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Tim Robinson on His New Netflix Show and the Worst Pain of His Life

Tim Robinson. Photo: Michael Kovac/Stringer/Getty Images

Tim Robinson’s new Netflix sketch show, I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson, is a surreal panic attack of a show. His last series, Detroiters, was beloved by comedy aficionados everywhere. Many of his fans and former castmates show up on I Think You Should Leave: Sam Richardson fights a skeleton army with Ebenezer Scrooge, Will Forte enacts mid-flight vengeance, and Kate Berlant acts as the Little Edie of Jim Davis’s Garfield mansion.

Co-written with Saturday Night Live alums Zach Kanin and John Solomon and produced by the Lonely Island, every sketch in I Think You Should Leave is the worst-case scenario of a social faux pas. Not since Lord of the Flies has humanity seemed so bestial, savage to their fellow man, and with almost no control of their bowels. So it’s surprising that Robinson is such a meek and thoughtful interview. We talked about his new show, how to raise children to be cool with farts, and why early skate culture had so much skull imagery.

So many of the sketches seemed to be about people who refuse to admit fault.

Things escalate from one small mishap and someone doubling down rather than admitting they’ve made a mistake. Why is that such a fertile jumping-off point for you?
I don’t have a really articulate answer, but something about somebody being so embarrassed to admit they’ve made a small mistake and denying it is really human. And how far someone will take it is funny to me. People can refuse to admit fault to the point that it becomes super embarrassing for them, but in their mind, they still feel like they’re saving face.

As a person with social anxiety, the show reminds me of something my therapist told me to do called catastrophizing, where you imagine the absolute worst thing that could ever happen in a given situation. That’s supposed to help you understand how unlikely the outcome is and help you dial it back.
I have social anxiety, too. I definitely think I do that. I spin out and sit there silently on the couch, staring out and thinking about the worst scenario. I should probably see a therapist. That’s not about the show; I’m just having a realization.

A breakthrough is a breakthrough. It doesn’t really matter where we get it.

There’s a lot of bodily humor in the show too.
[The connection gets fuzzy but comes back eventually.] I also broke my phone last night, so I can’t touch the screen. I can’t even see the screen. The only way I can answer the phone is though headphones. I can’t turn the volume up for you, sorry.

How did you break your phone?
It’s so embarrassing. I actually trapped it in the hatch of the trunk of my car. It’s electric and it opened. My phone was in the crack and it completely smashed it.

I’m having a visceral reaction to that story because that happened to my hand once when I was a kid.
Oh my God, you got it trapped in there?

Yeah. And my babysitter kept trying to slam the door shut because I didn’t scream out, for some reason.
You were in shock! I think the worst pain I was ever in — or if not the worst pain, then the most unique — was when I had a wooden closet door that was unfinished. It wasn’t painted or varnished, so it kind of splintered off. I scraped my hand down it, and a sliver went underneath my fingernail, between my finger and my fingernail. It was so far up there, they had to give me a shot to numb my finger so they could pull it out. Sorry, this has nothing to do with what we were talking about.

I think it kind of answers why jokes about the body are so impactful. 
People get embarrassed by natural things. Like the whoopee cushion [sketch]. Somebody does a small prank on him, and he’s determined to be like, “It’s actually not funny. You’ve actually embarrassed yourself, not me.” He needs to win the room, even if only in his mind. To be embarrassed by something so small. But it is real. We all have blind spots. I have times when I get overly explaining about a mistake, and I have to step out of myself and think, You’re only doing this because you’re insecure. Things like bodily fluids, it’s so childish, but even adults are embarrassed by them.

Bodily shame has to be taught, it’s not innate like pain. As a parent, how are you dealing with helping your kids cope with embarrassment?
That’s a great question. All you can do as a parent is try your best to make them the nicest people they can be. It’s hard because humans are humans, and I have no control when they go to school or wherever.

Your daughter has great fart jokes.
She definitely does. She’s got some pretty advanced ones. At that age, your go-to move is to say “poop” and “fart,” but she’s got some advanced ones that are pretty impressive. She’s got good comic timing. They’re both really funny; my son just never lets me put it on camera. Which I respect.

Other parents would probably try to discourage a daughter from making fart jokes, but you’re like, “You wanna tape it?”
Totally. If it makes me laugh, I’ll ask, “Can I record that one?” And a lot of the time she’s like, “Nah, nah.” And she’s really smart. I went on Seth Meyers and he talked about her. When I got home, she said something, and I said, “That’s hilarious. Let me record that.” And she said, “You need to pay me money.” She’s absolutely right. Now she’ll have a good one and she’s like, “Gimme five bucks and take me to the store.” And that’s fair. Completely fair.

She knows her worth.
She’s smart.

The show has lots of famous guests, but also more real-looking people than I’ve seen on most shows. What was the casting process like?
We have friends, comedians who came in and helped us out. People who I think are hilarious. As far as the other people, we tried to make the sketches filled with really, really good actors. We wanted good actors, even in the smaller parts, to make the world feel more grounded even when the sketch is going insane.

Tell me about the older man in the car-focus-group sketch. What’s his deal?
He came in and just absolutely destroyed. He made us laugh so hard — so funny, and such great comic instincts. He’s one of our favorites, too. He’s a comedic actor who worked in Miami. He was on a show that’s pretty big in Spanish-speaking TV. He’s a legend. After we did this, I saw him on This Is Us, and I was like, “Oh my God!”

Among your co-writers, who is it that wants to see more skeleton wars in comedy? That came up in a couple sketches.
[Laughs.] I’m not sure. It’s a very “first thought.” Like if you’re thinking of writing a medieval book or something, the first thought would be that. What is a cool story that could take place in another universe, but had elements of ours and medieval times and the Dark Ages? Maybe like skeletons with battle armor? It makes us laugh because it’s almost lazy.

It’s very 10-year-old boy’s first skate deck.
Oh my God, exactly! I think it was Mike McGill’s skate deck that had the skull and the big sword coming out of it. Early skateboard culture had a lot of skulls.

I’m overanalyzing that now. Does it have something to do with how many fractures you get? Are you just thinking about your bones more when you’re skating?
Oh, wow, that’s really deep. You might be right. Subconsciously, you might be thinking, I’m putting my skeleton out there to maybe get hurt. But no, my skeleton is strong! It has a sword.

How did the Lonely Island come to produce the show?
Honestly, it was because of them that it happened. Robbie Praw at Netflix and Akiva Schaffer were talking about sketch comedy, and it was Akiva’s idea to have me do a series. Because of them, it happened. Akiva called me and asked if I’d be interested, and I said, “Absolutely.”

Kiv also directed a lot of the episodes, right?
He directed half, and Alice Mathias from Portlandia did the rest.

What does a good director bring to your writing?
With Alice and Kiv, I have so much trust in them, in their comedy instincts and their proven work. It’s always nice to have somebody. Writing is one thing, but I’m way more insecure and neurotic when it comes to acting. We’ve been talking about embarrassment, and I get self-conscious a lot. I’m not as confident in it. It’s nice to have their eye on whether it’s reading or not, or whether they think it’s up to par. They made everything so much better. When you have someone so competent on, it’s much easier to relax and just focus on trying not to be so scared of acting.

Since a lot of the sketches are about how failing to admit how one little faux pas can make everything get really out of hand, now is your chance to declare one mistake you made that you wish you would have owned up to at the time.
In my own life? There are truly, truly millions. I’d probably need a month to list all my mistakes. The minute we hang up from this call, I’m certainly going to go back over it and go, Oh my God, why did I say that? I sound so dumb. So it’s a constant struggle.

You feel like you’re racking up new ones every minute?
I think so. I think every interaction I have, there’s something I walk away going, Oh my God, I sound like a jerk. It’s constantly happening.

Well, I had a good time talking to you, so please remain confident in this interaction.
This interaction was okay? Good, good.

Talking With Tim Robinson About His New Sketch-Comedy Show