underrated

Emily Heller Explains Why Detroiters Is the Best Comedy You’re Not Watching

Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson in Detroiters. Photo: Comedy Central

When Detroiters premiered on Comedy Central back in 2017, its own modesty worked against it. The show — which stars real-life best friends and comedy partners Sam Richardson (Veep) and Tim Robinson (SNL) as best friends and business partners striving to stay true to themselves while fighting to keep their fledgling local ad agency Cramblin Duvet from being swallowed up by their moneyed competitors — wasn’t designed to be comparable with anything else in Comedy Central’s programming. It didn’t possess the antagonistic edge of South Park or Tosh.0. It wasn’t overtly political or informative like The Daily Show or Drunk History. And even though friendship provides the thrust of its narrative engine, it still lacked the immediacy and naturalism of Broad City.

While more viewers caught on during this year’s second season, Detroiters stands out, or rather is overlooked, for being the antidote to all those descriptors. It has warmth and affection. Its (very good) politics are subtle. Its comedy is broad and silly and brightly polished in primary colors. The heart of Detroiters beats loudly with positivity and kindness: Sam and Tim are unrelentingly optimistic that their company (and city) will see better days, and they are kind to each other and their small-business clients because they understand how dehumanizing self-promotion can be. The show, of course, scores its biggest laughs with their poorly executed madcap DIY commercials, but it avoids being mean-spirited at someone else’s expense. Even if the client is a “husky boy” clothing store or a bad wig shop or Rick Mahorn, Detroiters avoids the easy joke and instead finds what’s alive within their client — because being alive is already inherently funny and embarrassing and dumb.

Detroiters’ breath of rare comedic air was exactly what writer and comedian Emily Heller gleefully gravitates toward. As a writer on the darkly satirical HBO series Barry, Heller knows the show couldn’t be more diametrically different, but Detroiters’ joyfulness and silliness are undeniably addictive. And while her tone and rhythm as a stand-up is a tad bit more sardonic and subdued, she sees a connective thread to the Cramblin Duvet boys in their quest to define themselves on their own terms. Heller’s excellent sophomore comedy album Pasta — which she recorded earlier this year at Portland’s Curious Comedy Theater — is available for download today, so we hopped on the phone to chat about her “favorite show on television” for Underrated.

I have to admit this is the first selection for our Underrated column that actually made me mad.
Why’s that?

Because in a perfect world, Detroiters would be the most watched comedy series on air right now. But since God has clearly abandoned us, can you please explain to those who haven’t seen it what Detroiters is about?
You know what’s weird? I’m not even sure I would want everyone to see it because I don’t know if it’s like a Schrödinger’s cat thing where observation would change the outcome. But Detroiters is — and I clearly have a strong understanding of the concept of Schrödinger’s cat — a sitcom made by Tim Robinson and Sam Richardson about two best friends running an ad agency in Detroit, and they make exclusively terrible local commercials. God, the premise is so unimportant, but also super important because it’s such a show that lives and dies on its tone, and the tone is set by these terrible local commercials.

Do you think it’s because of this uniquely calibrated tone that Detroiters might’ve missed some viewers’ radars?
I think that’s got to be part of it. I’ve heard from some other people, too, who’ve had a little bit of a barrier to entry to it, which I always found confusing. I had watched Tim Robinson’s Netflix special The Characters like ten times. I loved that so much, and Detroiters in a lot of ways feels like an extension of that. So I was all-in from the get-go on this. I’ve talked to people who needed to give it a little bit more of a shot after the initial introduction because it has such a wonderfully weird tone. I think that the best comedy is where I simultaneously think, This is perfect, everyone should watch this, and also, This is only for me. Like this was made specifically for me and me alone.

How do you pitch the show to people when you’re trying to convert them into believers?
This is probably going to sound bad, but I don’t mean it in a bad way at all. I’ll just say, “You guys, it is so stupid. It is one of the stupidest shows on TV and I love it so much.” It’s unabashedly silly and they’re having such a good time, but not in a self-indulgent way. I realized during this interview that this is one of those shows that I feel utterly incapable of explaining what’s good about it to people. But there’s so much that is good.

Do you have a favorite Detroiters moment?
There are so many moments from these past two seasons. I do think one of my favorite gags — and I can’t believe I just called it a gag — is when Tim’s wife is making her YouTube hair tutorial and she tells him not to walk around in the background because when he does, the commenters clown on him, and she just can’t take it. So he starts walking behind her and ranting about having a huge hog. It’s just so funny. One thing I will say is — and this isn’t one of the things that I use to talk people into liking it, but it is a big part of why I like it — the show is so kind to its characters without sacrificing the comedy of it. It’s not cheesy and it’s not self-righteous and it’s not overly woke. But it’s also not cruel. I think that’s a really tough balance. I feel like a lot of the times, the conversations we have about comedy these days is either something’s offensive or something is preachy. And that’s just so not true! I feel like this show is one of those examples of, like, you don’t have to be offensive or racist or fucked up in order to make a show that’s funny.

It is so warm and generous to even its tertiary or guest characters. Like Connor O’Malley’s Trevor in season two, in a lesser comedy, would’ve been written off as just a two-dimensional dweeb — and he is a dweeb — but he’s also given interiority that you care about. I feel so embarrassed describing it this seriously.
[Laughs.] It’s so strange. It’s so stupid. And yet you ask, Why am I feeling these things?

Another refreshing element is how bright and conventional not just its tone is, but its atmosphere and structure, too. It never dips into the cynicism or darkness or surrealism of, say, Barry or Atlanta — two shows I love dearly, by the way — which seems to be the rule as opposed to the exception in our current comedic television landscape.
Yeah, it manages to pull off a lot of really impressive comedy feats without sacrificing its tone or heart in any way. I write for Barry and I think part of why I love Detroiters is because it’s so different than what we do on the show. Bill [Hader] and I talk about Detroiters in the room a lot. I love working on Barry. But we could not be doing a more thematically or tonally different show. I think Bill and I are the only writers on Barry who watch Detroiters. We both love it so much.

I was listening to your 2015 comedy album Good for Her recently, and you have a bit where you talk about how you loved oregano on your eggs so much as a kid that you taped some string to a tub of it and wore oregano around like a necklace. I instantly imagined Sam doing something like that even as grown-up, with his unrelenting childlike wonder. Do you see any of that Detroiters’ DNA in your own comedy?
Yeah, I think I do. The jokes at the heart of Detroiters are about this very human need to define yourself. And I think a lot of stand-up deals with that stuff, too, because you’re presenting yourself onstage and that’s the lens you end up writing your jokes through. Something else that I connect to a lot with this show is another similar feeling I have about Tim’s Characters special, because I think that it carries through in Detroiters. I know this might sound alienating to some people, but I promise you it shouldn’t be … but Tim’s Netflix special was about toxic masculinity. It was about failing at being a man, but not in a way that upholds the idea of manhood as something great. You know what I mean? It’s about people who are failing at really stupid ideas of what being a man is. That’s what I think I loved about it. A bit of that exists in Detroiters, too. I think a lot of my comedy is about not only the fact that I fail at being a woman, but also that I don’t believe in any of those standards either. I try to do that without being too explicit about it or too heavy-handed, which is something Detroiters does masterfully. It understands that it’s funny to laugh at yourself failing at something that was so stupid to try in the first place.

And Sam and Tim are able to make implicitly pointed commentary on the inherent toxicity of masculinity and male relationships without pandering to any explicitly woke discourse.
Yeah, it’s not the point of the show, and they do a great job of making it clear that you don’t have to. But, to be fair, I like really woke shit, too! Which is why I hate this false binary in comedy right now that says we have to choose between being thoughtful and being funny. You can just be so stupid and have so much fun. It’s clear that they think a lot about that stuff whether it finds its way into the show or not, which makes Detroiters such a refreshing show. It does so many things that I haven’t seen comedy stuff do that I really love watching.

So your sophomore comedy album Pasta drops today on digital release through Kill Rock Stars. If you had the opportunity, how would you want the boys from Cramblin Duvet to market the album for you?
[Laughs.] Oh God. I should be so lucky. What I would want them to focus on is that I’m really cool, and they should make it seem like if you wanna be really cool, you have to listen to this album. I think there would be a lot of sunglasses and a cool Lamborghini in it, and maybe I’m in the Lamborghini and driving away with a bunch of money in the car … which would probably not be a good idea because that makes it seem like I’m making more money than I am, so you wouldn’t pay for the album.

So, the classic ill-conceived Sam and Tim approach to advertising where the heart is in the right place but still manages to miss the mark ever so slightly.
Exactly! If I were being perfectly honest, I wouldn’t want Sam and Tim to do it, but rather Ned from the security desk. I would want one of Ned’s ideas, minus having Chris Brown in it. I think this album is better suited for a Ned idea than a Tim and Sam idea. Something slow and there’s a long stream of consciousness of pointless plot to it where people die really violently. God, this is my favorite show on television.

Emily Heller on the Unabashedly Silly Detroiters