At one level, I Think You Should Leave follows in the stalwart tradition of improv-inspired sketch comedy. A lot of its talent (including the co-creator Tim Robinson) are former cast members of Saturday Night Live or members of Chicago improv groups like Second City or Upright Citizens Brigade and a lot of the sketches are rejected Saturday Night Live sketches.
Yet, what makes I Think You Should Leave is the asymmetrical form of the sketches. There is rarely the set-up/punchline gimmick that sketches usually follow. The comedy is, at times, tangential to the plot of the sketches. Jokes are incidental or cringe. Characters diverge into absurd monologues about inane topics that would’ve been better to have ignored but were not. (Sometimes, these absurd monologues end up becoming sketches themselves.) Their refusal to stay on topic and follow a logical line of argument is part of the show’s theme though: people that can’t admit that they made a wrong turn.
Misunderstanding is a common comedy trope and, usually, sketch comedy resolves this in five minutes or less. Some deus ex machina forces the divergent point-of-view into compliance or the group accepts the faux pas as the new normal. That must be the case in formats like Saturday Night Live where the structure in which the show is performed demands a certain uniformity. Yet, this is where I Think You Should Leave develops its own flavor of anarchy. Similar programs that emerged from Saturday Night Live followed a familiar revolt against the late-night structure. Think of Kids in the Hall or Documentary Now! Skits divert from set-up/punchline rhythms and meander in spaces between drama and absurdity. I Think You Should Leave winds up tension without resolution or continuously unravels a story without any end in sight.
A lot of this happens in I Think You Should Leave regarding unrealistic expectations. People expect results but have little or no connection to the reality of realising them. In the first episode of Season 2, a prank show host plans to walk into a mall food court heavily made-up to disturb people’s meals. Yet, immediately he regrets the extra weight and heat of the prosthetics and refuses to accept consolation from his producer. At one point, he even considers suicide.
His reaction is a gross exaggeration, and the clear solution is to suck it up and do his job, but nobody in Tim Robinson’s universe wants to do that. They are virulently attached to their own desires, their own wants and needs. At the root of the series’ theme is an adulthood nurtured in the strange hybrid of real-life and social media, which simultaneously promises individual connection to others while absolutely refusing to accept a reality outside of that which reconciles to your personal desires.
In the opening sketch of the first episode, an employee refuses to accept that he must eat lunch later because of an emergency meeting and sneaks a hot dog into the conference room only to choke on the hot dog while trying to eat it surreptitiously. There is no catharsis from this event though, no change. Instead, a later sketch features an advertisement for a hotdog vacuum by the former employee (now entrepreneur), who refuses to admit any sense of guilt. In fact, the end of the sketch is an indictment on the organisation itself for not bending to need of the individual.
While some sketches feature characters unwilling to admit wrongdoing, others feature characters who initially agree to the rules of a social activity only to virulently refuse when they are called to participate. In episode 5, for example, an employee initially excited when the boss calls for a game of “credit card roulette” to decide who pays the bill turns hateful and stubborn when his card is picked.
Past reviews have indicated the caustic behavior of characters in the series’ is a mockery of toxic masculinity. Yet, the root of such childish behavior is a deep solipsism that social media has instantiated (and that the pandemic has only exacerbated). Isolation from others, figuratively or literally causes this. “The Ghost Tour” sketch features a man closeted by a religious mother who thinks adult speech is simply the freedom to stuff as many profane words into a sentence as possible. No matter how many times the tour guide tries to explain that his questions make no sense and are distractingly profane, he continues unabated until he is kicked out of the space. Many people in society have difficulty being in society. This is what the series satirises overall, but that is not the entirety of its message.
Mixed in with the juvenile temper tantrums are epiphanic sketches where characters refuse to engage in social pressure and actually move outside of themselves, admitting how indebted they are to others. For example, a sketch in episode 4 features a game night with a group of male friends trading stereotypical complaints about their wives. However, one character immediately regrets a comment he makes about his wife and laconic music plays as a montage of ways in which his wife supported him through his struggle with a community theater bully.
The scene is mawkish and sentimental, but what it revolts against is the cheap resolve to group pressure, focusing instead on the resolution to stand up for one’s beliefs. Another is the “sloppy steaks” sketch in episode 2, where a man fears the baby of a friend knows about his checkered past. He looks like a typical man-child, but others at the party admit that they too have made mistakes but that it is also possible to change. Much like in the game night sketch, a musical montage serves as a coda resolving the problem.
The other side of the solipsistic rage commonly expressed in the sketches is a profound sense of self-accountability. Many characters act the way they do out of their fear of responsibility, either delivering rageful rants or distracting diatribes intended to divert the group’s attention. Sketch comedy doesn’t easily lend itself to self-reflection, but the series’ mix of the absurd and the emotional provide an unusual takeaway after viewing. I’m not sure whether to post a clip on Twitter or write a thoughtful entry in my diary – but I like that feeling. It’s not often that you have to sit by yourself after watching a sketch show and I believe that’s what makes what I Think You Should Leave so special.