I wonder if people in Detroit feel the same way about Detroiters as Portlanders felt about Portlandia. I doubt it—Detroiters’ cheerfully inclusive silliness is the polar opposite of its Portland counterpart. Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s brand of smug, barbed humor was one of too-cool-for-school kids at the back of the classroom, talking snark about everything and everyone.
Detroiters’ Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson, on the other hand, are cheerfully sitting up front, raising their hands and irritating the teacher with too many questions. Portlandia was ostensibly a show about a place where young people go to retire—Detroiters is a show about how our best friends keep us young. For a show written by and starring grown-ups, it’s a much better look.
Richardson and Robinson’s character-based comedy—it doesn’t quite seem accurate to call it a sitcom—is in the middle of a giddy, goofy second season on Comedy Central and has been the only sliver of uplift in this entire miserable year. (Westworld, The Handmaid’s Tale, and American life in general—I’m looking at every last one of you.)
The show’s premise is simple and unimportant: Sam Duvet (Richardson) and Tim Cramblin (Robinson) are best friends who run a small Detroit ad agency, where they make hilarious, low-budget commercials for local TV. Their clients are a blur of real and invented businesses, and through their wonderfully ridiculous ads, we get a glimpse of the flavors that make Detroit uniquely Detroit.
When Tim and Sam are off the clock, they inhabit a city that’s bizarrely hilarious but rooted in reality. Characters eat Coney dogs and drink Faygo. They make embarrassing music videos about “April in the D,” that magical time of year when the seasons of the Tigers, Pistons, and Red Wings all overlap. There’s even a repeating cameo from Mort Crim, the Detroit newscaster who inspired Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy. (This season’s Crim-centric episode, in which Sam and Tim convince Crim to be a spokesperson for a local furniture store, is among the series’ best.)
Detroiters’ creators and stars are not completely new faces. Richardson appears on Veep as Richard Splett, the hysterically competent White House aide who, for my money, just edges out Timothy Simon’s Jonah Ryan as the most consistently funny character on the show. And Robinson was a featured player on Saturday Night Live for one season, although he was barely used.
That SNL connection helped make Detroiters happen, though—Lorne Michaels and Jason Sudeikis are executive producers, and Kate McKinnon, Michael Che, Cecily Strong, Tim Meadows, and Sudeikis have all made guest appearances.
The regular talent on the show is just as strong, making use of local Detroit actors—such as Shawntay Dalon, playing Tim’s wife, Chrissy, who’s also Sam’s sister. Dalon’s role has been expanded in the second season, and she’s now the crucial third ingredient in the carefully balanced chemistry between Robinson and Richardson. Detroit-born comedian Chris Powell has another standout role as Ned, a building security guard who keeps pitching ad taglines to Tim and Sam. (“Meat: Cook that shit or your ass gonna get sick!” Ned gamely offers.) Originally part of the writing team, Powell delivered a line reading in the writers’ room that was so funny, he became part of the cast.
Up-and-coming national comedians have also done amazing work on the show. Late Night with Seth Meyers writer Amber Ruffin—who’s also written for Detroiters—made a recent appearance in the “Farmer Zack” episode as Sam’s ex-girlfriend. The two sing a jingle for a grocery store that’s so sweet and catchy, it could’ve been a Motown hit. For a show with such a high batting average, “Farmer Zack” might be Detroiters’ peak so far: It’s 30 minutes of pure, unbridled silliness with barely a trace of nastiness. I’d love to repeat some of the jokes that had me on the floor—such as Mort Crim’s “Chump of the Week” segment, or the books Sam and his girlfriend read in bed—but that would be doing Detroiters a massive disservice. You’re better off just watching it.
The real-life friendship between Richardson and Robinson and the infectious glee they get from each other are what gave the show liftoff during its first, excellent season. But in season two, Detroiters is already expanding and maturing, and that’s a great omen for its future. Detroit’s economic situation is a constant theme, but the show convincingly illustrates the thriving lifeblood of a city much of the country has written off. When race comes up—Richardson is black, Robinson is white—it’s handled with tact, humor, and originality.
Detroiters so easily could’ve been an insular half hour of bro-ey inside jokes, or worse, a Portlandia for the Motor City. Instead, it’s a colorful world of dippy, hysterical characters that you want to spend time with. It’s joy-inducing stuff.