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Sketch Comedy Is Back—on Netflix

The streaming platform has extended its comedy dominion with the help of new shows ‘I Think You Should Leave’ and ‘Lunatics’

Netflix/Ringer illustration

There’s a clip wafting its way around social media this week, as isolated bits of comedy are wont to do. At just under two minutes, “Instagram” is short and sweet: Former Saturday Night Live star Vanessa Bayer and her character’s friends are out at brunch and decide to post a group photo. “Brunch with these two dumb-dumbs,” one writes for her caption. “Sunday Funday with these idiots,” gushes another. And then, from Bayer: “Eating crap with these sacks of shit. If they died tomorrow, no one would shed a tear!”

Despite Bayer’s CV, the bit doesn’t come to us by way of 30 Rock. And despite the pointed satire of millennial women’s social habits, with its unmistakable echoes of Inside Amy Schumer, the sketch’s rhythms belong to a different comic voice: that of Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin, co-creators of I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson. At just six episodes of less than 20 minutes apiece, the Netflix series has quickly metabolized its way through the internet’s ever-content-hungry bloodstream. Within days, Vulture’s Fran Hoepfner christened I Think You Should Leave’s distinct blend of crudeness, absurdity, and blink-first-I-dare-you escalation “comedy perfection.”

I Think You Should Leave is a triumphant showcase for Robinson, a one-time casualty of SNL’s great “see what sticks” bloodbath of the post-Wiig-and-Hader transitional era. (Along with the likes of Noël Wells and Mike O’Brien, Robinson is in good company there; he also has the strange distinction of being one of the only performers in 8H history to transition into a writing role after initially being hired as a featured player.) Robinson subsequently co-created and co-starred in Detroiters, the beloved Comedy Central sitcom that was cancelled late last year after just two seasons. I Think You Should Leave is a slight scaling down in terms of volume and storytelling, though thanks to Netflix’s astonishingly broad reach, a significant boost in platform for the kind of niche humor that would otherwise flourish in the post-primetime petri dish of Adult Swim. But the relationship between I Think You Should Leave and its host is a mutually beneficial one.

Both late-night and stand-up comedy are currently experiencing boom times, in no small part thanks to Netflix’s significant investment in both formats. The current explosion in stand-up dates back nearly a decade when the rise of media like podcasting lowered barriers to entry and strengthened the connection between audience and performer. Late night’s resurgence is more recent, inextricable from the fever pitch of current events and viewers’ demand for a quick, digestible response to them. But both these cultural factors have been catalyzed by the streaming service, which began bankrolling relatively cheap comedy specials as it branched into original programming. This strategy was borrowed from predecessors at HBO and escalated through scale into a virtual monopoly. Late night took longer to perfect, with early stumbles like Chelsea and The Joel McHale Show making for costly trial runs. Still, Netflix appears to have hit on a winning template with the evergreen explainer style favored by Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, which recently earned a Peabody.

Surprisingly, Netflix’s ownership and promotion of comedy as a genre has a notable exception. Sketch comedy had something of a moment early in the 2010s, when a wave of Comedy Central sketch shows catapulted their auteurs into a new level of renown. Schumer, Key & Peele, and Kroll Show each showcased their namesake creators’ sensibilities in a way that suggested the variety and breadth of sketch could serve as a springboard to new professional heights for any number of subsequent rising stars—even ones, like Schumer, whose previous backgrounds were in other strains of comedy.

And yet, apart from an SNL ratings boost that has more to do with topical material than stand-alone vignettes, sketch has largely lain dormant. This hasn’t been for a lack of trying, at least on Netflix’s part; in 2016, the service debuted an eight-episode collection titled The Characters, an inventive, experimental attempt to replicate the stand-up special’s ability to give potential fans a representative sample of an entertainer’s work for sketch. With shrewdly chosen subjects like a pre-Insecure Natasha Rothwell and a pre–Search Party John Early, The Characters swapped out a live audience for a higher production value and an uninterrupted monologue for a series of scene breaks and costume changes. The potential for The Characters to become a long-running series, á la Comedy Central’s The Half Hour or Netflix’s own Comedy Lineup, was enticing. The numbers, however, evidently didn’t bear out. Netflix has yet to produce a second round of episodes.

Robinson himself is an alumnus of The Characters, and channels some of its low-overhead, high-commitment energy into I Think You Should Leave. There are shades of Tim & Eric in its parodies of shoestring television staples like injury lawyer ads, and producers The Lonely Island in its benevolent iteration of loud, oblivious masculinity. But I Think You Should Leave nonetheless represents an endorsement of Robinson and Kanin’s specific, undoubtedly niche interests and instincts.

I Think You Should Leave launched just a few days after Lunatics, a new offering from Australian comic and Summer Heights High impresario Chris Lilley. If I Think You Should Leave is an extension of Netflix’s relatively new tactic of short-form scripted offerings and bite-sized stand-up specials—bringing YouTube and the comedy club, respectively, in-house—Lunatics is a textbook example of an older, more established move. Not all of Lilley’s contributions have aged well in the decade-plus since Summer Heights High went off the air; Lilley acted in brownface for one staple figure, Jonah Takalua, and neither Jonah From Tonga nor Ja’mie: Private School Girl proved either caricature deserving of a full-blown spinoff. But Lilley has exactly the kind of name brand, and established following, Netflix likes to put its stock in. Along with Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Wanda Sykes, and arguably even Chris Rock, Lilley fits into a consistent MO of enticing later-career artists with an unbeatable paycheck.

Lunatics is subsequently a grander affair than I Think You Should Leave. Each of its episodes tops 30 minutes; with a cast of personae including a South African pet psychic and a lewd teenage boy set to inherit an English manor, its baseline setup is a little more involved than I Think You Should Leave’s humble coffee shops and green screens. Creatively, Lunatics’ results are more mixed. There’s a limit, or at least an art, to how funny characters like the aforementioned teen can be, especially when they’re played by adult men pantomiming reprehensible acts like sexually harassing a young girl. Other creations have flashes of the weirdness and brilliance that made Summer Heights High a sensation. The sight of a wigged Lilley giving a dog a full-body massage resonates deeply.

Together, I Think You Should Leave and Lunatics suggest a belated foray into the vacuum left behind by the conclusion of the decade’s major sketch projects. Netflix isn’t alone in this effort: Later this year, Comedy Central will premiere Alternatino, a self-made vehicle starring Broad City’s Arturo Castro. But the goal of becoming a home for character-based comedy, from smaller curiosities to brand-name draws, dovetails seamlessly with the streaming service’s goal of satisfying every possible demand for entertainment. A joke about “pig dicks” may not sound like a recipe for world domination, but great comedy is nothing if not surprising.