A former NFL running back turned used-car dealer transforms into a cartoon and smashes through block text that reads “HIGH PRICES.” An appliance store’s founder “going green” by shutting off every light in the warehouse—even in rooms that are still occupied. An animated cowboy picks the banjo while his dog picks at fleas.
These and other colorful, off-kilter images might be seared into your brain if you, like Detroiters stars Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson, grew up in and around Detroit in the 1990s. Richardson and Robinson’s new Comedy Central series—which they also co-created with former Saturday Night Live writers Zach Kanin and Joe Kelly—takes its inspiration from the peculiar TV spots for local businesses that Richardson and Robinson watched as kids. Commenting on the staying power of such ads in a recent phone interview, Robinson says, “What I think resonates is, it’s pure nostalgia. You’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I can remember what my family room looked like when I saw that, or what season it was.
“And they have so much heart to them. Because they’re not a super-produced commercial coming from New York, they stick out a little. You’re paying a little more attention to them because there’s a little something off to them.”
“So much heart” and “a little something off” could also describe Robinson and Richardson’s Detroiters characters, who share their performers’ first names and intense fraternal bond. Tim and Sam run Cramblin Advertising, an agency founded by Tim’s father, who was a big wheel in the Motor City ad game before a breakdown required him to pass the company on to his ill-equipped son and his equally ill-equipped best friend. Sam and Tim are in the business of making commercials, but they’re also easily distracted man-children, so they don’t always wind up, you know, making the commercials. The premiere episode—airing tonight, February 7 at 10:30 p.m.—finds them passing the buck to their film-student assistant, Lea (Lailani Ledesma), in order to brainstorm an idea for a high-powered Chrysler exec (Jason Sudeikis, an executive producer on the show); elsewhere, they score a big hit by blowing off work and leaving the pitching to their building’s security guard.
Detroiters was filmed on location and draws from local talent—some currently working in the city, others who’ve moved away like Robinson and Richardson. Like the specific ads referenced by Cramblin’s work, the show is dotted with Easter eggs for Metro Detroit natives, from the appearances of retired newscaster Mort Crim (an inspiration for Ron Burgundy who can also be heard in a White Stripes song) to the bags of Better Made Potato Chips hanging behind the bar at Tim and Sam’s favorite watering hole. But more than being a comedy about goofy TV commercials or their hometown, Robinson says he and Richardson hope Detroiters captures the essence of their friendship.
“Sam and I are very loving to each other in a way that brothers and family members are,” he says. “We support each other so much, and are not afraid to tell each other we love each other and we appreciate each other.
“When people say the word ‘bromance,’ it drives me nuts, because guys can’t be friends so they call it a ‘bromance’ as this macho way out of it.”
It’s a friendship that began in Detroit, at the city’s now-shuttered outpost of The Second City, the comedy institution that spawned SCTV and has long served as a farm system for SNL, where Robinson was a performer and writer from 2012 through 2016. Both wound up performing at The Second City’s flagship Chicago location, but Robinson says he wouldn’t have ever made it there if it weren’t for the training ground that put him in touch with the likes of Richardson and Keegan-Michael Key—who puts in a guest appearance in Detroiters’ first season, as do Cecily Strong, Michael Che, and Malcolm-Jamal Warner.
“I doubt I would have ever had the courage to leave and face this dream. So I was lucky to have it in my backyard. I didn’t have to take a big risk—I could just go to Second City Detroit and take classes. It got me geared up for when I got to Chicago, where it was just this massive scene where it was a little bit intimidating.”
Commenting further on the inspirations for Tim and Sam’s ads, Robinson says, “You want to find ways to get ones you really like out there, but you have to figure out which ones won’t seem insane, out of nowhere.” Wary of giving too much away, he rattles off a few of the spots directly parodied in the show: The “Sexy Specs” campaign for a chain of optometrist’s offices, the slow-mo footage and sultry jingle of Dittrich Furs. “So many good songs,” he says, before remembering a jingle they haven’t riffed on yet, a Motown-style tune praising the savings at Farmer Jack grocery stores. His voice drops into a Michael McDonald-like register as he recites the lyrics: “If you want to save money more than just once in a while / ’Cause it’s always savings time at Farmer Jack!” Clearly the fictional Tim and the fictional Sam have their work cut out for them if they want to come up with something that remains this catchy 20-odd years later.