Sam Richardson: Comedy’s hidden gem

Sam Richardson is a rising star with a dual heritage. Born to an African American father and a Ghanaian mother, Richardson spent his childhood shuttling between the United States and Ghana. In this report by Stuart Heritage in The Guardian Sam Richardson talks about his career and his latest film, HookUp.

If you want to watch Sam Richardson, it’s a good idea to just head for the best comedy you can think of, because he’ll probably be in it. He played an abnormally good-natured aide in Veep. He played the best friend of a dead rapper in YouTube’s wonderful yet chronically overlooked Champaign ILL. He co-created Detroiters with Tim Robinson, which is very possibly the finest sitcom you’ve never seen. He has enjoyed stints on Arrested Development, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office and BoJack Horseman.

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He also featured in two standout sketches from Netflix’s I Think You Should Leave – the best television series of 2019 and the best sketch show of the last decade – as the Baby of the Year host and the furious cybertronic Ghost of Christmas Way-Future who pits Ebenezer Scrooge against an army of undead skeletons. In the eight years since he moved to LA, his ascent has been unstoppable. He’s a man at the top of his game.Advertisement

Or at least he was until Covid-19 happened. As a result of the outbreak, “a couple of things I was looking to do are now either scrapped or postponed indefinitely”, he sighs down the phone from Los Angeles. The biggest movie of his career, Chris Pratt’s The Tomorrow War, has been booted back to the middle of next year. The second season of I Think You Should Leave had only just started filming when everything shut down and won’t see the light of day for a while. Richardson is careful to put his frustrations into perspective, but nevertheless: “This is the longest time not working I’ve had. As far as movies go, I’m like: ‘Well, I hope I’m still a professional actor after this.’”

Still, what he does have to promote is Hooking Up, a new romantic comedy where – bear with me here – he plays a man with testicular cancer who is tasked with partnering a sex addict as she strives to recreate every single carnal encounter of her life across the United States for a blog. It’s a strange film that has a tendency to plunge indiscriminately from raunch to melodrama, but it’s just about held together by the charisma of Richardson and his co-star Brittany Snow.

If nothing else, Hooking Up is proof that Richardson is ready for leading-man status. His role is another agreeably guileless character, but one pitched to a slightly wider audience than the cluster of hardcore comedy nerds who already know and love him. “You want to flex different muscles but still maintain some of the things they look to you for in casting,” he says. “I’ll often bring a sort of patient sweetness to a role, but here I got to do it in a different way, which was fun.”

Born in Detroit in 1984, Richardson spent his childhood shuttling between the US and Ghana, where his mother is from. “I would go back and forth from birth spending summers there, up until high school,” he says. Spending his time in two wildly different countries helped to shape his perspective, not least because he found difficulty fitting in wherever he went. “In Ghana I would be seen as the American, but coming back to Detroit I would be African. I visited again when I was 22, and then I didn’t go back until last summer. I went with Conan O’Brien, the two of us,” says Richardson of the Conan Without Borders episode made to mark the 400th anniversary of transatlantic slave trade. “So I got to have, like, a little homecoming.”

He appeared on Conan again last week in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests across the US. Although initially reluctant to speak, citing an uneasiness about having to stand for an entire race, he went on to describe his past mistreatment at the hands of the police. “There’s no way we can see what happens in the world and watch these cases of violence against us and not be angry,” he told O’Brien.

It wasn’t until he was at high school that he found a home in comedy. A friend of his was taking classes at the Detroit branch of the world-famous improv comedy group Second City, responsible for giving first chances to titans such as Bill Murray, Stephen Colbert, John Candy, Mike Myers and Tina Fey. “I’d known about Second City because I was always obsessed with Ghostbusters and I watched SCTV and SNL. I would just like constantly absorb all these things, and the common thread was Second City.”

Immediately enamoured, he began to spend more and more time with the group, eventually dropping out of college to devote himself to comedy full time. And this is how he ended up working on a boat, doing comedy on a Norwegian cruise liner. It was a mixed experience. On the one hand, he was making more money and performing to bigger crowds than at any point of his life. But on the other hand, “There was also this impending sense of doom because living in the cruise ship every week was always the same. You kind of feel yourself comedically atrophy a little bit.”

But what the ship did give him was a lesson in how to chop the fat from a routine. His audiences were “blue-collar Americans who were like: ‘Oh yeah, let me cut loose.’ Coming from Detroit, we didn’t have the luxury of an audience who knew exactly what they were going to go see. So we had to learn to get straight to whatever was good and put it in our blood. And then we could just get the audience on our side immediately. The cruise ship was resistance training. From there, I was like: ‘OK, now I think I know what I’m doing.’”

Which isn’t to say that Richardson sees Second City in a purely positive light; this week, following allegations of racial and sexual misconduct at the theatre, he co-signed a letter accusing it of “erasure, racial discrimination, manipulation, pay inequity, tokenism, monetisation of Black culture, and trauma-inducing experiences of Black artists”.

It was while performing with the group that Richardson consolidated his relationship with his best friend, I Think You Should Leave creator Tim Robinson. Together, the pair went on to create the Comedy Central sitcom Detroiters. An underseen masterpiece, Detroiters saw Richardson and Robinson play two small-fry advertising executives floundering to sell wigs and jewellery and pooping cars. It was both perfectly silly and frustratingly short-lived, which Richardson puts down to network interference.

Say, you’re prez … Richardson as Richard Splett in Veep. Photograph: HBO/Kobal/Rex/Shutterstock

“It didn’t get the respect from the network that it deserved, or the chance that it was promised,” he says, audibly still smarting from the show’s cancellation two years on.

The killer blow came when the second season debuted unadvertised in the middle of summer. “They were like: ‘We’re going to put this out in the summer when there’s no sports, because we don’t want to compete with sports.’ I was like: ‘When is that ever? When is there no sports?’”

Similarly little-seen was Champaign ILL, a tremendous YouTube series, co-starring Adam Pally, about two posse members dumped back into society after the sudden death of their meal ticket rapper. The only way to watch it, though, was to subscribe to YouTube Premium. “People are put off by the idea of paying money for YouTube,” Richardson explains. Plus, he notes it didn’t help that the service had the rather adult-sounding name of YouTube Red. “I’m sure RedTube’s numbers went skyrocketing.”

But it is Veep for which Richardson is probably still best known. As the fast-talking innocent Richard Splett, Richardson effectively won the series, ending the final episode as president. He made such an impact on Veep, in fact, that being typecast as the nice guy must have been a fear.

He pauses, before admitting that he’s actually just as drawn to those roles as they are to him.

“I feel the world is without optimism, especially in entertainment,” he says. “Things are always bleak and sad, and everybody is so pessimistic. I love and appreciate characters and worlds that are optimistic and sweet. Even though the guys in Detroiters get mad, it’s benign, like children having a hissy fit.”

In the near future, once things return to normal, Richardson has plans to follow through on his long-held desire to direct. “I was hoping to direct in the third season of Detroiters,” he says. “And then Detroiters ended. So then I was going to direct on the second season of Champaign ILL, and then that kind of went away as well.”

He has an idea of his ideal type of project, too. “I like heightened reality with moments of … I don’t want to use the word slapstick, but pops of ridiculousness. In Detroiters we would call them ‘hot beers’, because in the pilot there’s a moment where we say: ‘Two beers please,’ and the bartender asks: ‘Oh, you want them hot or cold?’ We’re like: ‘What are you talking about? Cold!’ And then we look over and there’s a man blowing on his steaming hot beer.”

You sense that, one way or another, this will probably happen. Sam Richardson has built up such an impressive body of work in such a comparatively short time that he’s got the whole world ahead of him.

So long as he’s still a professional actor after all this, of course.

Hooking Up is available now

Read from source The Guardian