I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson, the incredible, cringe-loving sketch show by SNL alums Robinson and Zach Kanin, has just returned to Netflix for its third season. The duo are on top form once again, delivering a season-length masterclass in the comedy of discomfiture. Across six episodes of fifteen minutes each, I Think You Should Leave mines comedy from characters who just don’t know when to quit. When forced into a corner by their own hands, they refuse to admit wrongdoing and double down on obnoxious behavior and/or bigoted opinions. Unsurprisingly, a recurring venue for this phenomenon is the average corporate office, where people are expected to be infallible, affectless automatons.
In the opening episode of the third season, for example, there’s a sketch where Robinson plays Stan, an employee sitting through a team building workshop being delivered by a guest speaker. When the speaker asks Stan and a colleague called Rick to pretend to be “mortal enemies”, Stan takes it way too far. His miming goes further and further, until he’s on his feet, swinging his arms about, miming the act of splashing his colleagues with water. As per usual for the show, we expect Stan and Rick to come to fisticuffs. But it’s actually a third colleague called Alex who gets up, yells “It’s all out of control!”, holds Stan down and pours his water bottle all over Stan’s face — it really does look quite disturbing, like waterboarding in a minor key. “I can’t take it anymore!” Alex yells. “Everything’s out of control, my life is out of control. I just take things too far!” The still-soaked Stan comes up to him and quietly says, “Now you’re in more trouble than me, unfortunately.”
This sketch has a lot of the classic ingredients of I Think You Should Leave—a cringeworthy lead, a naturally awkward corporate situation and an unlikely, surreal denouement that changes the emotional tenor of the scene completely.
What makes a sketch comedy series tick? There are certain fundamental traits that shows in this genre have, features that are hard-baked and over time, become instantly recognizable stylistic signatures.
One of the big ones is, quite simply, artful exaggeration. Making a mountain out of a molehill, claiming the wildcat you saw during your hike was deadlier than a mountain lion, that sort of thing. A classic example is the Monty Python ‘Dead Parrot’ sketch wherein Mr Praline (John Cleese) attempts to return his visibly dead “Norwegian Blue” parrot to an increasingly defensive shopkeeper (Michael Palin) who tries to convince Mr Praline that the parrot is, in fact, still alive. The excuses keep becoming more and more ridiculous. “He’s resting!” “He’s pining for the fjords!” “He’s stunned, you stunned him when he was just about to wake up!” and finally the sketch ends with a musical non-sequitur, ‘The Lumberjack Song’ (another recurring Monty Python gag).
Another very important quality to watch out for is emotional breadth—a great sketch makes you laugh but also leaves the door open for other emotions. A lot of classic sketches also work as straight dramatic pieces, or even as tearjerkers in some cases. The classic 90s sketch comedy series Mr Show with Bob and David, starring Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, had many top-notch skits that achieve this effect. In the fourth season, for example, there’s a sketch called “Spite Marriage”, also known as “I’ll Marry Your Stupid Ass”. In this sketch, Bob and David perform an over-the-top parody of hypermasculine men and how they communicate in a cartoonishly aggressive mode, ready to “fuck each other up” at the drop of a hat.
When the two literally bump into each other at a bar, they’re with their respective girlfriends. But neither is ready to apologize; both men keep threatening each other until Bob yells “I’ll marry your stupid ass until you apologize and say that you’re the chickenshit!”. Cut to a wedding chapel, when the two basically dare each other into matrimonial bliss. Incredibly, we then see the two doing the cosiest domestic things—but in the same angry, hypermasculine, ‘I dare you’ mode, and without words. A montage sees Bob mowing the lawn angrily while David makes lemonade for him, yelling, “Yeah! Drink it up, you chickenshit!”. The two of them doing taxes together, doing chores around the house together—without breaking their ‘angry’ characters. Hell, they even fight and then makeup in this same ‘I dare you’ mode. It’s fantastic acting because you get sucked into this weird, sweet, absurdist love story before you know it.
Finally, a sketch comedy show is all about doing more with less, and I’m not just talking about improvisation here. A one-line joke can be stretched to a fully scripted five-minute sketch with more to say about a socio-political issue than a lot of full-length books. The example I’m going to use to illustrate this is from Key & Peele, and it’s a 3-minute sketch called ‘Substitute Teacher’.
Keegan-Michael Key plays ‘Mr Garvey’, a substitute teacher who has taught at inner-city schools all his life, where most of the students come from poor and working-class African-American families. Garvey has now landed in a classroom heavily dominated by white, middle-class students. Right away, he starts to mangle their names, the way a white teacher would likely mangle working-class African-American names. ‘Blake’ becomes ‘Buh-LOCK-Aye’, ‘Denise’ becomes ‘D-Nice’ and perhaps most famously, ‘Aaron’ becomes ‘A-A-Ron’. With every mistake—and every student’s gentle insistence on the correct pronunciation—Mr Garvey gets more and more agitated, destroying stationary items and lab equipment on his desk. What makes it even funnier is the fact that Mr Garvey has no problems pronouncing words like ‘insubordination’ and ‘churlish’ perfectly.
I Think You Should Leave is a show that understands these basics very well and so far, has displayed tremendous consistency in applying these lessons. Season three, although an abbreviated one (partly due to the ongoing writers’ strike in Hollywood), carries forward the good work done by Robinson, Kanin and company—and as the sketch below suggests, opens up new directions for the series.