The third season of I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson arrived on Netflix last week.
In many ways, I Think You Should Leave feels like a show that is tailor-made for the internet. The sketch comedy show has produced dozens of viral memes, with social media seizing on everything from “Coffin Flop” to Dan Flash’s trademark shirts. I Think You Should Leave has become shorthand for a certain section of the internet, to the point that Representative Ilhan Omar used the “We’re All Trying to Find the Guy Who Did This” meme to dunk on Exxon’s climate change publicity.
The show’s virality has become the subject of much fascination. Last year, Slate tried to predict which would be the most viral sketches from the show’s second season. This year, Prime Timer tried to figure out which sequences would break out from the show’s third season. Mashable tried to explain why the show was so effective at generating these memes, images, and lines that resonated outside their original context within the individual sketches.
Part of this is simply down to the format. I Think You Should Leave is an episodic sketch show. Most episodes run around a quarter of an hour and feature three or four disconnected scenes. This is a classic format for television comedy, albeit one that fell out of fashion at the turn of the millennium. In March 2007, New York Magazine casually declared, “Sketch comedy is dead. Everyone knows that.” In December 2014, The Guardian wondered why nobody was making sketch comedy anymore.
In hindsight, those arguments seem absurd. Over the past decade, sketch comedy has experienced a boom with shows like Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele. Even older institutions like Saturday Night Live have been reinvigorated in recent years. These have had an undeniable cultural impact. Amy Schumer is a movie star, headlining projects like Trainwreck and I Feel Pretty. Jordan Peele has emerged as one of the most promising directors working today, with Get Out, Us, and Nope.
These sketch shows thrived on the internet. The linear ratings for Inside Amy Schumer and Key & Peele were dwarfed by the viewership of clips on YouTube. It has been noted that many online viewers tend to watch Inside Amy Schumer as a collection of sketches, “not a complete product.” Key & Peele has been described as “a web series financed by a major cable network.” Even the recent success of Saturday Night Live owes a lot to digital creators like Lonely Island or Please Don’t Destroy.
There are obvious reasons why sketch comedy experienced a resurgence in the internet age. Internet media tends to favor bite-sized content — narrative conveyed in a very concentrated manner with a minimum of context. It is a medium that lends itself to “TLDR” summaries, communication by emoji, or drive-by commenting. This is particularly obvious looking at the original limitations on various social media platforms: Twitter’s original 140-character limit or TikTok’s early 15-second videos.
This is not to suggest that internet dialogue was inherently shallow. Indeed, there is an art to communicating meaning clearly through such limitations, using a shared knowledge of symbols and memes as a shorthand. This approach to storytelling has already crept into the mainstream, most obvious in the accelerated pacing of projects like Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who or the Spider-Verse movies, which are coded in the language of the internet for a digital-native generation.
Unsurprisingly, sketch comedy was perfectly suited to this mode of communication, providing material that was short and to the point and could be understood with a minimum of context. It likely helps that many of these modern sketch comedy performers embraced the weird and absurdist humor that was popular online, skewing away from traditional observational humor in favor of more heightened and eccentric setups and payoffs.
As such, I Think You Should Leave lends itself to internet consumption. The sketches are short, making them easy to share. The overwhelming majority are self-contained, meaning that there is no larger context required to understand them. It is unashamedly weird and intense, the perfect mode for internet comedy. It even bypasses the network broadcast framework of Inside Amy Schumer, Key & Peele, or Saturday Night Live, streaming directly over the internet on Netflix.
However, there is more to it than that. It isn’t just that the form of I Think You Should Leave is perfectly suited to sharing on social media. In its own surreal and abstract way, the content of I Think You Should Leave taps perfectly into the experience of being online. It is no surprise that the show resonates with viewers who spend a lot of time navigating the modern internet, because it is perhaps most directly relatable to them.
It is worth clarifying this point. I Think You Should Leave is not literally about the internet. The show references modern social media relatively infrequently. Instead, it is more likely to directly evoke older forms of media like infomercials, pageants, or television game shows. Sketches are broken up with 1970s soul songs. Tim Robinson himself has no online presence, and when told that the show was popular on the internet, he responded with a casual, “Yeah, it’s nice.”
However, I Think You Should Leave is best understood as a sketch comedy show about what happens “when the social rules break down.” Many sketches begin with a seemingly casual interaction that escalates dramatically when one person, usually played by Robinson, takes things a little too seriously or literally, whether it’s going along with an excuse about why a friend was late to a party or embracing a tour guide’s instruction that they can “say whatever the hell (they) want.”
I Think You Should Leave is fascinated by this basic setup — the idea of an individual who either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about social norms and conventions, who will use an opening in a conversation provided by somebody else’s politeness to indulge their worst possible self. Even setting aside the idea of how that might relate to the internet, this is an approach to comedy that has obvious resonance in the current moment.
The first season of I Think You Should Leave arrived in April 2019, at a point in time where many Americans had discovered that long-standing social norms were not rules. Instead, they were just an unspoken agreement that could be exploited or violated by bad-faith actors. I Think You Should Leave is not an explicitly political show, although it is notable that the show’s third season opens with a sketch about a late-night chat show host who “never met a fight (he) didn’t like” and ends with a sketch that begins in a political campaign office.
However, while this recurring preoccupation with the violation of social norms obviously speaks to a wider cultural moment, it feels particularly clued into online dialogue. After all, it could be argued that a lot of the modern political discourse has its roots in internet subculture. It was not uncommon for observers to classify the behavior of President Donald Trump in internet parlance, as that of “a troll” with his own “troll army” and whose legacy was “a party of shitposters.”
There is a credible (if depressing) argument that modern American politics have been reshaped by the conventions of Reddit or 4chan. In the early days of the internet, many observers believed that it would be possible to recreate the real world in cyberspace, a dream that informs projects like Second Life or the “Metaverse.” In reality, the opposite seems to be the case. Over the past decade, it seems that the real world has been colonized and overwritten by the digital one.
Watching I Think You Should Leave, it often feels like its characters are literalizing the pathologies of those that might be deemed “terminally online.” These are people who reshape their whole personalities over seemingly mundane events, who turn their petty grievances into all-consuming vendettas, and who consistently refuse to back down or acknowledge that they were wrong. Anybody who has shared an online space has met an I Think You Should Leave protagonist or two. They may even have been one.
The show’s very first sketch takes place following a job interview. It has gone well. On his way out, the applicant accidentally pulls the door instead of pushing it. Rather than admit the mistake and laugh it off, he insists that the door must open both ways. As the interviewer watches in horror, the applicant exerts incredible effort and breaks the door frame. Instantly, the show establishes that guy. It’s the person in every comment section who won’t back down no matter what.
I Think You Should Leave is full of those guys. Will Forte plays both a stranger who harbors an irrational grudge for years and one who would rather crawl under a parked SUV than walk around it. The show is populated by narcissists who make important events, like sexual harassment training, all about them and their hilarious jokes. Many sketches focus on characters within friend groups desperately performing, even if they don’t know how, eager to be “the main character.” It’s frequently exhausting trying to keep up.
Sometimes, the jokes feel more specific. One character played by Beck Bennett complains about having to pay to be part of his friend group, seemingly populated by aggressive, uncouth, and insecure individuals. A fake infomercial features Sam Richardson as the owner of a park built specifically for wedding proposals that has been overrun by wrestlers ruining the intended atmosphere, which evokes the tragi-comic stories of so many internet spaces invaded by trolls. What is “Coffin Flop” but the internet’s voyeuristic impulses writ large?
While it very rarely features any direct allusions to the internet or social media, I Think You Should Leave constantly feels like it’s a show about the internet and social media, about how bizarrely the online space has warped human interactions and the horror that comes from imagining those behaviors manifested out in the real world. On the internet, nobody might know that you’re a dog. However, I Think You Should Leave explores what happens when the real world goes barking mad.