We first met Sam Richardson about 10 years ago, when he was a struggling Detroit actor hanging out at Hamtramck's Seven Brothers Bar. Things have taken off for Richardson since then. He's a regular cast member on TV's Veep, and he has several new projects out or in the works, including a new comedy show set in Detroit. He hopes it's an engaging, funny show that has an obvious affection for the city. “There's no place I love more than Detroit, Richardson tells us. “I don't have overly exaggerated expectations of what the place is, but none of us wants to use Detroit as a punch line. Nothing makes me angrier.” We spoke by phone while he rushed around Los Angeles, which he calls “the running-around capital of the world,” touching on everything from Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams, and Jim Brown to his changing hometown to his love of Ghostbusters.
Metro Times: Seems like just yesterday you were here, even though you moved away some time ago, right?
Sam Richardson: I left Detroit in 2007, worked on a cruise ship for a year, moved to Chicago in '08, then moved to L.A. in February 2012.
MT: And things have been picking up for you. You're in Veep!
Richardson: Yup, I'm a series regular on Veep. In fact, we're filming the fifth season right now.
MT: And you're going to be in a series for Comedy Central based in your hometown of Detroit.
Richardson: Uh-huh. We created, wrote, and will star in the show Detroiters on Comedy Central. It stars me and Tim Robinson, another Detroit homeboy from Second City and Planet Ant. We wrote it with Joe Kelly and Zach Kanin, and Jason Sudeikis is producing with Broadway Video.
MT: That's pretty huge. It's about a renegade advertising agency?
Richardson: Yeah, we play the people who are behind the super-cheap local commercials. In the pilot, we're trying to land a big account, but meanwhile we're handling …
MT: Commercials for, like, Ollie Fretter. Or “We Do Good Work,” “D-I-A-M-O-N-D” …
Richardson: Yeah, or like Mel Farr! We're like the masterminds behind those campaigns.
Richardson: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. Like to us they're very calculated pieces of art, but to everybody else, they're just wacky commercials.
MT: Oh, that's got to be fun to put together a little 30-second video of your own creation right in the middle of the show. Those must be like fun little nuggets, all ready for YouTube.
Richardson: Yeah, the idea is that, as we're doing it, we're hoping these commercials can live virally as YouTube content.
MT: Like Jones Big-Ass Truck Rental & Storage?
Richardson: [laughs] Yeah! Exactly.
Richardson: And the idea is to have Detroit be like a character in the story.
MT: I've seen mixed results as far as that goes. It seems like some of the stuff that's centered around Detroit has trouble sinking its teeth into the locale.
Richardson: Uh-huh. Usually, that's from the people who like the idea of Detroit but don't know Detroit. But we're from it, so we're just writing about home. We can talk about things that we know so personally. Just for example, somebody can try to poke fun at your sister, but it's going to ring untrue. But because you know your sister and love her so much, and since you grew up with her, you're going to be able to poke fun because you can tell the truth lovingly.
MT: Is that like the old joke: Being from Detroit is like having an ugly little sister; nobody can make fun of her but you?
Richardson: [laughs] She's not ugly! She's not ugly. Maybe she's a little rough right now, but …
MT: Will it really be set in Detroit?
Richardson: The plan is to shoot it in Detroit. You know, the Michigan film incentives have ended, but we're hoping it still works out. When we pitched the show to Comedy Central, we were like, “This has to be in Detroit.” Hopefully it'll work out that way. It's such a big part of the show, it would feel really untruthful to fake it.
MT: When you say Detroit, do you mean Royal Oak? Or the “Detroit” in the Home Improvement universe?
Richardson: [laughs] We're talking about downtown Detroit, Cass Corridor, Campus Martius, and shooting in different parts of the city.
MT: That's all pretty glitzy now.
Richardson: You know, I feel that, a lot of times, Detroiters have an aversion to seeing nice new things come into Detroit. But I'm like, “What's wrong with that? Everywhere else has it! Why can't we?”
MT: You also did a kind of a new thing, a mini-documentary for JetBlue called HumanKinda, about getting people to slow down and stop being so busy.
Richardson: For part of it, I was on the street in New York, just trying to get some people to stop and talk to me so I could ask them how busy they were. And people couldn't even stop and talk to me about being busy. They were too busy to say that they were busy! That's sort of the whole point of the project.
MT: And you're doing three things right now as you talk about this, right?
Richardson: Exactly! I'm buying a shirt, getting ready for a gala tonight, doing an interview on the phone … multitasking! But even doing this documentary made me think, maybe there are some things I can cut out, and just go home and relax when I'm not on the job, so I'm not trying to fill every moment of the day to feel my time is being used well.
MT: Have you heard about the magic of alcohol, Sam?
Richardson: [laughs] Oh, I'm a wizard at that magic! I mean, where do you know me from but the Seven Brothers Bar?
MT: Speaking of which, do you drop in on George [Cvetanovski] at the bar when you come home?
Richardson: I sure do. Whenever I'm home I try to go and see George. He's my surrogate grandfather, you know? “Sam, you sonofabitch!” [laughs] He loves it when people come through.
MT: Still have your picture up on the wall there?
Richardson: I gotta get him a new one. He still has my head shot from when I left Detroit, I think.
MT: You know, you still look young, but you looked really young then.
Richardson: [laughs] I looked really, really young! We're talking about almost a 10-year-old picture. I should send that one around for those teen movie roles.
MT: What would be your dream role?
Richardson: I would love to play Lando Calrissian in this new Star Wars movie.
MT: Wow, assuming the mantle of Billy Dee Williams. Good choice. You actually played a role that's one of the greatest I could imagine: Jim Brown.
Richardson: Yeah! I was Jim Brown in Drunk History.
MT: Did you get flashbacks of that great Richard Pryor routine about him?
Richardson: I felt it!
MT: You tend to do more family-friendly stuff, though.
Richardson: I don't know if I have that “edge” where I'm really trying to shock anyone. I'll do what I think is funniest. But me as a person, I'm not really about ruffling feathers. Not on purpose, like I'm trying to avoid it, but I'm just a pretty friendly guy, I think, in general. I'm doing a movie Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates, which comes out this summer, and I get to drop some F-bombs in that, and that's a lot of fun. But for most of the film, it's more my typical fare: “Everything's great!” [laughs]
MT: Anything else you have going on right now?
Richardson: I was in a movie called The House, being opposite Will Ferrell, so it was the two of us doing a scene. It was great to just hang out and work with him.
MT: He's very funny.
Richardson: He's just so incredibly, effortlessly funny.
MT: Yeah, I mean he just looks serious and I want to start laughing at him.
Richardson: Yeah! When he's screaming at somebody, he's still funny. And I also made a cameo in the new Ghostbusters movie. It was the greatest. I grew up watching Ghostbusters. I loved that movie before I knew it was a comedy! As a kid I lived between Ghana and Detroit, and in Ghana for, like, first and second grade. And I had a VHS tape of that and I would watch it every day. It's kind of like why I got into comedy. So then getting to be in that movie, even just for a quick cameo bit, was just amazing.