This interview was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike.
I'm about to talk to Sam Richardson over Zoom when technology threatens to fail us both. Richardson's AirPods won't connect and Zoom slams me with a notification that an update failed to download. "Every time," Richardson deadpans. "It's like, Oh no, Drastic update needed!" We're here, ostensibly, to talk about the 39-year-old's leading role in Apple TV+'s mystery whodunnit comedy, The Afterparty, which is now over midway through its second season.
But at this point, in late June, it feels like nothing is going right. We're sweating through record temperatures, scraping for Twitter alternatives, and of course, anticipating the impending actor's strike. SAG-AFTRA wouldn't hit the picket lines until a couple weeks after we spoke, but it was still top of mind for Richardson. "We need art to be written and created," he tells me. "This isn't about the top actors. It's not about millionaires paying millionaires. It's about billionaires paying people a living wage. It's about the people who gig, need health insurance, and the residuals to support themselves." Today, in mid-August, the studios still feel no closer to reaching a deal.
The smart device gods do eventually smile upon us, and I lighten up the vibe by telling Sam about my deep love of Detroiters—one of his earliest Comedy Central shows. It's always my go-to recommendation when someone asks me for a good laugh. "Thanks so much," he replies. "I do the same thing."
Since Detroiters, and a stint on Veep as the lovable Richard Splatt, Richardson has grown into such a popular character actor that he's inspired casting directors to specifically seek out "Sam Richardson types." Fun fact: Toheeb Jimoh's character Sam Obisanya on Ted Lasso was specifically written with Richardson's warmth and humour in mind. It only made it that much better when Richardson played opposite Jimoh as Edwin Akufo, a villainous billionaire trying to steal the footballer away from AFC Richmond.
In Season Two of The Afterparty, Richardson returns as Aniq—a former suspect who aids in the investigation of a new murder. Richardson talks more about The Afterparty, murdering aliens (but just the bad ones!), and his longtime friendship with comedian Tim Robinson.
ESQUIRE: Is it surreal that people now write parts with you specifically in mind?
SAM RICHARDSON: Whenever I take a macro view and look back, I'm just like, Wow, I get to be in all this stuff? And people ask me to be in stuff? I have my face on a billboard, which is so unreal. But your brain kind of gets used to it, in that it allows you to keep doing it. If you got hit with the shock of it every time, you wouldn't even be able to do the work. You'd be like, Wow! A TV set?! You'd never get past the gate. But my first few gigs were like that. On Arrested Development, I was like, This chair has my character's name on it! It didn't even, actually. It said, "Cast." But I was like, That's me. I'm "Cast."
What did it feel like when you were finally offered a leading role?
Really great. There's not really a [central role] in The Afterparty, but Aniq kind of acts as an anchor. It's a cool tier to hit. Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord] believe in me as an actor to be able to hinge so much on my character and my comedy. It's really an honor and a great feeling. To go from suspect to suspecter—which is a word I'm going to use even though it sounds like a Transformer—is a great shift. Aniq is kind of running his own investigation behind the scenes in Season One, but now he gets to do it—though sort of reluctantly—in the hopes of saving his relationship. But it's wild to be on that side of it.
I know so many great comedians and you just think, Why aren't they the star of a million TV shows?
I'm sure it would be fun to play the murderer at some point, but it would also probably end your tenure on the show.
Unless... Afterparty: Prison. [Laughs.] I always like to do new things, and I don't think I've ever been a murderer. I've murdered aliens, but bad aliens. Not like Superman or ET.
And that was technically way in the future, as well.
Waaaaaaay in the future.
It's funny, because the one time that you did get to play against type was in Ted Lasso.
Yeah. Type is such a hard thing, because I am naturally gregarious. Since my biggest part was Richard Splett in Veep, everything has a layer of Richard Splett in it. But Richard Splett is so different from Sam in Detroiters, or Edwin Akufo in Ted Lasso. I hope that I don't get pigeoned into just the nice-guy thing. Even as a real person, there are layers.
Still, all of your characters still feel like they have a playful quality that is inherent to you. How involved are you on the writing side?
Detroiters, of course, I wrote. But with The Afterparty, I just tried to instill myself in the character. The process of Veep, though, was that we would do table reads and then re-improvise the material. So I was able to really shape what Richard Splett was. But there's always a lot of me. Even if the character is the opposite of you, there's a positive in every negative and a negative in every positive. I'm not Edwin Akufo, but I can try to find where I am Edwin Akufo. As people, we are just so much more than characters written on a page... That's deep. I feel very proud of that. [Laughs.]
Do you remember the first time you made an audience laugh?
I remember it implicitly. My god, yeah. I grew up watching a lot of comedy. Growing up between Detroit and Ghana, I had a lot of VHS tapes of movies. A lot of Three Amigos, Ghostbusters, National Lampoon movies. I learned that all these guys came from Saturday Night Live! and Second City. In high school, I went to see my friend's "Improv Jam" at Second City in Detroit. Whoever wants to could come on stage, and we did this thing called a "conducted story." You're supposed to improv a story and stop mid-sentence, mid-word, midlife crisis. That's like the Second City spiel—you just always keep that one in your back pocket. I was pointed to, and I said something like, "Unbeknownst to him, but beknownst to him," and I pointed at someone else. The audience went wild and I was like, Uh-oh. This is what I want to do for my whole life. After that, I dropped out of school to do Second City. I'm glad I did, but I've been chasing that laugh ever since.
Was it stressful, dropping everything to pursue comedy?
The Detroit comedy and theatre community was so rich and tight-knit. It was like a safety net—and also a trampoline. I was able to figure out who I was, and what my voice was in that space. It was like destiny meets opportunity meets skill meets desire. I've just been very fortunate to have good breaks and make good choices. Hopefully it will continue to carry me forward. I've had the ability to keep levelling up, and it's just like, Wow, how about that??! I know so many great comedians and you just think, Why aren't they the star of a million TV shows? They're the funniest person I've ever seen. So, it's not just about being the best. There's a lot of luck, and I've been very lucky.
It's insane that it hasn't been just you who rise out of the Detroit scene. You worked with Tim Robinson on Detroiters and I Think You Should Leave.
Yeah. Tim, of course, is my ride or die. My day one buddy. I'm so proud of Tim for I Think You Should Leave. It's mind-blowing. But I also came up with Cecily Strong, Tim Baltz, Aidy Bryant and Vanessa Bayer. I remember when we were in the trenches, just trying to figure it out. Like when I was watching Three Amigos and Ghostbusters as a kid. They had come up together, and now that's us. That's wild to me.
Have any of the I Think You Should Leave sketches been one of your ideas?
No but I feel like any of the ones I've done have been like, Oh, well this is in Sam's wheelhouse. Or, This is like a Sam voice. And I'll tell you something: these sketches are like 15 pages long, fully written out. Somewhere you can find a cut of these things that are like 10-15 minutes long. They're so much stuff on the cutting room floor of these sketches that are hilarious and just because there's so many ideas, it really can't all stay. Sometimes, it's completely different than I thought it would be. Like, "Metalloid Maniac," the order of it is all mismatched. It works perfectly, but there's also characters who are completely missing. It's funny stuff, but the episodes are only 18 minutes long, so you can't have a 15-minute sketch.
I'd watch 15 minutes of "Metalloid Maniac."
It's a really funny 15 minutes.
I've heard a story—and it sounds like the most Tim and Sam thing I've ever heard—that you used to go to a restaurant and order a meal called a "Turf and Turf."
Tim and I were best friends, and we moved to Chicago for Second City after working in Detroit. We would work on the main stage together six night a week, eight shows a week, Tuesday through Sunday. So, we would hang out Mondays but essentially also every day. After a show, we would go across the street to this bar called Corcoran's, and we would share what we called a "Turf and Turf." It was a burger and an order of wings, and we'd cut the burger in half and split the wings. We did it all the time. It was like, Turf and Turf? Yeah, Turf and Turf.
From: Esquire Us