“Tell Me to Be Bette Midler, I Would Find a Way”: An Interview with Sam Richardson

Every funnyman has his calling card, and Sam Richardson’s is a mien of indefatigable bafflement. On “Veep,” the too-true political satire led by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, he played Richard Splett, a loping campaign aide turned mayor turned governor and all-around irritant. Analyses of the Emmy-winning series often note the unexpected comedic gravity of Richardson in a role tucked within a cast of known aces. Alongside “Veep,” Richardson sightings could be found in “The Office” and “We’re the Millers,” the reboot of “Ghostbusters” and “Portlandia.” Together, these roles earned him a minor omnipresence in the world of comedy and, with the help of Splett especially, the beginnings of mainstream recognition as an offbeat Everyman.

Richardson was born in Detroit, and raised in Ghana and Michigan. He became interested in acting during his teen years, with his introduction to the Second City Detroit, a northward outpost (now closed) of Chicago’s famous proving ground for improv comedy. It was there that Richardson met Tim Robinson, another local, with whom he would create “Detroiters,” a Comedy Central show about two besties and local ad men that channels the misunderstood dynamism of the Motor City. The series is also a showcase for the affect that Richardson has become known for, an extra-beatific quality that verges on pathological but is never pathetic or cloying, even when the goofiness runs sweet. A version of it can be observed in projects as divergent as “Champaign ILL,” a YouTube Web series (now streaming on Hulu) and “The Tomorrow War,” a C.G.I.-fied sci-fi epic, in which Richardson supplies the comic relief beside a minted action hero played by Chris Pratt. In perhaps the strongest evidence of Richardson’s growing renown, other recent roles, in “Promising Young Woman” and “Ted Lasso,” have shown him turning congeniality on its head.

Richardson is also a regular player on “I Think You Should Leave,” the cult sketch comedy co-created by Robinson and Zach Kanin for Netflix. In Season 2, Richardson plays the host of a bodybuilding contest made up of children in padded muscle suits. “You expect us to believe that’s their real bodies?” a puzzled man asks. “What are you doing?” Richardson’s character replies, smiling tightly for the crowd. “They’re in goose suits, you happy?” (I only recently discovered that “goose suit” is a fictional phrase and not, in fact, as Richardson’s character says, like it’s obvious, “an old circus term.”) This year, Richardson anchored the ensemble cast of “The Afterparty” and filmed an as yet mysterious role in the “Hocus Pocus” sequel. In a pair of recent interviews, we spoke about home-town comedy, the boundaries of joke-telling, Batman, Bette Midler, and the eternal race question. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

I wanted to begin by talking about “Detroiters.” In this era of streaming, I feel like a lot of people have had a chance to rediscover this little gem of a collaboration between you and Tim Robinson.

I think we didn’t have as fair a shake as we should have or would have. You know, Comedy Central was really trying to hold the line on streaming, and streaming was the way, always. We weren’t on Hulu, we weren’t on Netflix or anything like that, but now, as it’s on Paramount+, people are finding the show and people are appreciating it. It also makes us feel that we’re not crazy for liking what we did and being in Detroit. I’m in Detroit right now, and the people who know the show love it here, too. When we premièred, we came to Detroit to do a screening, and I got off the plane and the very first person on the tarmac was, like, “Detroiters?”And I was, like, “Oh, yes.” [Laughs.] That’s the warmest welcome home I could have had. And when Tim and I are on the street people will stop and honk, all that sort of thing.

One of the most remarkable things about the show, or any project for that matter, is when its makers seem to really have a good sense of the alchemy of what they’re doing. This idea that the characters in this situation could only exist in this place and with each other in this way. I think about a show like “Seinfeld” that, in many ways could only be in New York—this very specific kind of Upper West Side mentality—or a more recent show like “South Side.” As you were developing “Detroiters,” how were you thinking about using the city to really bring out the comedy?

I mean, it’s a city that our comedy was shaped in. We both came up through Second City in Detroit, born and raised. I grew up between Detroit and Ghana, but mostly Detroit. How Detroit has changed, and is changing, was a big part of the personality of “Detroiters.” Detroit being a historic city, one of the oldest cities in America, but then also having gone through, in the sixties, this rapid, huge decline, and then this rebirth or upswing. That is grounds for, first off, pride, but then also comedy. Detroit is full of optimism, you know, and that’s probably what helped it survive for so long. So that sort of energy, of these characters who are incredibly optimistic [laughs] and maybe often misinformed, or, you know, wear their hearts on their sleeves—that element of the city helps us, like, live and breathe through that.

These characters who are old-school, being surrounded by things that are changing so much. The city is so old and historic and people have an identity here, but also people are discovering it, and people are either coming from other places to here or trying to find something new here. We tried to embody that, not for the purpose of, like, We’re gonna educate you, but that’s sort of the energy behind everything we do.

You mentioned your time at Second City. I would love to hear more about what that was like, or even earlier. When did you know that comedy was for you?

I’d grown up just absorbing it a lot. A lot of comedy movies and a lot of television, even watching a lot of comedies before I really understood all the elements of the comedy that I was watching, but then sort of downloading that timing and those situational things. And then when I was in high school a buddy of mine was taking classes at Second City. I knew about Second City in Chicago, but I didn’t realize there was a Second City Detroit. I was fourteen. I started taking classes. And that’s where I met Tim.

It’s funny—I’m staying at the Shinola Hotel right now, and Second City is maybe four blocks from me. I went to a game last night, a Pistons game, and it was me, Tim, and our buddy Adam Peacock. And walking back we walked to where old Second City used to be. It was so interesting, remembering and treading those old grounds, like, Oh, we all started right here in this place. It’s not Second City anymore. It hasn’t been for a long time, but it was certainly a sweet thing to get to be a part of.

It kind of goes without saying that comedy is in a weird place right now. Or I actually don’t know whether it feels weird to you, but there’s this strain of argument around, like, scarcity—the kind of jokes you can’t tell, or the kind of comedy that can’t be done. And yet we’re in such a renaissance of televisual comedies, shows like “The Afterparty” or “Search Party” or “I Think You Should Leave.” People are excited and rallying around straight comedies or maybe, like, dramedies or something like that. And I don’t really know how to square those two things.

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