A man is finishing up a job interview. He’s nervous, but the boss tells him he did great. On his way out, he tries to yank the door open. The boss he’s trying to impress says “Ope! Looks like you push.” Everything takes a beat. Instead of chuckling and pushing, he insists, agreeably at first, “Uh no, it does both…it does both…it actually goes both ways.” It doesn’t actually do both. But we watch his eyes widen and his heels dig in. He pulls the door until it snaps.
Netflix’s sketch comedy show I Think You Should Leave premiered a year ago this month, and this very first scene establishes a mechanic central to some of its most iconic sketches: one character gets a little embarrassed and then can’t stop doubling down. Their only social reactions are escalating and gaslighting.
For the sketches that run this way, maybe half the time, they resolve with a surreal twist when the group affirms the weird character. The foreign man with the absurd car ideas actually becomes the most popular in the focus group. A girlfriend is embarrassed by her cool young friends, not her gross, old, jazz-obsessed boyfriend. An entire party backs a man who eats a gift receipt. I laugh at one character’s childishness, and I laugh again when everyone is implausibly won over.
I think the show is funny to me because the absurd character is usually the most relatable. These sketches are exposure therapy for that burning, knee-jerk reaction to dig myself deeper when I’m being That Guy. Any mature, agreeable interaction is defined by letting these little things go. I Think You Should Leave asks, what if one person just didn’t? The show leaves me feeling both relieved and exposed that way, the way a lot of comedy is funny because it feels true.
At the risk of trivializing everything else, one of the things that scares me most about the president is his refusal to admit to tiny mistakes. Referring to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple as “Tim Apple” wasn’t a simple, otherwise unembarrassing stutter—it was intentional and efficient and actually very smart. After he included Alabama in the path of Hurricane Dorian, mistakenly but understandably, a map had to be extended with Sharpie.
I remember leaning against my kitchen sink, refreshing Twitter, and seeing the “covfefe” tweet as it happened, before anyone had time to react, and thinking “oh no.” An easy gaff by the guy I love to hate choked out less fun news for days. It spawned #Resistance merch and wittiest-protest-sign competitions.
Meanwhile, the president claimed it was intentional, and his press crew covered for him. Maybe he couldn’t laugh along, at least until he realized how much of a distraction it could be. Authority has a natural and even necessary aversion to small embarrassments, but a private reality built on denial and insulated by yes-men is something else. Lying about your business practices is slick; lying about a typo is so silly, it’s a spectacle. I stopped watching late-night comedy as news.
When warned in January, the president pushed back against coronavirus testing partly because he imagined that higher infection rates would prove his dismissals wrong and hurt his reelection chances. Everyone wants to be liked and everyone wants to be right. Every president makes decisions and gives orders constantly that cost lives. I need it to remain shocking when decisions like these are so plainly motivated by personal insecurity.
Because things get bad when no one is willing to look bad. Many stories depict the downfall of people who have dismissed everyone willing to tell them they’re being stupid, from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes to The Lonely Island’s Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping. I need to stay able to laugh at myself and to dismiss myself. I need anyone with influence to be similar. I Think You Should Leave lets me laugh at the idea of anything else being normal.