Having actual friends play friends on TV isn’t mandatory, but it can help — especially when the friends are also writing the show. From It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to Broad City to Comedy Central’s new buddy comedy Detroiters, the real-life history and bond between the writer-stars is palpable, and enhances both the moments when their fictional counterparts are getting along swimmingly and when they want to kill each other.
In this case, the friends are Sam Richardson (moonlighting from his job as Richard Splett on Veep) and SNL alum Tim Robinson, Motor City natives and longtime friends who here play a couple of pals trying to run the ad agency Tim inherited from his father. It’s both set and shot in Detroit, and there’s a recurring subplot about them trying to convince a car company executive (played by Jason Sudeikis, who’s also a producer) to give their small firm a shot at selling the beauty of Detroit itself.
In its early stages (I’ve seen three episodes), it’s all a bit shaggy, but also endearing and at times very funny, and the chemistry between the leads covers for many of the growing pains. And as happens on Veep, Richardson’s face is so expressive that he may make you smile while seeming to do nothing at all.
At press tour last month, I spoke with Richardson and Robinson about the origins of both their friendship and the series, why it’s so important for the show to be complimentary of their home city, and more.
Detroiters debuts Tuesday night at 10:30 on Comedy Central.
Where did this come from?
Sam Richardson: Oh, Tim and I have been best friends in real life for forever.
Tim Robinson: Long time.
Richardson: We came up in Detroit together. Then we were at Second City Chicago together, then went our separate ways, Tim to New York and me to L.A., Tim working at SNL, me working on Veep. At one point we made friends with Jason in our time at Second City and he said, “You two should do a show together.” Then, boom, off to the races.
Is there a Detroit comedy scene?
Richardson: Oh, 1000%.
Robinson: Absolutely. That’s were we started.
So tell me about it.
Richardson: Well, there was a Second City in Detroit that we both came through.
Robinson: For a lucky, lucky brief time. It really helped us a lot.
Richardson: It really did. That’s where Keegan Michael Key came out of. Antoine McKay, Maribeth Monroe, Leslie Campbell.
Robinson: I will say it’s still going strong. We go back. Second City left, but what happened when Second City left is it caused all these people who were so into it and doing it to go out and form their own theaters. Now there’s three theaters that are really going great. It’s all people who are just like, “We want to create this, keep this scene going.” I think the scene is huge now. It might even be bigger than when we were there.
Richardson: It for sure is bigger than when we were there because now this school begot all these other schools, which begot all these people who are now in the community.
I’m trying to think of the last comedy show that had almost this Chamber of Commerce feel to it that your show does. It’s buddy comedy, but it’s also pro-Detroit. You’re trying to boost the city a little bit. As you were coming up with the idea, where did that aspect of it come from?
Richardson: Well, that was the first thing. We were like, “Well, what’s the show going to be about? It’s gotta be about Detroit,” because we are such avid pro-Detroit people. It’s all we talk about. When we were in Chicago, people would get annoyed like, “Yeah, we get it, Sam and Tim. You’re from Detroit. Cool.”
Robinson: Yeah, yeah. “Would you guys shut up about it?”
Richardson: “Shut up!” Like, “We’re from Detroit and in Detroit we used to do this and Detroit this and this.” They would get so annoyed by us.
Robinson: I remember when we were there, we were at Main Stage and The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup –
Richardson: Won the Stanley Cup.
Robinson: Everybody’s going nuts and Sam and I are like, “We know this.”
Richardson: “We had so many Stanley Cups.”
Robinson: “We’ve gone through this. We know Stanley Cups.”
Richardson: “We’re not even worried about it. Just let us be a hockey town.” The idea immediately, what was the show going to be about, well, it has to be about Detroit. It has to be about Detroit first and foremost. We pitched it to Comedy Central saying, “It has to take place in Detroit.”
Robinson: “We have to shoot there.” They were so great about it. Even after the state took away the film incentives, Comedy Central was still like, “It’s important that they shoot there.” I don’t think we would have done it any other way.
Richardson: Exactly. Probably would have shot it on iPhones, if not.
Tim, what do you find funny about Sam?
Robinson: There’s so much. I’ll be just earnest. There’s so much funny about him. He’s one of the funniest guys on the planet. I say one because he’s friends with me.
[Richardson sheds a few genuine tears listening to this.]
Let the record reflect that Sam is choking up right now.
Richardson: It started out choking up out of fear, and then out of sentiment.
Robinson: You become friends with people, well, I do at least because I think I’m kind of a jerk, but it’s just… sensibilities. To me, comedy is so important. First, you connect with someone because of sensibilities, so obviously, Sam is the funniest person in the world to me. So it’s like, “There you go.”
And Sam, what do you find funny about Tim?
Richardson: It’s the exact same thing. I don’t know anybody funnier than Tim. We locked up so quickly and became such fast friends so many years ago. Again, sensibility. I don’t think that anybody else gets me in the same way that Tim does.
Robinson: Yeah, and I feel the same way. We are so lucky to be able to get to do Second City Detroit together, Chicago Main Stage together, and to now get to do this together. It’s just surreal. We lucked out.
When you have comedy duos, they can be structured lots of different ways. You can do straight man/comedian, you can do insane magical reality man/normal man, or what have you. How did you figure out the breakdown in this one?
Richardson: I think it’s like what Ricky Gervais says in The Office. We’re basically two gag men. Cut the dead weight. No straight man. He calls them dead weight.
Robinson: Oh, he does say that because he doesn’t want to be the straight man. I think real relationships and real friendships are more complex than somebody is the straight man and somebody is the funny one.
Sam Richardson: I’m always like, “Tim, you’re not supposed to do that.”
Tim’s married on the show and Sam’s single on the show.
Richardson: Right, and that’s reality
Robinson: That’s real. I’m quick tempered.
Richardson: Quick tempered. I’m like more even keel, I guess, but I take big swings on stuff. I’ll be the guy who goes and buys an Iron Man mask for his birthday, which I did.
Robinson: Yeah, or a full Proton Pack for Halloween.
Richardson: Full Proton Pack for Halloween.
In both Veep and this, you’re smiling through catastrophe constantly.
Richardson: Yeah. That’s reality.
Tim Simons and I were talking about you the other day, actually.
Richardson: Oh, yeah?
He said something like, “The thing about Sam is, I know how incredibly hard he works, but it really seems like he’s just effortlessly funny.”
Richardson: That’s very kind.
Robinson: It’s so true. It does come so natural to him. We went out the other night, we go to a packed bar where there’s karaoke. Everybody’s up there slugging away. Sam goes up there and just sings and the whole place is going nuts. It’s so hard for me sometimes to not be envious like, “Look at this.” Meanwhile, I’ve got to frigging work years for people to be like, “That guy’s fine.”
Richardson: You should see, when I’m at home there’s so many charts and just strings connected to this. All behind the facade.
Robinson: Oh, jeez.
Richardson: A lot of little guys working behind pulling levers in here.
Are there any ways in which wanting to do a pro-Detroit comedy ever gets in the way of the comedy, like there’s an idea you could do, but it could make the city look bad?
Richardson: Well, I think that those jokes have been done. Everybody does those jokes, I think to the point where you’ve seen it a million times. Even if it does show reality, I think it’s too much to the point where (it’s not funny anymore).
Robinson: When I was a kid I’d see Leno do it all the time. I’m like, “Get out of here, you asshole! Knock it off.”
Richardson: Exactly. Taking easy shots like knee-jerk comedy. I think what’s more interesting is to show the beauty of the city.
Robinson: Because that part of it. For a long time, that was ignored and it shouldn’t be. It’s a great place with great people and great stuff.
Richardson: I don’t think we lie about the city. I don’t think at any point we’re like, “This is A-okay. Fine, don’t worry about it.” I think there’s a scene in there where somebody’s like, “We’re supposed to walk.” They’re like, “Walk? Don’t walk. Take a cab. Don’t walk.”
Robinson: Yeah. We don’t pretend it’s anything else. We’re just showing great sides of it that are true and exist.
It’s your show. You guys come out of Second City. How much of what we’re actually seeing was in the writers’ room and how much is just the two of you playing off of each other?
Richardson: Well, because we’re in the writers’ room, it’s pretty much all written. There’s nothing we could achieve in improv that we couldn’t sit in a room and really come up with those jokes. It’s not like we’re handed a script and then it doesn’t feel real.
Robinson: We’re not getting there on the day and reading it for the first time.
Richardson: “Ooh, what’s this?”
Robinson: This is stuff we worked on together forever.
Richardson: We’ve gone through it and we’ve kind of hammered out those jokes, but even in the moment, if something doesn’t feel right when we’re on our feet, then we can play with it.
Robinson: Like you say, we improvise sometimes to make it feel more natural.
Sam, obviously this is different from Veep. You’re doing this with your friend, you’ve co-created it, it’s in your hometown, but, experience-wise, how does this compare to the other job right now?
Richardson: Well, it’s different because, of course, I wear so many hats and I have such control over it, which is a positive and also a little bit of a stress. Every question that’s asked is asked of us, you know? Like, “What do you think about this?” I can’t just say “Just do it.” Because then, who do you ask then? In Veep, I can show up, I can do my thing, I can improvise even within those things, but at the end of the day, the onus isn’t on me to make sure every piece is in line, whereas this one it is. But that’s also the benefit where if I’m particular about something, like, “That piano’s going the wrong way. Flip it! Flip that piano. I don’t like the way that piano looks.”
Robinson: Yeah, if you don’t have strong opinions on your own show, nobody’s gonna do it.
Whereas, there, you can just show up in your Richard T. Splett finery.
Although his middle name isn’t even “T.”
Richardson: It’s John. His middle name is John.
Was that joke you or was that the writers?
Richardson: That was the writers. That’s one of my favorite jokes in there.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com