Tom Robinson (Netflix)

Originally hired as a featured player on Saturday Night Live—code for “prove yourself and make the varsity”—Tim Robinson, instead, proved himself right into the writers room. With his hooded eyes and facility for playing awkward weirdoes, Robinson’s tenure as an SNL performer was brief, but, in his episode of The Characters, he proves that his comic voice is ideally suited for sketch comedy—preferably in the last spot of the night.

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That’s not a knock. Anyone who’s read any of my SNL reviews knows my enduring affection for what I call “Ten-To-Oneland.” That’s the last sketch of any SNL where, once the bills have been paid, the host pampered, and the celebrity impressions and game show sets put away for the night, occasionally a truly weird and wonderful premise gets to play out to the bleary-eyed. Sure, sometimes that last spot is more accurately described as “running on fumes,” but there’s always the opportunity to see a purely writerly conceptual conceit, freed from pop culture references or things the week’s host can handle. In reading pretty much everything ever written about the show, the most common complaint from writers and performers is that SNL often seeks the heat rather than going for smarter or stranger laughs. If his episode of The Characters is any indication, Tim Robinson should run for mayor of Ten-To-Oneland, as his six sketches here establish clear, original premises and execute them flawlessly, either with unexpected turns or with the expected turns taken to hilariously absurd extremes.

Sammy “Old Two Eyes” Paradise

Eschewing links entirely, the episode is simply six great sketches, one after the other. Up first is one of those whose comic twist is inevitable, but that Robinson smacks out of the ballpark with a sure touch and complete commitment. Swanning into a supper club/casino with a dame on his arm, Robinson is Sammy Paradise (“Old Two Eyes himself”), a ring-a-ding-ding Sinatra type who flaunts his wealth and generosity with true king-of-the-world largesse. Tipping a fawning waiter a cool grand while ordering champagne, he riffs, “I’ll take your oldest bottle, extra bubbles, and shake it up and just let it spill, baby!” Tossing a coin in a fountain, buying a filet mignon for an admirer, snapping cooly at the guy staring at his arm candy, he—jet-black pompadour pointing his way to the craps table—is the very picture of ostentatious Rat Pack cool. It’s a big, broad performance, a reeling, oversized setup that requires an even bigger turn. And when Sammy tosses a wad of bills on the table, has his gal blow on the dice for luck, and confidently calls for a lucky seven, his immediate crap-out signals an even more immediate meltdown that comes both quicker and more over-the-top than expected. ”OH NO NOOOOOOOOOOO! I’m ruined! You, you jinxed ’em! Yeah you did, you owe me 50 grand! I’m broke! I’m a dead man!,” he screams before immediately backtracking on his former showy prodigality, forcing the fan to cough up the steak he bought him, mouthing it, and then trying to have it taken off his bill for being overcooked. He fishes his quarter out of the fountain and claims the water scalded him and he’s going to sue. He offers the guy at the bar his date, in graphic terms, for a thousand bucks. Finding no takers, he demands and receives his tip back from the waiter, Robinson shifting Sammy immediately back into dick-swinging confidence before, again immediately, losing it all. (“Put it on black.” “It’s red.” “AAAAAAA.”) A sketch needs economy and craft, and this one kicks things off perfectly on both counts.

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Morley

Up next, Robinson’s the office loser at a limo company whose “king of the slams” boss’ (Brian McCann) attempts to pull mean-spirited phone pranks on the guileless Morley instead end up providing the guy with improbable good news. As in all these sketches, Robinson’s character is the butt of the joke, but here, he finds a core of humanity in the too-gullible and literal-minded Morley that lets him come out on something like top, at least as far as he understands it. Having grown a feeble mustache to emulate a cool coworker, the boss calls him with the old, “1981 called, we want our mustache back” number, which Morley interprets as himself from the past, and which gives him the opportunity to warn young Morley not to go into that tent with his uncle. Even the king of slams is taken aback, but Morley, smiling hopefully at his desk, confides sincerely, “I just prevented something very terrible from happening to me.” When the slam-king can’t help himself from making a “I fucked your mom last night” joke, Morely immediately calls his father, telling him excitedly, “The good news is mom’s alive. The bad news is she’s sleepin’ with my boss Rog, king of the slams.” It’s, again, a one-joke premise, this time transformed by some great character work. Hanging up with his father (who demands to be called “sergeant”), Morley (after gaining assurance that “Uncle Dave” won’t be there when he gets home), says “I love you,” before muttering to himself “say it, say it, say it… damn.” Economy and craft. Four minutes and an indelible character—I can’t imagine anyone not rooting for Morley.

The Pointer Brothers

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The Pointer Brothers are a three-man corporate entertainment concern whose bored audience is understandably confused when it turns out that, not only do the three not cover Pointer Sisters songs, their act merely consists of pointing enthusiastically. Again—not an especially promising one-joke premise turned irresistibly weird and funny the more the group’s inner dysfunction takes the absurdity of their act right over the top. Two (Zach Kanin and Conner O’Malley) have a long-standing squabble about how those pointed at should indicate their pointed-at status (sitting down vs. raising hands). Their fuzzy green mascot, Wagu (because an all-pointing corporate entertainment pointing act should have one of those) keeps on touching people (which restores “their point count to zero”) while they fight about pointing procedure, forcing an almost complete re-pointing (“Wagu are you still out here? How many people have you touched, man? We’re really in the weeds here now!”) Plus, Wagu is legally not allowed to touch women. Meanwhile, Robinson’s lead pointer tries to keep the peace, but even he flips out once he finds out the nice lady he dragged up on stage (literally—there are no stairs) has already been pointed at, ruining his planned pointing demonstration. (“Now ma’am, have we pointed to you yet?” “Yes.” “Dammit!”) A silly idea, escalated expertly.

Fighting Jake Fletcher

Next up, Robinson is very 1980s professional wrestler Fighting Jake Fletcher, whose interviewed recaps of his attempts to fashion rivalries with three far bigger and more popular opponents see him recounting his mounting humiliations with deadpan, matter-of-fact truthfulness. Capturing the era’s look and on-camera acting style perfectly without overdoing either (“This time, I’m promising you absolute victory—on you”), it’s a pitch perfect look at a jobber’s fate. The mighty Dumptruck pulled a sneak attack with a steel chair their first time out, but Fletcher’s second bout goes no better, forcing him to concede, “He agreed to all my terms… he’s simply a stronger man. Let’s just go ahead and say that guy’s better than me. Great, I don’t have to fight him any more.” Russian heel Koski adds flag-burning and spitting to Fletcher’s humiliation (“I got one thing to say to you, Koski! Don’t spit on me. It’s just a game.”) And Arab heel Sheikzilla takes it even further (“Crapped my pants. Had to. It was either that or be choked to death.”) Again, Robinson’ acting is right on target, making the overmatched Jake a thoroughly sympathetic figure by not overdoing his reactions to the abuse he suffers so that we end up rooting for the li’l guy, even as he embarks upon a match against all three (“And it’s a steel cage so I can’t leave!”)

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(l-r) Jeff, the father

The next sketch, too, establishes a premise (a loving father singing a song to his infant daughter), takes an offramp to the premise (he gets hung up on Jeff, the beefy, motorcycle-riding boyfriend he’s invented as his daughter’s dream boyfriend), and steers right into the sketch’s skid into absurdity (palling around with Jeff, he accidentally causes the guy’s heroic death and mourns him every day for the rest of his life). The song itself is the perfect blend of achingly lovely and mawkishly hokey (verisimilitude always the key for a comedy song), and Robinson sells the father’s complete sincerity before gradually drifting into his crazy fantasy of Jeff beating up a rude guy who’s staring at his daughter “with just one punch” and then kissing the father’s grown daughter “so damn hard, so damn hard.”

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And the concluding sketch doesn’t falter, either, turning what’s essentially one long shit joke into both a deft little character piece and an expertly constructed exercise is comic escalation. Robinson’s character repeatedly tells an obliging gun store proprietor that he needs a handgun for “self-defense, protection” while his Clint Eastwood-ian speeches to imagined antagonists sees him exacting revenge for the innumerable times people have made a spectacle of him for his series of bathroom mishaps. The repeated phrase “did a real paint job in there” is so out of left field specific, it tips things over into giggle-fit territory, as does the poor guy’s improbable run of bad luck on a single trip involving a Greyhound bus, both a housekeeper and the manager of a specific La Quinta Inn, and, gloriously, George Lopez. One more time—a silly, weird premise (a shit joke at that) made into something that’d be the standout on any SNL, provided you stayed awake to see it.

Stray observations

  • Sammy Paradise’s sketch is shot in widescreen, for that extra touch of glamour.
  • “Thanks, Mike, you’re my best friend here.”
  • Even the straight men in the Pointer Brothers sketch are on point. “Oh, no—that can’t be what this is.”
  • “And, women, don’t let Wagu touch you. He is not allowed!”
  • “You beat me, who cares. You’ve been doin’ it way longer.”
  • “What are you doin’ Jeff? Don’t be crazy, you could have any girl in this goddamned world.”
  • “It didn’t have to become a huge screaming match in Spanish in the hall in front of all the other customers, including George Lopez!”
  • On the La Quinta manager forcing him to take a shower after his latest “paint job”: “I don’t even know why he’s allowed to do that!”
  • “Who does puzzle room by themselves? It’s a corporate team-building exercise for work colleagues!”
  • “Yeah buddy, I never do this. But I can’t sell you a gun.”

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