From gas masks to kente cloth, "Sherman's Showcase" Juneteenth special is well-timed and prescient

Salon talks to Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle about why airing a show meant for February on Juneteenth works

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 18, 2020 7:50PM (EDT)

Zuri Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, "Sherman's Showcase"  (IFC)
Zuri Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, "Sherman's Showcase" (IFC)

In the same way fate seems to have a sense of whimsy, the universe rewards weirdness. "Sherman's Showcase,"  a deliciously bizarre variety show homage mash-up of "Soul Train," "Burt Sugarman's Midnight Express" and "Pee-wee's Playhouse," along with a slew of esoteric pop culture references, was supposed to return with a one-off "Black History Month Spectacular" in February.

Because, you know, February is Black History Month. Yes! It's a real thing! Google it.

Imagine how surprised series creators Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle must have been when AMC Networks executives came back to them and suggested a different month. "What about June?" they said.

"We were like, 'Well, that defeats the purpose of a Black History Month special to not do it in Black History Month," Salahuddin told Salon in a recent phone interview. 

But then it occurred to him and Riddle that waiting until June afforded them the opportunity to showcase Juneteenth, the unofficial holiday celebrating Emancipation Day, when the Black people held as chattel in Texas received word of their freedom from bondage. . . in 1865, two years after Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

That fact in itself is the bleakest of dark, ugly jokes. The "Sherman Showcase Black History Month Spectacular" is the opposite, a bright, accessibly silly, and uproarious comedy special with the perpetually clueless Sherman McDaniels (Salahuddin) at its center, and featuring cameos by John Legend (one of the series' executive producers), Michael Ealy, Jemele Hill, Mario Van Peebles, and Lil Rel Howery. 

"Sherman's Showcase," according to the series lore, has been running nonstop since 1972 and stylistically shifts with the times even as Sherman himself never ages. Where the first season borrows its format from those Time Life compilations seen in infomercials that show up in the hinterlands of cable schedules – with each episode hawking a partially complete 23-episode DVD box set for the low, low price of $19.99 – the spectacular assumes the aura of a prime time special specifically dedicated to icons of Black history and culture.

This approach inadvertently means that some skits take on eerie levels of relevance McDaniels and Riddle neither intended nor predicted when their writers created the scripts and the special was filmed. One early segment is a video for a house music tune by Sari Charley called, "Add Some Kente," and features Riddle, in DJ mode, spinning wax while wearing a gas mask.

And the lyrics! "People ask, "What should I do/ to show that I am down with you?/ Well listen up to what I say/ just open up that closet and add, add . . . some kente." This was written and filmed prior to Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer's widely ridiculed photo op showing them kneeling in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, with the titular cloth draped around their necks.

Further into the "Spectacular" you'll notice roles being played by Tom Sandoval and Tom Schwartz of "Vanderpump Rules," a Bravo show that was recently in the headlines for the worst reasons. Fortunately, the Toms weren't directly involved in the scandal. 

The "Sherman's Showcase Black History Month Spectacular" is a success without these coincidental moments, but watching them in the context of current events only increases the already high level of appreciation fans hold for this joyous work of absurdity that coincides with Juneteenth, and AMC Networks' recent announcement that the series has finally been picked up for a second season, set to air in 2021.

Salahuddin and Riddle professed not to be aware about the second season pick-up during our recent conversation. Instead, we talked about the coincidental on-the-nose relevance of the "Spectacular" and the importance of making comedy in grim times such as ours. Our chat,  which has been edited for length and clarity, began with a much simpler question.

I'm guessing that a number of people have asked you this question, so forgive the retread here. But I have to know: What have the last few weeks been like for you two?

Bashir Salahuddin:  I think I've learned so much about myself, like that I have the passion and tenacity to build a gym in my garage, but I don't have the actual ability to go use it more than twice. It's so embarrassing to walk by that treadmill every day and be like, "Nope, not today."

Diallo Riddle: I feel like my face has changed during this period of just eating whatever I want.

Salahuddin:  Creatively speaking, I think Diallo and I have actually . . . you know, he's from Atlanta, and I'm from Chicago. These are places that have their challenges. They also have a lot of love and a lot of joy.

But we've never been in a situation where we felt like, you know, we have to be creative in a sort of an environment that is just, like, perfectly happy all the time. We've always come from a place of, "Who knows what's going on at home?" "Who knows what's going on in the streets? Who knows going on the neighborhood?" We understand that we're very lucky and blessed to be able to make comedy, to be able to make people laugh.

And so even during this time, with so much upheaval and so much transition in the country, I think we felt like we really need to stick to our guns and do the thing that we've been blessed to be able to do.

Diallo, even though we're talking about the creative process here, I am curious to hear from you about what it has been like to watching this project in light of everything that's going on in the world. There are a few things in that special that I would imagine you'd see a new way and perhaps say, "Well, that was kind of prescient."

Riddle: I mean, listen. We didn't even shoot it knowing when it would air, much less know that there would be a global pandemic and protests in the streets, the likes of which have rarely been seen in our nation's past.

But I will say that it's because Bashir and I have always operated our own creative process and the process of our writers' room as if it was just a big, you know, hilarious night at the dinner table with a bunch of Black people there. That's why we always go out of our way to make sure that our writers' room looked like our families, you know? I don't think that's a bad thing, and with the exception of Bashir's sister, they're not actually family. But we want to sort of recreate that energy of when there are a bunch of funny Black people sitting around making each other laugh.

To that point, when things started to happen in the streets with the demonstrations in the back of my head, I did think for a second, "Is there anything in that special that is going to be really off and really poorly timed?" And more I thought about it I was like, "No, it's actually all extremely well-timed in the sense that this is what Black people were talking about, you know, five or six months ago." Now we're just all the more relevant, it's all the more relevant.

Salahuddin: I mean, even with the kente cloth sketch, right? Like, we did not know that Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer were going to kneel and wear kente stoles and do that. And then we found out the next day. But you know the thing of it is that the kente cloth stole is something that Black graduates wear when they graduate from high school or college or grad school.

. . . But for me, I thought the kente cloth was just like how Kwanzaa is actually an American invention. Kente is so prevalent in our community that growing up, it always felt like that was just one of those things that loosely started in Africa, but it really was an American thing. Only as I got older that I realized it was from West Africa.

So, you know, for me, we were writing to the fact that this is something that's so prevalent in our neighborhood. It's so prevalent in our community that if anybody wants to identify, they can just grab some of that.

And talking about being prescient: The reason Diallo is wearing a gas mask and in that music video is a DJ is because we love Daft Punk. But we don't have the kind of money to do like an LED display motorcycle helmet.  That's our whole season's budget in one prop.

Riddle: They might as well just make a crystal skull.

Salahuddin: Exactly. So instead he's like, what if it's just a gas mask and it has like over the filters are, like, two little records? When you work at our budget point, you kind of have to be super creative about everything.

Riddle: I will say that the art department really did do an amazing job on them. If you look very closely the records that they put at the filters, they actually rotate. They spin like actual records. That's just incredibly cool. Sorry, I  just really want to rock that thing again.

Salahuddin: The whole thing for me just makes me really, it affirms my faith in a higher power because we didn't intend for this thing to come out and be so right on the money. We intended to do it in February and we intended this stuff to have a different meaning. But that was not what the universe wanted. The universe said, no, no it's going to be in June and it's going to have this overlap and it's going to actually relate to something that just happened.

Even the fact that we have the two Toms from "Vanderpump Rules" in! I had no idea that was show was going to be in the news this week, because those guys were just really funny guys. They're fans of the show, and we love that they were willing to come to our set and learn from people who don't look like them and then trust themselves in our hands to give them something that, even if it's edgy, they know that they're still part of something larger, which we were proving and we love, and that we're happy that they were able to have fun with us.

So then to see that news story break, I was like, damn dude, what else was going to happen? So the special airs on Friday. I think we've probably got two or three more things that's going to pop off. Maybe, maybe something will happen with "The Last Dragon" tomorrow, or something like that. The fact is that we didn't plan for it, but we're certainly grateful that it's ended up this way.

To back up just a bit here: You said that the network came to you with the suggestion of airing the special in June. Did they consciously choose June knowing about Juneteenth or –

Riddle: No, no.

Salahuddin:  They just felt like, 'If we do it in June, it'll have a different marketing budget and we don't have a lot of new premieres in June. So then you guys will get more of that budget. And so it would allow us to make sure we put it out with way more heat under it than putting it out in early February, when you have shows coming back from Christmas break and all the money is getting spread thin, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah."

We were like, alright, cool. And then it was us, I think, who sort of realized, "Wait a second, you know what? Let's do it on Juneteenth."

That's great. Otherwise I was wondering why the network would choose this month, since it is still one of the shorter months of the year.

Salahuddin: The other thing about June that I love is Diallo and I share a birthday in June. So again, it just felt like really cool to be doing something that's really special to us during our birth month, at a time where we people will be, you know, becoming more aware of Juneteenth, which I think still needs to have more awareness, and I think should be a national holiday sooner than later. It all just kind of lined up. And I think one thing that we've gotten better at as we've gotten older is, is to just sort of try to make the most of things that happen.

I don't know if you saw the interview with Jon Stewart in the New York Times, but the question the reporter opens with is, essentially, what's it like to be coming back into the public eye with  a comedy right now? And I believe his answer was, "It's like showing up to a plane crash with a chocolate bar."

So let me pose that question to you. Right now white people are seeming to grapple with Black culture in a meaningful way, with its history as opposed to consuming it without thinking about its meassage or meaning. So how does that feel for you as creators to be presenting this comedy special,  and what are you hoping that it kind of provides for the audience?

Salahuddin: You know, it's a really good question and we're very thoughtful about it. But again, and I talked about this a little before: I'm from the South side of Chicago. It's not an easy place. I would see things growing up that I think did not entirely define my experience. In some cases, it was really sad. And in some cases it was so uplifting.

But whether things were bad or good, we always came together as a family. We always came together in fellowship. We always made each other laugh. We always lifted each other up.

You know, Black culture has always been a source of upliftment for our people.

We were singing songs and doing things that uplifted our people and encouraged our people and provided that fellowship for each other to move forward.

I think we're part of a Black tradition that's been around as long as there's been Black people in this country, voluntarily are not. And we take that very seriously. With "Sherman's Showcase," we have another version of a very big family that makes each other laugh and uplift each other, where we support each other. And hopefully we can share some of that joy with the world at a time when I think people will appreciate having some light come into their life.

Riddle: I can't say it any better. Like he was saying, you know, Black culture has gotten our people through so much. And, if we're just a part of that tradition that started in the fields and continued in the jazz halls and moved on through the rhythm and blues, just to be a part of that, then I feel fulfilled.

Salahuddin: People forget that rhythm and blues, the blues part of it is not good stuff.

Riddle: It ain't "rhythm and happy."

Salahuddin: No, it's rhythm and blues. And yet that music has transformed the world. That music created rock and roll.

Riddle: Let me go a little bit deeper on the kind of stuff Bashir and I find funny.


Riddle: I think in a weird way, Bashir and I are big fans of gallows humor. Sort of like the "aren't we all screwed" kind of humor. The kind of humor that you'd hear presumably in the trenches of World War I or in the jungles of Vietnam, between soldiers. A lot of our humor comes from a place of, "Damn, the world is really messed up." So that, again, makes this kind of the perfect time for this special to come out – if there is such a thing as a perfect time for the things that we're dealing with.

But the things that we're dealing with didn't pop up overnight. I keep coming back to that. It's not that we've entered a new world in an encouraging way, aside from the fact that maybe we're willing to finally do the hard work that it takes to improve the world. And if we spend all day, especially on a day like Juneteenth with its history, if we spend all day continuing that hard work, let us be the respite and the oasis at the end of that day, when you can actually go to bed with a little bit of levity.

The "Sherman's Showcase Black History Month Spectacular" premieres Friday, June 19th at 10 p.m. on AMC and 11 p.m. on IFC.  The six-episode second season is currently slated to air in 2021.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Amc Bashir Salahuddin Comedy Diallo Riddle Ifc Interview Juneteenth Sherman's Showcase Tv