Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, Jacob Trussell explores Tim Robinson’s work on his Netflix series, I Think You Should Leave.
Fun fact you may not know! Tim Robinson won an Emmy Award for the second season of I Think You Should Leave. He beat, out of all people, Brendan Gleeson for ‘Outstanding Actor in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series”. For a show that asks him to wear a hot dog costume, drive a hot dog car, and surreptitiously eat a hot dog during a business meeting, I was admittedly surprised. But I really shouldn’t have been.
Robinson’s win highlights the big difference between great acting and great performances. There’s a stylistic disparity between an actor striving for effective realism, and what Robinson does in the show. But the impact it makes on the audience is the same. His performance, however abrasive and divorced from reality, still affects us on a human level. That could be making us laugh out loud, or instilling in the audience an uncomfortable, but relatable, sense of ennui.
This is why I call this column “The Great Performances” and not “The Greatest Acting”. Great acting doesn’t fit into a neatly defined box. Sometimes all an audience needs from an actor is strange charisma and a fierce commitment to making the audience believe in the bit. Yes, even if that bit involves a brand of luxury button-ups that causes the shopper to lose their mind.
I’ve been impressed with Robinson’s performances since his underrated sitcom Detroiters, co-created with ITYSL’s Zach Kanin, among others. But I’ve always had difficulty putting into words exactly what it is I like about his charming, if off-putting, energy. Watching Robinson work is like getting punched in the face relentlessly with a joke, a barrage of clownish faces and affected voices that plunges the audience into a world of bizarro situations escalating to the point of total destruction.
It’s an in-your-face style to be sure, but it never comes across as overly repetitive. Robinson keeps the humor fresh by approaching each of his disparate character’s lines from new, unexpected angles. But he’s not so much making loud, gonzo choices he knows will make the audience laugh. He’s simply living in the present moment of the strange, sad characters he brings to life. And through that subtle intention of playing each obnoxious character truthfully, the poignancy of Robinson’s performances emerge.
Two sketches in the premiere episode of season two best represent this. The first sketch depicts a Candid Camera-esque prank show starring Robinson’s character, Carmine Laguzio. The bit is that Carmine will wander around a mall dressed as a salty old man named Karl Havoc. But the good intentions go straight to hell once Carmine is actually wearing the nightmarishly grotesque Havoc prosthetics. He moves awkwardly, Robinson’s lithe nimbleness hidden behind mounds of latex that swallows him whole. Suddenly, as he stares blankly at the passers-by in the mall, he becomes overwhelmed with anxiety. He feels trapped, suffocated even. It makes him start losing it, “I can’t do this, we did way too much. I’m telling you I can’t–I’m so hot.”
As his producer tries to soothe him and redirect back to the prank, Robinson escalates the situation further until his character snaps. “I’m going to rip the f*cking head off… The prank is that there’s a real guy in there. That’s the new prank.” he says gruffly. Suddenly he pauses, and the audience has a chance to really take in Havoc’s haggard look. “I’m not doing it,” he says mutedly, “I don’t even want to be around anymore.” His producer is taken aback, quickly asking, “Like, you don’t want to live anymore?” Robinson takes another beat as Havoc moves around restlessly, letting the audience draw their own conclusions before quietly admitting, “I don’t know.”
Now I’d argue that part of the joke is that Carmine had to go to hyperbolic, suicidal lengths to get out of the Havoc suit – a streak of childish zeal that exists at the core of every one of Robinson’s characters. He revels in playing willfully obtuse and insubordinate man-children that explode with all the juvenile rage of a kid screaming “I’m not touching you” at their siblings on a family road trip.
But I find what makes Havoc actually memorable is that, for a fleeting moment, Robinson mines unassuming emotional complexity out of a very cartoonish situation. When he mewls “I don’t know”, our hearts break. In an instant, Robinson has let us see the emotional depths of a character that is at odds with the antics we see on screen. It’s a clever comedic trick that has made this sketch one of the best COVID-era memes.
The second performance is not quite as meme worthy, but it’s arguably more poignant. He plays a man on a ghost tour of a historic mansion. The guide lets the tour group know they are free to have a drink and say “whatever the hell” they want. Almost at once, we hear Robinson say out loud “Jizz.” The guide is taken off guard, and as a way of explaining himself, Robinson’s character does what they all do. He escalates it to a breaking point by saying more and more crass words.
Bad words can be funny, sure, but that’s not where the power of the sketch resides. It’s in Robinson’s character’s desperate attempt to understand why he can’t say, as the guide put it, “whatever the hell he wants.” Other comedians may have played up the asshole nature of what his character is doing, but Robinson chooses to play it straight, a commonality across all of his performances in the show. We’re not seeing a selfish jerk commandeering a ghost tour. We’re seeing a man who just wants to make a connection, but failing miserably at it.
This reaches its zenith once he’s finally kicked off of the tour. As he walks outside, a car pulls up, revealing his elderly mother. “Make any friends?” she asks. “Not really,” he replies as he shuffles around to the passenger side door. As a solemn song begins to play, the camera cuts to religious icons affixed to the dash of his mother’s car, allowing us once again to draw our own conclusions on the true nature of his character.
Much like with the Havoc sketch, Robinson uses the moments in-between the jokes to show his character’s complexities. Without this sad little ending, we just see his character as out of touch with how to act like a grown-up. With it however, we see him in a wholly new light, giving us a clue as to why he still acts like a child. It’s an unexpectedly moving moment that told me, “Yes, you do need to write about Tim Robinson for The Great Performances.”
Tim Robinson is a very singular comedian. His absurdism seems to know no bounds. Who else would have the brazen confidence to give us a sketch about a TV network that predominantly shows naked dead bodies bursting out of caskets during funerals? No one. No one.
But as strange and uncomfortable as Tim Robinson’s comedy can be, it’s also plainly evident how wildly inventive and new it feels. Yes, it may at first glance appear crass and sophomoric. But hiding just under that surface is a form of comedy that feels experimental, hilarious and tragically beautifully. It’s a style of humor we so rarely see, but one I hope Hollywood continues to invest in.
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