Comedy Central’s Zach Kanin Is Keeping Detroit Weird

Hot on the heels of Detroiters being renewed for a second season, we chat with co-creator Zach Kanin.

Comedy Central has been going through a period of transition. The network has innovative programming, both of the niche and mainstream variety, but it’s also lost personalities and programs like Key & Peele, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. Even more recently, the long-running Workaholics bowed out on the network. 

It’s now the perfect time for a new series to come in and fill a void. 

Detroiters, which chronicles the optimistically misguided exploits of local advertising gurus Tim Cramblin (Tim Robinson) and Sam Duvet (Sam Richardson), is not only one of the funniest shows on Comedy Central, but it also has such a well-defined voice. 

With Comedy Central’s new series nearing the end of its freshman year, we touch base with Zach Kanin, executive producer, co-creator, and writer, about bad commercials, the power of friendship, and what’s on deck for season two.

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DEN OF GEEK: First off, congratulations on the recent second season renewal! Have you guys thought at all about stories for the second season and where you’d like to go next year with the show?

ZACH KANIN: We have! We’re in the writers room now working on that. It’s fun. It’s interesting to do it with a season already under your belt as opposed to a first season where you’re figuring everything out. You’re basing each episode off of whatever the last episode you wrote was, plus you haven’t seen any of them shot yet or be on TV. So it’s kind of a different after seeing it on TV, how people are reacting, and then trying to account for that moving forward. 

Are people’s responses going how you expected they would? Has anything caught on a lot greater than you anticipated, or the opposite of that?

Not really. It’s just kind of impossible to anticipate that. You hope everyone in the world will love it, but expect that everyone in the world will hate it. So it’s nice to see that a lot of people seem to like this. 

For instance, I used to work at Saturday Night Live before this. A lot of the time you’d write a sketch, have no idea how it’d be received, get a week of everyone saying they love it, and then you’d perform and just get complete silence. And the takeaway is, “Oh, I guess that was horrible…” Or it’s not. You don’t really know! You’re always prepared to be completely wrong about what you think is good. 

Well now after having a season under your belt, when beginning, were you wanting to say anything in particular with a show of this nature? Do you think you guys are doing anything differently than other comedies out there?

I don’t know about in relation to other comedies necessarily, but our goals were to make a show that we thought was funny. To make a show that showed this friendship between Tim and Sam, which is obviously an exaggerated version of their real-life friendship, but it’s based from a genuine place. 

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They love each other, they’re emotional together, they hug each other. They also both have exaggerated quick tempers that can flare up in a moment, but then give each other a hug. In a similar vein, the version of Detroit that we’re showing is a fictionalized version of it, but it’s still a positive one, which you don’t really see a lot of in pop culture.

It’s certainly a show that tries to be a lot of things, but at its core it really is about their friendship. On the topic of Detroit the city, do you think the show functions as an authentic depiction of how things are over there, even if it is an exaggerated sense?

I would be in a lot of trouble if I said this was a good representation of Detroit! That being said, it is a very different version than what you’re used to seeing in pop culture, which usually focuses on the negative. Detroit’s a very complicated place. Many books have been written about its complicated history. All the stuff like boomtown, the riots, and now just its revitalization. This show is kind of not necessarily the good or the bad, but really that just through all of this there have been people living there this entire time.

I was kind of astounded to learn that not only is Mort Crim a real former journalist from Detroit, but that he’s also the person that Will Ferrell based Ron Burgundy off of. That’s insane. Was he an important element you wanted to include in the show, or just a fun coincidence?

Yeah, Tim and Sam grew up watching him and knew his history, too. He’s really funny. You can give him lines and he’ll get them out there.

It must be a lot of fun to do this sort of bizarro “Mad Men with shlubs” show. Was this always the premise you guys had in place for the show? Talk a little about developing the series and if you considered any other ideas when starting out.

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Yeah, the advertising angle is not where the show started. It started with, “We want to do a show with Tim and Sam in Detroit…” And then really cycled through what would be the best profession for them to have, or if it would be in the workplace, at home, wherever. What we were talking about a lot were these iconic weird local ads. Every town has them, but Detroit’s are really weird and people really know them. 

There’s a big advertising industry in Detroit because of the Big 3 car companies, so that was another big thing. There were just so many funny ads to draw from though, and when we were on SNL, one of our—Tim, Joe Kelly and I all wrote there—favorite things to do was to make those stupid live commercials where mistakes were getting made and they couldn’t correct it to air in time. The question here was, let’s look at the people behind those terrible ads; the people that are saying, “That was a good idea!”

Is it freeing in a way to get to write these really terrible ads within the show? Do you have a favorite from Tim and Sam’s career?

They are all so much fun. Most of them that we have in there are based on real ads. Most people don’t realize this, so it’s kind of a fun thing that viewers that are from Detroit can pick up on these commercials that aired in the ’80s and ’90s. For them it functions as parody and for everyone else it’s just something insane and funny to take in. Devereux Wigs is based on this Dittrich Furs commercial where this woman rides in on a horse, while wearing a fur coat. Another one had this person in a fur coat skiing down a slope and pulling off some dangerous jump to a cool song. They’re all pretty fun to see and then make your own take on them.

I’m also a big fan of Tim’s episode of The Characters episode on Netflix, and it feels like Detroiters very much carries the same vibe and sense of ridiculousness. 

Well half the writing staff is the same on both shows. We didn’t set out to do this, but it was pointed out to us that both in The Characters and Detroiters there’s this sense of questioning what it’s assumed ale masculinity needs to be, and then dealing with that. I think that’s an interesting, funny thing to explore, even if it wasn’t intentional for us. 

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Is there a particular episode or scene that you’re especially excited for people to see from this season? If people could only see one episode, which is the perfect one?

Well if you can only see one, then you should watch the pilot because it tells you who everybody is, but we all have different favorites. I definitely like the one with Sam’s dad’s birthday. It’s a pretty unique episode that’s kind of a bottle episode even though there’s like 150 people in it. It deals with a lot of characters, there are a lot of moving pieces, but it seems like a pretty different one. 

The “Smilin’ Jack” one is maybe my favorite. It’s so good and then you get a great Keegan-Michael Key performance. 

Oh yeah. He’s great. That one has a lot of really fun moments. It’s definitely one of the funniest ones. 

Finally, are you a fan of hot dogs? What’s your go-to topping?

I would say that before I shot this show I did not eat hot dogs very much. But now there are a lot of hot dogs on set and I’ve fallen victim to that. Just go for a regular Coney dog with everything on it. That’s what you’ve got to go with.

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