A friend of mine recently wrote for Wired about the sketch comedy I Think You Should Leave—how he’d missed the show’s genius at first and has now come to embrace its embrace—sadly, and even movingly—of who we are. It’s easy to miss what the show’s up to because at first glance, it’s all pretty low-hanging fruit. Or poop. So much poop. Fart jokes, mudpies, wanking boys (or boys who need to wank)—a lot of physical comedy, too, like people being thrown into china cases and crashing into storefronts and all that yuk-yuk, hi, I’m a twelve-year-old boy with a lot of spit and jiz under my fingernails stuff. There’s also, though, this whole other meditation happening here about pride and self-immolation and how the one tends to lead to the other. My friend has covered this bit already—go read his piece, jeez—and so what I want to talk about is something a little different. About what strikes me as the show’s other interesting move.
In several of the bits, there’s one guy who’s way out of step with everyone else. He’s boxed himself into an untenable position but will not abandon it no matter what. The results are usually extreme and hilarious for being extreme. (This is why orthodoxy is almost always comic (when it’s not being lethal)). And those bits are good. But the truly discomfiting bits—the most memorable for me, anyway—are less about the person who’s committed to his own demise than about the people who are unexpectedly complicit in it.
This is where I’m about to ruin the show for anyone who hasn’t seen it, so DO NOT READ ON if you don’t want your experience ruined. Except, hello, apparently everyone has seen this show with a few notable exceptions—
But back to complicity. An example: a guy’s opening presents at his birthday party. The gifts are lame, but he loves them. Eventually, though, he gets a gift he doesn’t like, and feigns pleasure. But the gift-giver cannot accept the birthday boy’s pretense, and so begins this crazy spiral that wrecks the party and possibly the birthday boy’s marriage. At first, the gift giver—who is awkwardly and even menacingly taunting the gift receiver—is met with confusion and incredulity by everyone. But then all of a sudden, it turns out the other people at the party don’t think he’s nuts! And the ridiculous, insane thing the birthday boy’s been accused of is true! Everyone is complicit, which means we’ve entered a universe whose social norms are not ours. Or are they…
There are a couple other sketches that pursue the same bait-and-switch approach to comedy, and it works. It’s unsettling. Reminds me, a bit, of this movie Wild Tales, which came out about 5 years ago. It’s not successful across the board, but the sketches that land are the ones that watch a character pursue an extreme, unsustainable position, and then, either because the gravitational pull of her madness is strong, or because her madness isn’t mad at all, surrounding characters fall in.
Which inevitably leads us to questions like: am I nuts or are you nuts? In some contexts, this kind of questioning is vvvvvvery bad (hello, gaslighting); in others, it’s straight-up awesome.
I’m interested in what the next season will bring and how much more mileage the show can get out of these same strategies. Which is less about the show than about how much pleasure can be derived from gorging on humiliation and unease when they are ours to begin with.
Chekhov: “Man will only become better when you make him see what he is like.” This is the argument from which most art gets its energy and purpose. But is this still true? Do we really want to be indicted with regularity? Do *I*? Oh, I guess so.