‘Veep’ breakout Sam Richardson takes his sweetly off-kilter comedy to ‘Detroiters’

You may know actor Sam Richardson as the cheerful yet clueless Richard Splett of HBO’s “Veep,” a low-level assistant in the administration of President Selina Meyer who can’t help but say something stingingly awkward every time he opens his mouth.

Now Richardson, 32, lends that unique blend of naiveté and clumsy optimism to his own show, “Detroiters.” The television series, which premieres Tuesday on Comedy Central, follows an independent team of bottom-rung ad men, Sam (Richardson) and Tim (Tim Robinson), whose bread and butter is making low-budget commercials for local bail bondsmen, used car lots and mattress warehouses. Still, they strive to land clients way out of their league (Chrysler), even if it means habitually striking out in the most humiliating ways possible.

Richardson co-created the show with Robinson, a “Saturday Night Live” writer, player and fellow Detroit native. “Detroit is always depicted as being in a state of emergency,” says Richardson, who’s also appeared on NBC’s “The Office,” Netflix’s “Arrested Development” and “Ghostbusters.” “It was critical for us to make it a character here, to show it in a different light.” 

Richardson, who is now L.A.-based, took time out from shooting the upcoming season of “Veep” to talk about his new show, pole-dancing and the joys of creating a show with your best friend.

Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson. Those sound like stage names from the 1950s. 

I know, they sound like witness protection names. They’re so bland. So uncreative. But they’re ours. And our names are incredibly similar, I get confused sometimes. Sim and Tam, or Tam and Sim. We’ve been called that more than once on set. It’s a common flub.

REVIEW: Comedy Central's goofy 'Detroiters' celebrates a city and a friendship »

The main characters that you two play in “Detroiters” are the flip side of “Mad Men’s” Don Draper; they’re low-level, not particularly sophisticated and don’t appear to be lady magnets. Why focus on their small world?

Local ads are something we all consume. And for Tim and I, they are also so uniquely in our experience of Detroit – the local commercials. We thought what if we’re like the guys who make those spots for the Hot Tub King? We can have the same sort of process making ads that we do in comedy writing: you brainstorm, create, pitch it then write it. But then we’ll produce the commercials in the cheapest way possible, and it will show.

The Detroit shown in the series is a very different place than what’s seen on many other television shows or films.

We were adamant about showing Detroit more realistically because I feel like the only interpretation out there has been this wasteland: the apocalyptic, Robocop, depths of despair — Detroit! There are parts of the city that are like that, but there’s also so many parts of Detroit that are not. My parents live there. They aren’t heroine addicts. They don’t steal copper out of old houses. Yes, there are copper-stealing heroin addicts in Detroit, but there are also people who aren’t that. You see a show about New York, they don’t only show it in the nastiest gutter. You get to spend time in Manhattan as well.

Is this your first foray into television writing? 

It is. I’ve written sketch, but never for a half-hour series. My character, Sam Duvet, is so close to myself, it’s like writing comedy with a base of me and Tim in there. A lot of it is stuff that’s drawn from things that are real, or things we would do in said situation.

You play best friends in the series, which you are in real life as well.

Tim and I came up together through the comedy scene in Detroit, then worked together in a bunch of theaters – Second City in Detroit. We wrote two shows together and became good friends. Then Tim moved to New York to do “SNL,” and I went to L.A.  where I started working on “Veep.” We had to each individually climb the ladder in entertainment before [Jason] Sudeikis suggested we do a show together [“Detroiters”] that he would produce.

A lot of comedic actors take a more sarcastic or cynical approach in the characters they play. But you’re a master of the unaffected, enthusiastic character.

I do think there’s something funny about being over-optimistic. With Richard Splett, he’s like the only character on “Veep” that has no angle. He’s guileless. He also believes in the power of government [laughs]. He’s the only one who’s like “I’m here to do my duty as a citizen and as civil servant.” There’s no cynicism to him. I find that endearing.

His lack of self-awareness can be a gift at times.

There’s nothing funnier to me than blind spots. A character who just doesn’t know what’s happening around him and is unaware of certain parts of himself. I think that’s what Richard has. He’s got major blind spots. He’ll talk without a filter. He’s not like OK, take a step back, think about it and then speak. Instead he blurts, then it’s oops, I shouldn’t have. Then it’s like oh, that’s kind of interesting, what I just said.

“Veep” is about an utterly incompetent candidate who fumbles her way to the presidency, and then loses a reelection bid. You’re currently shooting the new season, in which President Meyer departs the White House. Does it feel ironic given that in real life, new POTUS’ term is only just beginning?

Surreal would probably be the best word. But I’m always worried about what I’m allowed to say [about the new season]. It’s post-presidency, yes. I can say that. I know what I would say, but I can’t!

What’s the most terrifying thing you’ve ever done in front of an audience?

It was a show we did at Second City — “South Side of Heaven.” I played a stripper, and I come out in black robe and thong. I make these grandiose, bold man moves. The first song is “Love in an Elevator”; I danced to it in a pink Speedo. I do all these spins, kicks and toe touches. I pour water on myself. At one point I go into a Barack Obama impression. I did it every night, eight times a week. It was the most terrifying because I didn’t use padding in my pants, so depending on how good a day it was, it was in front of 350 people — sometimes it’s cold, you never know.

Are you working on anything else right now?

I’m writing things, but it’s so early I don’t want to be like, “It’s a story about this robot who becomes a real man!” then it never comes out. But I am writing and working on things. I hope for this to be my career for a long time. I was at the SAG Awards yesterday and Lily Tomlin got the lifetime achievement award. She’s been 50 years in the business. Fifty years! I was like yeah, I want that!

lorraine.ali@latimes.com

@lorraineali

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