tables’, the authority figure — the driver’s ed teacher, played by Robinson — enjoins us to participate in clearly irrational situation, simply because they have told us to. They even admit to the nonsensical nature of the video, but still orders the participants to play along, because this is how it has been done before, and this is how it will be done now, despite its absurdity being clear. There is no other option; authority and path dependency are stronger influences over our everyday life than ‘common sense’ or ‘logic’. The black morass beneath the surface does not function according to the laws of what we believe is our ordered rational society, but according to its own logic, whose only goal is the continued operation of the existing order.

Our ideas of what is absurd, or illogical, or irrational is conditioned by our surroundings and the society we live in. The characters in these sketches initially seem to us to be acting in absurd or illogical ways, but perhaps they are simply dealing with the situations they are place in the most rational way available to them? If you had been in a car that was too small and the steering wheel kept flying off, wouldn’t you mention that in a car design focus group? If you wanted to find out if a person you had given a gift to had touched a receipt and refused to give it back hadn’t wiped properly after doing a big mudpie, wouldn’t you, ask a neutral party to eat another receipt to see if it was actually eating the paper that made you ill? If you didn’t want your date to eat all the fully loaded nachos, wouldn’t you get the waiter to ask the date to say the restaurant has a rule that if you get fully loaded nachos to share that you can’t just take all the fully loaded nachos every time?

The situations they find themselves in may sometimes be of their own making, but the escalation of these scenarios often follow a twisted, but logical sequence; the conventions that hold us together are simply a collection of these arbitrary, but once logical, decisions that once proved useful in some way i.e. they have facilitated the functioning of human relations and the societies they have built, or have helped the powers that be escape responsibility for their actions.

Hotdog guy

They also show, how quickly those living in these societies come to accept these norms, acquiesce to the threat, and limit their own horizons. In the ‘Hotdog Car’ sketch when the guy in the hotdog suit suggests that the perpetrator needs to have their “bare buttocks” spanked, the first two people he nominates refuse, but then a third character suggests that “Well, one of us is gonna have to do it” — having already accepted the basic premise of the Hotdog man’s contention. This echoes how power relations within society constrain the options available to us so that unpleasant courses of action and coercive structures cannot be questioned for what they are on a wider moral level, but only within the existing paradigms. This character has already seemingly accepted the premise that the perpetrator should have their “bare buttocks” spanked, and the quibble is merely about who should deliver the spanking. Punitive measures are set by those with the most to benefit, and the guiltiest — perhaps those who have crashed into the clothes store in their hotdog car. They prevent society from questioning the basis of the authority for administering punishment, limiting it to the technical and practical details of its operation. The swamp we paddle in seems endless and open, but unseen forces constrain us; freedom is the American mantra, but this freedom is for the few; the rest must swim the right way or face the consequences.

These coercive tendencies, intrinsic within American capitalism, and society, become more pronounced as its internal logic starts to falter, and it loses its conceptual underpinning. The forms remain familiar, but in the current conjuncture, increasingly beset by entropy, its content becomes ever more incoherent. Ludicrous inventions epitomise this; fake gorilla balding solutions, TC Tuggers, Dan Flashes — are a window into the continuing process of ‘innovation’ that American capitalism relies on, but which in reality is the constant creation of new, ever expanding ‘needs’ that compensate for capitalism’s constant crisis of overproduction. These inventions are silly, but are they sillier than ‘innovations’ that actually exist? Is Coffin Flop more outlandish that some of the content of actually existing American cable? The increasing overproduction of cultural and physical content has resulted in artefacts that make less and less sense, but which are cloaked in familiar forms.

That’s a Chunky

‘Chunky’ has the appearance of a generic gameshow, but the “content” doesn’t make sense (“You need to work out what he does!”). The consequences of form over content; the internal logic of a concept hasn’t been established, but the system demands that it continues being produced. Again, the concept of this gameshow isn’t as absurd as some that have actually been produced; Alan Partridge’s outlandish show ideas now seem run-of-the-mill.

American capitalism, shorn of purpose, of productive capacity, of creativity or vision, beset by contradiction, has become a system of pure pretence. Its internal logic breaks down, lacking the solid basis on which it one existed it becomes increasingly absurd — and these sketches run with that, constantly upping their own absurdity to keep pace with the absurdity of everyday existence. This is post-satire — mild ribbing and poking fun at minor indiscretions is no longer sufficient as society becomes increasingly unmoored and incoherent, so meaningful satire needs to go further to rip holes in the towering edifice of late capitalism.

The recognisable real-world situations, subverted just enough, reveal the hidden contradictions that must be obfuscated for society and capitalism to function. They do not need to be hidden deeply; an enforced perspective of reality often hides them in plain sight, but they can only be uncovered through these absurd, but familiar situations. If they were more easily exposed then the system would cease to function, as the fictions that sustain them were exposed for what they were — that the logic underpinning our society is irrational and premised on arbitrary decisions made for the continuation of power, rather than existing for the promotion of the general good. Satire such as ITYSL, which doesn’t initially present as Political Satire, is a powerful mechanism for rescuing satire from the compliant, court pleasing avenues which it has lately found itself down, its bold absurdity explodes the myths of American capitalism and exposes its dark heart.

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