A rising network in the relatively new landscape of streaming television is YouTube Premium. Formerly known as YouTube Red, the subscription-based service removes ads from regular YT videos, but also allows access to original programming like Cobra Kai, Origin, and YouTube's latest original series, the hip-hop themed comedy, Champaign ILL.
Sam Richardson and Adam Pally (Happy Endings, Making History) star as Alf and Ronnie, the two best friends – and entitled entourage – of rap mega star Lou, played by Jay Pharoah (Saturday Night Live, White Famous). The threesome are an inseparable group, but the dream is dashed when Lou is killed in a tragic accident, and the two friends go home to Champaign, Illinois, embarking on a hilarious journey of self-discovery, looking for meaning in an existence which had always been defined by materialism and vapidity.
We spoke with star Sam Richardson (of Veep and Detroiters fame) about working with YouTube as opposed to other networks, building a rapport with his co-star Adam Pally, and sharing the screen with the iconic Keith David. He also offers some truly fascinating insight into his opinion on comedy, of creating comedy from the characters, rather than just being provocative.
All ten episodes of Champaign ILL premiere December 12 on YouTube Premium.
How did you get involved in this show?
Well, the show was created by the Libman brothers, Jordan Cahan, and David Caspe, and they sent me some scripts. They sent me a few episodes of scripts, and I read it, and I laughed out loud. I was like, "okay, great!" I sat down with them, and they gave me the full pitch, told me about the show, and I was onboard. I like those guys so much. I really enjoy their sense of humor. And then I learned it was with Adam Pally, and I like him, I really wanted the chance to get to work with him, so I took it! It was a really fun experience.
You and Adam have such an incredible chemistry, I don't even know what to say about it. You two are pure fire together. Can you tell me about your process with him?
I think it was just about trying to establish as much familiarity as quick as possible. I had never worked on anything with Adam before. We were friends in passing, but we had never spent a large chunk of time together. It was really about, okay, I like this guy; let's see how quickly we can become friends and how much familiarity we can see in each other, and see if we can turn those moments into a years and years and years long friendship. It wasn't hard to do! He's a really charming and nice and thoughtful and funny guy.
A thing about these characters, what I love about them is, they're people I would never want to meet in real life. How do you straddle the line of making these characters so unlikable, but we still root for them?
Right? That's the balance. There's some shows and characters where you're like, "Oh, I like this guy, I want to be with this guy, I want to see him win every time." But there's some characters where you're like, "Oh, everything this person does makes me furious! What bad decisions! What a selfish move!" But you still are drawn to them and want to see them. My favorite example of that is David Brent from The Office, as opposed to Michael Scott from the American version. Michael Scott is so nice, but he's making bad decisions. But the guy is so likable, you want to see him succeed. They always put in a moment of sweetness where you can't help but to root for the guy. All he wants to do is make friends, and you can't help but feel for that. With David Brent, it's not entirely the opposite, but he's just an unlikable guy! He's selfish, he's manipulative, he's vindictive, and he's a bad dude... But he just wants to be liked, and he's going about it the wrong way. Characters like David Brent, I really love. And it's a great chance to play someone like that, someone you don't want to spend a lot of time with, but you really want to watch from the outside.
This is a big show for YouTube Premium. Not to talk outside of class, I know you've had considerable success on Comedy Central with your show, Detroiters, and HBO with Veep, but can you talk about creating for YouTube as opposed to networks like Comedy Central and HBO?
With Veep on HBO, I came into an established show. I came in on season three. I had a lot of input on my character and got to completely build him out, and I had so much fun, but I was part of a bigger thing, there. With Detroiters, from day one, I created the show with Tim Robinson, Joe Kelly, and Zach Kanin. We made that show from scratch. Everything in that show is from us. It's my show. And with this, the Libmans created it. I came in before they filmed anything, to build the character and kind of feel where it was going. The process on all three is different. YouTube, being so new, I think is what bought us a lot of leeway and room to try new things, which I appreciate. I'm hopeful and curious what the future will be for YouTube. I did enjoy the process of working with YouTube.
Tell me about, when you're creating comedy... Your character does absolutely crazy things which I won't spoil, but it's hilarious and disturbing. How do you know how far you can go, in comedy, before you're gonna get in trouble? When you're performing, do you feel safe on the set to do something outrageous?
I think anything you do, as long as you're doing it from a place of really trying to explore a character, it's never going to be that "outrageous." The only way, I think, it would be incredibly outrageous if you're just saying slurs for the sake of saying slurs. Or kicking babies and stuff. Like, why are you doing that? That's not funny! There are things in comedy that are outrageous, but aren't funny, but they're just so wrong; that's not really that funny. That approach is, "what's the funniest thing that's the worst thing." If you hear a racist joke, the only reason people laugh at a racist joke is because you're leaning on their prejudice, and they're assuming, "Oh yeah, that is true." Let me make an example... "All aliens are green." Like, ha ha! That is funny, he said 'green!' And it just relies on you being ignorant to all the colors aliens can be. I think being outrageous in comedy is really about playing to comedy, and going as far and as deep and as true as you can, as opposed to just going for shock.
I love that. I love hearing about something that is so often dismissed, but it takes so much work and effort to be funny. There are so many people who think they are funny, but they're just being outrageous.
All of the humor in this show comes from your characters, and I think that's such a big part of why I like it. I definitely get the impression that there's some stuff you may have come up with on the moment, and not just because of the hilarious outtakes that play during the credits of each episode. How much room do you have to play around with your characters and improvise?
There was some room. There's often room. The show is well-scripted. I think, in any scene, there was always room to break it apart. They just want the best joke. So if you're doing something and you think, this doesn't feel as real and I think I can bring something to this, they weren't like, "No! Do it like it is on the page!" They always wanted to pick the thing that was the best. I always appreciated that here. In Detroiters, I was there from the beginning of the joke to the performance of the joke. In Champaign ILL, I would get the script and go, "this is very funny, how can we twist it a bit." It was a different process, but an enjoyable one, very much.
Can you tell me a bit about working with Keith David, who plays your dad on the show?
Keith is great. He's such a monumental actor, so much gravitas. His voice is legendary. Getting to work with him was just so incredible. Just to bring that acting to our comedy, it keeps his character true, even wearing all those prosthesis and stuff. Him being so grounded and real helps to ground the entire show. It was pretty amazing working with him.
Finally, there's Jay Pharoah. You have a lot less time to build his character before he gets hilariously killed off within a few minutes, but he's still a major presence and co-star on the show.
It was really great working with Jay. He did the performances himself. It was pretty incredible, how hard he worked on that. He's a powerful entity. He's really funny. He's a really sweet dude. I knew him before, but I got to become better friends with him making this show, it was great.