It’s hard to keep a straight face on a conference call with Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson, the cocreators, cowriters, and costars of the Comedy Central sitcom Detroiters. Conference calls can crush souls, but every hiccup on this particular call—trouble connecting, an audio delay, muffled voices, and confusion about whose turn it is to talk—reminds me of a scene from Season 1 of Detroiters, in which Richardson and Robertson mock conference-call conventions.
Even though they don’t preface every statement with “This is Tim” or “This is Sam,” it makes me smile to play the third party while we unintentionally reenact that call. But it’s OK that I can’t stay serious, because Richardson and Robinson keep cracking up too. Richardson says something, and Robinson giggles in response. Then Richardson snickers about Robinson’s reaction, which makes Robinson chortle more. This process repeats itself, sometimes in reverse; the two sketch-comedy veterans are breaking on a conference call. If this is how much fun they have in separate places, joined by only a fuzzy phone connection while a stranger asks them questions and multiple PR people silently listen in, one can only imagine how much fun they have in person.
Alternatively, one can watch Detroiters and experience some of that fun for oneself. The series, which reached the halfway point of its second 10-episode season Thursday, centers on the bond between the on-screen Sam and Tim, two dimwitted but well-meaning partners at Cramblin Duvet, a local ad agency they inherited when Tim’s confidence-inspiring, Don Draper–esque dad (played by actual Detroiter Kevin Nash) lost his grasp on reality, brought a briefcase full of feces to a back-to-school sales meeting, and distributed its contents to each attendee. “The shit in the briefcase? Wasn’t my shit,” he later confides to Tim. “I think that actually makes it worse, dad,” Tim tells him.
With “Big Hank” hospitalized, the agency’s employees quit, and its clients left. Now Sam (who’s preening, sensitive, and slightly more competent than Tim) and Tim (who’s louder, less refined, and slightly less egotistical than Sam) are building the business back up again, one small-time client and low-budget, poorly produced, and often ill-conceived spot at a time. “We’ll come up with something,” Sam says in the pilot, as the two brainstorm taglines for an out-of-their-league Chrysler campaign. “No we won’t, man,” Tim answers. “We’re dumb.” Sam restores Tim’s resolve by reminding him of their first satisfied customer: Stan from the carpet store, whom they rebranded from Big Stan the Carpet Guy to Big Stan the Carpet Man. “It rhymed,” they recall. They’re bad, but they’re trying.
Richardson jokes that the duo’s Detroiters doppelgängers are “just smarter versions of ourselves.” On the show, the two fictional friends are inseparable even outside of the office; Tim is married to Sam’s sister, and their houses stand side by side, which allows them to lean out the windows and talk at intimate moments. Privacy is rarely something they seek, except when their proximity sabotages Sam’s dating life—a story inspired by actual events. “The [TV] friendship is not really that heightened,” Robinson says. “It might even be more heightened in real life.” Richardson responds, “Yeah, exactly. It might be toned down to make sense for TV.” To which Robinson says, “It might seem unbelievable if we showed the truth.”
The truth is that the two Detroit-area natives met at the since-shuttered comedy venue Second City Detroit, when the then-21-year-old Robinson (who’s now 37) served as a Level-A improv instructor for the then-18-year-old Richardson (who’s now 34). They became fast friends, performing first in Detroit and later in Chicago and as part of Second City’s touring companies. Both went on to more prominent roles post–Second City: Robinson joined Saturday Night Live as a performer in 2012 and transitioned to staff writer in 2013. Richardson joined Veep as Selina Meyer’s earnest, endearing, and bumbling handler Richard Splett in Season 3, cracking one of the best casts in comedy to become a series regular in Season 4. Even as their careers took them to separate sets and stages, though, they remained real-life besties and wanted to work together again.
Roughly five years ago, Jason Sudeikis—who appears in two Season 1 episodes and, along with Lorne Michaels, is credited as an EP—suggested that the two pitch a project for TV. “The number-one thing we always talked about was it had to be about Detroit,” Richardson says. “So finally we were like, ‘Let’s make a show about us in Detroit.’” Comedy Central okayed the concept, and the pair shot the pilot in June 2015. Production proceeded in 2016, and the series premiered the following February, earning a renewal last March and glowing reviews.
Although many previous series have been set in and around Detroit—including Martin and Home Improvement, whose casts Richardson and Robertson have mined for memorable cameos—no show has embraced their city (or perhaps any city) more wholeheartedly than Detroiters, right down to the title and theme song. Despite the untimely end of Michigan’s film-incentives program shortly after the pair produced the pilot, Richardson and Robertson pushed for the show to be shot in Detroit, and the network approved the extra expense, understanding that the city was integral to the show. “We felt like filming anywhere else, it would be untrue to what we were trying to accomplish with the show, and that’s to show the city in its truth,” Richardson says.
That truth includes occasional jokes about crime and poverty, as well as winking plotlines about economic renewal—in Season 1’s sixth episode, “Third Floor,” a tech company moves in downstairs, immediately drawing praise for “saving Detroit” even as it robs Tim and Sam of the bathroom that they delighted in visiting to take the “Browns” to the “Super Bowl”—but every dig is delivered with warmth, affection, and a lifer’s sense for idiosyncrasy, the way 30 Rock ragged on New York. Detroiters’ Detroit is a welcoming place; this is not another RoboCop. “We wanted the show to be a positive depiction of Detroit,” Richardson says. Although he and Robinson have pursued opportunities outside the city, the middling brains behind Cramblin Duvet wouldn’t dream of going national; they rejoice over repping the Michigan Science Center and fantasize about landing Little Caesars.
Area exports and stalwarts, among them Michael Che, Tim Meadows, Keegan-Michael Key, Jim Harbaugh, and Rick Mahorn, flit in and out of frame, and the references to Detroit staples—including a tossed-off reference to Bob Seger’s diet tequila, “Light Moves”—come almost too quickly to catch. Local actors—some of them first-timers—litter the cast, and area sensations and celebrities like the defunct The New Dance Show and former newsman Mort Crim play prominent roles. Non-natives might never realize that they’re seeing real people, places, or things, because Detroiters never signals that it’s making inside jokes and excluding those not in the know, and the local legends are funny the first time. “Even though they are very specific-to-Detroit references, every area has their own [quirks] that they are proud of too,” Robinson says. “So I think it resonates with people.”
The cast’s racial makeup mirrors the city’s, which Richardson confirms isn’t an accident: “It’s 80 percent black because the city of Detroit is that,” he says. Although racial issues surface at times in the series, they aren’t a primary source of either conflict or comedy, which Richardson attributes to how rarely they arise in his friendship with Robinson. “Tim and I don’t say, “Oh man, I’m black, you’re white, how are we going to live today?” he says. “As it does in real life, [race] does affect us, but that’s not what the focus of the show is because that’s not what we want to focus on. We wanted to be truthful to it but not have it be a race comedy. This is a friendship comedy.”
Detroiters dwells comfortably within the friendship-show lineage: The city and the ad agency are grounding, guffaw-inducing platforms for the real business of being buddies, playing the parts that Pawnee and local government occupied in Parks and Recreation. The well-honed chemistry between Richardson and Robinson forms the meat of each episode; Robinson jokes that that chemistry “comes from a mutual fear of each other.” Some of the funniest scenes stem from wordless, physical, madcap comedy that seems almost improvised, although according to the costars, most of the improv occurs while they’re working on the scripts.
When those scripts’ laughs come at characters’ expense, Robinson and Richardson are their own most frequent targets. “Whenever we’re mean, we’re mean as dummies,” Richardson says. “We get angry about the banal, about things that don’t matter. But really, the main overarching thing is love, and that is on purpose. And that’s also how we are wired.” Detroiters exudes the positivity of a Michael Schur show, but because of its cocreators’ origins, it’s often slapstick and silly. “There’s certainly a sketch element to it,” Robinson says. “A lot of the outside characters are kind of one-off characters that have a sketch premise within them.” At times, he and Richardson have to rein in their improv impulses. “With Sam and [me], we have to really look at when we go too far, as far as what’s believable and what’s too cartoony,” he says. The show’s world is whimsical, populated with likable oddballs such as Sheila, the aged assistant who still does the bend and snap, and Ned, the downstairs security guard who tries out terrible taglines whenever the ad men enter. (“Campbell’s Soup: It’s just wet-ass food,” he hopefully volunteers.) In only 15 aired episodes, the show has established a number of Easter eggs, recurring bits, and callbacks, from the pause-worthy titles of made-up magazines and books to Sam’s father’s fondness for doing the hustle. “We try to build that universe as much as we can and as big as we can,” Richardson says.
Unfortunately for the show’s future, the ratings haven’t kept pace with the world-building. When Robinson made it to SNL, he was joining a TV institution. When Richardson reached Veep, the series was already acclaimed and on the verge of an “Outstanding Comedy” Emmy three-peat. With Detroiters, the two friends are trying to start something from scratch in an incredibly crowded scripted landscape. “Our viewership is not a billion,” says Richardson wryly. A million would be a sizable bump; the series averaged 366,000 live viewers last season and sank to 265,000 through its first four episodes this year, although its audience on DVR delay was a bit more robust. (Predictably, metro Detroit was its no. 1 market.) According to Comedy Central president Kent Alterman’s comments last year, the network renewed the show largely out of faith in Robinson and Richardson, and while the duo’s second-season output—which expands the show’s scope both in terms of its extra-office locations and its leads’ family lives—has been just as strong creatively, the program has yet to break through the static of its peak-TV competition.
“We’ve got an everyday struggle to get people to actually just see or know about the show, whereas people will just tune into SNL because they just know SNL exists,” Richardson says. “There’s so much stuff out there, and so many presumptions [about] what the show is. A lot of people assume—looking at the poster or whatever, hearing the title—that either the show is an Atlanta knockoff or the show is just heavy bro humor.”
Like the city it celebrates, Detroiters could use some outside aid and a ratings stimulus. “My reach is as far as my Twitter handle goes and as far as my Instagram goes,” Richardson says. “Past that ...” He trails off, and then laughs. That laughter, at least, hasn’t stopped—not for Richardson and Robinson, and not for the relative few who’ve discovered what for me has, even pre-conference call, been the best comedy of the summer. The off-screen Sam and Tim seem to cherish writing a sitcom about their city as much as their characters relish shooting ads. The difference is that in real life, they deserve to keep doing it.