What I Think You Should Leave Reveals About Office Culture

Watercooler talk, polite jokes, grumbles about a demanding project: These are the mundane exchanges that grease the social wheels of a traditional 9-to-5 job. At best, they lend a pleasant sheen to the workday; at worst, they act as a mind-numbing refrain. But I Think You Should Leave, the hit Netflix sketch show whose third season recently debuted, regularly distorts this supposedly familiar environment, revealing an underside that is both strange and hilarious.

The series is the brainchild of Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin, who first met while writing for Saturday Night Live. Yet ITYSL doesn’t feel like an outgrowth of that sketch-comedy institution. It has little interest in releasing the awkward tension of any jokes; instead, they get escalated until they veer into the surreal. More often than not, premises focus on someone’s mounting anxiety—specifically the kind that stems from misunderstanding banal situations, such as a first date or a party—and the extremes they’ll pursue to escape that humiliation. There tends to be a lot of yelling.

Throughout ITYSL, the office has been a prime setting for unleashing uncomfortable characters who grate against unspoken social codes. “There’s so much built-in status and hierarchy” in a typical workplace, Kanin told The New Yorker in 2021. “And it’s a great place to be embarrassed.” Countless sketch and situational comedies, including SNL, The Kids in the Hall, and The Office, have explored the goofy possibilities of corporate dysfunction. The Office, in particular, mined co-worker tensions for relatable eye rolls, typically delivered through Jim’s exasperated glances at the camera. ITYSL is similarly interested in poking fun at eccentric colleagues, but it also finds new ways to call out the stale rules that everyone else is following.

Much of the third season touches on the absurdity of being hyper-professional. In one sketch, a group of accountants in a conference room is startled by a loud boom. After two team members share what the noise reminded them of—all reasonable aural connections, such as thunder or a truck backing into the building—Randall (played by Robinson) offers his take: “I thought it was like a volcano erupting.” Randall’s response is too strange for the lighthearted interaction, and his co-workers exchange confused glances in return. Professional settings mandate a level of composure that Randall can’t muster. Communication tends to hinge on mild language, recognizable clichés, or corporate buzzwords. Employees agree to a certain level of restraint to avoid standing out—in other words, to signal that they belong. But belonging can require conformity. As silly as invoking a volcano, ITYSL suggests, is being confined to wooden language that’s been arbitrarily deemed appropriate.

[Read: Long live the delightfully dumb comedy]

Fueling many of ITYSL’s office-based sketches is a character’s fierce desire and woeful inability to fit in, to grasp the implicit patter and patterns that are required to turn a group of acquaintances into a genuine—or at least functional—community. In one sketch, after an employee attending an HR training (Alison Martin) gets a few chuckles for a campy conflict-resolution joke (“Back away, banana breath!”), she takes the bit way too far, insisting that they create a T-shirt with her catchphrase. In another scene, Stan (Robinson) becomes overly invested in a team-training scenario that imagines he’s mortal enemies with his co-worker Rick (Bardia Salimi) and commits to awkwardly acting out his hatred. In each instance, the show explores how thin the line is between social acceptability and ostracization.

Randall, Stan, and others like them are clearly exaggerated examples of what not to do in the workplace. Yet they also expose the limits of professionalized behavior at a time when corporate platitudes seem to be infiltrating conversations outside of the office. The trend was reflected in a viral TikTok video from earlier this year advising viewers on how to break up with a friend, which drew flak on social media for the formal way it handled a personal matter. When our intimate relationships begin following the conventions of an HR meeting, we might lose opportunities for the kind of genuinely spontaneous connections that can be messy, emotive, and instructive. As much as I Think You Should Leave has become known for its comical extremes, the show’s most enduring message might be its subtlest: a reminder of both the risk and the joy of breaking free from a script.